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Section: PAPERS

The Arms and the Title of the Counts O’Rourke, Nobles of the Russian Empire

Author: Michael Medvedev / Publication date: 2007-10-06

The Arms and the Title of the Counts O’Rourke, Nobles of the Russian EmpireThis paper tells about the heraldic and nobiliary rights of the ‘Russian’ (actually, Russian, Polish, and Baltic German) branch of the great Irish family. This branch, in its turn, was divided into two lines with absolutely different and highly curious coats of arms.

Of these two coats, one was met by heraldists’ sharp criticism because of its heraldic “irregularities”; another, being based on an Ulster’s record, was neither attacked nor understood: its greatest peculiarity (the earl’s coronet which occupies the position of a crest coronet but is borne as an insignia of rank) was long left unnoticed.

Despite of the heraldic difference, both of the lines gained the common Imperial recognition of their “foreign” title. Irrespectively of its real origin, the title was confirmed in Russia as the modern equivalent of the high status within the ancient Irish clan system enjoyed by the O’Rourkes of old.

This family tradition reflects the complicated national, nobiliary and heraldic self-identification of the lineage members in the changing times and changing countries.

* * *

…The way he would himself, like Arion,
Arriving in off the waves, off the dolphin’s back,
Oblivious-seeming, but taking it all in
And glad of another chance to believe his luck.

Seamus Heaney

The best, if not the only, academic way to understand who we really are is a comparative research. And vice versa, it is the comparative aspect in which all the stories of identification (and self-identification) are especially interesting. Being not a proper comparative study, my lecture is aimed to serve as a kind of a methodological support and to provide a raw material for such studies. As a unique phenomenon, the “Russian O’Rourkes”, with all their way through the changing times and places are just curious. As an element of the general context, they are pretty important.

I. The Family.

On their coming from the “Western Pole” of Europe to the “Eastern” one, the descendants of Ruark turned into perfect Russians, Baltic Germans and Poles, presumably without loosing their basic Gaelic qualities. In a broad imperial sense, we may define these people as the Russian nobles, and their title was established through tsarist confirmations.

In 1760, two brothers, John and Cornelius O’Rourke, entered the Russian military service. According to their proud claim, their grandfather Brian O’Rourke (who served King James II at Boyne and than in exile) was a direct descendant of Brian-na-Murtha of West Breiffne. Cornelius was apparently named after Brian-na-Murtha’s brother, greyfriar Cornelius, another family hero. This genealogical claim was probably founded; in any case it was widely accepted by contemporaries as well as later authors like John O’Hart. Apart of this, both of the brothers introduced themselves as Counts, were so enlisted, and so recognised by the Empress Elisabeth of Russia.

Count John O’Rourke [whose name was spelt in Russia as “Ivan Orurk” or even “Ivan Dorourk”] was an outstanding person, brilliant yet somehow controversial. He started his career as an English officer in London but lost his position as a Catholic; then he advertised himself as a princely-born Irish aristocrat to Louis XV and got a commission as a Captain of the Royal Scots, but was badly received by other officers, and even worsened the situation by successful duelling. At last he resigned to leave, with the perfect recommendation, for St. Petersburg. During the Prussian campaign, especially the capture of Berlin, he showed himself to be “a brave soldier and an efficient officer”(1) and impressed the Prussian King who met him friendly after the war’s end.
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(1) I am cordially grateful to a well-known Muscovian genealogist Dr. M.Y. Katin-Yartsev who kindly communicated some genealogical and prosopographical data used here and passim.

In 1762 Count John resigned to restart his career in France but at first only succeeded in being appointed a chamberlain to the French King’s father-in-law, Stanislas Leszczyński, Duke of Lorraine and titular King of Poland. It was in 1770 that Count John finally returned to the French troops, this time as a Colonel of Horse. He augmented his military reputation, was created a Knight of St. Louis, and was kindly received in the Imperial courts of Vienna and then, again, of St. Petersburg. Finally Count John settled in London, published there a “Treatise on the Art of War”, was knighted, much suspected by Londoners as a bogus claimant not really belonging to the princely branch of the family, and died as a bachelor in 1786. His service in Russia was a happy but occasional short adventure.

