Sir Charles Petrie, Historian

He was the younger son of Sir Charles Petrie, 1st Baronet, and his wife Hannah.  Born in Liverpool, he was educated at the University of Oxford, and in 1927 succeeded to the family baronetcy.

He was also my second cousin, twice removed.

He was my father’s second cousin, once removed.

He was my grandfather’s second cousin.

He was my great-grandfather’s first cousin, once removed.

And he was my great-great grandfather’s grand nephew.

Aren’t family relationship charts fun?

I somehow ended up in the blogsite, ‘Tea at Trianon’ one day, which had an article posted about Sir Charles Petrie.  I was a little surprised that they described him as being an outsider during his time at Oxford University, owing to his being both a Liverpudlian and a Catholic.

I know that he was born in Liverpool on September 28, 1895, and that his father settled there some eighteen years before he was born, but his family was not Catholic.  Not that it would matter, except for the fact that the writer says his Catholicism had a great influence on his work and his life.

Here is the information from Sir Charles’s autobiography Chapters of Life, (1950) that refutes the assertion that “his family derived from the Irish Catholic aristocracy”:

We attended Sefton Park Presbyterian Church, then in the days of its glory under Dr. Watson, the great “Ian Maclaren” and later under Mr. Connell.  Rarely have I seen a church so crowded as it was every Sunday morning:  even pew-holders had to be in their places a quarter of an hour before the service began, and there was a majesty about the church officer that would not have shamed a Lord Chamberlain. (Chapters of Life, p. 20)

He’s a funny sort of a Catholic to be going to a Presbyterian church every Sunday morning.

Here’s a quote from the ‘Tea at Trianon’ article:

“It was not at all that he wore his Catholicism on his sleeve. Indeed he seldom discussed religion overtly in any context. (When he helped establish the Military History Society of Ireland, he insisted on the complete avoidance of sectarian disputes; to this end, he successfully offered society membership to Lord Rathcavan — Protestant Speaker of the Ulster Parliament at the time — and De Valera.) Nevertheless Petrie’s Catholicism did give him a habit of mind which he would not have harboured if he had sprung from the agnostic or atheist upper-middle-class environment which has produced most recent British scholars.”

The article I’m referencing is pasted-in towards the bottom of this article. I subsequently discovered that she (the Trianon blogger) lifted her text out of the online article referenced immediately below:

In search of Sir Charles Petrie

by R. J. Stove

National Observer Australia’s independent current affairs online journal No. 83 (June – August 2010).

And thus is misinformation propagated on the internet!

If they’d just said that his family was Catholic, I would have said, “Well, that’s not right, but who cares?” However, you can see that they are presenting ‘his Catholicism’ as somehow being an influence on his work–his ‘habit of mind.’

Perhaps they thought that was a fit because of his writings about the Jacobites and his sympathy (supposedly) for the Stuarts, and maybe because amongst his 50-ish books there are biographies of three Spanish Kings?

He did a biography of Louis XIV as well, who would have been Catholic, but he also wrote about the Four Georges, who would not.

Maybe somebody decided he was Catholic when he wrote for the Catholic Herald (which he apparently did, according to Wikipedia), although one did not need to be Catholic to write for the Catholic Herald. I looked through the past contributors for that publication, and did not see Sir Charles listed. The list does include Malcolm Muggeridge, however, who once wrote a column, “Why I am not a Catholic.” Interestingly, as Wikipedia says, “he (Muggeridge) later became a Catholic and a columnist for the Herald.”  We assume they mean, “regular columnist,” since he had already written a column when he was not a Catholic.

Conversion to Catholicism seemed to be a thing some of the literati were doing during the past century; among them were G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Anthony Rhodes, Evelyn Waugh, and Tennessee Williams (although I hesitate to include Williams since he was not British).

So possibly Sir Charles Petrie converted, although I can’t find evidence of it.  In any case, they say that his family derived from the Irish Catholic aristocracy, and that wouldn’t be right.  In fact, his/our family derived from the Scottish aristocracy, since we can trace our lineage in a direct line to Robert the Bruce, (King Robert I of Scotland), through my 5x great-grandmother, Elizabeth Colville, daughter of the 6th Lord Colville of Culross.  (She would be Sir Charles’s 3x great-grandmother.)

