Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Betham, William (1779-1853)

BETHAM, Sir WILLIAM (1779–1853), Ulster king of arms, son of the Rev. William Betham [q. v.], was born on 22 May 1779, at Stradbrooke, Suffolk. In his early years he passed some time in acquiring a practical knowledge of typography, and undertook to revise a portion of Camden's ' Britannia ' for Stockdale, the publisher. In 1805 he came to Dublin to search for documents in connection with a law case in which he was employed. He found the documents in 'the tower' at Dublin Castle, and in the office of the Ulster king of arms, arranged and in a very neglected state. The sinecure office of keeper of the records in 'the tower' at Dublin Castle was at that time held by Philip Henry Stanhope, Lord Viscount Mahon, who, on Betham's representations, appointed him as his deputy. Betham also obtained the appointment of deputy to Admiral Chichester Fortescue, then Ulster king of arms. Under the record commission Betham held, from 1811 to 1812, the post of sub-commissioner. Betham was knighted in 1812, and was appointed Ulster king of arms in 1820. He devoted much time to the preparation of repertories and indexes to collections of records. Inquiries in connection with pedigrees, descents of properties and titles, were much facilitated by these compilations. In 1827 he published an octavo volume of 'Irish Antiquarian Researches,' illustrated with plates. This publication was succeeded in 1830 by the first volume of a work by him with the following title: 'Dignities, feudal and Parliamentary, and the Constitutional Legislature of the United Kingdom. The nature and functions of the Aula Kegis, the Magna Concilia, and the Communia Concilia of England. And the History of the Parliaments of France, England, Scotland, and Ireland, investigated and considered with a view to ascertain the origin, progress, and final establishment of legislative Parliaments and of the history of a Peer or Lord of Parliament.' In 1834 this volume was reissued with a new title-page, as 'The Origin and History of the Constitution of England, and of the early Parliaments of Ireland.' The author, in a preliminary note, stated that the title by which the work was first published very inadequately expressed its real character, and that it had been thought expedient to republish it with one more fully declaring its contents and objects. He added that some necessary additions had been made to the volume. These consist of six pages which are added at the end of the book. The materials intended for a second volume were, Betham intimated, reserved by him for a general history of Ireland, which, however, has not appeared.

Betham published in 1834 'The Gael and Cymbri, or an Inquiry into the Origin and History of the Irish, Scots, Britons, and Gauls; and of the Caledonians, Picts, Welsh, Cornish, and Bretons,' 8vo. In 1837 he issued 'Observations on Evidence taken before a Committee of the House of Commons on the Record Commission.' Betham took an active part in the proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, from the period of his admission to it as a member in 1820. He became one of its governing body, acted as secretary, and made several contributions to its publications. In 1840 differences arose between him and the council of the academy in relation to the distribution of prizes and the publication of essays by Dr. George Petrie, among which was that on 'The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland anterior to the Anglo-Norman Invasion, and on the Origin and Uses of the Round Towers of Ireland.' A statement on these matters was addressed by Betham to the lord-lieutenant of Ireland, who submitted it to the council of the academy, by which it was officially replied to. The last publication of Betham appeared in 1842, with the following title: 'Etruria Celtica: Etruscan Literature and Antiquities investigated, or the language of that people compared and identified with the Iberno-Celtic, and both shown to be Phoenician,' 2 vols. 8vo. A large collection of manuscripts in the Irish language acquired by Betham was purchased from him in 1850 by the Royal Irish Academy, in the library of which they are preserved. Betham died 26 Oct. 1853, and was buried at Monkstown, co. Dublin. As Ulster king of arms he was succeeded by Sir J. B. Burke. Betham's genealogical and heraldic manuscripts were sold at auction in London by Sotheby & Wilkinson in 1860. The greater part was purchased by private collectors. Portions, however, were bought for the British Museum, London, and for the office of Ulster King of Arms, Dublin.

[MSS. of Sheffield (P. F. Betham, Esq., Dublin); Records of Office of Ulster King of Arms, Dublin; Archives of the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin; Fourth Report of Royal Commission on Historical MSS., 1874; Letter from George Petrie to Sir William R. Hamilton, Astronomer Royal, Ireland, 1840; Life of G. Petrie, by W. Stokes, 1868.]

J. T. G.