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Hugh Massingberd 1946-2007

December 29th, 2007 (09:08 pm)

When I was growing up I loved reading books about the aristocracy, their intermarriages, their effect on British history - and most of the main players in the sort of history in which I was interested were either titled to begin with or acquired titles at some point in their careers - and many of these were written or assembled by the writer then known as Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd, normally credited (until 1983) as the editor of Burke's Peerage, who died on Christmas Day. I enjoyed these books for their anecdotage, their love of detail and their awareness of a just-vanished age where accidents of birth could propel otherwise unremarkable people into positions of wealth and power, or at least the stewardship of country estates which were themselves things of art. I think I recognised in Montgomery-Massingberd and his colleagues kindred spirits - enthusiastic makers of lists (and a Burke's genealogy is laid out like a list - there are some early examples available on Google Books) whose chapters on royal families or English stately homes were as reflective of their own enthusiasms as they were attempts to place these subjects in historical context. In latterday parlance they were, perhaps, royalty geeks, enticing (if possibly not all that suitable) reading matter (though the lavishly produced books were for the most part borrowed from libraries, and the architectural history side never really engaged me) for a child with home-made wallcharts depicting foreign monarchs on his bedroom wall, and who refused to acknowledge the existence of any European republics if at all possible.

As I grew older I recognised that Montgomery-Massingberd's role as cheerleader for royalty and aristocracy was an ambivalent one - I remember an article in the Telegraph in the late 1980s where he seemed to distance himself from the world of ex-royal-spotting, regretting the pursuit of claims to extinguished thrones as futile. By this stage he was the Telegraph's obituaries editor, reinventing the paper's obituaries page by not only concentrating on the private as well as public lives of subjects but also adding the kind of anecdotage he'd added to the 1970 edition of Burke's Peerage. (My favourites of these can be found in the entry on Baroness Beaumont, whose father, we learned, had been found to have accidentally killed himself and fallen into a ditch while walking on his land, having coincidentally left a newly-written will on his writing desk when setting off that morning; and in the entry on the duke of Somerset, whose ancestor Lord Beauchamp, we are told, on the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 succeeded, under the terms of the will of Henry VIII, as king of England and Ireland, but was so ineffectual that no-one actually chose to notice this.) He did still use his role at the Telegraph to initiate quests of whimsical antiquarian interest which still engage me, such as that which followed the death of the last duke of Newcastle in 1988; the duke was also earl of Lincoln, a title dating from 1572 while the dukedom of Newcastle only went back to 1756 and had been inherited by the ninth earl of Lincoln, through a special remainder, in 1768; consequently, a collateral descendant of a pre-1768 earl of Lincoln should be around to inherit that title, and Massingberd was able in early 1989 to report his interview with the new, eighteenth earl of Lincoln, a retired boilermaker in Western Australia. A few years ago I bought a copy of his memoir, Daydream Believer, and it's very much worth looking up as an account of growing up on the fringes of the landed gentry, losing the Montgomery estate in Co. Tyrone and then the Massingberd flat at Gunby, a National Trust property in Lincolnshire, and his encounters as Burke's editor, freelance writer, and Telegraph staffer with the great and not necessarily so good.

Early last year I was working on a project that might have seen me asking Massingberd to contribute, but funding was not available and it went ahead on a reduced scale, largely without me. I wonder whether we would have got on. Our frames of reference were substantially different, though I've meant in the past to get round to reading books such as Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, and Massingberd was a leading figure in the Anthony Powell Society. However, much of my interest in royalty and aristocracy was first nurtured in the school of Montgomery-Massingberd and such volumes as Burke's Guide to the British Monarchy, published in 1977 to mark the Silver Jubilee, and which I used as a teaching aid in my summer school earlier this year. He was apparently an enthusiast for old British television, though, and could be relied upon to settle arguments.

Obituaries have been published in The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Independent, though not as yet The Guardian, although that paper's staff are apparently the best-represented in the pages of the peerages.


Posted by: Pellegrina (pellegrina)
Posted at: December 29th, 2007 10:39 pm (UTC)

I think this post should win an award for highest density of titles of nobility in an LJ post ;-)

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: December 30th, 2007 01:14 am (UTC)

If anyone can have the record, I suppose it might as well be me as anyone else. ;) Though who will act as arbitrator?