Meet the Burkes

Why yes, dear reader. Those Burkes. The Burkes of Burke’s Peerage, the British publisher of books on genealogy, royalty, nobility, and multiple other flavors of the upper crust. The Burkes that earned themselves a dig from Oscar Wilde himself in A Woman of No Importance, which is its own kind of distinction, and maybe rarer than a title. Those are the Burkes with whom we are dealing.

John Burke, who gets top billing on the title page, started the ball rolling in 1826 with the Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage of the United Kingdom. (Burke was very much a man of his times when it comes to title lengths.) His innovation with this text was to arrange the thing in alphabetical order, which seems obvious when we think about it now, but apparently wasn’t. The next eight editions of the Peerage were published irregularly, and in 1847, they started coming out annually. He also started publishing the series that would become Burke’s Landed Gentry in 1833 with the first volume of A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Commoners of Great Britain and Ireland. The Encyclopaedia falls right in the prime of his publishing career; it originally came out as A General Armory of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1842, and was republished in 1844 as the edition I’m using.

Burke had two sons: Peter, who became a lawyer and published a few legal works and discussions of famous trials, and John Bernard, our second co-author. John Bernard took after his father, helping the senior Burke with his genealogical research and writing. He took over editing Burke’s Peerage in 1847, the year before his father died. (Interestingly, Bernard never published anything independently while his father was alive.) It’s not clear whether this Burke was a better herald and genealogist than his father, or simply more prestigious, but he was appointed Ulster King of Arms in 1853, and was knighted the next year. Judging by his solo publications, Burke Jr. had much more of a fascination with the narratives of the aristocracy and nobility; in addition to the fairly dry works of genealogy, he published The Romance of the Aristocracy, The Rise of Great Families, and multiple editions of Vicissitudes of Families.

The Encyclopaedia seems to favor the senior Burke’s preferences, unfortunately. It is divided into four general sections: a short essay on the history and practice of heraldry, a dictionary of heraldic terms, a section on the royal arms of Britain and its monarchs, and a general armory listing out the arms of the nobility and gentry. I’ll definitely be going through the first and third sections, and if there’s anything interesting or ridiculous in the dictionary of terms, I’ll be sure to pull that out as well. I don’t anticipate finding anything much to write about in the general armory, but who knows?

Burke’s Peerage as an institution has taken a lot of heat for its… hm, shall we say loose relationship to actual historical fact. Part of this sounds like they were pretty careless about editing and proofreading, part of it sounds like they were somewhat starstruck by their subjects, and part of it sounds like they (like Burke Jr.) were suckers for a good story. It does sound like they’ve cleaned up their act starting around the 1950s. However, our text is quite a bit earlier than that. I’ll be sure to take any historical claims with a block of salt, but I can’t deny that I’m really hoping to encounter some of these fanciful tales.

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