‘Twas Lady Elgin Made Lord Elgin Lose The Stolen Parthenon Marbles

When it comes to scoundrels most despised by Greeks, the late Scottish diplomat Lord Elgin, who stripped half the friezes off the Parthenon in the early 19th Century ranks near the top, but his wife played a role too.

In a feature, The Washington Post showed how the rich Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin, drove him to sell the stolen Marbles to the British Museum in a divorce that saw her wed family friend, Robert Ferguson

In the history books, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, gets most of the ink, condemned as vandal or praised as preservationist. His wife, who had the money in the family, gets far less attention,” the story.

It added: “That is too bad,” calling her a charismatic “character for the ages” who in many ways was more rounded than Elgin, of whom she grew weary because he kept wanting children and she wanted out of that bed.


She brought a smallpox vaccine to the Middle East, negotiated with Napoleon and helped her husband make off with the marbles before a divorce so scandalous it was worthy of British tabloids today.

It was all shown in Susan Nagel’s 2004 biography Mistress of the Elgin Marbles – before the late actress and former culture minister Melina Mercouri rebranded the stolen treasures The Parthenon Marbles.

Nagel argued that Nisbet’s fortune helped her husband acquire the contested sculptures before leaving him drove to their sale, the British Museum claiming rightful ownership.

That’s because he had the permission of the then-ruling Ottoman Empire – which didn’t own them – to rip them off the Parthenon, now on “display: in a dark room of the British Museum as they have been for 200 years.

‘If that is so, was it Mary who both “stole” and “saved” them?” the story asked about a woman of intrigue, “a vivacious, adventuresome, pampered heiress to vast estates in Scotland.”

She was just 21 when she married the ambitious but already indebted Thomas Bruce in 1799, who was 12 years older, their union an arranged love match of connected families.

“She called him Eggy. He called her Poll. The newlyweds were quickly off to Constantinople, where he would serve as Ambassador Extraordinaire to the Ottoman Empire,” said the story.

Historian William St Clair, author of Lord Elgin and the Marbles, called her  “a rather silly girl,” based on her letters but those also showed a woman who loved to travel with all the trappings of the rich.

“They brought along a retinue of servants, advisers and secretaries, as well as their own pianos. Plural. They hosted lots of parties and, befitting their diplomatic roles, gave lavish gifts to the Turks: gold watches, English pistols, musical clocks and yards of satin, brocade, velvet and damask.”

In her letters home, she described the couple being carried on golden chairs upon their arrival in Constantinople, now Istanbul, fed 26-course meals abd being led into the Sultan’s inner sanctum.


Lord Elgin sent teams of artists to Athens, to draw, measure and make molds of what remained of the classical sculptures, especially the Parthenon, a temple built by the Greeks for the goddess Athena in the 5th Century BC.

Elgin’s crew did more than sketch, said the piece. The desecrated the ancient temple, stripping and ripping off friezes and “doing grave damage,” after it had been bombed by Venetians and used to store ammunition.

She cheered them on and convinced sea captains to fill their cargo holds with crates of the treasures to take back to England, where Elgin wanted them to be outside decorations for their country home.

“How I have faged to get all this done, do you love me better for it, Elgin?” she wrote her husband, adding, “I am now satisfied of that I always thought: which is how much more Women can do if they set about it than Men.”

It took years to get the marbles to Britain. Bruce Clark, author of Athens: City of Wisdom wrote in The Smithsonian magazine that Elgin was “surrounded by people whose zeal for the removal of Greek antiquities outpaced his own. These included his ultra wealthy parents-in-law, whose money ultimately made the operation possible.”

On their way home to Britain, the couple traveled through France just as war broke out (again), forcing Ambassador Elgin to serve a lengthy gentleman’s sentence of luxurious house arrest.

While there the couple’s fourth child died while Mary was pregnant with their fifth and they persuaded Napoleon to her to return to London in October 1805, and he in June, 1806.

“While her husband was awaiting parole in France, she informed him that she wanted out, while he was in poor health from asthma and syphilis, losing most of his nose to the disease and crank cures, and disfigured.

While the couple were separated, Ferguson began to woo Mary. He wrote passionate letters. She returned his affection. And the clincher? Ferguson promised “devotion, fidelity, and no more children,” Nagel said.

When he got home, Elgin found out about it and was so overcome with rage and jealousy and her insistence she would not bear any more children with him that he would divorce her – and her money.

Nagel argues that had Elgin not divorced his wife, “there is no doubt” that the marbles would have remained in private hands in his family. “Without Mary’s fortune, which increased spectacularly in the nineteenth century, Elgin was unable to sustain the mounting costs of excavating, shipping, sorting and paying duties … In dire financial straits, he was forced in 1816 to sell the collection to the British Museum.”

She married Ferguson and they lived happily into deep old age, the scandal forgotten and she was eventually reunited with her children she lost during the tumultuous divorce, Greece losing its Marbles.


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