Considering her scandalous reputation during her life, no one has slipped under history’s radar quite like Jane Digby. A shameless adventuress in the first degree, Digby’s story is full of passion, betrayal, and a hefty dose of royal intrigue. If she isn’t well known today, maybe that’s because she’s still too much for us to handle. Strap in, ladies and gentlemen.
Jane Digby Facts
1. She Came From A Family Of Gold Diggers
Even the beginning of Jane Digby’s life seemed like it was ripped from the pages of a romance novel. Born in Norfolk on April 3, 1807, Jane was the daughter of the famed beauty Lady Jane Elizabeth Coke and her husband Admiral Henry Digby, a Navy hero who had plundered the considerable family fortune from a Spanish treasure ship.
But soon enough, Jane was giving her adventurous father a run for his money.
2. She Was Incredibly Beautiful
As Jane Digby grew up, she turned into one of the most striking English Roses of her day. She had pale, milky skin, piercing wide eyes, and flaxen blonde hair, all features that made her look like a fairy tale princess come to life. Her hair, in particular, was her pride and joy, and fell, as one commenter noted in “a rippling golden cascade, down to her knees.”
Yet for all her golden child looks, Jane wasn’t what she appeared to be…
3. She Was A Tomboy
Little Jane Digby looked innocent, but she had a wild, wicked side, too. She was an unrepentant tomboy growing up, and she adored beating her brothers in horse races and toying with their pride. Then, when she grew into her looks even more—the Prince of Wales once called her “without a doubt, the handsomest woman in England”—she began to toy with men.
4. She Had An Illicit Crush
Ever since she was just a small girl, Jane had been close with her elder cousin George Anson. And by close, I mean “desperately in love with.” Indeed, if anyone summed up Jane Digby’s taste in men, it was George. Rakish, philandering, and utterly irresistible to women, Jane nursed an unrequited crush for Anson for well into her teenage years, though he didn’t take much notice.
And then men started noticing her.
5. Men Went Crazy For Her
When she was 16, Jane debuted on the London social scene, and it didn’t take long for her to transform from a naïve little girl into a cunning young lady. When men fell over their feet to send her poems praising everything from her shoulders to her hair, her reply was ice cold. Unmoved, Digby often replied to them by snappily telling them not to be “so absurd.”
Still, like it or not, Jane was about to get tied down.
6. She Got A Powerful Suitor
When Jane was 17 years old and only beginning to understand society, the powerful Edward Law, the 2nd Baron Ellenborough, proposed marriage to her. In some ways, he was a good match: Established, influential, and a friend of her father’s. So it’s no surprise that Jane and her family said yes. But if they really considered Ellenborough’s flaws, they might have thought twice…
7. She Was A Teenage Bride
Lord Ellenborough may have been experienced, but he was probably a bit too experienced. In fact, he was nearly 20 years older than pretty little Jane, had already been married once before, and had been living as a widower for five years. In other words, Ellenborough probably wasn’t the white knight Digby had been hoping for. And boy, did he prove it.
8. Her Husband Ignored Her
Soon after marrying Jane, Lord Ellenborough started to completely ignore his blue-ribbon beauty. He spent long hours at work in Parliament, not coming home until late in the evening and often leaving Digby to attend society parties herself. At first, Jane dealt with his snubs in silence and perhaps hoped things would get better.
Then one day, she made an utterly disturbing discovery.
9. She Found Out A Dark Secret
While Digby could have been laboring under the impression that her new husband was an old fuddy-duddy too wrapped up in his work to have a little fun, she was so, so wrong. She actually found out that Ellenborough had a long-time mistress who was taking up most of his free time. To add insult to injury, the mistress lived in the same city, Brighton, where the couple had spent their honeymoon. Well, Jane’s gloves came off after that.
10. She Was Out For Revenge
There’s no fury like a woman scorned, and that went double for Jane Digby. She started getting very close to Ellenborough’s young and lively social circle while attending her solo soirees, so much so that her family warned her she was being indecorous. They were right: The entire time, Digby was looking for a man to land on.
Who she chose was…pretty gross.
11. She Had A Twisted Family
The man Jane struck up an affair with was none other than her old crush and relative, Colonel George Anson. Yep, yikes. Apparently, George had finally noticed his baby cousin now that she was supposed to be off the market. Then, just when I thought it couldn’t get more like a daytime soap opera, Jane Digby had to go and raise the stakes.
