Chapter Three: Debrett's and Burke's


Debrett's Peerage

Burke's Peerage


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:

Dear Ms Daft,

I have exciting news for you and fellow Dafts. The Burke's Peerage World Book of Dafts, and you, Ms Daft, are listed in it.

(The recipient wrote back:

Dear Mr Brooks-Baker,

I am compiling the Daft Book of Berks, and you are in it. Want a copy? )

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).

Debrett's Peerage and Baronetage

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:

de Courcy, Lord Kingsale, Baron Courcy of Courcy

. . . . . . . . from whom descended Almericus, 23d lord, who was outlawed in 1691; but it was soon after reversed, and, on 25 Oct 1692, he took his seat in the house of peers, as he did again 20 May 1710. Being very handsome in his person, and of a tall stature, his lordship one day attended king William's court, and being admitted into the presence-chamber, asserted the privilege of being covered before his majesty, by walking to and fro with his hat on his head. The king observing him, sent one of his attendants to inquire the reason of his appearance before him with his head covered; to whom he replied, he knew very well in whose presence he stood, and the reason why he wore his hat that day was, because he stood before the king of England. This answer being told the king, and his lordship approaching nearer the throne, was required by his majesty to explain himself, which he did to this effect: "May it please your majesty, my name is Courcy, and I am Lord of Kingsale in your kingdom of Ireland: the reason of my appearing covered in your majesty's presence is, to assert the ancient privilege of my family, granted to sir John de Courcy, earl of Ulster, and his heirs, by John, king of England, for him and his successors for ever." The king replied, he remembered he had such a nobleman, and believed the privilege he asserted to be his right, and giving him his hand to kiss, his lordship paid his obeisance, and remained covered. He died 9 Feb 1719, without issue.

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.

Burke's Peerage and Baronetage

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:

de Courcy, The Baron Kingsale, Baron Courcy of Courcy

Sir John Courcy, having distinguished himself in the wars of Henry II in England and Gascony, was sent into Ireland, in the year 1177, as an assistant to William fitzAdelm, in the government of that kingdom. Sir John having appealed to some of the veteran soldiery to accompany him, invaded the province of Ulster with twenty-two knights, fifty esquires, and about three hundred foot soldiers, and after many hardfought battles, succeeded in attaching that quarter of the kingdom to the English monarchy, for which important service he was created, in 1181 (being the first Englishman dignified with an Irish title of honour), Earl of Ulster. His lordship continued in high favour during the remainder of the reign of his royal master; but upon the accession of King John, his splendour and rank having excited the envy of Hugh de Lacie, appointed governor of Ireland by that monarch, the Earl of Ulster was treacherously seized while performing penance, unarmed and barefooted, in the churchyard of Downpatrick, on Good Friday, anno 1203, and sent over to England, where the king condemned him to perpetual imprisonment in the Tower, and granted to Lacie all the earl's possessions in Ireland.

After de Courcy had been in confinement about a year, a dispute happening to arise between King John and Philip Augustus of France concerning the Duchy of Normandy, the decision of which being referred to single combat, King John, more hasty than advised, appointed the day, against which the King of France provided his champion; but the King of England, less fortunate, could find no one of his subjects willing to take up the gauntlet, until his captive in the Tower, the stout Earl of Ulster, was prevailed upon to accept the challenge. But when everything was prepared for the contest, and the champions had entered the lists, in presence of the Kings of England, France and Spain, the opponent of the earl, seized with a sudden panic, put spurs to his horse, and fled the arena; whereupon the victory was adjudged by acclamation to the champion of England.

The French king being informed, however, of the earl's powerful strength, and wishing to witness some exhibition of it, de Courcy, at the desire of King John, cleft a massive helmet in twain at a single blow. The king was so well satisfied with this signal performance, that he not only restored the earl to his estates and effects, but desired him to ask anything within his gift, and it should be granted. To which the earl replied, that having estates and titles enough, he desired that his successors might have the privilege (their first obeisance having been paid) to remain covered in the presence of the sovereign, and all future Kings of England; which request was immediately conceded. This heroic warrior and able statesman died in France, about the year 1219.

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) . . . . . .

. . . . . . the Mounsieur hearing how much he had eat and drunk, and guessing his courage by his stomach, took him for a Cannibal, who would devour him at the last Course; and so declined the Combat.

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."


From an early peerage directory:-

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!)

Chapter IV ~ Privilege and Precedence

Mists of Antiquity: Introduction

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