Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Butler, Alban

BUTLER, ALBAN (1711–1773), hagiographer, was descended from the ancient family of the Butlers of Aston-le-Walls, in Northamptonshire. Towards the close of the seventeenth century that family was represented by two brothers, Alban and Simon. Alban, the elder, had issue only one daughter, who married Mr. Edward Plowden, of Plowden, Shropshire. She inherited the estate at Aston-le-Walls, and from her it descended to the Plowden family. The Appletree estate devolved to Simon, the younger brother. His son, also named Simon, married Ann, daughter of Thomas Birch, of Garscott, Staffordshire. They had issue three sons, Charles, Alban, and James. At a very early age Alban Butler was sent to a school in Lancashire, where he distinguished himself by his intense application to literature, sacred biography being, even then, his favourite pursuit. When eight years old he was transferred to the English college at Douay, and about this time lost both his parents. After the usual course of study he was admitted an alumnus of the college, and appointed professor, first of philosophy, and then of divinity. He was ordained priest in 1735. The solicitude with which he tended the wounded English soldiers who were conveyed as prisoners to Douay, after the battle of Fontenoy, was brought under the notice of the Duke of Cumberland, who promised Butler a special protection whenever he should come over to England. While he remained at Douay his first publication made its appearance: ‘Letters on the History of the Popes published by Mr. Archibald Bower’ [q. v.] In 1745–6 he accompanied the Earl of Shrewsbury and the Hon. James Talbot and Thomas Talbot on their travels through France and Italy. He wrote a full account of the tour, which was published at Edinburgh in 1803 by his nephew, Charles Butler. On his return from his travels he was sent to the English mission. He had long been engaged in composing the ‘Lives of the Saints,’ and he naturally wished to be stationed in London for its literary resources; but the vicar apostolic of the midland district claimed him as belonging to that district, and appointed him to a mission in Staffordshire. Thence he removed to Warkworth, the seat of Mr. Francis Eyre, and next he was appointed chaplain to Edward, duke of Norfolk, and charged with superintending the education of Edward, the duke’s nephew, and presumptive heir to the title. His first residence, after he was appointed to this situation, was at Norwich, in a house generally called the Duke’s palace. Thither some large boxes of books belonging to him were directed, but by mistake were sent to the bishop’s palace. The bishop opened them, and, finding that they contained catholic books, refused to deliver them. In this difficulty Butler appealed to the Duke of Cumberland, who immediately wrote to the bishop, and the books were sent to the owner.

Butler accompanied his pupil, Mr. Edward Howard, to Paris, where that young nobleman, who was the Marcellus of the English catholics, was suddenly taken ill and died a few days afterwards. During his residence in the French capital he completed his ‘Lives of the Saints,’ a monument of erudition on which he had been engaged for thirty years. The work was published anonymously in London, the full title being ‘The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and other principal Saints; compiled from original monuments and other authentick records; illustrated with the remarks of judicious modern criticks and historians.’ The original edition, bearing the imprint of London, but without the printer's name, appeared in four bulky octavo volumes, the first two in 1756; the third, consisting of two parts, in 1757 and 1758; and the fourth in 1769. The notes were omitted from this edition on the suggestion of Bishop Challoner. The second edition was undertaken after Butler's death by Dr. Carpenter, archbishop of Dublin, and published in that city in 12 vols. 8vo, 1779-80. It contains all the notes omitted from the previous edition, and other matter prepared by the author. The third edition, also in 12 vols., appeared at Edinburgh in 1798-1800. Other editions were published at London, 12 vols., 1812; and at Dublin, 2 vols., 1833-6, 8vo. Dr. Husenbeth's edition was begun in 1857. A 'free' translation into French, by the Abbé Godescard, and Marie Villefranche, in 12 vols. 8vo, was published in 1763 and subsequent years; a new edition, in 10 vols., appeared at Besançon in 1843. The work has been translated into Italian by G. Brunati.

Soon after his return to England he was chosen president of the English college at Saint-Omer. This office he continued to hold during the remainder of his life. He was also appointed vicar-general to the bishops of Arras, Saint-Omer, Ypres, and Boulogne-sur-Mer. He died at Saint-Omer on 16 May 1773.

He projected many works besides the 'Lives of the Saints.' His 'Life of Mary of the Cross,' a nun in the English convent of Poor Clares at Rouen, appeared in his lifetime; but his treatise on the 'Moveable Feasts and Fasts, and other Annual Observances of the Catholic Church,' was left incomplete, and was published after his death by Bishop Challoner in 1774. He made large collections for lives of Bishop Fisher and Sir Thomas More; and he began a treatise to explain the evidence and truths of natural and revealed religion, being dissatisfied with what Bergier had published on those subjects. He composed many sermons and an immense number of pious discourses. From what remained of the latter the 'Meditations and Discourses on the sublime Truths and important Duties of Christianity,' published by his nephew Charles Butler (1750-1832) [q. v.] (3 vols., London, 1791-3), were collected. He was also the author of 'The Life of Sir Tobie Matthews,' published at London in 1795 by his nephew, who also edited his uncle's 'Travels tnrough France and Italy, and part of Austrian, French, and Dutch Netherlands, during the years 1745 and 1746' (Edinburgh, 1803).

His portrait has been engraved by Finden.

[Life of his nephew, Charles Butler (Edin. 1800, with portrait); Catholicon, iv. 184; Catholic Magazine and Review (Birmingham, 1832), ii.451; Edinburgh Catholic Magazine (1832-3), i. 166; Notes and Queries (1st series), viii. 387, ix. 360, (2nd series) ix. 502, x. 79, (3rd series) vi. 538, (5th series) vi. 409, vii. 35; Evans's Cat. of Engraved Portraits, ii. 65; The True State of the Case of John Butler, B.D., a Minister of the True Church of England; in answer to the Libel of Martha, his sometimes wife (Lond. 1697); Lowndes's Bibl. Man. (Bohn), 332; Cat. of Printed Books in Brit. Mus.]

T. C.