Jump to content

Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Earl of Elgin
Lord Elgin, by Anton Graff, c. 1788.
British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire
In office
MonarchGeorge III
Preceded byFrancis Jackson
Succeeded byWilliam Drummond
Personal details
Born(1766-07-20)20 July 1766
Broomhall, Fife, Scotland
Died14 November 1841(1841-11-14) (aged 75)
Paris, France
Spouse(s)Mary Nisbet (m. 1799)
Elizabeth Oswald (m. 1810)
Children11, including James, Robert, Thomas, and Augusta
Parent(s)Charles Bruce, 5th Earl of Elgin
Martha Whyte
Known forThe controversial procurement of Marble Sculptures from the Parthenon, Acropolis in Greece

Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine, FSA Scot (/ˈɛlɡɪn/; 20 July 1766 – 14 November 1841), often known as Lord Elgin, was a British nobleman, diplomat, and collector, known primarily for the controversial procurement of marble sculptures (known as the Elgin Marbles) from the Parthenon and other structures on the Acropolis of Athens.[1]

Early life


A member of the formerly royal house of Bruce, Elgin was born at the family seat, Broomhall House, near Dunfermline, Fife. He was the second son of Charles Bruce, 5th Earl of Elgin and his wife Martha Whyte, governess to Princess Charlotte of Wales.[2][3] He succeeded his older brother William Robert Bruce, the 6th Earl, in 1771 when he was only five.[1]

He was educated at Harrow and Westminster. After several years at St Andrews, he proceeded to the Continent where he completed his studies at Paris.[1]



Military career


Elgin entered the army as an ensign in the Scots Guards in 1785.[4] He transferred to 65th Foot in 1789, as captain of a company, by purchase.[5] In 1793, he was appointed to the staff as a major of foot by brevet, holding the rank on the Continent only.[6] In 1795, he transferred to 12th Regiment of Foot as a major.[7] Later in 1795, he raised a regiment of Fencible Infantry[8] and was appointed its colonel, with the permanent rank of lieutenant colonel in the Army.[9] He was promoted to colonel in the Army in 1802, to major general in 1809 and to lieutenant general in 1814.[8]

Public life


Elgin was elected as a Scottish representative peer in 1790. In 1799, he was appointed to the Privy Council (PC). He attended parliament whenever his other duties allowed until he lost his seat in 1807.[10] He held the office of Lord Lieutenant of Fife.[11]

Diplomatic career


In 1791, he was sent as a temporary envoy-extraordinary to Austria, while Sir Robert Keith was ill. He was then sent as envoy-extraordinary in Brussels from 1792[12] until the conquest of the Austrian Netherlands by France. After spending time in Britain, he was sent as envoy-extraordinary to Prussia in 1795.[13][14]

Elgin was appointed as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in December 1798.[15] On 11 March 1799, shortly before setting off for Constantinople, Elgin married Mary, daughter and heiress of William Hamilton Nisbet, of Dirleton.[16] Elgin arrived at Constantinople on 6 November 1799. As ambassador to the Sublime Porte he showed considerable skill and energy in fulfilling a difficult mission, the extension of British influence during the conflict between the Ottoman Empire and France.[17] The Treaty of Amiens was signed by Britain and France in March 1802. His embassy at an end, Elgin departed Constantinople on 16 January 1803.[18]

The Elgin Marbles


Following discussions with the diplomat and archaeologist Sir William Hamilton, Elgin decided he would engage, at his own expense, a team of artists and architects to produce plaster casts and detailed drawings of ancient Greek buildings, sculptures and artefacts. In this way he hoped to make his embassy, "beneficial to the progress of the Fine Arts in Great Britain."[19]

Elgin procured the services of a Neapolitan painter, Lusieri, and of several skilful draughtsmen and modellers. These artists were dispatched to Athens in the summer of 1800, and were principally employed in making drawings of the ancient monuments. Elgin stated that about the middle of the summer of 1801, he had received a firman from the Sublime Porte which allowed his agents not only to "fix scaffolding round the ancient Temple of the Idols [the Parthenon], and to mould the ornamental sculpture and visible figures thereon in plaster and gypsum," but also "to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon".[14] The document exists in an Italian translation made by the British Embassy in Constantinople and now held by the British Museum,[20] but no official copy of it has yet been found in the Turkish government archives from the imperial era.[21] There is debate over the legal status of the document.[22][20]

