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A historical profile: explorer Wilfrid Scawen Blunt

Originally published in The Mayfair Magazine

The sprawling British Empire reached its apogee in the 1920s, when it covered almost 24 per cent of the world’s land. Imperialism nevertheless met opponents who promoted the independence of these territories.

One such campaigner was Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. Born in 1840 at Petworth House in Sussex, he received a Catholic education at Stonyhurst College and at St Mary’s in Oscott. He had a charming apartment at 15 Buckingham Gate in St James’s London, but spent a considerable amount of time abroad.

In 1858, he entered the diplomatic service and successively worked in Greece, Germany, Spain, France, Portugal, Argentina and Switzerland. In 1862, he was sent to Madrid where he met Lola, the first of his many mistresses. Two years later, Blunt was transferred to Paris but spent most of his time in Bordeaux with a new lover, the notorious Victorian courtesan Catherine Walters. Further travels led to more passionate affairs; despite his libertine ways, he wed the First Earl of Lovelace’s daughter, Lady Anne King, in 1869.

Soon after having a daughter in 1873, Blunt retired from diplomatic service and the family embarked on a horseback-trip throughout Turkey, Egypt, Palestine, Arabia, Syria and India. They initially gained fame for breeding Arabian horses at Blunt’s inherited estate, Crabbet Park in Sussex, and at Sheykh Obeyd, a stud they purchased near Cairo.

Blunt’s travels were spiritually and politically formative. Seduced by Islamic religion and culture (he read the Qu’ran, and published The Future of Islam in 1882), he eventually rejected the Catholic faith.

In England, he promoted himself as a fervent opponent of British rule in Sudan, lobbied Prime Minister William Gladstone for Egyptian sovereignty, and campaigned for Irish independence – for which he was sentenced to three months in prison.

After his incarceration, Blunt retired to Crabbet Park where he ran the stud with his wife. He also spent time in Cairo and fathered another child with Prime Minister Arthur Balfour’s cousin, Mary Elcho. His wife asked for legal separation, which was granted in 1906. After the couple parted ways, Blunt continued writing and enjoying amorous adventures until his death in Sussex in 1922.

Blunt was many things, from politician to casanova – but he was first and foremost a rebel who upset the establishment. In the words of his biographer, Elizabeth Longford, his controversial life was a “pilgrimage of passion”.