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Butler, Charles (1750-1832) (DNB00)


BUTLER, CHARLES (1750–1832), catholic and legal writer, was the son of James Butler, brother of the Rev. Alban Butler [q. v.], author of the ‘Lives of the Saints,’ and was descended from the ancient family of the Butlers of Aston-le-Walls, Northamptonshire. James Butler settled in London and carried on the business of a linendraper at the sign of the Golden Ball in Pall Mall. There Charles Butler was born on 14 Aug. 1750. In his sixth year he was sent to a catholic school at Hammersmith, kept by a Mr. Plunkett. He remained there three years, and was then sent to Esquerchin, a school dependent on the English college at Douay, to which college, after three years, he was removed. He continued his studies to the end of rhetoric. About 1766 he returned to England, and in 1769 began the study of the law under Mr. Maire, a catholic conveyancer. On the decease of that gentleman he was placed under the care of Mr. Duane, a catholic conveyancer of much greater eminence. Here he formed a close friendship with John Scott, afterwards Lord Eldon, who, after attaining to legal eminence, did not forget his old fellow-student. In 1775 Butler set up in business for himself, and entered at Lincoln’s Inn. At this period a catholic could not be called to the bar nor hold any official position. In these circumstances Butler commenced practice under the bar as a conveyancer, which department of the profession was then becoming particularly celebrated and counted among its members Fearne, Booth, Duane, Shadwell, and others nearly as famous. For many years he was in the full swing of practice, and he was at the head of his profession as a landed property lawyer and a conveyancer until his seventy-fifth year, when he experienced a decay in his sight, and his business considerably declined. He had numerous pupils and he took delight in making the fortunes of all the young barristers who studied under him. While he was drawing deeds, writing opinions, and delivering dicta to his pupils, he was editing ‘Coke upon Littleton,’ in conjunction with Mr. Hargrave, or composing some literary work. He would steal from his home, even in midwinter, at four in the morning, taking his lantern, lighting the fire in his chamber, and setting doggedly to work till breakfast-time. The whole of the day afterwards was given to the ordinary routine of business.

In the 31st George III, c. 32, an act passed for the relief of the catholics, a clause was inserted (§ 6), as it was understood by the instrumentality of Lord Eldon, the solicitor-general, for dispensing with the necessity of a barrister taking the oath of supremacy or the declaration against transubstantiation. Soon after the passing of this statute Butler availed himself of its provisions, and in 1791 he was called to the bar, being the first catholic barrister since the revolution of 1688. He took this degree rather for the sake of the rank than with any intention of going into court, and he never argued any case at the bar, except the celebrated one of ‘Cholmondeley v. Clinton’ before Sir Thomas Plumer and the House of Lords. His argument is printed at great length in the reports of Merivale and of Jacob and Walker. In 1832 the lord chancellor (Brougham) informed him that, if he chose to accept a silk gown, he was desirous of giving it to him, and he was accordingly called within the bar and made a bencher of Lincoln’s Inn. He took the honour, however, without any view to practice, and he never appeared in court except on the day on which he received his rank, when the lord chancellor departed from the common rule and complimented him on his advancement. This honour was thrown open to him by the catholic relief act.

