The saga began in 1826 when John Burke (1786-1848), an Anglo-Irish poet and journalist, published A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage of the United Kingdom.
By the 1840s the Burke brand had been largely taken over by Burke’s son, (John) Bernard Burke (1814-1892). Trained as a barrister, the younger Burke was appointed Ulster King of Arms in 1853 – presumably due to the rising prestige of his family’s publications – and oversaw the Peerage become an annual publication in 1847, the Landed Gentry appear in five editions from 1849 to 1892, and the issue of updated versions of most of his father’s other works. He also catered to the Victorian taste for romantic aristocracy with a variety of more anecdotal volumes – Vicissitudes of Families, Anecdotes of the Aristocracy, etc. – and made an early gesture towards what would become a lucrative field later in the century with his 1858 Royal Descents and Pedigrees of Founders’ Kin. At the end of his life he expanded his range of publications even further, cashing in on the hey-day of empire with a two-volume Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Colonial Gentry (1891).
Statements which would never otherwise have obtained a moment’s credit, have been allowed to go forth with the imprimatur of the chief herald of Ireland, on the strength of which they are relied on by a large section of the public . . . [y]ear by year new fictions, belonging not to respectable legend, but to vulgar imposture, are obtaining general acceptance on their authority; it is therefore high time that the public should be disabused of their faith in these books.
To some extent this was simply the irritation of erudition when faced with popular scholarship, but Burnett had nonetheless hit on a fundamental and unsettling truth, one which the first John Burke had in part anticipated: the Burke publications did fill a gap in the literature, even if only by virtue of their ubiquity, and as far as the public was concerned bad genealogy was better than no genealogy at all. Even as early as 1865 the entire shape of British genealogical studies was being fundamentally altered by the Burke family and their “dictionaries”.
Burnett had sounded a note of caution, but the scholars who followed began to comprehensively expose a range of errors across the Burke series, a tradition which reached its culmination in the work of the historian John Horace Round (1854-1928). A Balliol man and pupil of William Stubbs, Round had devoted himself to the study of medieval English government and genealogy with singular focus and dedication. In 1893 he published a joint review of Burke’s Peerage (in this case the 1893 edition) and the first edition of George E. Cokayne’s now famous Complete Peerage (1887-1892). After thoroughly grilling his colleague Cokayne (and finding him to be mostly a good thing), Round turned to Burke in deceptively mild tones:
Of ‘Burke’s Peerage’ we desire to speak with all fairness. It has long been the fashion to pour contempt on what a well-known genealogist has styled ‘that gorgeous repertory of genealogical mythology,’ and it cannot be denied that it was fully justified by the absurd fables which the Burke family . . . have recklessly repeated in their productions. But, in justice, it is right to add that these fables were, at the worst, repeated rather than invented, and that slowly but steadily, under the pressure of ridicule and competition, they are being weeded out.
Round, despite his famous irascibility, wrote in the patronising tone of a conqueror reorganising the government of a defeated province. Although correcting, often sharply, numerous individual errors in the 1893 volume of the Peerage, his overall conviction seems to have been that with sufficient tongue-lashing the Burke brand could be forced to improve and that “what may be fairly described as our standard work upon the Peerage” could yet be saved for scholarly genealogy.
Round’s review may, of course, be contrasted with his more trenchant exposés of Burkean errors in numerous articles and volumes of essays, but it nonetheless represented a turning point. After the beginning of the twentieth century the Burke Empire, flourishing as ever, found itself subject to comparatively less scrutiny than it had in the Victorian era. Under the guidance of Sir Henry Farnham Burke (1859-1930) and Ashworth Peter Burke (1864-1919), grandsons of the founder, it continued to prosper and 1939 even saw a belated but substantial recognition of its American audience with the publication of an American supplement to that year’s Landed Gentry.
The problem was that Round, ultimately, had been too kind. The most egregious frauds and forgeries had gradually been winnowed from the various Burke publications over the course of the nineteenth century, but as standards of genealogical scholarship became ever more exacting, Burke’s works remained dinosaurs in their very form, essentially incapable of transmitting scholarship of a high standard.
These flaws have led many scholars to jettison Burke entirely, branding – not entirely unfairly – the whole endeavour as second-rate, bad genealogy which has done far more harm than good. While I sympathise with that position, I cannot agree. As error-ridden and frustrating as the Burke publications are, they nonetheless represent an unparalleled collection of genealogical data and one of the principal reasons why the outlines of British genealogy are comparatively so much better known than those of other European countries. We may deride the Burkes as clumsy amateurs, we may resent the slapdash nature of what should be a meticulous and thoughtful form of scholarship, but ultimately we would be throwing the baby out with the bath water if we failed to turn to their publications as a first port of call in establishing the genealogy of a British middle- or upper-class family. Particularly in the case of individuals who lived after 1750, Burke publications can offer an often game-changing snapshot of their family connections which, if not always correct, still offers dozens of points of potential departure for the scholarly genealogist.
After a chequered history during the latter part of the twentieth century, the seemingly unstoppable Peerage has been published again in 2003, complemented by a Landed Gentry of Scotland (2001), and an increasing number of other new and reissued volumes. It is the older generations of Burke products, however, that remain paramount in influence across the globe, the almost innumerable volumes of Peerages, Landed Gentries, General Armories, and others which were issued between the mid-nineteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries. It is to be regretted that this pillar of genealogical publishing is not, and never can be, what we might want: a truly reliable dictionary of British genealogy. But the enduring power of the Burke brand and its remarkable legacy is such that, much as we may find to criticise within its covers, it remains one of the largest and most valuable collections of genealogical data ever assembled.
 John Burke, A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage of the United Kingdom (London, 1826), sig. Ar.
 For more on “royal descents” as a phenomenon in nineteenth- and twentieth-century genealogy see my previous blog post on the subject.
 George Burnett, Popular Genealogists or the Art of Pedigree-Making (Edinburgh, 1865), 49-50, 89.
 Burnett, Popular Genealogists, 89-90.
 See the biography in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.n.
 John Horace Round, Review of A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage and Complete Peerage . . . extant, extinct, or dormant, Quarterly Review 177 (October 1893): 386-415.
 Round, 397.
 Round, 415.
 Subsequently republished by the Genealogical Publishing Company as Burke’s American Families with British Ancestry (Baltimore, 1996).
Copyright © 2014 Kelsey Jackson Williams