Chapter Three: Debrett's and Burke's
Of the many great directories of peerage and gentry, Dod, Lodge, Collins and Kelly's have all disappeared. Debrett's and Burke's are the only names of which the general public remains conscious, and of these only Debrett's has been published recently. (Cokayne's Complete Peerage is a monumental academic work that must be classified separately, for although it does contain a few minor errors it is for professional historians honest and reliable.) The publication of Burke's Peerage began in 1826 and thereafter it appeared almost annually until 1940, an ambition which, with the technology of the times, prevented any thorough editing of the early mythological paragraphs and focussed attention onto the annual amendments to the current generations.
The publishers of Burke's went into liquidation a few years ago, leaving two more or less intangible items to be continued by others. The first of these, the name and logo, were acquired by a partnership that planned to exploit the Burke's reputation through licensing the use of the name to other enterprises. The most public and controversial result of this has been the appearance of the "family histories" produced by Halbert's Family Heritage in the form of, for example, The Burke's Peerage World Book of Dafts. These contain some introductory pages of general history, a few pages of heraldry that are superficial, pretentious and inaccurate, and a very large number of pages of names and addresses extracted from telephone directories. This reappearance of the once revered name of "Burke's Peerage" inflamed the tempers of many family historians, and a flood of e-mail complaints were uploaded onto bulletin boards. The BBC Watchdog television programme also publicised the anger the Halbert's operation has aroused. An example of its marketing style, in a letter sent to a man, was quoted in The Daily Telegraph as follows:
The second item left to posterity was the copyright of the last edition (1970) of the book Burke's Peerage Baronetage & Knightage. This had been sold some years earlier and had subsequently become the property of a Swiss resident. The two items, the name and the book, are thus owned by two entirely separate operations, a situation which tends to confuse public and news editors alike, but whereas the owner of the copyright of the 1970 edition can claim to be in succession to the founders of the institution that Burke's Peerage eventually became, the owners of the name and logo are just that, the owners of a name and logo.
LATE NEWS ~ A NEW Burke's Peerage & Baronetage (106th edition) has just been published (Summer 1999) by Burke's Peerage (Genealogical Books) Ltd, the company of the Swiss resident mentioned above. It has been reviewed in the Baronage magazine (Volume IV no. 3).
The major difference between the current Debrett's Peerage and Burke's Peerage (as it used to be published) is that Debrett's prints a comparatively short history of the family of each title holder, whereas Burke's dug deeply into the (sometimes imaginary) origins. But Debrett's has not always been immune to temptation, as the following extract from the 1823 edition testifies:
To late twentieth-century eyes the scene described almost beggars belief. One could assume that a prudent king, such as was William of Orange, noting the eccentric of a tall stature (handsome in his person or not) abandoning his to and fro to march towards him, would have suddenly remembered a pressing engagement elsewhere and made a dignified retreat.
Debrett's entry for Lord Kingsale did not overawe Sir Bernard Burke: it merely challenged him. The following tale was not expunged from Burke's Peerage until 1909:
The arms attributed to John de Courcy
Well, battles between champions did occur in those days, and descriptions of them inspired the great gestes of the troubadours, but in the retelling the details of the encounters were exaggerated, then merged into old legends, and finally integrated into the achievements of recent or contemporary heroes. There are several versions of John de Courcy's triumph. In some his incarceration had left him without food and clothing, so that he would not fight until he had been clothed and fed. His appetite was "voracious" and (as one version relates) . . . . . .
After this it seems unkind to add further comment. However, John de Courcy was never made Earl of Ulster, nor was he ever imprisoned in the Tower; King Philip II Augustus of France never visited England, and at this period there was no King of Spain; John de Courcy had no legitimate children, nor any line of succession that is known; and everyone granted licence to remain covered in the king's presence held it for life only, keeping "his bonet on his hed" only on the grounds of "certain diseases and infirmities in his hed."
The Classic Burberry
At the centre of the Haymarket, as inseparable from the Englishman as the kilt from the Highlander, as potent a symbol of quality now as when the "peerage people" first adopted it, the name of Burberry is still the hallmark of practicality and utility. This advertisement, proclaiming it to be "The World's Best Weatherproof" and "One of the World's Best Overcoats" (only one of the best), was used in the late 'twenties when it was sufficient to note that there were establishments also in Paris, New York and Buenos Aires, and telephone numbers were deemed unnecessary. The four numbered paragraphs are headed with simple absolute truths: 1. The Burberry is proof against the wet. 2. The Burberry is warm on cold days. 3. The Burberry is cool on hot days. 4. A comfort in all weathers. (So very different from today's copywriters!)
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