Bertha Phillpotts was born in Bedford on 25th October 1877. Her father, James Surtees Phillpotts (1839-1930), was headmaster of Bedford School and instrumental in turning it from a relatively obscure grammar school to a top-ranking public school. Her mother, Marian Hadfield Phillpotts née Cordery (1843-1925), was a competent linguist. Bertha was educated at home before going to the University of Cambridge. She studied medieval and modern languages, Old Norse and Celtic at Girton College between 1898 and 1902, and then travelled to Iceland and Copenhagen as a research student. She worked as a librarian at Girton College from 1906 to 1909, and in 1913 she became the first Lady Carlisle Research Fellow at Somerville College, Oxford.
She was Principal of Westfield College from 1919 until 1921, and a member of the College Council from 1922 until 1932. She became the Mistress of Girton College in 1922, succeeding Katharine Jex-Blake (1860-1951) who happened to be her first cousin (the daughter of her mother's sister Henrietta Cordery and Thomas Jex-Blake, sometime Headmaster of Rugby School). She held this post until 1925 when she resigned in order to look after her father, who by then had retired to Tunbridge Wells, after the death of her mother. However she was elected to a research fellowship and continued to be an active Fellow of the college, commuting between Tunbridge Wells and Cambridge in her own car.
From 1926 until her death in 1932 she was director of Scandinavian studies and university lecturer at Girton College. Her research included translations of old Icelandic sagas and studies on the influence of Old Norse and Icelandic on the English language. She is particularly known for her theory of ritual drama as the background to the Eddic poems.
In 1929 she was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her services to education.
The Dame Bertha Phillpotts Memorial Fund for the promotion of Old Norse and Icelandic Studies at the University of Cambridge awards grants and scholarships for postgraduate students and other scholars in the relevant fields.
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Among Dame Bertha Phillpotts's published works are:
- Kindred and Clan (1913) (Reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-108-01050-4)
- The Elder Edda and Ancient Scandinavian Drama (1920) (Reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-1-107-69484-2)
- The Life of the Icelander Jón Ólafsson, Traveller to India (written in Icelandic in 1611 and translated and edited by Bertha S Phillpotts in 1923)
- Wyrd and Providence in Anglo-Saxon Thought (1928, reprinted in Interpretations of Beowulf: a critical anthology. R.D. Fulk, ed. Indiana University Press, 1991)
- Edda and Saga (1931)
Works published about Dame Bertha Phillpotts include:
- Gunnell, Terry. 1999. "Dame Bertha Phillpotts and the Search for Scandinavian Drama". In Anglo-Scandinavian Cross-Currents 1850-1914, ed. Inga-Stina Ewbank (Norwich: Norvik Press). pp. 84–105.
- Poole, Russell. 2002. "Two Students of Boethius". In New Zealand Journal of French Studies.
- Poole, Russell. 2005. "Kindred, College and Scholarship in the Lifework of Bertha Surtees Phillpotts (1877-1932)". In Women Medievalists and the Academy, ed. Jane Chance (Madison: University of Wisconsin).
- Personal Papers of Bertha Phillpotts (biography at the University Library, University of Cambridge)
- The Elder Edda and Ancient Scandinavian Drama (1920); see Gunnell, Terry (1999) and also Gunnell, Terry (1995). The origins of drama in Scandinavia. Cambridge: Brewer (reissued 2008). ISBN 9780859914581.
- Statutes and Ordinances for the Dame Bertha Phillpotts Memorial Fund
|Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge
Edith Helen Major