Errors to Beware in the 1970 Burke's Peerage

The Founder of Burke's Peerage and his Company

The Burkes were a family of historians, genealogists and heralds who between 1826 and 1930 assembled a popular series of genealogical directories which can still be found on the shelves of many public libraries. The founder was John Burke, but his son Bernard, who endowed the books with institutional status, quickly overshadowed him. Sir Bernard had a long and scholastically contentious reign over their development. He loved romance and, although perhaps not actually a charlatan, was far too easily satisfied with palpable falsehood. He was a prolific and hasty writer in a field which demands disciplined scientific objectivity, but he flourished during a period in which genealogical interests became almost inseparable from snobbery, and he bequeathed some deplorable examples to his successors. He appeared to have no scruples in pandering to the popular hunger for fabulous mediaeval romanticism, and in the egregious tradition of the worst Tudor heralds many mendacious inventions were endorsed in his books. (He, too, was a herald at the College of Arms in London.)

A few great scholars, among whom Round, Barron and Freeman were foremost, exposed the myths in a series of brilliant and witty essays, and a little later the scholastic reputation of Burke's was, albeit only partly, slowly rebuilt under the tutelage of Sir Bernard's son, Sir Henry Farnham Burke, Garter Principal King of Arms. But among historians the reputation of the Burke's books as repositories of fairy tales lingered for many years, and it was not until the nineteen-thirties that the later editors could begin their rehabilitation, a process which continued after the war and, as the errors described below indicate, was unfinished when the publishing company which still carried the name of Burke's Peerage went into liquidation. (The companies exploiting the "Burke's Peerage" name today do so under a licence from three partners who bought the rights to the name from the liquidator, and although some of the advertisements promoting their products imply a continued corporate existence from 1826, the boast is not supported by the facts.)

The Errors to Recognise

In all directories some errors will remain undetected, but some are more easily recognised than others, some more easily forgiven than others. A date with two digits absurdly transposed will prompt a smile and be corrected by the reader, but the misnumbering of a peerage title which, when successive holders have the same Christian name, leads to erroneous cross-references and a false trail across many families and down many generations, and then onto an expensively illuminated armorial chart, merits severe criticism.

The Burke's Peerage directory of 1970 includes many serious errors, some of which may be usefully illustrated with a few examples taken from the pages on Abercorn, Airlie and Lovat. This essay is intended primarily to draw the attention of new genealogists to the common misunderstandings from which many of them arose, and which they now perpetuate, those concerning feudal titles. In Burke's Peerage these confuse researchers especially when they seek cross-references between correctly and incorrectly numbered holders of feudal and peerage titles.


In the entry of Lord Claud Hamilton he is given the title of 1st Baron Paisley, and this is explained as being granted with the barony of Paisley on 29 July 1587. There is no rank of "Baron" in the Scottish Peerage; the equivalent to a Baron of the English Peerage is in Scotland a Lord of Parliament.

There was a feudal barony of Paisley, but that was incorporated into the Lordship of Paisley which was returned to Lord Claud in 1585 (as it had been returned before in 1573 with the revocation of his previous forfeiture), and was confirmed in the charter of 29 July 1587. (Prior to the turbulence of the religious wars, as the Commendator of Paisley, or as the lay Abbot of Paisley, he had been addressed as the Lord of Paisley, as had been his predecessor, his uncle, whose own predecessors in the Abbey had held Paisley as a Lordship - that is as a unification of a barony with one or more baronies or with other substantial landholdings.) There was also the separate barony of the Burgh of Paisley that, together with the Regality of the Burgh of Paisley, was united with the Lordship of Paisley in 1587 and then confirmed by the charter of 22 March 1591/2 which granted to Lord Claud Hamilton, Lord of Paisley, the title and honours of a free baron and Lord of Parliament. He then became Lord Paisley, an hereditary peerage title, in addition to being Lord of Paisley, his feudal title.

Of course, there is argument about whether he became a peer as Lord Paisley at the time of the earlier charter of 1587 or with the later charter of 1591/2. G.E. Cokayne in The Complete Peerage favoured the former date, as today do so many commentators on that period, but George Crawfurd in his 1710 History of the Shire of Renfrew preferred the latter date, as did William Semple in his 1782 revision of George Crawfurd's work, and, on balance, they are probably correct. The major difficulty for modern researchers is that the importance of the peerage dignity was not viewed in 16th century Scotland with quite the same regard as is common today, and the preparation and composition then of the associated documentation was not as precise as it would be today.

Lord Claud, as a younger son of a Duke (the Duke of Chatellerault, a French dukedom), took precedence of a Viscount, and sat in the Scots Parliament as Lord of Paisley both before and after his peerage title of Lord Paisley was bestowed on him. The texts of the two charters of 1587 and 1591 are similar, but the second specifically grants the dignity of a Lord of Parliament to Lord Claud and his heirs, whereas the first refers only to Lord Claud having the titles and honours of a lord of parliament in virtue of his possession of the Lordship of Paisley, and his heirs were to receive only the baronies and lands.

Lord Claud's eldest son was created Lord Abercorn in 1603, and then in 1606, when he was promoted Earl of Abercorn, he was given the additional title of Lord Paisley, Hamilton, Mountcastell and Kilpatrick. The Burke's Peerage of 1970 wrongly shows this to be "Baron of Paisley, Hamilton, Mountcastell and Kilpatrick" and omits this title in the list of creations at the foot of the article.