Butler acted as secretary to the committees formed for promoting the abolition of the penal laws. The first of these committees was appointed in 1782 at a general meeting of the English catholics. It consisted of five members, all laymen; it was to continue for five years, and its object was to promote and attend to the affairs of the catholic body in England. Dr. (afterwards bishop) Milner, who was Butler’s constant and uncompromising antagonist, writing in 1820, says that ‘here probably begins that system of lay interference in the ecclesiastical affairs of English catholics which .... has perpetuated disorder, divisions, and irreligion among too many of them for nearly the last forty years.’ The only measure which engaged the attention of the committee was an abortive scheme for the establishment of a regular hierarchy by the appointment of bishops in ordinary instead of vicars apostolic. This first committee was succeeded by another, formed in 1787, consisting of ten lay members, to whom were added, in the year following, three ecclesiastics. In 1788 the committee resolved that Butler, their secretary, should prepare a bill for the repeal of the laws against the catholics. This was accompanied by a declaration of catholic principles, known as the ‘Protestation,’ which was transmitted to the vicars-apostolic, and eventually, but very reluctantly, signed by them. The committee soon framed an oath containing a new profession of faith, in which they adopted the extraordinary name of Protesting Catholic Dissenters. The oath was formally condemned by the unanimous decision of the four vicars-apostolic (October 1789), but in spite of this Butler wrote an ‘Appeal’ addressed to the catholics of England, in defence of the ‘protestation’ and ‘oath,’ which appeal was signed by two clerical and five lay members of the committee, who also signed a long letter to the vicars-apostolic, remonstrating against their censure. These papers form the contents of the first of the three famous ‘blue books,’ so called from their being stitched up in blue, or rather purple covers. Two of the vicars-apostolic died soon after the condemnation of the oath, and these deaths led to active intrigues on the part of the committee to procure the appointment of two successors who might favour their views. Various publications appeared, the object of which was to persuade the clergy and laity that they had a right to choose their own bishops and to procure their consecration by any bishop without reference to the pope. This scheme fell through, and two new vicars-apostolic having been appointed by the holy see, they joined with Dr. Walmesley, the vicar-apostolic of the western district, in an encyclical letter, condemning the proposed oath and disapproving the appellation of protesting catholic dissenters. Instead of submitting, however, the committee published a ‘protest,’ drawn up by Butler, against the encyclical, and pressed forward the bill containing the condemned oath. At this juncture Dr. Milner was appointed by the two new vicars-apostolic to act as their agent, and he exerted himself to the utmost to circumvent the designs of the committee. His efforts were crowned with success. Soon after the bill was introduced the ministry obliged the committee to drop their new appellation, and they resumed their proper name of Roman catholics. The condemned oath was discarded by parliament, and the Irish oath of 1778 was substituted for it, as the bishops had petitioned.
      After the passing of the bill on 7 June 1791 the services of the committee were no longer required, but the members determined to preserve its principles and spirit in another association. Accordingly the Cis-Alpine Club was established (12 April 1792), its avowed object being ‘to resist any ecclesiastical interference which may militate against the freedom of English catholics.’ Eventually a reconciliation was effected between the members of the club and the vicars-apostolic, by means of what was called at the time ‘the mediation,’ and the catholic board was founded in 1808. At a later period Butler was strongly in favour of giving the government a veto on the appointment of catholic bishops, and this led him into another fierce conflict with Milner, who again achieved a triumph. Butler was, in fact, an ultra-Gallican in regard to his religious views, while his political opinions coincided with those of his distinguished friend, Charles James Fox, and his sympathy was with the French revolution in its civil, though not in its religious, aspect. Towards the close of his life he retracted some of the opinions contained in his writings, and, to quote the words of a personal friend of his, ‘he then became a Gallican within the limits of orthodoxy.’ He died at his house in Great Ormond Street, London, on 2 June 1832, aged 82. He married Mary, daughter of John Eyston, of East Hendred, in Berkshire, and left two surviving daughters. The elder, Mary, married Lieut.-colonel Charles Stonor, and Theresia, the younger, became the wife of Andrew Lynch, of Lynch Castle, in the town of Galway. His portrait has been engraved by Sievier from a painting by Barry.
      As a lawyer he will be remembered chiefly on account of his having continued and completed Hargrave’s edition of ‘Coke upon Littleton.’ In 1785 Hargrave relinquished his part of this arduous undertaking, having annotated to folio 190, being nearly one half of the work, which consists of 393 folios. The other half was undertaken by Butler, and published in 1787. The merits of this edition of Lord Coke's first institute have been proved by numerous reprints, and Butler's notes have been universally considered the most valuable part of the work. In 1809 he brought out the sixth edition of Fearne's ‘Essay on Contingent Remainders.’

His ‘Philological and Biographical Works,’ published in 5 vols. in 1817, comprise: In vol. i. ‘Horæ Biblicæ,’ being a connected series of notes on the text and literary history of the bibles or sacred books of the Jews and christians; and on the bibles or books accounted sacred by the Mahometans, Hindus, Parsees, Chinese, and Scandinavians. This work, published first in 1797, has been translated into French. In vol. ii., ‘History of the Geographical and Political Revolutions of the Empire of Germany,’ originally published in 1806. ‘Horæ Juridicæ Subsecivæ,’ or notes on the Grecian, Roman, Feudal, and Canon Law, published first in 1804. In vol. iii., ‘Lives of Fénelon, Bossuet, Boudon, De Rancé, Kempis, and Alban Butler.’ In vol. iv., ‘An Historical and Literary Account of the Formularies, Confessions of Faith, or Symbolic Books of the Roman Catholic, Greek, and principal Protestant Churches,’ published originally in 1816; and various essays. In vol. v., ‘Historical Memoirs of the Church of France.’

