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In Memoriam: Rupert Bruce-Mitford (1915-1994)


A Remembrance by Martin Carver University of York

On March 10, 1994, Rupert Bruce-Mitford died at age 79 in Oxford. He was educated at Christ's Hospital and Hertford College, Oxford, where he was a Baring scholar, and from 1984 an honorary fellow. In 1937 he accepted a post at the Ashmolean Museum, but shortly thereafter moved to the British Museum, where he remained – except for time spent in the service of the British Army during World War II – until his retirement in 1977. From 1954 to 1969, he was Keeper of British and Mediaeval Antiquities; from 1969 to 1975, Keeper of Mediaeval and Later Antiquities; and from 1975 to 1977, a Research Keeper. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1976. After 1977 he held several distinguished professorships and fellowships, remaining active in scholarship. His excavations at Mawgan Porth will appear shortly, and he recently completed his Corpus of Late-Celtic Hanging Bowls AD 400-800.

Rupert Bruce-Mitford was a great Anglo-Saxon scholar, an explorer of the whole people. Like all of us he was more at home in some fields than others; but he knew that the whole perspective was theirs an we should try to make it ours too. For me his most inspiring work was actually that on the Hiberno-Saxon manuscripts, and particularly the detective work on the Codex Amiatinus. When he pointed out that the manufacture of that Codex Grandior had required 515 calves, it opened up a range of academic interactions which has influenced me ever since.

His publication of Sutton Hoo was the most compendious ever produced for a British archaeological site. Some complained that it was too big (bigger even than a Codex Grandior) and took too long in coming. But it should be remembered that he first produced the famous British Museum guide in 1947, almost as soon as he had taken over the responsibility for the find after the war; it ran to numerous editions keeping pace with research, and was used by generations of students as a serviceable interim, until the three volumes of the final report appeared in 1975, 1978, and 1983. It would not be wise to assume that the immense amount of research contained in this work has been or is likely to be superseded.

When Rupert handed the Sutton Hoo baton to me in 1983, he did so with a gentle wisdom and encouragement that I had done nothing to deserve. It is no small feat to hand over the responsibility for your life's work to someone else, and then remain interested in the new campaign without interference or resentment. That was because, for him, the site and the Anglo-Saxons who made it, were the real immortals, rather than any of us. His rather discursive lecturing style offered a similar message; the art of the Anglo-Saxons gained in stature for an audience which noticed that their own lecturer could become distracted, even lost in admiration for it.

We were in correspondence up to the end, exchanging anecdotes on Charles Phillips and other aspects of the Sutton Hoo story, of which Rupert himself is a mighty part. The saddest thing is that he did not live to discuss the results of the new campaign in their final form; his opinion and his verdict would have been of enduring value.

OEN 27.3 (1994): 15.