12. She Had An “Oops” Baby
In late 1827, the barely 20-year-old Digby found herself pregnant. Uh-oh. Since she wasn’t having much in the way of relations with her lawfully wedded husband, you can bet the baby wasn’t Baron Ellenborough’s. Instead, this bundle of joy belonged firmly to the Colonel, and everybody involved in the bizarre love triangle probably knew it. So yes, things got awkward fast.
13. She Had A Secret Love Child
With Digby’s stomach growing practically by the day, her husband was forced to make a scandalous decision. In order to preserve his dignity and save his wife’s reputation, he decided to recognize the baby as his, and to hush up any whispers of the cousin-on-cousin romance. So on February 15, 1828, Digby gave birth to a bouncing baby boy she named Arthur Dudley Law, giving him her husband’s name. Then, disaster struck.
14. She Went Through A Mother’s Worst Nightmare
After all that turmoil, it seems like Jane Digby’s life should have calmed down even just a little bit. Well, nope. On the contrary, it only ramped up further. In 1830, just a couple weeks shy of baby Arthur’s second birthday, the little boy perished from a childhood sickness, leaving Digby bereft. But by then, she was on to even worse decisions…
15. She Rebounded Hard
At some point just before 1828, Jane Digby’s enterprising cousin-slash-lover Colonel Anson dropped her like a hot potato—and Jane rebounded in the most ill-advised way possible. Instead of taking a breather, she moved right on to the shrewd, sharp Prince Felix of Schwarzenberg, striking up yet another scandalous affair.
Maybe since Digby upgraded to royalty, she thought she was in for a happy ending. Nothing could be further from the truth.
16. She Got Scandalous News
You’d think that Jane would have learned a thing or two about how to have covert affairs during her illicit bedroom romps, only she somehow got more reckless. Shortly after starting her dalliance with Prince Felix, she became pregnant again, and this time her husband Lord Ellenborough wasn’t about to come to her rescue (not that he had a leg to stand on). Instead, she had to get creative.
17. She Gave Away Her Baby
In order to give birth to her second love child in almost as many years, Digby traveled away from her usual social circles and posted up in Basel, Switzerland. When she gave birth to a daughter, Mathilde, Digby almost immediately gave the girl up to Prince Felix’s sister so she could raise her. If you’re wondering why the prince didn’t step up to the plate himself, that’s because—as we’ll see—he was a huge jerk.
18. She Had One Weakness
Jane Digby had made a whole lot of mistakes in her young life, and she had a whole lot more to come. There was one huge reason for this: She was addicted to love. No, really. She once wrote of herself, “Being loved is to me as the air I breathe,” and she simply couldn’t do without the feeling of intense passion. Yet as we all know, these violent delights have violent ends.
19. She Got A Nasty Surprise
Digby had now had two massive affairs and two love children while married to Lord Ellenborough, and she didn’t appear to be stopping any time soon. That is, until she got one rude awakening. In early 1830, less than a year after Mathilde’s birth, Digby found out she was pregnant again with Prince Felix’s child. Her husband had already all but given up on her—and now he went to drastic lengths.
20. Her Husband Cut Her Loose In A Cruel Way
1830 was one of the most dramatic years of Jane Digby’s entire life—and that’s saying something. When Lord Ellenborough discovered the “good” news, he cut ties with Digby completely and divorced her through an act of Parliament, which is how you know they really are never, ever, ever getting back together. This had dire consequences.
21. She Became A Fallen Woman
People frowned upon divorce in those days, especially when the wife was the injuring party. Unsurprisingly then, Digby’s split from Lord Ellenborough utterly scandalized polite society, and with all her dirty laundry out in the open, people sniffed at her as one of the most promiscuous and “fallen” women of her time. But there was one key detail the public didn’t know…
22. She Self-Sabotaged
One reason Ellenborough waited so long to leave Digby was that divorcing a woman on the grounds of infidelity was seen as embarrassing to him as well. Indeed, evidence suggests that it was Jane who wanted out more than Ellenborough. Why? When Ellenborough brought the divorce to Parliament, Digby purposefully offered no defense.
She didn’t even mention her husband’s own infidelities, likely to speed the process along.
23. She Suffered A Huge Loss
That winter of 1830, the officially free Digby gave birth to her second child with the Prince, whom she also named Felix. It ended in utter tragedy. Just days after bringing him into the world, she watched her son perish just like her first baby. It was enough to break anyone, and Jane needed support now more than ever. Too bad she didn’t get it.
24. Her Lover Betrayed Her
Despite the fact that pregnancy is a pretty well-known and common side effect of bedroom romps, Prince Felix was apparently disgusted and annoyed that his mistress was giving him another child, and his reaction was ice cold. Once the babe passed, Prince Felix up and abandoned Digby…only, she didn’t take “abandonment” for an answer.
