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The Earl of Elgin

Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine (20 July 1766, Broomhall, Fife - 14 November 1841, Paris) was a British nobleman and diplomat, known for the removal of marble sculptures (also known as the Elgin Marbles) from the Parthenon in Athens.[1] Elgin (pronounced /ˈɛlɡɪn/ with a 'hard g') was the second son of Charles Bruce, 5th Earl of Elgin and his wife Martha Whyte. He succeeded his older brother William, the 6th earl, in 1771 while he was only five. [1]


Early life

The Earl of Elgin in 1787 (age 21)
Mary, Countess of Elgin.

Elgin entered the army as an ensign in the 3rd Guards. He was elected as a Scottish Representative Peer in 1790, remaining one until 1807. 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 until the conquest of the Austrian Netherlands by France. After spending time in Britain, he was sent as envoy-extraordinary to Prussia in 1795.[2]

On 11 March 1799, shortly before setting off to serve as ambassador at Constantinople, Elgin married Mary Nisbet (1778–1855), only child of William Hamilton Nisbet, of Dirleton;[3] she was from a Scottish landowning family who lived not far away, and heir to a large fortune. They had a son, George, Lord Bruce (who predeceased his father) and three daughters.[3]

Elgin was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire between 1799 and 1803; 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.[4]

Elgin Marbles

He had a great enthusiasm for antiquities; one of his projects, as he set out on his embassy, was the collection of antiquities, but also the gathering of first-hand evidence (drawing, casts) for Ancient Greek art, especially in Athens, as models for taste and artistic practice in Britain; for which purpose he assembled a team of artists and craftsmen in Italy, on his way to Constantinople. His team of artists in Athens, after some problems, was granted, by means of a firman, free access to the Acropolis, and specifically permission to sketch freely, take casts, carry out digs, and take away inscriptions and reliefs from the site, but, it seems, not the Parthenon itself. The removal of metopes, frieze and pedimental sculpture was a decision taken on the spot by Philip Hunt, Elgin's chaplain (and temporary private secretary, i.e. representative, in Athens), who pressured the voivode (governor of Athens) in interpreting broadly the terms of the firman.

Neither Philip Hunt nor Elgin felt qualms about this. Both were shocked by the indifference of the ruling Ottomans to the worsening condition of the sculptures and Elgin later claimed that he wished to preserve the marbles from destruction in the fighting during the Greek War of Independence. His claimed motive in removing them was to preserve them. Indeed during that conflict the Acropolis was besieged twice. The Greeks were aware of the dilemma and chose to offer the besieged Ottoman forces, which were attempting to melt the lead in the columns to cast bullets, bullets of their own if they would leave the Parthenon undamaged.[2][4]

In the process of removing the Marbles, he discovered that he was unable to remove them from the Acropolis without cutting them out in smaller pieces. Therefore, a considerable damage was made to the marbles. Even at the time, his actions were controversial. Elgin spent vast amounts of money in having them shipped home to Britain, which he never recouped.

During the controversy caused by the removal, Elgin was accused of being a dishonest and rapacious vandal, notably by English poet Lord Byron.. In 1810 Elgin published a tract defending his actions. On the recommendation of a parliamentary committee, which also vindicated Elgin's conduct, the “Marbles” were bought by Great Britain in 1816 for £35,000, considerably below their cost to Elgin (estimated at £75,000) , and deposited in the British Museum, where they remain.[1]

Later career

Elgin's time in the Near East had been full of personal misfortune. From an early age Elgin had suffered from an ailment which was described as rheumatism but which was almost certainly syphilis.[2] The disease, which ate into his nose, made him, and his family, who included an epileptic son, the targets of many cruel jokes. The loss of his nose made him even less appealing than he had previously been to his young wife. On his journey home, through France, the Earl and some of his companions were taken prisoners of war (war having broken out after they left for home) and were held in detention for several months. Although they were well-treated, Lady Elgin had to travel home without her husband, and began a liaison with one of her escorts.

On his return to Britain, Elgin, finding that he could not get the British Museum to pay what he was asking for the marbles, sued his wife's lover for an appropriately high sum. He divorced her for adultery by legal actions in 1807 and 1808 in the English and Scottish courts—and by act of parliament—which caused much public scandal. He then, on 21 September 1810, married Elizabeth (1790–1860), youngest daughter of James Townsend Oswald of Dunnikier; they had five sons, including James Bruce, governor-in-chief of British North America and viceroy of India, Sir Frederick Wright-Bruce, diplomatist and Thomas Charles Bruce MP for Portsmouth and three daughters. The first countess later married Robert Ferguson of Raith (1777–1846) who had been cited in the divorce. Elgin went to live on the Continent. Because his estates were still heavily encumbered with debt, his son, James Bruce, the eighth earl, spent most of his life abroad. James too would became infamous over the treatment of historic relics when he ordered the destruction of Beijing's Old Summer Palace in China. The marbles were put on display and were eventually bought for the British nation in 1816.


  1. ^ a b c Encyclopedia Britannica, Thomas Bruce, 7th earl of Elgin, O.Ed., 2008
  2. ^ a b c William St Clair, ‘Bruce, Thomas, seventh earl of Elgin and eleventh earl of Kincardine (1766–1841)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008) [1], accessed 20 Sept 2008
  3. ^ a b Burkes' Peerage (1939 editon)
  4. ^ a b Christopher Hitchens, The Elgin Marbles: Should They Be Returned to Greece?, 1998, p.p.10-11

See also

Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Viscount Torrington
British Minister in Brussels
French Conquest
Preceded by
Lord Henry Spencer
British Minister to Prussia
Succeeded by
The Earl of Carysfort
Preceded by
Francis Jackson
British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire
Succeeded by
William Drummond
Honorary titles
Preceded by
The 22nd Earl of Crawford
Lord Lieutenant of Fife
Succeeded by
The 22nd Earl of Crawford
Peerage of Scotland
Preceded by
William Bruce
Earl of Elgin
Succeeded by
James Bruce


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