I wonder whether Sir Charles was aware of our connection to the Kings of Scotland.  Perhaps he didn’t look at the females in our ancestry.  Some of them had very interesting pedigrees indeed.

The information that follows comes from Sir Charles’s biography, Chapters of Life, 1950.

As stated above, he was born in Liverpool on September 28th, 1895, and it was his home until the outbreak of the First World War.

The Petries originally came from Scotland, Aberdeen and Kincardine. In the early years of the reign of Charles II, one Robert Petrie, laird of Portlethen, was Provost of Aberdeen on several occasions, and was M.P. for that city from 1665 to 1667 and again from 1669 to 1674. He was knighted by the Duke of York, afterwards James II.

According to Sir Charles…

Not long afterwards the family fortunes declined, for the Petries supported the Stuarts after the Revolution.” He goes on to say that Sir Robert’s great-grandson, and his own great-great grandfather was George Petrie, soldier, and that as a subaltern George was captured with his regiment, the 21st Foot, at Saratoga.

I have a small problem with this—and wish I didn’t—because it would be nice to know for a certainty that there is a line of descent from Robert Petrie of Portlethen to George.  I’m not saying that there isn’t, but I haven’t found the intervening connections.

I know that George was the son of Robert Petrie and Elizabeth Colville; and that she was the daughter of the 6th Lord Colville of Culross (again, it is through the Colvilles that we are connected to Robert the Bruce).  Therefore, George was Sir Charles’s great-great grandfather, and my 4x great-grandfather.  BUT, I personally can’t fill the gap between Robert Petrie of Portlethen and the later Robert Petrie, my 5x great-grandfather, George’s father.  I’m still working on that.

The reason I’d like to know that Robert of Portlethen was a direct ancestor of George (and me), is because Robert of Portlethen married Anna Forbes, who was the daughter of Sir William Forbes.  Sir William, the first Baronet of Craigievar (created by Charles I, apparently), built–or rather, finished building–Craigievar Castle in 1626, and it is now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.

I do love Craigievar Castle; it looks like something out of Disney.  I think it would be such fun to say that this was one of my ancestral homes…owned by my 7x (?) great-grandfather.


Well, I can’t claim it directly, not yet.  But I will continue to try.  In any case, Sir Charles, a historian, believed that we are linked to Robert of Portlethen and Anna Forbes.  I wish I could see his sources.

Sir Charles also says,

More remarkable than George Petrie was his wife, Margaret.  She was born in Canada in 1750 and died in 1857.”  This would have made her 107 years’ old at the time of her death.

I have to take issue with that.  I’ve found George’s will (he died in Ceylon/Sri Lanka), and there’s no indication there that he was married.  If he was married to a ‘Margaret’ and she outlived him, he obviously didn’t know anything about it.  Also, there should have been mention of their only surviving son, Peter, in his will, and there is nothing.  So Sir Charles’s assertion that George Petrie married Margaret is something I have yet to validate–but I’m very doubtful.

He goes on to say,

My father was five at the time of her death, and he remembered her description of Wolfe’s capture of Quebec.  This event had naturally impressed itself upon the old lady’s memory, for she was a MacDonald by birth, and her father (James MacDonald, a younger brother of Aeneas MacDonald, one of the Seven Men of Moidart) had managed to escape to Canada after fighting for the Stuarts in the Forty-Five.”  (Chapters of Life, p. 12)

Again, I can find no ‘Margaret MacDonald’ who married George Petrie.  The census information for Ireland does not record the existence of Margaret.  I suspect that the elderly lady Sir Charles’s father remembers was Jane Thomson or Thompson, who was the widow of Peter Petrie, purported son of George.  Jane would know nothing of Wolfe’s capture of Quebec.  I suspect that Sir Charles’s father’s childhood memory was faulty.

As Sir Charles says, our branch of the Petrie family “had left Scotland for Ireland, and had settled near the mouth of the River Moy on the borders of Mayo and Sligo.”