It was different with his brother, a devoted and pessimistic Jacobite, who really took root in Russia. Even his Gaelic identity was satisfied there, as he married a daughter of a Russian Major-General Stuart and his wife Hannah-Louise, sister of Field-Marshal Count Peter Lacy, of an old Irish Norman family. In 1770-ies Count Cornelius (or Kornily Orurk as he was called in Russia) was putting down the Polish insurgents and served on Caucasus. He died in 1800, being a Major-General, a commandant of a Livonian town of Dorpat (now Tartu in Estonia), an owner of two manors in Livonia, and a happy father of three bright sons, George Maurice (Yegor), Joseph (Iosif alias Osip) and Patrick (Patriky).


Ill. 1. The arms of the Livonian branch of the Counts O’Rourke.

Count George Maurice inherited the Livonian estates, was married three times to a German ladies, and his seven sons, brought up as Lutherans, were matriculated into the local corporation of nobility, called The Livonian Chivalry. It was one of the four privileged Baltic Chivalry corporations, mostly German and Lutheran, with strong inner links. The Livonian Chivalry was already joined by the Counts Lacy and Browne(2), of Irish Norman lineages(3), and even earlier by the de la Barre family, enlisted as French but with arms as Irish as Guinness(4). The O’Rourke family was enlisted with the ordinal number of 343. The fifth son, Count Maurice Dietrich (Mavriky) settled far from Livonia, in Ukrainian town of Mirgorod, and married an orthodox lady (which obliged him, according to the laws of the Empire, to bring their children up in the Orthodox faith). Apart of Livonia, this family line became enlisted among the nobles of the province of Poltava. Two sons of Count Maurice were county marshals of nobility in this province.
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(2)Field Marshal Count Peter Lacy was, by the way, not only Count Cornelius O’Rourke’s brother-in-law, but also father-in-law of Field Marshal Count George Browne[-Camus], second Jacobite Earl of Browne; both were natives of the County of Limerick; and both were Governors of Livonia (Count Browne held that office in 1762-1792). There is no wonder that Count Cornelius O’Rourke finally settled in that province after his retirement in 1788.
(3) The titles and augmented arms were granted to the Lacies and the Brownes by the Holy Roman Emperors. The arms of the Counts Browne (per pale Arg. and Sa. a double-headed eagle countercharged, langued Gu. and crowned Or) are interesting in the aspect of Wappenrecht: they are based on the traditional symbol of the Irish Brownes; but within the German context, confirmation of such aquiline arms was a honour equal to a honourable augmentation.
The arms of the counts Lacy deserve mentioning for another reason. In their elaborate achievement, the family arms as such (Arg. a lion Gu. crowned Or) occupy the inescutcheon which is ensigned with a noble’s coronet, thus proudly stressing the gentle provenance of the lineage.
(4) Az. a hand (dexter, couped and apaumé) ppr., held by two lions Or langued Gu.; on the chief Sa. three eight-pointed mullets Or; on the base of the last, a stone or rock ppr. (greyish) alias Sa., a fish Arg. lying thereupon. For the crest, an arm embowed ppr., armed Argent, brandishing a sword Arg., hilt and pommel Or (C.A. von Klingspor. Baltisches Wappenbuch. Stockholm. 1882, taf. 6). Legally, de la Barre were matriculated in Livonia as Swedish nobles.

Count Alexander became an outstanding engineer and his professional qualification allowed him to survive and even to be rewarded under the communist regime. His portrait is proudly exhibited, since the Soviet times, in the hall of the Railway Transport Institute in Leningrad/St. Petersburg. Daughter of his son, the late Merited Professor Igor O’Rourke, resides in St.Petersburg. At present I have no precise information about other lines of the Livonian branch.

