Burke's Landed Gentry
Burke's Landed Gentry (original title "Burke's Commoners") is the result of nearly two centuries of intense work by the Burke family, and others since, in building a collection of books of genealogical and heraldic interest, which has evolved with Burke's Peerage, Baronetage & Knightage. Burke's Landed Gentry, is a detailed listing of families which once held, or continue to hold, large estates of land and thus, historically at least, often wielded at some time a certain influence and power in county administration, for example occupying positions such as High Sheriff, JP, DL and frequently MP for their county.
Whilst in the continuing era of a hereditary House of Lords it is important to maintain reliable public records of the succession to peerages, as such heirs become parliamentary legislators for the population as a whole, no such argument exists for keeping records of the descent of families once holding landed estates, the function performed by Burke's Landed Gentry. Clearly certain influential families existed which did not qualify for inclusion in a record of the peerage, and whilst baronets have no constitutional function and are not a part of the peerage, they are included in Burke's and Debrett's peerage books being hereditary honours. The English gentry has historically played a vital role in the administration of the counties in a largely un-centralised system of national government. From the mediaeval era, the Knights of the Shire, which later became known as Members of Parliament, generally came from landed families within each county, and fulfilled the role on an almost rotational basis from session to session, not as a career but as an occasional duty expected of their status. It was the feudal past of English society which established the social status of a person as dependent on not only the extent of his landholding but also on the status of his overlord, those holding directly from the king, the tenants-in-chief, holding a special exalted status. The tenants-in-chief were the monarch's most reliable administrators in the shires because they owed the king a personal alliegance as a feudal tenant of one of his royal estates. They derived their status from the particular estate of land they held, and thus the ownership and descent of the estate was of importance. In the 21st century there appears little need or public interest in knowing about the progeny of a successful self-made businessman who has purchased a country estate which he will use for his leisure and for entertaining. It is no longer likely he will take part in the administration of the county in which it is situated, as such posts now go frequently to business people in towns. After the introduction of inheritance taxes in the 20th century, the likelihood of a large landed estate being passed down further than one or two generations is small, and the days of the landed gentry are increasingly numbered. More ancient manor houses become either the property of the National Trust, handed over by families whose finances have become exhausted, or become country house hotels or corporate retreats or training centres. A few ancient gentry families survive on reduced means on the ancestral estate, for example the Fulford family of Great Fulford, near Dunsford in Devon, which featured on the 2012 TV series "Country House Rescue", which Burke's Landed Gentry states to have occupied their current home since the reign of King Richard I. The family no longer plays any role in local administration. The Return of Owners of Land, 1873 was the second attempt since the Domesday Book at the identification of the largest landowners in every county of England, and many such holders were not peers or baronets. For example, the Rashleigh family of Menabilly was identified as the largest landowner in Cornwall in 1873, and exercised considerable local influence, power and patronage. The history of such a family is usefully given in Burke's Landed Gentry.
It was first published in 1826, as developed by Sir John Bernard Burke. Burke's Landed Gentry is widely used by historians and genealogical researchers, eg Ancestry.com. It overlaps frequently with peerage books, as frequently peers arose from gentry families, perhaps as exceptionally talented younger sons who came to national prominence and were required as advisers to the King's government in the House of Lords, or simply needed royal reward for services rendered. The elder line of the family however continued to prosper as gentry on the ancestral estate, the Rashleighs being a case in point where a cadet branch were also created baronets.
However, the historical record tends to be a blend of fact and mythology interwoven, both wittingly or unwittingly, over centuries by word of mouth. Of Burke's Peerage, Oscar Wilde once said, "it is the best thing the English have done in fiction." Nevertheless, Burke's Landed Gentry has been valuable for research among notable families.
Part of "Burke's" early success lay in the literary writing style adopted by John Burke, the title's founder, who made the material, based on work by many earlier authorities, more readable than ever before and a style maintained by his successors. John's son, Bernard Burke, creator of the "Landed Gentry" (book series), was also a talented writer. Bernard had a flair for flowery phraseology which appealed to some on the "Gothick phantasy" side of the Victorian character. Bernard Burke was a prodigiously hard worker whose volume of output allowed little time for the meticulous checking of modern genealogy. Bernard's typical account of the antiquity of any family was that an ancestor "came in with the Conqueror".
In English history, landed gentry were the landowners, not only those with small estates, who had no titles apart from knighthoods and baronetcies. Baronets are something of an exception, since they had hereditary titles but, not being members of the Peerage, were also considered of the gentry or lesser aristocracy. The landed gentry played an important role in the English Civil War of the seventeenth century. The term is still occasionally employed by the publishers of Burke's Landed Gentry, though they explain that their continued use of that term is elastic and stems, in part, from the adoption of that short title for a series first entitled "Burke's Commoners" (as opposed to Burke's Peerage and Baronetage).
- Burke's Landed Gentry (genealogy book), John Burke family et al., 1826, 1898, United Kingdom.