Byron described Lady Hester (1776-1839) as “that dangerous thing, a female wit”. Headstrong, she fell out with her father, but later went to live with her uncle, William Pitt the Younger. She became unofficial First Lady, running his household and hosting Number 10’s dinner parties.
After Pitt’s death, Lady Hester at 33 years old set off to travel the world. Pausing in Gibralter to acquire a 21 year old toyboy, she traveled Europe and the Middle East for the next two years, the first woman to reach remote places such as Palmyra (where she was called “Queen” by the locals). She lost all her possessions in a shipwreck, so took to wearing the local men’s clothing – pantaloons, waistcoat, turban and sword.
After acquiring a Medieval Italian manuscript claiming a great treasure lay buried under the ruined city of Ashkelon, Lady Hester promptly mounted the first archaeological excavation in the holy land, and was one of the first people to use a textual source to plan her dig. On finding a huge statue (instead of the hoped-for gold), she ordered it to be smashed to pieces. So possibly not an ideal archaeological role model… although some accounts suggest she did this to avoid being accused of antiquity smuggling, like the contemporary Elgin Marbles.
She spent the rest of her life living in Sidon, Lebanon, becoming increasingly isolated and eccentric.
You can read more about Lady Hester here & here (the sources for this post).
Neil Asher Silberman has written a detailed account, going some way to contextualising Lady Hester’s actions in her time, suggesting that her motivation was adventure rather than treasure-hunting for herself.
Written by Sophia Collins (@sophiacol)
Edited by Tori & Becky