The second, Polish branch of the family was founded by the second son of Cornelius, General of Cavalry (“Full General”) Count Joseph (Osip, Iosif) O’Rourke, the most brilliant military officer in the family. He was a little boy when, following the aristocratic practice of the time, he was recorded as taken on the strength in the Life Guards. This was a pure fiction but when, aged 18, he entered the army service indeed, he was already a captain of cavalry. Soon he was noticed for bravery during the Finnish campaign of Catherine the Great. Later he served in Italy under the invincible Suvorov.

Count Josef distinguished himself in numerous campaigns against the Napoleonic expansion, the Polish uprisings, and the Ottoman raids; the latter was commemorated by a monument by Dniester, demolished by the reds in 1920-ies. The destiny of Count Josef’s branch may be compared to those of the Saxon and Norman families that came to Ireland to conquer but were “conquered” themselves in becoming genuinely Irish. A formidable enemy of the old Polish liberties, Count Joseph settled in largely Polonized Byelorussia, had married into the local nobility, and was quite friendly accepted by his mostly Catholic noble neighbours. The following integration was a matter of a time.

One of Count Joseph’s sons, Constantine Marcellus, was placed under the police’s surveillance for supporting the Polish uprising of 1863-1864.


Ill. 2. Formal greetings of the Senate of Danzig to Mons. Edward Count O’Rourke on the occasion of his enthronisation as the first Bishop of Danzig. Note the magnificent letterhead (by O.Hupp). Published in: S.Bogdanovich. Akta biskupa Edwarda Aleksandra Władysława hrabiego O’Rourke … w Rzymie. Pelplin, 1999, p.190. Kindly communicated by Count Michael O’Rourke.

Constantine Marcellus’ nephew, Edward Alexander Ladislas, a priest, a professor in the Catholic seminary in St. Petersburg and later a bishop in Danzig, was also the family historian. In 1925 he published in Danzig a perfect book in English, “Documents and Materials for the History of the O’Rourke Family”. It is the posterity of Monsignor Edward’s elder brother, Count Joseph Constantine (Jósef Konstanty in Polish), that is extant and flourishing now. Polish genealogist S. Leitgeber mentions seven living male members of the family, including five children born between 1985 and 1993.

II. The Title.

The origin of the family title remains obscure.

According to the family tradition and to several handbooks, John was created Count by Louis XV in 1770-ies; but as we know he and his brother already used the title a decade earlier. The probable source of this legend is the French royal patent which should be issued to John on his appointment as a Colonel in 1771: almost for certain the appointee was mentioned there as a Count.

Another hypothesis may be found (on the Internet) on “The Jacobite Peerage” page(5) by Guy Stair Sainty, who identified Cornelius with Constantine O’Rourke of Carha, 2nd Viscount of Breffney (which was a Jacobite honour). It was presumed that the Count’s title recognised in Russia was but an inadequate reflection of that of Viscount. This explanation seems to be ingenious but unfounded.
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(5) The page is largely based on “The Jacobite Peerage” by Marquess de Ruvigni (I am very indebted to Mr. Sainty for the kind explanations on this matter); but in the case of the O’Rourkes, Ruvigni mentions Count John separately from the Lords Breffney.

It worth mentioning however that the Lords Breffney, apart of their Jacobite titles, were known to be styled Counts too.

It seems that the title was never granted to the “Russian” O’Rourkes, but just assumed by John and Cornelius on the continent, probably to stress their descent from the ancient Kings and Princes, if not also from Brian-na-Murtha himself. In France of the time such titles assumed by good families were widely used and commonly tolerated as so-called “honneurs de la cour”. In Russia however this was not legally acceptable and one may wonder if the supposed inexistence of the initial grant could undermine the Russian recognition.

The answer is - not.

The original recognition conferred upon the brothers O’Rourke by Empress Elisabeth in 1760 was not fully sufficient itself to substitute the inexistent or improvable grant. At least it was not fully sufficient according to the later Russian nobiliary norms, and in 1840-ies both branches of the family were obliged to present new proofs and to obtain a new confirmations.

