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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Arms of Kevelioc and Lucye

Kevelioc and Lucye

Arms of Hugh de Kevelioc, Earl of Chester 1153-1181 (1147-1181) and ‘Beatrix Lucye’

From p43 of Lacies Nobilitie by Sir John Ferne (1586)

Blazon: Per pale baron and femme; the first azure three garbs or, the second gules three lucies hauriant argent

Ferne seems to include Hugh mostly to castigate him for his role in revolting against Henry II in 1173. Once again, Ferne’s information on the wife seems to be inaccurate; Kevelioc married Bertrade de Montfort, who seems to have been a French noblewoman (at least, her grandfather certainly held land in Normandy). However, Ferne clearly believes that Kevelioc married into the Lucy family, regardless of the fact that Kevelioc’s granddaughter Margaret de Quincy’s later married into the same family.

Arms of de Gernon and Gloucester

de Gernon and Gloucester
Arms of Ranulf de Gernon, Earl of Chester 1128-1153 (1099-1153) and Maud of Gloucester (?-1189)

From p43 of Lacies Nobilitie by Sir John Ferne (1586)

Blazon: Per pale baron and femme; the first azure three garbs or, the second or three chevronels gules

The arms Ferne gives for Maud (whom he calls Alice) seem to be skipping ahead a few decades. The chevronels are well-known as the arms of the Clare family, who would inherit the earldom of Gloucester in 1225. Maud’s father Robert was the first earl of Gloucester and (probably) the first illegitimate son of Henry I. Since he was born before his father ascended the throne, it is unknown if he bore arms or what they would have been.

Arms of le Meschin and ‘de Vere’

le Meschin and de Vere

Arms of Ranulf le Meschin, Earl of Chester 1120-1129 (1070-1129) and ‘Maud de Vere’

From p42 of Lacies Nobilitie by Sir John Ferne (1586)

Blazon: Per pale baron and femme; the first azure three garbs or, the second per quarterly or and gules, in the second quarter a rowel argent(?)

Ferne gives le Meschin credit for originating the azure-and-or arms of Chester (though I cannot verify the use of these arms before Hugh de Kevelioc ascended to the title in 1153). The garb, unsurprisingly, is said to represent “perfect
notes of aboundaunce” and “the fruite of that most happy mother peace.” (49) Ferne takes time to specifically commend the heraldic use of agricultural symbols: “[A]nye instrument appertaining to the tilling & earing of the earth, or
any fruit or seed proceeding and growing by the industry of man, maye bee borne in Armes, and it is good armory.” (51)

I cannot find any evidence that anyone named “Maud de Vere” existed. Historically, Ranulf le Meschin wed Lucy of Bolingbroke. (The previously-mentioned William de Roumare was her son from her second marriage to Roger Fitzgerold de Roumare.)

However, the information on Ferne’s family tree, as well as the coat of arms, seems to indicate some connection to the de Vere family which is not borne out by other available evidence. Ferne’s depiction of the arms has some clear
differences – the colors of the quarters are reversed, and the molet is pierced and in the wrong quarter.

Arms of de Briquessart and le Goz

Briquessart and le Goz

Arms of Ranulf de Briquessart, Viscount of Bessin 1066? – c. 1089 (?-c. 1089) and Margaret le Goz

From p42 of Lacies Nobilitie by Sir John Ferne (1586)

Blazon: Per pale baron and femme; the first or three barrulets gules, the second azure a wolf’s head erased argent

The family tree lists Margaret’s husband, improbably, as John Bohun (the most well-known individual of that name was approximately 300 years younger than de Briquessart and bore a completely different coat of arms). However, the text makes
it clear that Ferne is referring to de Briquessart; he states that he was also called “Randulph” and misattributes their son’s appellation of “le Meschin” or “the younger” as the father’s surname.

It is unclear whether the wolf’s head was granted to Hugh d’Avranches or his father; Ferne’s family tree seems to indicate the latter, since Margaret would not have had any right to bear her brother’s arms, but the evidence for this is
sketchy.