I can add here that they left Scotland from Dundee, where my great-grandfather, Alexander Petrie, was born.  (My great-grandfather Alexander was born on February 21, 1845, and died in Bay of Islands, Newfoundland, on July 29, 1892.)

Another of his links with the past was his grandfather, Alexander Petrie, whom he says was

…born in 1823 and he did not die until 1920.  An elder of the Presbyterian Church, a strong Radical, and a supporter of Home Rule, he was a man who did not know what compromise meant, but he was universally respected, and he is still remembered in Ballina.

Sir Charles’s grandfather, Alexander of Carrowcarden, was the brother of my great-great grandfather, William of Rosserk.  My great-grandfather, Alexander (son of William of Rosserk), was named for his uncle.  [No doubt this family connection stuff is very confusing and not a little boring! I include these details in the expectation that my cousins will want to see them.  My sincere apologies to anyone else reading this.]

Sir Charles relates an anecdote about his grandfather, as follows:

It must, however, be confessed that humour was not his strong point, and there is a story which illustrates this weakness on his part.  One Sunday morning during a very hot summer in the seventies when he arrived at Ballina Presbyterian Church he was told by the minister, Mr. Duff, that instructions had come from the General Assembly, then meeting in Belfast, for prayers to be said for rain.  “All right,” replied my grandfather, “pray away:  but it isn’t much use while the wind is in the East.” (Chapters of Life, pp. 13-14)

I find the details of daily life in those times fascinating.  Sir Charles tells us:

One rose at six, and breakfasted very substantially at seven:  there were light refreshments between twelve and one, but they amounted to no more than sherry and biscuits, and the pangs of hunger had to be repressed until five when there was a truly gargantuan repast which centred round, if the season was right, a salmon which had been boiled whole.  When the gentlemen joined ladies later in the evening, tea was served and, after a last look round outside to see that everything was all right, one retired to bed at nine.  Although my grandfather was advanced in his opinions he was conservative in his habits:  smoking indoors he would not tolerate, there was no lighting save lamps, and the closets were of the earth variety.  He was wonderfully active until almost the end of his life as is attested by the fact that he drank a whole bottle of whiskey to his own cheek in the Moy Hotel, Ballina, on his ninetieth birthday. (Chapters of Life, p. 14)

[I’d like to talk about Sir Charles’s grandfather’s brother, my own great-great-grandfather, William of Rosserk, but I’ll need to do that separately or things will get confused.  We’ll carry on with Sir Charles’s immediate family…]

Sir Charles says,

When my father was Lord Mayor of Liverpool in 1901-2 heavy eating was still the order of the day.  Here, for example, is the menu of a dinner which he gave in honour of Lord Rosebery:

Caviar             Anchois

Tortue Claire

Saumon, Sauce Médoc           Filet de Sole à l’Adelphi

Poulet, Reine Demidoff        Asperge en Branches au Beurre

Quartier d’Agneau

Filet de Bœuf Hollandaise

Granit au Kümmel

Canard Sauvage         Bécasses           Russian Salad

Pouding Impérial       Macédoine au Fruits      Méringue au Crème

Pouding Glacé à la Chantilly


Private dinner parties of eighteen or twenty people were the rule rather than the exception, and the small dinner was unknown.” (Chapters of Life, p. 18)

“In the provinces, as in the capital, King Edward VII had been on the throne for some years before there was any general relaxation of the customs which had obtained during the later decades of his mother’s reign.  Social relationships were subject to a rigid code of etiquette.  All women who had any social pretensions had “At Home” days to which they strictly adhered:  my mother’s, if I remember aright, were the second and fourth Thursdays in each month.  (Chapters of Life, p. 18)

I doubt that this level of formality ever existed at my great-grandfather’s house in Bay of Islands, Newfoundland.  My great-grandfather would have been Sir Charles’s father’s first cousin.  (More boring relationship stuff.)

This is a rather fun comment on Sir Charles’s writing style, as provided by R.J. Stove in the Observer article, “In Search of Sir Charles Petrie”:

As for Petrie’s prose style, one of its most appealing features is the formal elegance with which he could trash his opponents. A few instances will serve. Here, from A Historian Looks at his World, is Petrie’s agreeably catty verdict … on Stanley Baldwin:

“Baldwin also possessed the supreme merit of being able to learn from experience; indeed, it may be said to have been the only way in which he did learn.”