In the course of this Sir William Betham, the Ulster King of Arms of the time, was requested by the Counts O’Rourke to certify their genealogy and their family arms. The document was issued in 1844 and duly presented to the Heraldry Dept. in St. Petersburg. As regards to its genealogical part, the title of a Count is just mentioned beginning with John, its appearance being left unexplained. Other documents submitted by the family also failed to give any reference to the original grant. So the Russian Heraldry Department of the Senate faced a story with the Kings in the beginning and the questionable title in the end. Finally, both the Senate and the State Council attested the proofs as sufficient, deeming the family title to be a reasonable equivalent to the sublime status of the family in Ireland of old. The permission to use the title was confirmed by Nicholas I in his decree from 24 November 1848, then announced in a Senatorial decree the next year (whence the two quasi-controversial dates in the genealogic literature). The problem of the unproven grant was solved by setting aside.


Ill. 3. The arms of the Counts O’Rourke as certified by the Ulster King of Arms.

A sceptic may point however, that these decrees did not bestow a title of the Russian Empire upon the family, but confirmed their right to use a foreign title, probably inexistent in any foreign jurisdiction. One may question the validity, either legal or moral, of recognition of something inexistent. To avoid such doubts, it is necessary to explain what the Russian Imperial recognition really was.

III. The Russian Recognition.

Originally, in 18th century, it was just the recognition indeed and depended on the terms and the validity of the foreign grant, either proven or presumed. Foreign titles were strictly separated from the titles of the Russian Empire, as well as from other titles within the Russian jurisdiction, such as those of the “otherborn” (the Tartars, the Kalmucks, the first peoples of Siberia etc.).(6)
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(6) Not all the Russian titles (i.e. titles within the Russian jurisdiction) were those of the Empire, just like, for example, not all the Scottish baronial titles are those of the Realm.

In 19th century situation developed rapidly; and soon the recognition of a non-Russian title turned into a purported creation of a parallel, independent title within the Russian jurisdiction. This new title, being a reflection and continuation of the original foreign honour, often was formally labelled after the country of origin; but its use and transmission followed the local nobiliary customs and the Emperor’s will. This may be called “a Doppelganger title”. The examples are numerous, and sometimes very telling.

Prince Alexander Kourakin, known as “the Diamond Prince”, was a celibate, the reason (or rather pretext) for which being his high position in the S.M.O.M.(7)
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(7) Originally a honorary Knight Grand Cross, he was then enlisted as a bailiff of the Russian Grand Priory; in 1801-1803, during the final phase of the controversial “Russian Period” of the Order’s history, he acted as Turcopolier, Grand Chancellor and Grand Bailiff, and temporarily as the Chairman of the Sacred Council. In fact, this did not imply the necessity of the celibacy: according to the notions of the time, the Prince, as a founder member of the Russian Grand Priory, was entitled to share the Magistral and Papal (sic!) dispensations previously granted to the Polish branch of the Order.

Of his natural progeny, six were created Barons and Baronesses Serdobin and three, Barons and a Baroness Vrevsky by the Roman/Austrian Emperor Francis in 1802 and 1808 respectively. The grants were recognised in Russia but for a while the grantees remained unennobled within the Russian jurisdiction. On ennobling them in 1804 (three Serdobins) and in 1822 (the Vrevskys), Emperor Alexander I not only confirmed their right to use the titles in Russia, but also extended their baronial dignity to six other bastards of “the Diamond Prince”, thus unilaterally creating three “Roman” and three “Austrian” Barons.

This was obviously an irregularity based on a legal mistake. In effect, the titles so created were specific Russian honours, conventionally defined as outlandish to separate them from the “full” titles of the Russian Empire.

However, in the course of the following reigns such practice turned to be quite regular, and numerous non-Russian honours were “redestined” according to the local practice. Thus the primogeniture titles appeared to be recognised for the cadets as well (the barons Jomini, of a Napoleonic creation, may serve as an example), and the “salic” titles could be inherited through the female line, still being defined as “foreign” (Counts Fermor, Counts de la Gardie etc.). If the right to the title was somehow restricted in its original jurisdiction, this could be ignored in Russia (the case of the Princes Sayn and Wittgenstein); or, vice versa, new restrictions could be imposed (the Dukes of Leuchtenberg(8)).
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(8) In the most complicated case of the princely Beauharnais, two primogeniture titles extended to the cadets, one of these titles being “renamed” (“Counts Beauharnais” instead of “Marquesses de la Ferté-Beauharnais”), and the right of spouses and descendants to the family titles were considered and reconsidered irrespectively of the terms of the original Bavarian and French grants. Meanwhile the Napoleonic honours of the family were completely ignored.