The actual procurement of ancient marbles from Athens formed no part of Elgin's first plan. The decision to remove marbles attached to structures was made on the spot by Philip Hunt, Elgin's chaplain and one of his representatives in Athens.[20] Elgin's agents removed about half of the Parthenon frieze, fifteen metopes, and seventeen pedimental sculpture fragments, in addition to a caryatid and a column from the Erechtheion,[23] sculptured slabs from the Athenian temple of Nike Apteros, and various antiquities from Attica and other districts of Hellas.[14]

Part of the Elgin collection was prepared for embarkation for Britain in 1803, and considerable difficulties were encountered at every stage of its transit. Elgin's vessel, the Mentor, was wrecked near Cerigo with its cargo of marbles, and it was not till after the labours of three years, and the expenditure of a large sum of money, that the marbles were successfully recovered by the divers. On Elgin's departure from the Ottoman Empire in 1803, he withdrew all his artists from Athens with the exception of Lusieri, who remained to direct the excavations, which were still carried on, though on a much reduced scale. Additions continued to be made to the Elgin collections, and as late as 1812, eighty fresh cases of antiquities arrived in England.[14]

Elgin's procurement of the marbles was supported by some, including Goethe,[24] and censured by others in Britain as vandalism, most famously Lord Byron,[25] who wrote the following lines[26]

Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne'er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch'd thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!

Elgin defended his actions in a pamphlet Memorandum on the Subject of the Earl of Elgin's Pursuits in Greece, published in 1810.[27] On the recommendation of a British parliamentary select committee, the marbles were purchased by the British government in 1816 for £35,000,[27] considerably below their cost to Elgin (estimated at £75,000), and transferred in trust to the British Museum, where they went on display in 1817.[28]

Britain's ownership of the Elgin Marbles is disputed by Greece.[29] Discussions between UK and Greek officials about the future of the marbles are ongoing.[30][31]

Detention in France


After leaving Constantinople, the Elgins decided to return to Britain via Italy and France. When, on 18 May 1803, war again broke out between Britain and France, they were in Lyon. Elgin was declared a prisoner of war and was released on parole on condition that he not leave France. In November, Elgin was imprisoned in the fortress of Lourdes and the French offered to release him in exchange for a French general in detention in England. The British refused, and Elgin was again released on parole. In October 1805, the French gave Lady Elgin, who was pregnant, permission to return to England on compassionate grounds. Elgin himself was finally allowed to leave France in June 1806 following a direct appeal to Napoleon by British Prime Minister Lord Grenville. As a condition of his release, Elgin agreed to return to France whenever the French government demanded.[32]

Return to Britain and later life


Soon after returning to Britain, Elgin discovered that his wife was having an affair with Robert Ferguson, one of his oldest friends. In December 1807, Elgin successfully sued Ferguson for seduction in the English courts and was awarded £10,000 in damages. In March 1808, he brought a successful divorce action in Edinburgh against his wife on grounds of adultery. The marriage was formally dissolved by a private act of parliament. The court cases were widely reported and caused considerable public scandal.[33]

In 1807, Elgin lost his seat in the House of Lords, and the resumption of a military or diplomatic career was ruled out by the terms of his parole in France, which Elgin felt honour bound to observe while Napoleon was in power. Elgin was deeply in debt due to the costs associated with his embassy, his procurement of the Elgin marbles, and his court actions. He virtually retired from public life.[34]

In September 1810, Elgin married Elizabeth Oswald of Dunnikier. That year, he offered his collection of antiquities for sale to the government, but withdrew when he was offered only £30,000.[35]

