The various works published under the Burke's umbrella are perhaps the most well-known set of family history references for the United Kingdom. Most of us will concentrate on the Landed Gentry series.
There are many editions of Burke's Landed Gentry (as it is coloquially known). The earliest edition was published in 1833 and the most recent in 2001 - there are nineteen editions in all. Getting your head around these editions, what they cover and what they don't takes some work, but the Wikipedia entry is a good starting point to orientate yourself. The first edition is commonly referred to as the "Commoners" whereas later editions are the "Landed Gentry".
What they cover
In general, the series covers notable landed (i.e. land-owning) but non-peer families of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The division between countries varies through editions (early editions combined all four countries, some later editions split them separately). Entries are arranged by surname and will also list the principal property of the family (e.g. Beckett of String Hall). Entries start with the current senior member of the family (usually but not always male), followed by a genealogy from an older ancestor. Many families appear in multiple editions, and the details provided may grow or shrink through editions, so one of the main challenges for the researcher is identifying which edition contains the most information.
One can presume that the reliability of these reference works improved through time. The impression one gets from the earliest works were that families submitted their own pedigrees and there would have been limited review performed by Burke's, simply by virtue of the very large number of families covered. One can imagine, too, that getting your family "into Burke's" was a mark of social standing that may have resulted in families embellishing their pedigrees to make them more interesting - a case of "wish fulfullment", it has been said. As the work evolved, it's likely that more careful checking was made on the pedigrees and so as we come towards the present day, the accuracy is likely to be higher. That said, one of the difficulties with this set of works is that family pedigrees appear and disappear through time (as those families' importance waxed and waned). Thus the most recent (more accurate) editions may not cover the families you are researching. In my own research, I have certainly found inaccuracies, but these have mostly been minor (giving the wrong line of work to someone, for instance) rather than major (giving someone the wrong parents). That said, I have also found cases of the latter. Of course, for old families there are no primary parish records available online, so the only sources of pedigree information are these works, plus further archival material that is only available through physical visits. In some cases, the researcher has to apply their own judgement and logic to determine the most likely correct pedigree, given the available sources.
Many older editions are available online: for a full list, see my dedicated page. In general, whilst not every volume of every early edition is available online for free, it is possible to find at least one version that has the required family in it. Early editions were in no apparent order, so finding entries is a painful job of paging through the whole volume, or making use of Google search tools (when the pages have been digitised and OCRd), or using the indices that I have provided.
All editions had an index, but finding it is not necessarily straightforward and even then, my genealogical work flow means that I flit between families quite frequently, and often forget which families I've found in Landed Gentry and which I haven't even looked for. I recommend keeping a list of all family entries you've found, to avoid the painful job of re-finding them at a later date.
The most recent edition was published in 2001 and was split into various regional volumes: Scotland, York, Wales and the North West and Ireland. For some reason, the rest of England has been ignored; perhaps a dedicated volume is in the works (though it's been nearly 20 years).
Burke's Peerage & Baronetage
There have been over 100 editions of this reference work, with the first published back in 1826. The volumes contain a lot (100s of pages) of supplementary information at the start (orders of precedence, styles of address etc) which may be interesting to some but do not include much genealogically relevant information. The main section is the Peerage and Baronetage, which contains the meat of the information: coats of arms and pedigrees.
As a quick reminder, the peerage includes the following (in decreasing order of precedence):
- Duke / Duchess
- Earl / Countess
- Viscount / Viscountess
- Baron / Baroness
The Extinct Peerages & Baronetcies
There are two series here: firstly, the "Dormant, Abeyant, Forfeited and Exctinct Peerages" which covers peers; secondly, the "Extinct and Dormant Baronetcies of England, Ireland and Scotland" which covers the baronets.