The nobles with outlandish titles obtained also the access to the fifth parts of the provincial Books of nobility(9), although in principle this part was instituted for the lineages with the titles of the Empire (and thus several prominent “otherborn” families, including the Princes Chegodaev, of the House of Genghiz Khan, were enlisted in other parts of the Books).
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(9) Since 1785, the noble lineages should be enlisted in the Genealogical Books of nobility of the correspondent provinces of the Empire; these books were subdivided into several parts. The titled nobility was to be enlisted in the fifth part.

Even more, if the confirmation did not postulate otherwise, a “Doppelganger title” implied honours equal to those of the correspondent title of the Empire. In the O’Rourke’s case they are to be styled “Illustrious”, this being an honour shared in Russia by all counts and by the majority of princes.

IV. The Arms.

As regards to the armorial rights of the family, it is necessary to take into consideration two important circumstances.

First, assumed arms of nobility always were not, and indeed are not(10), “necessarily bogus” or “prohibited” in Russia. If there is no usurpation of any other arms and no claim of any inappropriate attribute of rank, the arms actually borne are valid.
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(10) Although the laws of the Russian Federation still deny the existence of nobility, the juridical survival of the nobility of the Russian Empire is a fact which enjoys wide recognition, both international and “domestic”, moral as well as legal. In any aspect, there is no formal ground to deny the armorial rights of the families that enjoyed the Russian noble status, for these rights may be recognized and preserved merely as a “family heritage”.

Second, the seniority within a lineage does not bring a headship. All the family members, both male and female, share the prerogatives of headship in being co-heads and co-representatives of the family. (Accordingly, undebruised arms are considered in Russia as the common property within the family).

Sometimes, however, different branches of a family happen to bear different arms. This is the case of the Counts O’Rourke.


Ill. 4. The “Livonian” version.

In 1818, on his introduction into the Livonian nobility, Count George submitted his family arms which may be blazoned as follows: “Per pale, Argent three lions passant Or and of the first per fess, in chief an image of the Agnus Dei in His proper colours couchant to the sinister, holding a standard Gules with an inscription “Buagh”; and in base, a boar courant Proper. On a grilled or melée helmet Argent adorned Or, a coronet of a Count, and for a crest, an arm vambraced Argent, holding a sabre of the same, hilt and pommel Or. Mantling: Or plain (sic!). Motto: Victoriosus [-] Victorieux”. These arms were subsequently borne by the Livonian branch and proudly displayed, among other family arms, in the hall of the nobility’s residence, the Knights’ House, in Riga(11).
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(11) Klingspor (op. cit., pl. 80) gives a Baron’s coronet (i.e. with seven pearls instead of nine), probably reproducing this error from the plate in the Knights’ House.

These arms are especially curious because of their heraldic irregularities, such as charges Or and Argent in fields of the last, a single-tinctured mantling, and a relatively peculiar marshalling(12).
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(12) In the “Genealogisches Handbuch der Baltischen Ritterschaften”, Teil “Livland”, 1930-1935, Bd. I, S. 637, these arms were sharply criticized as “absolutely unheraldic” and, considering the existence of another (“Bethamic”) version, of no value; see ill.5.


Ill. 5. Arms of the Livonian line as published by K.A. Klingspor.