25. She Went To Desperate Measures
Instead of admitting to herself that her affair with Felix was over, Jane pulled the ultimate “oh no, girl” move and followed him to Munich, Germany, hoping to somehow win him back. Spoiler: She didn’t. Forever after in London, people called Felix the “Prince of Cadland” for his cruel move. But don’t you worry; Digby got her groove back in a big way.
26. She Became A Royal Mistress
I tell you, there was just something about Jane Digby. When she left England and went to Germany, she was ostensibly a ruined woman whose tarnished reputation should have barred her entry to the highest social circles. That’s not what happened at all. Instead, Digby met—and then seduced, natch—King Ludwig I of Bavaria, becoming his mistress.
In other words, it was out of the frying pan and into the fire.
27. She Stood In A Hall Of Beauty
It may have been with King Ludwig that Digby got her most hefty dose of luxury. The besotted pair called each other “Ianthe,” which was Greek for “Jane,” and “Basily,” and the king commissioned a portrait of Digby for his famous “Hall of Beauty.” Yet as always with Jane, the competition for her attention was stiff, and she had a wandering eye…
28. She Snared A Second Husband
Somehow, not even a king could hold the great Jane Digby’s affections for long, and while in Munich she met husband number two, the Baron Karl von Venningen. Of course, even her “settling down” story had a scandalous side. See, by the time Venningen and Digby married in late 1833, she’d already given birth to his son. Oh, Jane.
And then they all lived happily ever aft—oops, wrong story. In fact, Digby’s life was about to take its most violent turn.
29. She Couldn’t Stay Faithful
A girl like Jane knew her worth, so it wasn’t long before started stepping out on the Baron Venningen too, this time with a macho Greek Count by the name of Spyridos Theotokis. As usual, Digby was incredibly conspicuous about her affair, and her husband found out she was sleeping in Theotokis’s bed in no time flat. Then came the fireworks.
30. She Started A Duel
Although Lord Ellenborough eventually divorced Digby for her philandering ways, her new husband came up with a much darker solution. Venningen challenged the Greek Adonis to a duel. What’s more, he actually won, wounding Theotokis during the fight and marking his territory once and for all…which made his next action particularly jaw-dropping.
31. She Had A Strange Power
Even though Jane’s husband had won the battle, he still gave her up. Not only that, he actually gave her the best terms in their split, releasing her from their union and taking charge of the children they had together himself. And that’s not even all: Venningen also turned into one of Digby’s lifelong friends. Um, what?
But just as Digby’s life seemed almost drama-free, another tragedy came along.
32. Tragedy Came For Her In Twos
In 1840, Jane gave birth to another child, bearing Theotokis a son they named Leonidas. The small family moved to Greece to start again (again), until fate dealt Digby the cruelest twist yet. In 1846, when Leonidas was still a young boy, he suffered a fatal fall from a balcony. Jane had already seen too many of her children perish—and this time it more than broke her.
33. Her Marriage Fell Apart
Very few marriages can survive the premature end of a child, and although Jane Digby was so exceptional in so many ways, she was no different when it came to the enormity of the tragedy. Although she had left everything she knew for Theotokis, the couple split up soon after losing their son, and Jane was on the rebound once more.
I don’t think I have to tell you that this was bad news.
34. She Seduced The King Of Greece
At the time of Leonidas’s shocking end, Digby was 39 years old, and apparently no less gorgeous than her first wedding day. She was also no less scandalous—maybe even more so, since she now knew how to use her looks to their full effect. So, since she was living in Greece, she decided to do her part as a patriot: Jane set her sights on the Grecian king.
35. Her Romantic History Got Dark
King Otto of Greece was dashingly handsome, infamously unfaithful to his wife, and nearly 10 years Jane Digby’s junior. But their relationship had a very dark side. If you can believe it, Otto was none other than the son of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Ew. With this dubious conquest wrapped up, though, Digby got bored again and reinvented herself once more…this time as a war goddess.
36. She Reinvented Herself
Apparently done with aristocrats, Jane Digby next took up with the Greek hero and general Christodoulos Hatzipetros, who was something like an Achilles and an Ajax all rolled into one. It changed Digby’s life in an instant. The spitfire adventuress had finally found someone who could keep up with her antics, and it wasn’t long before the rebel power couple were up to no good.
37. She Was A Queen In Her Own Right
While romping around with Hatzipetros, Digby traded in royal bedrooms for dusty caves, and spent her days thundering about on horses and hunting for food. But that simply wasn’t enough for her. In no time at all, Digby started styling herself the “queen” of his armies and his rag-tag band of fellows. If that all sounds too good to last, it’s because it was.
