Burke’s Peerage is foremost a genealogical publisher, which first published books authored and edited by John Burke in London in 1826, recording the genealogy and heraldry of the peerage, baronetage, knightage and landed gentry of the United Kingdom, the historical families of Ireland as well as those of the Commonwealth of Nations, the Imperial, royal and mediatised families of Europe and Latin America, the presidential and distinguished families of the United States, the ruling families of Africa and the Middle East and other prominent families worldwide. Burke’s Peerage has expanded to provide broader genealogical publications (including online) maintaining its premium brand name.
Burke’s Peerage has provided authoritative genealogical records of historical families for more than 191 years. Its records were originally compiled by members of the Burke family and added to by others to build a unique collection of books of genealogical and heraldic interest.
Burke’s Peerage was established in 1826 by John Burke (1786–1848), who pioneered the narrative style which has become the trademark of Burke’s Peerage publications and a recognised model for written genealogies worldwide. He was also the progenitor of a dynasty of genealogists and heralds. His son Sir John Bernard Burke (1814–92) was Ulster King of Arms (1853–92) and his grandson, Sir Henry Farnham Burke (1859–1930), was Garter Principal King of Arms (1919–30). After his death, ownership passed through a variety of people, including Burke’s Peerage to Sir Henry Mallaby-Deeley, 1st Baronet (1863–1937) and Burke’s Landed Gentry to Arthur Maundy Gregory (1877–1941). The titles and copyright were all reunited by Shaw’s Reference Series, later incorporated in Mercury House Publications, which sold those in 1973 to the Holdway Group. The new board of directors included Jeremy Norman (chairman 1974–83), Patrick Anson, 5th Earl of Lichfield (1939–2005) and John Philip Brooke-Little (Norroy and Ulster King of Arms, 1927–2006). Entirely new volumes on royal families, country houses of the British Isles and Irish genealogy were published under the Burke’s Peerage name.
Since 1826, there have been many editions of the periodical, each offering different perspectives on genealogy and history, particularly British. The holders of foreign titles became, over time, a specialized area for the publication's editors. It eventually became the practice for the Crown, on the advice of the Home Secretary, to grant licences for the use of foreign titles by those domiciled in the UK. In 1930 King George V decided that no more licences for the use of foreign titles in the UK should be granted. In 1932 a Royal Warrant was issued revoking all licences then in force, with the exception of those issued for the life of the holder and his heir apparent.
At that time there were 31 dignities which were allowed under the exception clause. Those with a still current Royal Imprimatur, as well as the Maltese and the solitary Canadian De Longueuil Barony, were listed in the 1939 edition of Burke's Peerage: Arundel (cf Arundel of Wardour), Aubigny, Battenberg, Bentinck, D'Arcy, De Bury, De Bush, Cape St Vincent, Cassilhas, Castelthomond, Chatellerault, Ciudad, Rodrigo, Riccardi-Cubitt, Diar-El-Bniet, Bucana & Castel, Cicciano, Dimsdale, Fremantle, Gandolfi, De Hochepied, De Kusel, De Longueuil, De Losada, Mackay, D'Ophemert, Magawly, Cerati de Calry, Maranham, Marochetti, Metaxa, Mendelheim, Moore, Moral, Profumo, De La Pasture, De La Poer, De La Tremoille, De Robeck, De Rutzen, De Salis, De Stackpoole, Della Taflia, Teck (Athlone and Cambridge), De Teissier, De Vallado, De Vismes, Von Schunk and Waterloo. Although later editions of Burke's Peerage were concerned with titles only of British origin, the publication's official website maintains records of all British and European nobility.
In 1984, Burke’s Peerage decided to separate and sell the copyright: Burke’s Peerage was acquired by Frederik Jan Gustav Floris, Baron van Pallandt (1934–94) whilst Burke’s Landed Gentry and other titles were sold elsewhere. Burke’s Peerage was then bought by Joseph Goldberg, who reprinted the immediate previous edition. In 1989, ownership was acquired by Brian Morris, who published the 106th edition in 1999, which comprised an updating and revision of the 105th edition (1970). The company, which owned the Burke’s name, Burke’s Landed Gentry and other titles, formed in 1984, had Lady Elizabeth Anson, Merlin Hay, 24th Earl of Erroll and Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk (1919–85) as directors. Burke’s Peerage Partnership was formed out of receivership in 1987 by those associated with the former company, including Harold Brooks-Baker (1933–2005) who was publishing director from 1984 until his death in 2005. In the 1990s, they briefly licensed the use of the Burke’s name to Halbert’s, an American publishing company which sold books under the name "The World Book of Surnames", which otherwise had no connection with the Burke’s Peerage publishing house.
In 2000, the Wills family licensed the right to publish Burke’s Landed Gentry. After a gap of over 30 years, in 2001, a 19th edition of Burke’s Landed Gentry was published. In 2002 they bought the rights to Burke’s Peerage from Morris Genealogical Books, reuniting both titles under one publisher, Burke’s Peerage and Gentry (UK) Limited, for the first time in several years. They produced a fully updated Burke's Peerage 107th edition which was published in 2003. In 2013 they sold the reunited Burke's Peerage, with all its rights, assets, titles and copyright thereby assigned to a newly formed international company, Burke’s Peerage Limited, whose UK affiliate is Burke’s Peerage (1826) Limited (Company No. 08539019).
Burke's Peerage editors include John Burke (1786–1848), Sir John Bernard Burke (1814–92), Ashworth Peter Burke (1864–1919), Sir Henry Farnham Burke (1859–1930) of Burke's Peerage; Arthur Charles Fox-Davies (1871–1928) of Burke’s Landed Gentry of Ireland 1912 and Burke’s Landed Gentry 1914; A. Winton Thorpe of Burke’s Peerage and Burke’s Landed Gentry 1921; Alfred Trego Butler, Windsor Herald (1880–1946) of Burke's Peerage 1923–34 and Burke's Landed Gentry 1925; Miss E. M. Swinhoe of Burke’s Peerage 1927–37; Mr J. Smallshaw 1938–40 (although his name is not mentioned in those editions); Charles Harry Clinton Pirie-Gordon of Buthlaw (1883–1969) of Burke’s Landed Gentry 1930–36; John Seymour de Spon, Baron de Spon (1913–98) of Burke’s Peerage 1941–46; Leslie Gilbert Pine (1907–87) of Burke’s Peerage 1946–60; Kenneth Peter Townend (1921–2001) of Burke’s Peerage 1960–71; Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd (1946–2007) was Assistant Editor 1968–71, Editor 1971 and Editorial Director 1972–83; and Charles Gordon Mosley (1948–2013) of Burke’s Peerage 1989–2004.
Burke’s Peerage Foundation was established on 5 January 2014, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir John Bernard Burke, to encourage people to take a greater interest in genealogy. Burke's Peerage Foundation was registered as a UK charity (No.1155658) on 5 February 2014 with the object of advancing the education of the public about genealogy and personal heritage.
Burke’s Peerage continues to make frequent appearances in modern culture, with examples including popular television series as diverse as Downton Abbey, by Julian, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford; also: Magnum PI, Agatha Christie's Poirot and Ian Fleming's James Bond.
Oscar Wilde famously penned in A Woman of No Importance: "You should study the Peerage, Gerald. It is the one book a young man about town should know thoroughly, and it is the best thing in fiction the English have ever done!" ("said Lord Illingworth to his son Gerald Arbuthnot").
Foreign titles that were acknowledged formally are included in the 1939 edition of Burke's Peerage