We may guess what a kind of mistakes could result in this curious composition. Was it a misinterpretation of impaled arms of alliance, or maybe of quartered arms (which provides an explanation for the third lion, as normally O’Rourke have two)? But it is also possible that all the unusual details were deliberate, reflecting the princely ambition and the “Milesian self-exaltation” of Counts John and Cornelius(13). In any case, this achievement reflects the continental family deeds as well: the motto is bilingual (half French), and the original sword in the crest is replaced with a sabre.
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(13) Cf. another “gorgeous” version as given by Rietstap:
O’RourkeIrl., Tour. Ec.: au 1 d’azur à une harpe d’or; au 2 parti: a. de gu. à l’aigle ép. d’or, cour. du même; b. de gu. à la croix d’or, cant. de quatre B du même; au 3 coupé: a. fascé d’or et de sa.; b. de sa. à la barre d’arg., ch. d’un cor-de-chasse de sa., lié et vir. d’azur, et sur le tout de ces dernières partitions, d’or à deux lions léopardés de sa., arm. et lamp. de gu.., l’un sur l’autre; au 4 tranché: a. de sa. au chev. écimé d’or; au chef d’az., ch. d’une Foi cour. d’or; b. d’or au créquier de gu. Cri: Victorious. D.: Prou de pis, peu de pairs, point de plus” (J.-B. Rietstap. Armorial Général… Tome II. Gouda, 1887, p. 357).
This French motto was published by Dielitz (Die Wahl- und Denksprüche… Frankfurt a. M., 1884); Troynitski, using Dielitz as a source, erroneously ascribed the motto to the Russian branch of the O’Rourkes (S.N. Troynitski. Gerbovye devizy rossiyskago dvoryanstva. St.Petersburg, 1910, p. 36).


Ill. 6. The arms of the Polish line (with wrong coronet and helmet) as ascribed to the Livonian branch in the “Genealogisches Handbuch der Baltischen Ritterschaften”, S.633. In the original, the image is turned to the sinister to face the column of text: a good example of heraldic courtesy.

The same arms could be originally borne by Josef and Patrick, the younger brothers of Count George; but since 1840-ies Josef and his posterity enjoyed the arms as certified by Ulster: Or two lions passant Sable.

Probably the most curious feature of these arms is the crest coronet, which is an earl’s coronet, an evident evocation of the family title. It worth mentioning that, unlike in the insular heraldic traditions, the continental “crest coronets” are not a part of crest, but a separate structural element of achievement, equal to shield-ensigning coronets.

So, whatever is its origin, a crest coronet borne in Russia appears to be an effective attribute of rank. Such use of an earl’s crest coronet as an attribute of a Count’s title is understandably rare in Russia but not unique.

We may presume that Counts O’Rourke requested Betham to include a coronet into the achievement, and that he tried to do this without exceeding his commission. In any case, in Russia the non-continental coronet was soon spontaneously replaced with the common one, and the armet was turned into a grilled mêlée helmet with a “Halskleinod”. These levelling changes may be much deplored by a heraldic gourmet. At least they are practically reversible.


Ill. 7. Two versions (apocryphal and hardly reliable) of the arms of the Counts O’Rourke as published by Count J.Ostrowski in “Księga herbowa rodów polskich” (Warszawa, 1897, p. 412-413).

It is interesting that theoretically the Russian heraldry provided, and still provides, the Counts O’Rourke with some honourable privileges, which were never used by the family. First, the titled nobles in the Russian Empire were allowed to bear supporters. If no supporters were granted, the armigers are free to assume them. Second, the royal roots claimed by the family and fully recognized by the State, could be denoted by a princely robe ensigned with the correspondent cap. This latter privilege was originally established by Paul I only for the scions of Rurik and Guedimin; but in the second half of 19th century it was extended to other descendants of Monarchs of old, even those who ruled outside the borders of the Empire. It is not impossible that both of these unnoticed privileges would be justifiably claimed and successfully enjoyed by the Counts O’Rourke in future.

* * *

P.S.: This paper is based on the lecture of the same name delivered in 2002 in Dublin on the occasion of the XXV International Congress of Genealogical and Heraldic Sciences. The lecture has been published in a handsome digital format [on a disc] by the Organising Commitee
Illustrations 1, 3 and 4 are by the author.

© 2006 The.Heraldry.Ru / D.Ivanov, M. Medvedev