[A note:  Stanley Baldwin was the British Prime Minister during the abdication crisis of 1936.]

And here is Petrie delivering the coup de grâce to Mussolini’s Foreign Minister:

“Whereas Edda [the Duce’s daughter] was very good company indeed, with her diverting stories of Shanghai, where she and her husband had lived for a time, Count Ciano seemed to me to be one of those people of whom it could be said that if one bought him at one’s own price and sold him at his there would be a considerable profit on the transaction.”


Below is the Tea at Trianon blog site article (which is an extract from R.J. Stove’s Observer article)—and its comments about the influence of the (Presbyterian) Sir Charles Petrie’s “Catholicism”:

In Search of Sir Charles Petrie

One of Britain’s finest, and yet most completely forgotten, modern historians.

Meanwhile other men who called themselves historians, and lacked even one tenth of Petrie’s learning, received honours piled on honours, such as Petrie never enjoyed. This was the case even when they consciously and deliberately betrayed Britain itself, by siding with civilisation’s enemies. More of them later on.

First of all, Petrie belonged to a very different social class, and a very different geographical background, from the average British academic. He was born in 1895 in Liverpool, where his father was Mayor; but his family derived from the Irish Catholic aristocracy, and his father had been educated in Dublin. Through his father he met, at an early age, a great many notabilities, both British and, in particular, foreign.

Liverpool was, and is, largely Hibernian-Catholic in its population; and during Petrie’s youth it was mostly despised in Oxford, Cambridge and London. The days when the Beatles would make Liverpool’s public image not merely interesting but fashionable lay unimaginably far ahead. As a consequence of this background, Petrie, while he did go to Oxford, was separated from most of his fellow Oxford students by his creed and his city of origin. This separation marked his whole life. For all his conviviality of temperament, he had what was very much a Latin outlook, a European outlook, retaining little patience for English parochialism. It was not at all that he wore his Catholicism on his sleeve. Indeed he seldom discussed religion overtly in any context. (When he helped establish the Military History Society of Ireland, he insisted on the complete avoidance of sectarian disputes; to this end, he successfully offered society membership to Lord Rathcavan — Protestant Speaker of the Ulster Parliament at the time — and De Valera.) Nevertheless Petrie’s Catholicism did give him a habit of mind which he would not have harboured if he had sprung from the agnostic or atheist upper-middle-class environment which has produced most recent British scholars.

[So…he didn’t wear his Catholicism on his sleeve.  Perhaps, since he was Presbyterian, that might be expected?]

The following is Sir Charles Petrie’s entry in “The Peerage”:

Sir Charles Alexander Petrie, 3rd Bt.1

M, #549078, b. 28 September 1895, d. 23 November 1977

Last Edited=25 Feb 2013

Sir Charles Alexander Petrie, 3rd Bt. was born on 28 September 1895. He was the son of Sir Charles Petrie, 1st Bt. and Hannah Lindsay Hamilton.  He married, firstly, Ursula Gabrielle Borthwick Dowdall, daughter of  Harold Chaloner Dowdall, on 7 October 1920.  He and Ursula Gabrielle Borthwick Dowdall were divorced in 1926. He married, secondly, Jessie Cecilia Mason, daughter of Frederick James George Mason, on 24 February 1926. He died on 23 November 1977 at age 82.

He was educated privately. He fought in the First World War. He gained the rank of Lieutenant in the service of the Royal Garrison Artillery. He graduated from Corpus Christi College, Oxford University, Oxford, Oxfordshire, England, in 1919 with a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.). He graduated from Corpus Christi College, Oxford University, Oxford, Oxfordshire, England, in 1921 with a Master of Arts (M.A.). He was a historian. He was invested as a Fellow, Royal Historical Society (F.R.Hist.S.). He was a corresponding member of the Royal Spanish Academics of History and Hispanic Society of America.

He succeeded to the title of 3rd Baronet Petrie, of Carrowcarden, Castleconnor, Tieragh, co. Sligo [U.K., 1918] on 13 December 1927.

