James Butler, Marquis of Ormond, 1610-88
Leading nobleman of the ‘Old English’ aristocracy of Ireland who briefly succeeded in uniting various Irish factions in support of King Charles.
James Butler was born into the “Old English” Anglo-Norman aristocracy that had been feudal overlords in Ireland since the 12th century. He was the eldest son of Thomas Butler, Viscount Thurles, and the paternal grandson of Walter Butler, eleventh Earl of Ormond. His mother Elizabeth Poyntz, known as Lady Thurles, was of a gentry family from Gloucestershire.
The Butler dynasty had been entrusted with the government of Ireland as lord-deputies to the English monarch since the early 16th century. However, their Catholicism was viewed with increasing disfavour in the years following the Protestant Reformation, and their extensive land holdings in Kilkenny and Tipperary were regarded with envy.
The Butler Inheritance
King James I worked diligently to break up the Butler estates and to reduce the family’s power. In 1614, the King engineered the marriage of the heiress Elizabeth Butler to one of his own favourites, Richard Preston, Earl of Desmond, then awarded large tracts of the Butler estate to them. When Walter Butler, Earl of Ormond, protested at the transferals, King James had him imprisoned in the Fleet prison in London, where he remained for eight years.
In 1619, Viscount Thurles was drowned in a shipwreck. The young James Butler was declared a royal ward at the court of King James and placed in the household of the Puritan Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot. Under the influence of the dour archbishop, Butler rejected the Roman Catholicism of his forebears and grew up to be a devout Protestant.
The Earl of Desmond, who had been granted much of the Butler patrimony, died in 1628. His only child and heir to his fortune, was his daughter, Elizabeth Preston. King Charles I granted Elizabeth’s wardship to his courtier the Earl of Holland. A marriage between Elizabeth Preston and her cousin James Butler was seen as a way to reunite the divided Butler inheritance. For the sum of £15,000, Lord Holland agreed to use his influence to persuade the King to allow the match. They were married on Christmas Day 1629 and went to live on their estates in Ireland.
Walter Butler died in 1633 and James Butler succeeded as the twelfth Earl of Ormond. With this inheritance and the lands restored by his marriage to Elizabeth, the new Earl was among the most powerful noblemen in Ireland. His Protestant faith strained relations with his Catholic neighbours, yet proved advantageous in his dealings with the English government.
Around the time that Ormond succeeded to the earldom, Sir Thomas Wentworth (later Earl of Strafford), arrived as King Charles I’s lord-deputy in Ireland. Ormond realised that service to the state was a sure means of increasing his prestige and income, so cooperated willingly with Wentworth. By 1635, he was a trusted member of Wentworth’s council.
When the Bishops’ Wars broke out in 1639, Wentworth encouraged the King to raise Irish troops to fight the rebellious Scots. Ormond was commissioned lieutenant-general of horse in the Irish army. When Wentworth was recalled to London in 1640, Ormond was appointed commander-in-chief of the army in Ireland. Wentworth also recommended that Ormond be appointed lord-deputy in his place. However, Wentworth’s downfall came about soon after his return to England and Ormond was tainted with suspicion because of their close association. His candidacy was blocked and Charles was forced to entrust the government of Ireland to the Parliamentarian lords-justices Sir William Parsons and Sir John Borlase.
On the outbreak of the Irish Uprising in 1641, Ormond fled to Dublin while his estates in Kilkenny and Tipperary were seized and plundered by the insurgents. Ormond was obliged to negotiate with the rebels before his wife and family were allowed to join him in Dublin. His principal seat at Kilkenny became the headquarters of the Confederate Assembly.
By the spring of 1642, the uprising had spread throughout Ireland. Ormond was required to secure Dublin by leading the King’s forces against the Confederates. He defeated his kinsmanLord Mountgarret at the battle of Kilrush in April 1642 and raised the siege of Drogheda. In recognition of his loyal service, King Charles made him Marquis of Ormond in August 1642.
The following year, Ormond went on the offensive. He advanced into Leinster intending to capture New Ross in order to disrupt communications between the Confederate capital Kilkenny and the ports of Waterford and Wexford. Although the attack on New Ross failed, Ormond defeated the Confederate army of Leinster at the battle of Ross (Balinvegga) on 18 March 1643.
The King then ordered Ormond to begin treaty negotiations with the Confederates, hoping that peace in Ireland would allow Irish troops to be brought over to England to fight against the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War. Although reluctant to make peace with the Catholic Confederates, Ormond obediently opened negotiations in June 1643 and agreed a one-yearCessation of Arms in September. As intended, the Cessation allowed troops from Ormond’s army to go to England, but ultimately it proved ineffective and even counter-productive to the King’s cause when Parliamentary propaganda represented the returning troops as ferocious Irish Papists.
Lord Lieutenant of Ireland
In January 1644, the King appointed Ormond lord-lieutenant of Ireland, and entrusted him with the task of negotiating a permanent peace with the Confederates. Ormond’s task was complex. As well as divisions amongst the Irish Catholic and Protestant camps, a papal nuncio,Archbishop Rinuccini, and Parliamentary commissioners from England were involved in the negotiations. In addition, King Charles sent the Earl of Glamorgan to negotiate secretly with the Confederates behind Ormond’s back. Ormond moved quickly to conclude a treaty with Viscount Muskerry and the Anglo-Irish lords on the Confederate Supreme Council who wanted a negotiated settlement with the King. In return for an Irish army to fight for the King in England, Ormond was authorised to offer limited toleration of Roman Catholics in Ireland.