During 1815 Elgin became embroiled in the Tweddell remains affair, a controversy over the possessions of John Tweddell, a classical scholar who had died in 1799 in Athens. Elgin was accused of having appropriated some of Tweddell's papers after his death, during his term as British ambassador in Constantinople. Some of Tweddell's papers had been destroyed in a fire and others lost at sea. The remaining papers were misplaced when Elgin arranged for them to be sent back to England. The matter was settled in late 1816 with the return of some of the items to Tweddell's family.[36][37][38]

In 1820, Elgin was again elected to the House of Lords, but his requests for a peerage were unsuccessful. He eventually moved to France to escape his creditors and died in Paris on 4 November 1841.[39] His widow, the Dowager Countess of Elgin, died in Paris 1 April 1860.[16]


Mary, Countess of Elgin

Lord Elgin married twice. On 11 March 1799, he married Mary Nisbet (1778–1855), the only child of William Hamilton Nisbet, of Dirleton. They had a son and three daughters:[16][40]

  • George Charles Constantine Bruce, Lord Bruce (5 April 1800 – 1840)[41]
  • Lady Mary Bruce (died 21 December 1883).
  • Lady Matilda Harriet Bruce (died 31 August 1857)
  • Lady Lucy Bruce (1806 – 4 September 1881)

After her marriage to Elgin ended in divorce, Mary married Ferguson.

Elgin, on 21 September 1810, married Elizabeth Oswald (1790–1860), the youngest daughter of James Townsend Oswald of Dunnikier. They had four sons and three daughters:[16]

