An Anthology of Anachronistic Aristocratic Anecdotes

I ~ Ancestor Hunting
II ~ Fantasie
III ~ Debrett's and Burke's
IV ~ Privilege and Precedence
V ~ Seers and Witchcraft
VI ~ Ancestor Worship


When the great manuscript forgers and pedigree mongers of bygone years found their imaginations failing, and a "very ancient and worshipful family" that had been "settled in the county time out of mind, and formed many high alliances" sought still greater fame, then its origins were claimed to have been lost in the "Mists of Antiquity"..... the title of this online anthology.

As the research undertaken for the publication of Moncreiffe's Family Records disinterred the old tales academics enjoy so much, and as the imaginative excesses immortalised in so many family histories rekindled the laughter, the first ideas for a collection of howlers emerged, to be published both as an illustrated book and, after redesign and substantial editing to meet the requirements of computer screens, online. Subsequently, however, it was recognised that zealous concentration on the hilarious would be unfair to those honest historians whose work has given so much to the understanding of our past, whose names could be tarnished by an unbalanced review and yet are no longer here to defend their work. Accordingly, the selection has been widened to include examples of profound scholarship leavened by great wit, and paradigms of the grace and elegance of the writers enjoyed in earlier years.

There are some truly memorable lines. The vision conjured of Walter, the High Steward, in the Abbey church at Paisley, "in the silence of the centuries" singing "his Te Deum for the yet ungathered greatness of his race" can leave few family historians unmoved, whether they have Stewart blood or not; the unconscious yet delightful pun of the scribe who, writing of the defection of a champion who believed his opponent a cannibal, wrote of the fear that he would be devoured "at the last Course"; and, from our own time, the immortal "J.S. of Nerdley" who penned: "I am an ordinary English baronet . . . . . . . " in purple ink with the golden quill of Peter Simple of The Daily Telegraph.

There are some intriguing ironies: the most famous of the untruthful justifications for the right to wear a hat in the presence of the sovereign is that of de Courcy, whose motto is Veritas omnia vincit, and the arrogance implicit in the claim has been on at least one occasion put down neatly by a sharp comment, as in "our peers need not fear him assuming his privilege of being covered, for, till the King gives him a pension, he cannot buy the offensive Hat."

And then there are the neat evocations of bygone days: Buthlaw's depiction of the peerage being "pruned by decapitation"; and Barron's sarcastic reference to "the well-known amiability that was characteristic of Henry VIII" leading the King to ride hatless through the Hertfordshire countryside, accompanied by a shoeless Queen.

The illustrations are for the greater part heraldic, chosen as memorials to the ubiquitous rôle the chromatic glories of armory played in the lives of our ancestors, and to symbolise, through the coincident emergence of heraldic traditions at the dawn of authentically documented mediaeval history, the first zephyrs dispersing the mists of antiquity.

Unusually for an anthology, a small portfolio of advertisements has been included. The "Peerage" publishers of the past (Burke's, Lodge, Debrett's, Dod, Collins, Stockdale's, Ridgway's, Sharpe's, Whitaker's) found that their operations could survive only with the support of advertisers, and from this emerged the concept of the "peerage people" ~ those traditionally supplied with goods and services by a small exclusive group similar in standing to those who held the Royal Warrants (as many in the group did). A few of their traditional advertisements have been chosen to illustrate the flavour of those days in the first half of this century when discriminating taste was understood to be the prerogative of one social class. Many of those suppliers are still held to be the best in their field, and some have become a byword for excellence. One advertisement is allocated to each chapter, and viewers are invited to compare the impact of their primitive design and typography with that of the sophisticated techniques, supported by high technology, employed today. More information about the old products and their modern successors may be obtained by clicking the highlighted captions.

There is a postscript to this introduction:

The tradition of blatant mendacity in the exploitation of family historians has been continued into the last decade of the 20th century by "bucket shop" heraldry and sham genealogists. The scams reported regularly on Internet discussion groups and bulletin boards may represent perhaps only a small proportion of this lucrative and dishonest trade, but, no matter how large it is, it can be fought by exposure. Comments on a few of the more outrageous offences will be included in the magazine and may appear also on future pages of Mists of Antiquity.


From 1896:-
Mappin & Webb's Consistency

The concept of Peerage as we understand it today is probably owed more to Charlemagne than to any other single person. His peers could be distinguished as men of great power enjoying a special relationship with the Emperor in the government of his dominions from around the end of the 8th Century. The Peerage in England and Scotland evolved in different ways, but had developed into what is recognisably similar to the British Peerage today by the 15th Century.

The "Peerages" (which is to say the "peerage directories") of Burke's and Debrett's shared this reputation of having been around a long time. Their age as institutions lent them an authority, reinforced by their apparent continuity, that other commentators envied. Advertisers recognised the value of "Peerage Endorsement" as quickly as they identified the readership of the directories with the customers they wished to reach.

Mappin & Webb's wares were designed for the rich and discriminating, for those who travelled comfortably (for which more investment was required then), and for those who entertained graciously (in town or in the country). During the hundred years since this 1896 advertisement appeared, their wider market, swollen by the new wealth and aspirations nurtured in this century, has been supported by a service of traditional quality.

Chapter I ~ Ancestor Hunting

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