Guðbrandur VIGFÚSSON (1827–1889)
St Giles section: Row 23, Grave F35

Back of Vigfussen grave




Vigfussen grave

See also the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for Guðbrandur Vigfússon,
scholar of Icelandic literature, Reader in Icelandic at Oxford
, and Wikipedia

Vigfusson portrait

Guðbrandur Vigfússon was born at Broadfirth in Iceland on 12 March 1827 (according to his grave) and 13 March (according to the ODNB).

He went to the Latin High School of Bessastaðir and entered Copenhagen University in 1850, dedicating himself to scholarship for fourteen years.

He came to England in 1864 to work on an Icelandic–English dictionary for Oxford University Press, and at first lived in London.


Right: Pencil drawing of Vigfússon by Sigurður Málari.
Probably made in Copenhagen in the 1850s

Vigfússon moved to Oxford in 1867, and continued to work on the Icelandic–English Dictionary until 1873. The 1871 census shows him lodging to the east of Oxford with a builder’s widow called Mrs Dover at 4 Clifton Villas, Cowley Road: he described himself as a “worker in antiquities”.

The Dean of Christ Church, H G. Liddell, obtained an honorary M.A. for him in 1871 and common-room rights at Christ Church.

In 1881 Vigfússon was living at a lodging house in north Oxford at 2 St John’s Villas, St Bernard’s Road (which was then called St John’s Road).

He held the post of Reader in Scandinavian at the University of Oxford from 1884 until his death. He had many friends, despite his “weird but imposing personality”.

Vigfússon died of cancer in 1889:

† Guðbrandur Vigfússon died on 31 January 1889 at the age of 61 at the Sarah Acland Home and was buried at St Sepulchre’s Cemetery on 3 February (burial recorded in the parish register of St Giles’s Church).

Every notable philologist in Oxford attended his funeral. The following obituary appeared in Jackson’s Oxford Journal on 9 February 1889:

Death of Dr. Vigfusson.—By the death of Gudbrand Vigfusson at Oxford on January 31 Scandinavian scholarship loses its foremost name. Born in March 1830 [sic; grave clearly says 1827], of a good family at Broadfirth, in the west of Iceland, he passed his childhood in the north-west with his foster-mother, Kristin Vigfusdottir, and his boyhood at the School at Bessastad, and, after its removal, at Reykjavik. Thence in 1850 he went to the University of Copenhagen, and was a student at the Regensen College. His first work in 1854–5 was “Timatál,” a treatise on the chronology of the earlier Icelandic history. He then edited a series of Sagas, including among others the “Lives of the Early Bishops of Iceland” (1858), and the great “Flatey-bok Chronicles” (1868), this last in conjunction with his friend Professor Unger.

In 1864 he came to England to undertake the Icelandic English dictionary, which had been a project of Mr. Richard Cleasby’s. Its publication was ultimately resolved upon by the Clarendon Press. Dr. Vigfusson went to live in Oxford in 1866, and finished his labour in 1873. It is an enduring monument of his judgment, learning, method, and scholarship. It is one of the most readable of dictionaries, and it has done much to stimulate Teutonic scholarship in this country. Betaking himself again to the Sagas, he edited the Orkney Saga and the Saga of King Hacon (who was defeated at Largs) for the Rolls Series, and the great Sturlunga Saga, for the University Press, Oxford. To the last he prefixed under the title of Prolegomena, a complete history of the classic history of Iceland. In 1879 (in conjunction with Mr. York Powell) he wrote an Icelandic reader, and in 1883 the University Press published the “Corpus Poeticum Boreale,” containing the whole body of classic Old Northern poetry, with translations and critical and historical essays which have advanced the subject very much as Ewald’s studies did Biblical learning. When he died he was engaged upon the “Origines Islandiae,” which he has happily left so far complete that it will appear this year. In it he re-edits Landnánki-bok and the Sagas of Icelandic worthies of the early commonwealth, and critically considers the migration to, settlement of, and early constitution and history of his native land. Besides these works of capital importance, he occasionally contributed to various learned journals: but perhaps the most noteworthy of his minor writings are the charming account in his own tongue of his first visit to Norway as a young man, the set of papers in an English pamphlet put forth at Oxford in commemoration of the Brothers Grimm’s centenary, and the striking letters from him which have appeared on subjects connected with Iceland. He was lecturer in Scandinavian studies at Oxford, and hon. M.A., hon. Doctor of Upsala, and had the order of the Dannebrog. He was a member of several learned societies, and received the news of his honorary election to the Nestor Academy of Kieff during his last illness. A man of singular sincerity and force of character, of the literary taste, vast memory, and wide learning, he [?found] many firm friends in this his adopted country along all classes, notwithstanding his retired and laborious life. The large and representative gathering at his grave last Sunday afternoon in St. Sepulchre’s Cemetery, Walton-street, was but a fitting tribute to the great scholar and good man who has passed away.

His age on his death certificate was given as 59, and there are discrepancies in the censuses as well about his exact year of birth. His wealth at death was £328 1s. 8d.



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