The First Ormond Peace was publicly proclaimed in Dublin on 30 July 1646, but it proved ineffective. With the support of General O’Neill, Archbishop Rinuccini condemned the treaty and excommunicated its supporters. Ormond withdrew to Dublin while Rinuccini seized control of the Supreme Council and mobilised the entire Confederate army to march on Dublin. Although the Confederate campaign failed, Ormond was sufficiently alarmed to surrender Dublin to English Parliamentarian troops in June 1647 without seeking the King’s consent. His consolation was that the city was held by Protestants rather than the Catholic Confederates.
Ormond left Ireland for England with his wife and children in July 1647. He was received at Hampton Court, where King Charles was held prisoner by Parliament. He acted as one of Charles’ agents in the secret negotiations that resulted in the ill-fated Engagement with the Scots.
The Coalition Against Parliament
After spending a few months at the court-in-exile of Queen Henrietta Maria in Paris, Ormond returned to Ireland in October 1648 with a supply of weapons paid for by the French. He was welcomed by Lord Inchiquin, who had recently declared for the King. The Confederate Supreme Council was anxious to negotiate a new treaty with Ormond and the Royalists in order to counter the threat from the English Parliamentarians and the hardline Catholics led by Rinuccini and O’Neill. Ormond succeeded in concluding the Second Ormond Peace with the Confederates in January 1649, which again promised toleration for Irish Catholics in exchange for troops to fight for the King. The treaty created an uneasy alliance between the Irish Confederates, Lord Inchiquin’s Munster Protestants and the Royalists against the English Parliament. Furthermore, the execution of King Charles I on 30 January 1649 alienated the Ulster Scots, who also joined Ormond’s coalition. The alliance potentially released an additional 18,000 troops to fight for the Royalist cause.
Following the proclamation of Charles II, Ireland became a Royalist rallying-ground. The new King renewed Ormond’s appointment as lord-lieutenant of Ireland in February 1649 and made him a Knight of the Garter. Ormond mustered his forces in June 1649 and marched against Dublin. Lord Inchiquin captured the outlying garrisons of Drogheda, Trim and Dundalk but Ormond was reluctant to commit his army to an assault on Dublin itself, where the Parliamentarian governor Colonel Jones conducted a vigorous defence. Aware that the newly-declared Commonwealth of England was planning to mount an invasion of Ireland, Ormond sent Inchiquin south to counter the threat of an expeditionary force landing in Munster. Ormond attempted to tighten the blockade on Dublin but Colonel Jones boldly attacked his encampment at Rathmines on 2 August 1649 and inflicted a crushing defeat. The coalition army was shattered and its artillery and baggage train lost. Jones’ victory at Rathmines enabled Oliver Cromwell to land unopposed near Dublin on 15 August and begin his campaign for the conquest of Ireland.
Unable to stem Cromwell’s relentless advance, Ormond retreated westwards beyond the River Shannon into Connacht. Although his reputation and credibility had been damaged by the disaster at Rathmines, Ormond loyally persevered in his efforts to forge a lasting alliance with the Irish Catholics in his capacity as Charles II’s lord-lieutenant. However, the Confederate-Royalist coalition collapsed in April 1650 when Cromwell succeeded in negotiating a separate treaty with the Protestant Royalists independently of Ormond. In August, the Catholic clergy rejected Ormond’s authority and called upon him to leave Ireland, threatening to excommunicate any Catholics who continued to support him. Meanwhile, Charles II signed the Treaty of Bredain order to secure a new alliance with the Scottish Covenanters. Under the terms of this treaty, Charles pledged to abolish Catholicism in his realms and to repudiate the Second Ormond Peace. With the King’s permission, Ormond finally left Ireland in December 1650.
Exile and Restoration
1st Duke of Ormond
Ormond joined Charles II during his long exile and became one of the King’s most trusted advisers. He allied himself with Sir Edward Hyde and Sir Edward Nicholas in trying to steer the King away from wild schemes to regain the throne. When Charles II formed an alliance with Spain against Cromwell’s Protectorate, Ormond was commissioned colonel of an Irish regiment of foot in the British Royalist army of Flanders. He travelled secretly to London in January 1658 in the hope of coordinating Royalist conspirators and to report on the likelihood of a popular uprising against the Protectorate in support of a projected Spanish invasion. However, his presence was betrayed to Cromwell’s agents and he narrowly escaped back to the Continent.
Among other honours bestowed upon him at the Restoration, he was created 1st Duke of Ormond and made a privy councillor. Ormond went on to lead a distinguished career as a statesman throughout the reign of Charles II. He returned to Ireland as lord-lieutenant in 1662, though political enmity with the Duke of Buckingham led to his dismissal in 1669. He was re-appointed in 1677 and retained the office until February 1685 when Charles’ death ended his commission. With the accession of James II, Ormond retired into the country in England. He died at Kingston Lacy in Dorset on 21 July 1688, the anniversary of his wife’s death four years previously. He was buried beside her in Westminster Abbey.
Ormond had eight sons and two daughters, but only his daughters survived him. His grandson, James Butler (1665–1745) son of Thomas Butler, Earl of Ossory, his second child, succeeded him as the second Duke of Ormond.
Osmund Airy, James Butler, 12th Earl and 1st Duke of Ormonde, DNB, 1886
Toby Barnard, James Butler, first duke of Ormond, Oxford DNB, 2004
Jane Ohlmeyer, The Civil Wars in Ireland (in A Military History of England, Scotland & Ireland 1638-60), Oxford 1998
James Scott Wheeler, Cromwell in Ireland (New York 1999)