See also



  1. ^ a b c "Elgin and Kincardine, Earls of" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 9 (11th ed.). 1911. pp. 267–268, see first para.
  2. ^ The Annual Biography and Obituary for the year 1818 (Longman, Hurst, Rees, 1818), p. 239.
  3. ^ Cokayne, G.E., The Complete Peerage, vol. E to G (St Catherine Press, Limited, 1926), p. 43.
  4. ^ London Gazette, # 12636, 5 April 1785, 171
  5. ^ London Gazette # 13095, 9 May 1789, 363
  6. ^ London Gazette, # 13508, 5 March 1793, 191
  7. ^ London Gazette, # 13772, 21 April 1795, 361
  8. ^ a b Philippart, J., ed. 1820. The Royal Military Calendar, or Army Service and Commission Book, Containing the Services and Progress of Promotion of the Generals, Lieutenant-Generals, Major-Generals, Colonels, Lieutenant-Colonels, and Majors of the Army, According to Seniority: With Details of Principal Military Events of the Last Century, Vol.2, p.343. 3rd edition. London, UK: T. Egerton, and Sherwood, Neely and Jones
  9. ^ London Gazette, 13788, 16 June 1795, 629
  10. ^ St Clair, William (1967). Lord Elgin and the Marbles (1sr ed.). London: Oxford University Press. pp. 2, 147.
  11. ^ Sainty, J. C. "Lieutenants and Lord-Lieutenants of Counties (Scotland) 1794-". Retrieved 10 February 2018.
  12. ^ London Gazette, # 13451, 18 August 1792, 647
  13. ^ London Gazette, 13804, 11 August 1795, 836
  14. ^ a b c d Wroth 1886.
  15. ^ St Clair (1967). pp. 1, 281 n3
  16. ^ a b c d Mosley, Charles, ed. (2003). Burke's Peerage, Baronetage & Knighthood (107 ed.). Burke's Peerage & Gentry. p. 1295. ISBN 978-0-9711966-2-9.
  17. ^ Christopher Hitchens, The Elgin Marbles: Should They Be Returned to Greece?, 1998, p.p.10-11
  18. ^ St Clair (1967). pp. 112, 120
  19. ^ St Clair (1967). pp. 7-9
  20. ^ a b c Williams, Dyfri (7 January 2009). "Lord Elgin's firman". Journal of the History of Collections: 1–28.
  21. ^ David Rudenstein (29 May 2000). "Did Elgin Cheat at Marbles?". Nation. 270 (21): 30. Yet no researcher has ever located this Ottoman document and when l was in Instanbul I searched in vain for it or any copy of it, or any reference to it in other sorts of documents or a description of its substantive terms in any related official papers. Although a document of some sort may have existed, it seems to have vanished into thin air, despite the fact the Ottoman archives contain an enormous number of similar documents from the period.
  22. ^ Professor Vassilis Demetriades. "WAS THE REMOVAL OF THE MARBLES ILLEGAL?". newmentor.net.
  23. ^ "Parthenon Frieze".
  24. ^ Beard, Mary (2002). The Parthenon (1st ed.). London: Profile Books. p. 16. ISBN 186197292X.
  25. ^ Jenifer Neils (5 September 2005). The Parthenon: From Antiquity to the Present. Cambridge University Press. p. 1. ISBN 978-0-521-82093-6. Its iconic status was certainly helped by Lord Elgin's looting of the marbles...
  26. ^ "The story of the Elgin Marbles". International Herald Tribune. 14 July 2014. Archived from the original on 25 October 2011. Retrieved 25 June 2009.
  27. ^ a b Gosse, Edmund William (1911). "Biography" . In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 954. The DNB is described in the last paragraph of this article.
  28. ^ Jenkins, Tiffany (2016). Keeping Their Marbles, how the Treasures of the Past Ended up in Museums - and Why They Should Stay. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 107–110. ISBN 9780199657599.
  29. ^ "Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation Twenty-Second SessionParis, UNESCO Headquarters, Room XI27-29 September 2021DECISIONS". UNESCO. September 2021. Retrieved 8 January 2023.
  30. ^ "Greece in 'preliminary' talks with British Museum about Parthenon marbles". The Guardian. 3 December 2022. Retrieved 4 December 2022 – via www.theguardian.com.
  31. ^ "British museum says constructive discussions over Parthenon Marbles". Reuters.
  32. ^ St Clair (1967). pp. 121-135
  33. ^ St Clair (1967). pp. 145-146.
  34. ^ St Clair (1967). pp. 147-49, 180
  35. ^ St Clair (1967) pp. 180-186.
  36. ^ St Clair, William (1967). Lord Elgin and The Marbles. Oxford University Press. pp. 233–34, 240–241.
  37. ^ Hunt, Philip; Smith, A. H. (1916). "Lord Elgin and His Collection". The Journal of Hellenic Studies. 36: 163–372. doi:10.2307/625773. JSTOR 625773. S2CID 163053341.
  38. ^ Lovell Augustus Reeve; John Mounteney Jephson; Shirley Brooks; Henry Christmas; George Augustus Frederick Fitzclarence (1817). The Literary Gazette: A Weekly Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts. H. Colburn. p. 38.
  39. ^ St Clair (1967). p 270
  40. ^ "Lord Bruce died, after a lengthened illness, ... at Talaton, Devon, where he had been residing for the benefit of his health. The deceased, George Charles Constantine Lord Bruce, who was eldest son of the Earl of Elgin, by his first marriage with Miss Nisbet, which marriage was dissolved by act of Parliament in 1808, was born the 5th of April, 1800, and was brother of Lady Mary Chichester, the lady of Mr. R. A. Chichester, M.P., Lady Matilda Maxwell, and Lady Lucy Grant. The Hon. James Bruce, the noble earl's eldest son' by his second marriage, born July 20, 1810, is now heir to the family honours.(Courier 1841, p. 4)"
  41. ^ "Dec, 1. 1840 At Talaton, where he had been residing for the benefit of his health, aged 40, George Charles Constantine, Lord Bruce, eldest son of the Earl of Elgin. He was of Christ Church, Oxford. He died unmarried, and his half brother, born in 1816, is now heir apparent to the Earldom(Urban 1841)"
  42. ^ H. Verney Lovett, "The Indian Governments, 1858–1918", The Cambridge History of the British Empire, Volume V: The Indian Empire, 1858–1918 (Cambridge University Press, 1932), p. 224.
  43. ^ Lang 1987, p. 350 footnote 1.


Diplomatic posts
Preceded by British Minister in Brussels
French Conquest
Preceded by British Minister to Prussia
Succeeded by
Preceded by British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire
Succeeded by
Honorary titles
Preceded by Lord Lieutenant of Fife
Succeeded by
Peerage of Scotland
Preceded by Earl of Elgin
Earl of Kincardine

Succeeded by