Among his works not included in the above collection are: 1. ‘Biographical Account of the Chancellor l'Hôpital and of the Chancellor d'Aguesseau, with a short historical notice of the Mississippi scheme,’ 1814. 2. ‘Historical Memoirs of the English, Irish, and Scottish Catholics since the Reformation; with a succinct account of the principal events in the ecclesiastical history of this country antecedent to that period, and in the histories of the established church and the dissenting congregations,’ 4 vols., London, 1819–21, 8vo; 3rd edit., considerably augmented, 4 vols., London, 1822, 8vo. This book contains much useful information, but Butler's statements should be received with caution. Some of them are corrected in Bishop Milner's ‘Supplementary Memoirs of English Catholics,’ 1820. 3. ‘Continuation of the Rev. Alban Butler's Lives of the Saints to the Present Time,’ with some biographical accounts of the Holy Family, Pope Pius VI, Cardinal Ximenes, Cardinal Bellarmine, Bartholomew de Martyribus, and St. Vincent of Paul; with a republication of his historical memoirs of the Society of Jesus, 1823. 4. ‘Reminiscences,’ 4th ed., 2 vols., 1824. 5. ‘The Book of the Roman Catholic Church,’ in a series of letters addressed to Robert Southey, Esq., on his ‘Book of the Church,’ 1825. Southey's rejoinder was entitled ‘Vindiciæ Ecclesiæ Anglicanæ,’ 1826, and Dr. Phillpotts, afterwards bishop of Exeter, answered the theological part of Butler's book. Altogether ten replies appeared on the protestant side; another reply was composed by the Rev. Richard Garnett, but this still remains in manuscript. To these Butler rejoined in the two following publications: 6. ‘A Letter to the Right Rev. C. J. Blomfield, bishop of Chester, in vindication of a passage in the Book of the Roman Catholic Church, censured in a Letter addressed to the Author, by his lordship,’ 1825. 7. ‘Vindication of the Book of the Roman Catholic Church,’ 1826. After the appearance of the ‘Vindication,’ six additional replies were published by the writers on the protestant side of the question, in reference to which Butler added an Appendix to his ‘Vindication.’ 8. ‘The Life of Erasmus, with Historical Remarks on the state of Literature between the tenth and sixteenth Centuries,’ 1825. 9. ‘The Life of Hugo Grotius, with brief Minutes of the Civil, Ecclesiastical, and Literary History of the Netherlands,’ 1826. 10. ‘Memoir of the Life of Henry Francis d'Aguesseau, with an account of the Roman and Canon Law,’ 1830.

His letter-books, containing transcripts of his correspondence between 1808 and 1818, are preserved in the British Museum (Addit. MSS. 25127–25129). These valuable volumes were presented to the museum by Mr. William Heslop, who rescued them from destruction as waste paper.

[Rev. W. J. Amherst on the Jubilee of Emancipation in Catholic Progress, 1879–84; C. Butler's Reminiscences, and his Memoirs of English Catholics; Catholic Magazine and Review (Birmingham, 1831–4), i. 571, ii. 262, 448, 451, v. 206; Catholicon, iv. 184; Dibdin's Literary Reminiscences, i. 129; Edinburgh Catholic Magazine (1832–3), i. 101, 166; Evans's Cat. of Engraved Portraits, ii. 65; Gent. Mag., N.S., cii. (ii.), 269, 661; Georgian Era, iii. 568; Prefaces to Hargrave and Butler's edition of Coke upon Littleton; Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd Rep. 257; Home and Foreign Review, ii. 536; Husenbeth's Life of Bishop Milner; Legal Observer, iv. 113; Addit. MSS. 25127–25129, 28167 ff. 85–87; Martineau's Hist. of England (1850), ii. 190; Milner's Supplementary Memoirs of English Catholics; Moore's Journals and Corresp. iv. 261, v. 19; Nichols's Illust. of Lit. v. 615, 618, 680, 692, viii. 333; Notes and Queries (2nd series), viii. 494; Pamphleteer, Nos. 2, 14, 45, 49; Parr's Life and Works, viii. 505–12; Southey's Life and Corresp. v. 204, 207, 234; Tablet, 17 April, 1875, p. 493.]

T. C.