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Sir William Betham, ‘great Irish genealogist’

The adjective ‘great’ is not one frequently applied to genealogists, but a notable exception is Sir William Betham (1779–1853), often described as a ‘great Irish genealogist’.  Sir William was not however Irish by birth, and probably would not have described himself as a genealogist: his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography defines him as an antiquary and his abiding interest was in ancient Irish history.

Arms of the Ulster King of Arms

Arms of the Ulster King of Arms

Sir William inherited his antiquarian interests from his father, William Betham senior (1749–1839), a clergyman and schoolmaster from Westmorland.  After his marriage in 1775 to Mary Planque, a widow of Suffolk, Betham settled in that county and had fifteen children.   He served as headmaster at Stonham Aspal, Suffolk, for nearly half a century; by 1829, by which time he was 80 years old, the church commissioners declared that the school had declined from its earlier ‘considerable repute’.  Betham nevertheless remained in post until 1833 when he became Rector of Stoke Lacy in Herefordshire.

Betham senior published two genealogical works, neither of which was greeted with much acclaim: Genealogical Tables of the Sovereigns of the World came out in 1795 and a Baronetage followed, in five volumes, from 1801 to 1805.  The title page of the first volume quotes the 18th century orientalist John Richardson:

It is hardly necessary to observe, that Genealogy is so intimately connected with Historical Knowledge, that it is impossible to arrive at any proficiency in the one, without being minutely versed in the other.

True to this observation, Betham senior was also a local historian; like many such projects, his intended county history never came to full fruition, but a single volume of a History of Suffolk was published in 1814, based on his findings, and his papers now form part of the Fitch collection in the Suffolk Record Office.

William Betham junior’s education was presumably provided by his father; neither appears to have  attended university.  His connection with Ireland was accidental; as a young man in 1805, he visited the Record Tower at Dublin Castle (then the repository of state records) to search for some documents for a law case on which he was employed.  The disarray in which these records were kept so struck him that he asked to be appointed deputy keeper of the records.  This application was successful, and Betham moved to Dublin and set about restoring order to archival chaos, becoming also deputy Ulster King of Arms.  A knighthood followed in 1812 and eventually, in 1820, Sir William Betham was appointed Ulster King of Arms, a post he held until his death (he was succeeded by another publisher-antiquarian, Sir John Bernard Burke).

In Dublin Betham acquired a passion for ancient Irish manuscripts and history, and also a large collection of early Irish manuscripts, which he sold to the Irish Academy at the end of his life.  He published his first slim volume, Irish Antiquarian Researches, in 1827, shortly after his admission to the Royal Irish Academy.   Further publications on English and Irish history followed, and at the end of his life Betham acquired an interest in Etruscan literature and language and its relevance to ancient Irish.  In the introduction to Irish Antiquarian Researches Betham wrote:

In the course of those investigations and arrangements, which my official duties have from time to time rendered necessary, I could not fail to observe, how little is known of the true history of Ireland. Notwithstanding the irreparable losses, by fire and other destructive casualties, of many ancient, valuable, and important documents, there still remain many consecutive series of rolls and other evidences sufficient to preserve the chain of history unbroken…

Ashfield_Gales_Betham_Pedigree

Sketch pedigree from one of Betham’s notebooks (1800)

Betham was not to know of the still greater ‘irreparable losses’ which were to come, when the Public Record Office was set alight in 1922 and so many documents  –  wills, parish registers and early census returns  –  were lost for ever.  He was thus unaware that the greatest of his legacies to the historian and genealogist would be, not his published works, but his private notebooks, for while supervising the indexing of the Prerogative Wills[1]  in his keeping, he had made genealogical abstracts of them (up to 1800 for wills, up to 1802 for administrations), from which he created sketch pedigrees which contain later additions and amendments.  The notebooks ran to 34 folio volumes and were accompanied by a meticulous ‘index of alliances and aliases’.  These abstracts, known as Betham’s Abstracts,  are now in the National Archives, Dublin and go some way to mitigating the enormous loss of the original wills and administrations.

Betham died in his adopted city of Dublin in 1853 and was buried at Monkstown, County Dublin.

J. T. Gilbert, ‘Betham, Sir William (1779–1853)’, rev. Michael Erben, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008.

J. T. Gilbert, ‘Betham, William (1749–1839)’, rev. Colin Lee, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2005.

Sir Arthur Vicars, Index to the Prerogative Wills of Ireland, 1536–1810 (Dublin, 1897).



[1] The Prerogative Court dealt with estates in more than one diocese; before 1816 its records were fragmented since hearings were usually in the judge’s residence.