38. She Refused To Forgive And Forget
Although Digby was having a grand old time playing Boudicca with Hatzipetros and his buddies, this romance too eventually came to an end—uh, a very bitter and ironic one. The great Jane Digby stormed right out of Hatzipetros’s life one day. Her reason? Get this: She caught him being unfaithful and refused to reconcile. Jane, that’s a little rich.
39. She Was Whip-Smart
Perhaps surprisingly, history has never really tried to paint Digby as a stupid floozy…but that’s probably because she was so dang clever. Even as a young woman, Digby was a master of languages, and by the time she became an adult, she knew how to speak eight foreign tongues with the fluency of a native. As it turned out, that would serve her well.
40. She Traveled To Foreign Lands
With Digby approaching middle age, she started to wind down and cool it on all her trysts and betrayals. Just kidding, not at all—and her next adventure made her name. After having burned through all the men in Western Europe, Digby traveled to the Middle East to seek out new shores. What she found was a love story unlike any she had ever known before.
41. She Met The Love Of Her Life
While in the Middle East, Digby met and fell in love with Sheik Medjuel el Mezrab. And yes, Jane had been through more than her fair share of lovers, but the Sheik was something else entirely. The leader of a Syrian tribe, he held Digby’s interest far more than the cads and pups she had played with before. Except, uh, there was a catch.
42. She Had A Sugar Baby
When Digby met the Sheik, she was 46 years of pure hotness coursing through her body. The Sheik, however, was just 26 and two decades her junior. Yep, you read that right—Jane Digby caught herself a sugar baby Sheik, and I’m loving every minute of it. In fact, the Sheik was so up to the task of pleasing Digby, something entirely new happened.
43. She Was Finally Faithful
Right after meeting Medjuel el Mezrab, Digby made it official and tied the knot with him in a Muslim ceremony. Okay, sure, the man-eating Jane Digby had also had marriages before—lots of them—but I’m telling you, this one was different. See, she actually stayed with the Sheik. Like, forever. They remained married and in love for the rest of her years.
But don’t go thinking this meant she settled down.
44. She Earned A Nickname
During her time with the Sheik, Digby adopted Arabic clothing styles, learned Arabic in addition to the multitude of other languages she spoke fluently, and earned herself the nickname “Shaikhah Umm al-Laban,” which means “Sheika, mother of milk” for her pale, milky skin. Then, once she got comfortable, the Sheik showed Digby a whole new world.
45. Her Lover Made A Grand Gesture
Reportedly, when the Sheik first laid eyes on Digby, he knew with a certainty that she was the one for him, and he knew it within seconds. According to reports, Medjuel el Mezrab offered to divorce his current wife on the spot so that he could sweep Digby up into his arms. I mean, most women would have no trouble saying yes to that, and Digby definitely didn’t.
46. She Had The Best Of Both Worlds
Where before Digby had spent her life either at the heights of luxury or in the literal caves of a nomadic existence, Medjuel el Mezrab asked the important question: Why not both? Together, they spent half the year living in tents in the middle of the desert, while during the other half they posted up in an enormous villa Digby had custom built in Damascus. While there, she met some famous friends.
47. She Had Famous Friends
Once a society girl, always a society girl, and Digby found a way to make European high-class friends even in the middle of Syria. While living in her villa in Damascus, she became bosom buddies with the famed (and uber colonial) adventurers Sir Richard Burton and his wife Lady Isabel Burton. But the good times couldn’t last forever.
48. She May Have Had An Affair With A Tormented Writer
I can’t get enough of Jane Digby today, and people back then couldn’t stop talking about her, either. Incredibly, she was the subject of eight novels just during her lifetime, including one by the classic French writer Honore de Balzac. His character Lady Arabella Dudley was such a thinly veiled and intimate portrait of Digby, people whispered they had once been lovers, too. My money’s on “yes.”
49. Her End Was Ugly
Although Digby lived until the ripe old age of 74, her end was the opposite of pretty. On August 11, 1881, the storied adventuress passed from nothing less than fever and dysentery. As anyone who ever played The Oregon Trail video game knows, that is certainly not the way to exit this world. Then again, Digby had bigger plans for her last farewell.
50. Her Funeral Was Bizarre
Seriously, trust the one and only Jane Digby to go out in absolute style. In particular, Digby insisted that one of her favorite horses attend her funeral. The mourning Sheik complied with her last wishes, and watched his late wife go into the ground while he stood beside her loyal steed. And they say dogs are man’s best friend.