Although it is encouraging to note that for Ogilvy of Airlie the 1970 edition uses the title of Lord in the main body of the entry, the list of titles at the foot of the article allocates the abbreviation of B for Baron with the date of the 1491 creation. Of course, the chiefs of the name, the Ogilvies of that Ilk, and later the Ogilvies of Auchterhouse and of Lintrathen, from whom the first Lord Ogilvy of Airlie descended, were all barons long before 1491 and sat in parliament as barons. James, 4th Lord Ogilvy of Airlie, is shown to have married Helen, daughter of "Henry, 1st Lord Sinclair" - but this is probably a repetition of Cokayne's early mistake which was later corrected in the Sinclair entry of the second edition. Burke's Peerage does correctly use "Henry, 3rd Lord Sinclair" in the Sinclair entry, but describes his wife Margaret as the daughter of the 1st Earl of Bothwell, whereas she was the daughter of the Master of Hailes, father of the 1st Earl, and was thus the sister, not the daughter, of the 1st Earl.

Another aspect that should be noted is the absence of readily accessible data readers would find useful, and could expect to be included if they knew of it, and which thus appears to readers to be probably unobtainable. Again using the early pages of the 1970 edition, the Aberdeen article omits Jean, the sister of Sir John Gordon of Haddo, 1st Bt, who married Sir John Forbes of Waterton, a cadet of the Forbes of Tolquhoun, an interesting and well-documented Aberdeenshire family; and in the Atholl article, Margaret, daughter of the 1st Earl of Tullibardine is omitted, despite her blood, perpetuated by the children of her husband, Sir James Haldane, 10th of Gleneagles, spreading out into so many families whose histories are in print. These uterine links are of great importance to modern genealogists, substantial numbers of whom are themselves women, for with the easy availability of personal computers they are not so readily dropped in the apparent interests of simplicity as they were when all connections were restricted to what could fit onto a piece of graph paper.


The article on the Frasers of Lovat offers perhaps the most dire warning for family genealogists. It is a jumble throughout. It starts with the chief wrongly described as the 17th Baron Lovat, whereas he was the 15th Lord Fraser of Lovat in the Peerage of Scotland and only the 3rd Baron Lovat in the Peerage of the United Kingdom (a separate dignity created in 1837). In the main body of the article, the grandfather of the 1st Lord Fraser of Lovat is noted as being counted by some as the 1st Lord of Lovat, but here there is confusion between the peerage title and the feudal title (the former is a personal dignity, the latter is territorial) - and of course, seemingly ever ready to make a real muddle for the reader, the grandfather was actually the 4th Fraser Lord of Lovat, not the 1st (the lands probably acquired with marriage to the ultimate heiress of Sir David Graham, feudal Lord of Lovat).

The article continues with the correct numbering, and notes that the 1st Lord Lovat may have been designated as Lord Fraser of Lovat (correctly, of course, but wrongly inserting a comma after Fraser, a common and confusing error in Burke's directories), yet fails to mention that in the 1480/1 charter that styles him Hugh, Lord Fraser of Lovat, he is also designated Baron of Kinnell (a feudal title, of course, spelt Kinneil today), a fact of historical interest which really ought not to be omitted in a genealogical directory. The numbering continues correctly down to the 11th Lord Lovat, famously attainted and executed (1747). This attainder was reversed in 1857 in favour of a distant cousin who had earlier been created Baron Lovat in the Peerage of the United Kingdom. The new Baron is correctly numbered, when first mentioned, as the 12th Lord Lovat, but when his name reappears for his full entry, he has suddenly become the 14th Baron. This is the start of the sequence which ends with the 15th Lord described as the 17th Baron, a mistake whose origins lie in the above-mentioned note about the 1st Lord's grandfather being counted by some to have been the first Lord of Lovat, but it is further confused because if the first Lord's grandfather had indeed been the first Lord Lovat (the peerage title), he would, but for the attainder of 1747, have been the 17th Lord, not the 15th

Yes, it is all rather confusing, but it emphasises the difficulties in cross-referencing titles in the Burke's directories, difficulties that lead readers inevitably to mistaken identifications and to relationships that never existed. Conscientious researchers must be cautious. Burke's Peerage is no more authoritative on ancestral details than Burke's General Armory is on the legitimacy of coats of arms.

Coats of Arms

Heraldry is usually much easier to check than are the more complex details of marriage connections in the middle ages, but even here Burke's Peerage may not be considered as an authority. The illustrations of arms at the head of the articles do not always match the blazon given at the foot. Sometimes both the illustration and the blazon are wrong. For example, on the shield of the Edmonstone baronets appear the pronominal arms of Seton, for the Edmonstone's red ring with its blue centre (annulet gules stoned azure ) is missing. (The similarity is probably owed to the 12th century Edmonstones of that Ilk and their cadets, the Edmonstones of Duntreath, being descended of the Setons.)

In Summary

The early issues of the Burke's Peerage directories contained a fairly large number of inexcusable myths. Later editors cleared most of them out, but the mammoth task of correcting all the careless errors, and compensating for the misunderstandings about the Peerage of Scotland and feudal titles, was never completed. Accordingly, although the later directories can be useful for many families, and can offer helpful clues for the research on many more, their data must be cross-checked with care.

The 1999 edition of Burke's Peerage & Baronetage is reviewed in BookPage.

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