The Old Booksmith

Bibliography for Research in British & Continental
Royal & Noble Lineages & Heraldry:

Burke’s and Debrett’s


Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage. 105th ed. London: Burke’s Peerage, 1970. [1st published 1826; previously Burke’s Peerage, Baronetage, and Knightage.]

Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage. London: Debrett’s Peerage, 1985 edition. [Previously Debrett’s Peerage, Baronetage, Knightage and Companionage.]

The principal difference between the two great rivals in this field, Burke’s and Debrett’s, is primarily one of economics: Burkes went under in the 1970s while Debrett’s, by canny publishing decisions, has managed to stay afloat. Both have always had the same primary objective of enumerating the titled families of Great Britain, though Debrett’s is far less detailed about historic ancestry than Burke’s. Burke’s attempts to provide the entire lineage since the founding of the family, and those editions published since the turn of this century have been reasonably accurate and complete. (Earlier editions from the 19th century are quite another matter.) Debrett’s has always been more of a social list, confining its interest to the present bearer of a title and his immediate forebears; it also lists the "collaterals" of a family, which gives it a special social importance when vetting one’s proposed dinner guests — or one’s daughter’s suitors. Other details rankle; Burke provides complete dates, Debrett gives only the year, etc. Debrett’s series began a generation before Burke’s, but the latter has been of superior quality for the genealogist in this century. Recent editions of Debrett’s, in fact, have been heavily criticized in the press for their rate of egregious errors.

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Burke, Bernard. A Genealogical History of the Dormant, Abeyant, Forfeited, and Extinct Peerages of the British Empire. New ed. London: Harrison & Sons, 1883. [originally published 1841; reprinted 1962].

The best thing that can be said about this book is that it exists; it’s the only thing of its kind short of the Complete Peerage. The worst thing that can be said about it is almost everything else. The 1883 edition, with its supplement, picks up all those titles which had died out and therefore were not in the later editions of Burke’s Peerage. Arrangement is by family name, rather than by title, so one does get a sense of the power the great families accumulated. The amount of narrative detail varies from almost nonexistent to extended Victorian hyperbole, dates are very spotty, and minor factual errors are rife. So use this to outline the rise and decline of a family and its branches, and then go to the Complete Peerage for reliable details.

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Burke’s Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry. 18th ed. 3v. London: Burke’s Peerage, 1965.

Burke’s Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry of Ireland. 4th ed. London: Burke’s Peerage, 1958.

Burke, Bernard. A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Colonial Gentry. 2v. London: Burke’s Peerage, 1891–95.

Burke, Ashworth P. Family Records. London: Harrison & Sons, 1897 (NY: Heraldic Publishing Co., 1965).

"Many a noble lord, paramount in his own county, would be astonished to find that his less distinguished neighbour was of a nobility as ancient as his own." Because of what Sir Anthony Wagner called England’s "extreme social fluidity," some families have risen in prominence while others have sunk; many of the gentry are cadet lines of more noble families, in which the daughters and younger sons have "married down," while the offspring of the middle class have "married up".

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Burke’s Guide to the Royal Family. London: Burke’s Peerage, 1973. xvi, 358p.

Following the obligatory rah-rah section on members of the present royal family, this volume is mostly a detailed lineage of all rulers of England, Scotland, and Wales, beginning with Cerdic the Saxon. Doubtful or questionable names or connections are carefully noted. From George II on, the list of descendants is complete and very detailed. An excellent reference tool, especially for the post-1700 period.

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Burke, Bernard. Royal Descents and Pedigrees of Founders’ Kin. London: Harrison & Sons, 1864.

Burke, the founder of Burke’s Peerage Ltd., was Ulster King-of-Arms, and the "Founders" referred to are those who established the colleges at Oxford — blue-bloods, every one of them. The bulk of this volume consists of long — sometimes huge — "main line" descents from assorted royalty, through the peerage, down to mere landed gentry in the nineteenth century. It absolutely teems with names and relationships, but there is no depth of information and no sources are cited (and there’s no index), so take care.

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Burke’s Royal Families of the World. 2v. (Vol. 1: Europe & Latin America; Vol. 2: Africa & and Middle East) London: Burke’s Peerage, 1977-80.

Intended as a companion volume to Burke’s Guide to the Royal Family, this product of the "new Burke’s" follows the familiar indented-outline format and is very easy to use. The early history of each House is only summarized, but is complete from the sixteenth century or so. Families that are "temporarily out of business" make up the bulk of the book, including portraits of the current pretenders. Much readable anecdotal material is included, and the Introduction has some salty comments on the observed results of replacing hereditary monarchy with "mob democracy." An excellent and trustworthy source for ready-reference.

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Williamson, David. Debrett’s Kings and Queens of Britain. Topsfield, MA: Salem House, 1986. 240p.

Williamson, David. Debrett’s Kings and Queens of Europe. Topsfield, MA: Salem House, 1988. 208p.

Coffee-table volumes, very attractive, reasonably dependable, and with lots of illustrations and charts. The genealogy is narrative and anecdotal, and these are terrific books to give as gifts.

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Pine, Leslie G. The New Extinct Peerage, 1884-1971, Containing Extinct, Abeyant, Dormant & Suspended Peerages. . . . Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1973. xxvii, 313p.

Essentially a supplement to Burke’s Extinct Peerages (above), it also picks up many omissions from the earlier volume. Presentation of lineage information is compact, uniform, and as complete as practicable. If only Burke had been as careful and systematic as this in his own work!

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Associated Works

Hankinson, Cyril Francis James. My Forty Years with Debrett. London: R. Hale, 1963. 223p.

The publishing house of Debrett was founded in the 1780s, when John Debrett took over and renamed Collins’s Peerage. The business changed hands several times before Arthur Hesilrige took over the editorship of Debrett’s Peerage in 1887. Hankinson, who originally was trying to make it as a journalist, signed on as his assistant in 1921, succeeded him as editor in 1935, and continued until his own retirement in 1962. Between them, Hesilrige and Hankinson were responsible for seventy-six editions of the Peerage. The author is a raconteur of considerable skill, giving an often lighthearted and anecdotal history of his tenure. There’s a discussion of the prestige and presumed authority with which he found himself endowed by the press, rather to his bemusement, and chapters on the peerage itself, the baronetage, the various orders of knighthood, and "The Monarchy Today." He also talks about imposters and pretenders to titles, unclaimed titles, missing heirs, the misuse of heraldry, and the dangers of too deep an interest in genealogy. He often quotes letters that crossed his desk, some of them hilarious.