Mary Bruce, Countess of Elgin

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Mary, Countess of Elgin.

Mary Hamilton Bruce, Countess of Elgin (née Nisbet; 18 April 1778 – 9 July 1855) was the first wife of British diplomat Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin during his term as Ambassador Extraordinaire to the Ottoman Empire and one of the most influential and wealthiest heiresses of the late 18th and early 19th century.

Early life

Mary Hamilton Nisbet was born on 18 April 1778 in Dirleton. Her parents were of the landed gentry; William Hamilton Nisbet was a Scottish landowner, one of the few who owned large estates in Scotland. Her mother, also called Mary (née Manners) was a granddaughter of John Manners, 2nd Duke of Rutland. Nisbet grew up on the Archerfield Estate, not far from Edinburgh. From an early age she kept a detailed diary.[1] During her teens Nisbet's father became a Member of Parliament, and the family traveled to London, where she entered society via her grandmother, Lady Robert Manners. According to biographer Susan Nagel, "she was noted to be very mature for her age and often joined her parents at gatherings traditionally held for grown-ups."[1]

Marriage to Earl of Elgin

Mary Nisbet met Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, who had only recently become Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, in 1798. The pair were distantly related via the Montagus and were considered a good match by both families. They married on 11 March 1799. After spending the wedding night at Archerfield the couple travelled to Bruce's home in Broomhall, Fife.[1]

Following a short stint in London the couple left England on 3 September 1799 so that Bruce could take up his ambassadorial position; sailing from Portsmouth on the HMS Phaeton. By this point Nisbet was pregnant but decided to travel with her new husband. During the two-month voyage they visited Lisbon and Gibraltar (as guests of Charles O'Hara), Sicily, Palermo, Messina and Tenodoes before arriving in Constantinople.[1]

It was a difficult time in Constantinople; English people were not well liked or trusted. [clarification needed] The couple moved into the old French embassy (which had recently been vacated) which Mary Bruce then had decorated and where she hosted lavish parties. In November, with the permission of the Grand Vizier, she became the first woman to attend a political Ottoman ceremony. Despite being five months pregnant she was required to dress as a man.[1]

The Bruces had five children; two sons and three daughters: [2][3]

  • George Charles Constantine (1800–1840), died unmarried and before his father, known by the courtesy title of Lord Bruce.[4]
  • Mary, married on 28 January 1828, Robert Dundas
  • Matilda-Harrie, married on 14 October 1839, John Maxwell, son and heir of Sir John Maxwell, 7th Baronet
  • William, died young of illness on April 8, 1805.[5] It is debated whether or not William was the child of Lord Elgin.[6]
  • Lucy, married on 14 March 1828, John Grant of Perthshire

Second marriage

Bruce divorced Nisbet in either 1807 or 1808, and she went on to marry Robert Ferguson of Raith (1777–1846).[7]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Nagel, 2004.
  2. Burke 1852, p. 364.
  3. "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 staff 1841, p. 4)"
  4. "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)"
  5. Vrettos, 135.
  6. Vrettos, 177.
  7. St Clair, 2004


  • Burke, John Bernard (1852). A genealogical and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the British Empire (14 ed.). Colburn. p. 364.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Courier staff (14 May 1841). "NECROLOGY". The Courier. Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia. p. 4. Retrieved 5 November 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Urban, Sylvanus, ed. (January 1841). "Obituary: Lord Bruce". 106%5d The Gentleman's Magazine Check |url= value (help). 170. J.B. Nicolas and Son.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Nagel, Susan (10 August 2004). Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin. William Morrow and Company. p. 320. ISBN 0-06-054554-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value). (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  • Vrettos, Theodore (1997). The Elgin Affair: The Abduction of Antiquity’s Greatest Treasures and the Passions It Aroused. New York: Arcade Publishing.

Further reading