He wrote the book The History of Government, published 1929.1 He wrote the book George Canning, published 1930.1 He wrote the book The Jacobite Movement, published 1932.1 He wrote the book History of Spain, published 1934, with Louis Bertrand.1 He wrote the book The Four Georges: a revaluation, published 1935.1 He wrote the book The Stuarts, published 1937.1 He wrote the book Life and Letters of Sir Austen Chamberlain (Volume One), published 1939.1 He wrote the book Life and Letters of Sir Austen Chamberlain (Volume Two), published 1940.1 He wrote the book Diplomatic History 1713-1933, published 1946.1 He wrote the book Earlier Diplomatic History 1492-1713, published 1949.1 He wrote the book Chapters of Life, published 1950.1 He wrote the book The Marshal Duke of Berwick, published 1953.1 He wrote the book The Carlton Club, published 1955.1 He wrote the book Wellington: a reassessment, published 1956.1

He was invested as a Commander, Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.) in 1957.1 He was invested as a Knight, Order of Civil Merit (Spain).1

He wrote the book The Royal House, published 1958.1 He wrote the book The Powers Behind the Prime Ministers, published 1959.1

He was Honorary Counsellor in 1959 at Institute of Fernando Catolico, Zaragoza, Aragon, Spain. He was invested as a Knight, Order of Isabella the Catholic (Spain).1

He wrote the book The Victorians, published 1960.1 He wrote the book The Modern British Monarchy, published 1961.1 He wrote the book Philip II of Spain, published 1963.1 He wrote the book King Alfonso XIII, published 1963.1

He was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) by University of Valladolid, Valladolid, Castile-Leon, Spain, in 1964.1

He wrote the book Scenes of Edwardian Life, published 1965.1

He was invested as a Commendatore, Order of the Crown of Italy.1 He was decorated with the award of the Order of George I (Greece).1

He wrote the book Great Beginnings, published 1967.1 He wrote the book Don John of Austria, published 1967.1 He wrote the book The Drift to World War 1900-1914, published 1968.1 He wrote the book King Charles III of Spain, published 1971.1 He wrote the book A Historian Looks at His World, published 1972.1

Child of Sir Charles Alexander Petrie, 3rd Bt. and Ursula Gabrielle Borthwick Dowdall:

Sir Charles Richard Borthwick Petrie, 4th Bt.  b. 19 Oct 1921, d. 1988

Child of Sir Charles Alexander Petrie, 3rd Bt. and Jessie Cecilia Mason:

Sir Peter Charles Petrie, 5th Bt.  b. 7 Mar 1932


Sir Charles’s second son is the present Baronet:

PETRIE, Sir Peter (Charles) is the 5th Bt, and lives in France.  He’s married to the Countess Lydwine Maria Fortunata von Oberndorff, and they live at The Hague and Paris.

He was ‘Adviser on European and Parliamentary Affairs’ to the Governor of the Bank of England, 1989 – 2003; and HM Diplomatic Service, retired.

Wonder if I should call ’round for a cup of tea, sometime?

After all, we’re third cousins once removed…his father was my second cousin, twice removed…his grandfather was…oh never mind…




4 thoughts on “Sir Charles Petrie, Historian

  1. Oh my goodness! I don’t know how you keep it all straight. I love family history but it sometimes leaves me very confused. Do you have all this recorded at Ancestry or elsewhere? I would love to be able to just print it and look at it. 😊


    1. I think you should be able to print this, Patti. I haven’t tried it, but I know you can copy and paste into a Word document, and print it from there. There’ll be more to come on our ancestry in this blog site. Haven’t really recorded much on the internet, yet. I have something in mind for future articles…so stay tuned! It’s funny, but I wouldn’t have chosen this vehicle for recording our ancestry. I see now that it is very suitable, since I can flesh-out the bones of it, and (hopefully) make it more interesting than a dry list of who-begat-whom.


  2. Hi @dkirksite, Ursula Gabrielle Borthwick Dowdall is the sister of my grandmother Ariana Dowdall (later Campbell). Would love to get in touch and find out more about your connection.
    BTW, my aunt Jessie was Lady Petrie for a while as she married her cousin Richard Petrie.


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