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Bruce-Mitford, Rupert Leo Scott

    Image Credit: National Portrait Gallery

    Full Name: Bruce-Mitford, Rupert Leo Scott

    Other Names:

    • Rupert Leo Scott Mitford

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1914

    Date Died: 1994

    Place Born: Streatham, Lambeth, London, England, UK

    Place Died: Oxford, Oxfordshire, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): Medieval (European)


    Medievalist at the British Museum, principal scholar of the Sutton Hoo find. Bruce-Mitford was born to the writer and geographer/vulcanologist Charles Eustace Bruce-Mitford (1875-1919), and Beatrice Jean (1873-1956). Bruce-Mitford attended Hertford College, Oxford, as a Baring scholar studying history and graduating in 1936. He began work on a second bachelor’s degree in literature, studying fourteenth-century English art under the British Museum manuscript historian Robin Flower (1881-1946). Through his work with Flower, Bruce-Mitford was named an assistant keeper on a temporary basis at the Ashmolean Museum in 1938. The same year, he transferred to the British Museum, abandoning his efforts for an art degree to become assistant keeper of the department of British and medieval antiquities under Thomas D. Kendrick. The Museum immediately sent him to the Little Woodbury excavation under the direction of Gerhard Bersu (1889-1964). In 1939 he carried out an excavation of a medieval village at Seacourt (near Oxford), the first medieval excavation in Britain to employ modern scholarly archaeological method. During World War II, he served in the Royal Signal Corps of Essex, London, and Yorkshire. He married Kathleen Dent (b. 1916) in 1941, returning to the museum in 1945. His post-war duties increased to include earlier medieval art. Among these new responsibilities was the curation of the Sutton Hoo objects, a royal grave site discovered in 1939 but hidden for safe-keeping during the war. Bruce-Mitford had the objects restored (many were fragmentary at their discovery) and displayed beginning in 1947. He published an initial guide The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial: a Provisional Guide the same year while at the same time compiling a more complete catalog on the objects with an assembled team. Starting in 1949 he excavated the Saxon-era site of Mawgan Porth on the coast of Cornwall (published posthumously in 1997). He was appointed keeper of both earlier and later medieval departments at the British Museum in 1954. In 1955 he excavated the chapter house graves at Lincoln Cathedral. His two major facsimiles, the Codex Lindisfarnensis and the Codex Amiatinus also appeared in the mid 1950s. During this time he separated from his wife. As a curator, Bruce-Mitford made many acquisitions; two spectacular ones were the 1958 purchase of the Rothschild Lycurgus cup, a fourth-century BC glass, and the Ilbert clock and watch collection. In 1960 the Sutton Hoo team moved to its Montague Street location. He and Thomas Hoving, then curator of the Cloisters Museum (a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY), competed to acquire the twelfth-century Bury St. Edmunds ivory cross in 1963. Hoving eventually secured the rare item, partially through Hoving’s intrigue and partially because the British Museum would not permit acquisition of an art object with an undisclosed provenance. In 1969 Bruce-Mitford formed a new department, Prehistoric and Romano-British antiquities, continuing to head both British and Medieval Antiquities (now renamed the Department of Mediaeval and Later Antiquities), and this new department. He divorced in 1972 and remarried his Sutton Hoo research assistant, Marilyn Roberta Luscombe (b. 1945), thirty-one years younger than he. Volume one of Bruce-Mitford’s scholarly Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial appeared in 1975, (volume two in 1978, and three in 1983). The same year he relinquished the duties of keeper of the Mediaeval and Later Antiquities Department to become Research Keeper. He retired from the British Museum in 1977 and was succeeded by Neil Stratford. He taught as Slade professor of fine art at Cambridge and as professorial fellow of Emmanuel College for the 1978-1979 year. In 1984 he divorced and consequentially sold his vast personal library living with friends. He married a third time to an Oxford classmate Margaret Edna Adams (1916-2002) in 1988. He spent his retirement researching A Corpus of Late Celtic hanging bowls, AD 400-800, which he had begun writing after the war. Though physically active to the end (he had been snorkelling off the Great Barrier Reef before his death) Bruce-Mitford suffered a heart attack in 1994 after a long history of heart problems. He is buried in the cemetery at St. Mary the Virgin, Bampton. His brother was the archaeologist Terence Bruce-Mitford (1905-1978). Although Bruce-Mitford did not discover Sutton Hoo (except for post excavation work 1965-1968), he was responsible for both publicizing it and providing the scholarly documentation for which they are associated. His analysis of the Lindisfarne Gospels formed the basis of studies of that important manuscript. He assisted in establishing the National Reference Collection of dated mediaeval pottery. A strong personality, he “often got into difficulties, some of them avoidable.” (Biddle).

    Selected Bibliography

    The Sutton Hoo Ship-burial, a Provisional Guide. London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1947; and Clark, J. G. D. Recent Archaeological Excavations in Britain, Selected Excavations 1939-1955. London: Routledge & Paul, 1956; and Ashbee, Paul. The Sutton Hoo Ship-burial. 3 vols. London: British Museum Publications, 1975-1983; and Taylor, Robin, ed. Mawgan Porth: a Settlement of the Late Saxon Period on the North Cornish Coast: Excavations 1949-52, 1954, and 1974. London: English Heritage, 1997; [facsimiles:] Evangeliorum quattuor Codex Lindisfarnensis; Musei Britannici Codex Cottonianus Nero D. IV permissione Musei Britannici totius codicis similitudo expressa. 2 vols. Lausanne: Urs Graf, 1956-60; The Art of the Codex Amiatinus. Jarrow: Parish of Jarrow, 1968.


    Biddle, Martin. “Mitford, Rupert Leo Scott Bruce-.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; personal correspondence Marilyn Bruce-Mitford December 2009; [obituaries:] Mullaly, Terence. “Keeper of the Death Ship.” The Guardian (London), April 5, 1994, p. 19; Cramp, Rosemary. “Rupert Bruce-Mitford.” The Independent (London), March 23, 1994, p. 14;Pace, Eric. “Rupert Bruce-Mitford Dies at 79, Expert on Saxon Ruin in England.” New York Times, March 18, 1994, p.B8 [academic degrees incorrect].


    "Bruce-Mitford, Rupert Leo Scott." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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