Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Butler, Thomas (1532-1614)

BUTLER, THOMAS, tenth Earl of Ormonde (1532–1614), born in 1532, was son and heir of James Butler, ninth earl, who died of poison at Ely House, London, 28 Oct. 1546. His mother was Lady Joan Fitzgerald, heiress of James, eleventh earl of Desmond. His grandfather was Sir Pierce Butler, eighth earl of Ormonde [q. v.]. Thomas, who was called, from his dark complexion, the ‘Black Earl,’ succeeded his father in the earldom and estates at the age of fourteen. He was brought up at the English court with a view to alienating his sympathies from Ireland, and was the first of his family to adopt protestantism. He was knighted on Edward VI's accession in 1547. After Edward's death in 1553, the priests spread a false report that the young earl had been murdered in England, and the Irish on his estates, which were then managed by English officials, rose in revolt. In 1554 Ormonde set foot in Ireland amid great rejoicings on the part of the native population, and from the first attempted to act as mediator between the native Irish and their English rulers. He entered into friendly relations with Sussex, the lord deputy; in 1559 took the oath as privy councillor, and became lord treasurer of Ireland until death; but his action was unhappily fettered. The house of Desmond was the hereditary and implacable foe of the house of Ormonde, and neither the present earl's relationship (through his mother) with the then Earl of Desmond nor his conciliatory disposition could remove the ancient grudge. A quarrel respecting the ownership of the manors of Clonmel, Kilsheelan, and Kilfeacle was made in 1560 the pretext for a military demonstration, near Tipperary, of the retainers of the two houses. This happily proved abortive, and the English government tried to bring the rivalry to an end by a judicial award of the disputed territory in this case to the Earl of Desmond, but a permanent settlement was out of the question.

Ormonde, though openly avowing strong Irish sympathies, resolved to throw the weight of his influence on the side of law and order. In 1561 he sought, by means of his personal influence, to extract from Shan O'Neill, the virtually independent ruler of Ulster, an acknowledgment of the supremacy of the English crown and a promise to abstain from further aggression on other Ulster chieftains. O'Neill treated Ormonde with consideration, and agreed to visit England in his company in order to come to some settlement with Queen Elizabeth herself. In the result he was willing to submit all his differences to a board of arbitration, at which he desired Ormonde to take a seat. But when in 1562 O'Neill broke his vague promises and re-opened attack on the MacDonnells, his chief rivals in Ulster, it was with great reluctance (6 April 1563) that Ormonde, fearful of offending Irish feeling, aided Sussex in repressing the powerful chieftain. Meanwhile his quarrel with Desmond grew fiercer, and Munster, where the chief estates of either house lay, was in constant turmoil. Both leaders were summoned to London at the close of 1561, but little came of their interview with Elizabeth. Ormonde tried hard for a while to keep the peace in the face of Desmond's continued aggressions. Late in 1563 Ormonde complained to Sussex that Desmond was repeatedly attacking his relatives and tenants, and that it was only just that he should retaliate. On 1 July 1564 Ormonde issued a notable proclamation forbidding, in the interest of his poorer dependents, the exaction of the ancient Irish customs within his dominions, and he was contemplating other similar reforms, when an attack by Desmond on his kinsman Sir Maurice Fitzgerald led (1565) to a pitched battle between the supporters of the two earls at Affone, a ford near the river Finisk, a tributary of the Blackwater. Desmond was wounded by Sir Edmund Butler, Ormonde's brother, and taken prisoner. Elizabeth, angered beyond measure by this act of private war, summoned both earls again to her presence. The queen's councillors were divided as to the degrees of guilt attaching to the offenders, and the court factions aggravated the local struggle. Sussex insisted that Ormonde was guiltless. Sir Henry Sidney and the Leicester faction denied that Desmond had shown disloyalty to the English cause. Finally, both earls agreed (September 1565) to enter into their recognisances in 20,000l. to abide such orders as her majesty might prescribe. Elizabeth evinced unmistakable sympathy for Ormonde; the attentions she paid him at the time gave rise to no little scandal, and induced him to linger at court for the next five years. Meanwhile Sir Henry Sidney succeeded Sussex as lord deputy, and he was inclined to favour Desmond, but the queen insisted that Ormonde's claims whenever conflict arose deserved the higher consideration. In 1567 Sidney visited Munster and reported that it was absolutely uncontrolled, and as turbulent as it well could be. Desmond was ravaging Ormonde's territory in the earl's absence. A royal commission was nominated in October 1567 to determine the truth of Ormonde's allegation, that he had suffered terribly from Desmond's aggressions; an award was made in his favour, and Desmond was mulcted in the sum of 20,894l. 12s. 8d. Early in 1568 the Earl of Desmond and his brother John were sent to the Tower of London. Although Ormonde (in Sidney's words) still ‘politicly kept himself in England,’ the Butler influence was in the ascendant during the imprisonment of the rival earl. Edward and Sir Edmund, Ormonde's brothers, used their power, as his representatives in Munster, with the utmost cruelty and injustice. In June 1569 Sir Edmund, who had a personal hatred of Sidney, in temporary concert with some members of the Desmond family, broke into open revolt against the lord deputy. Sidney asserted that Ormonde's presence was indispensable to the peace of South Ireland, and the earl returned home with the queen's permission. He landed at Waterford in July 1569, and found Munster in the throes of a civil war, in which his brother Sir Edmund was matched against Sidney's lieutenant, Sir Peter Carew. Ormonde honestly endeavoured to arbitrate between the combatants, but Sidney clearly regarded him at the time with deep suspicion. Early in 1570, however, Ormonde wrote to Cecil that he and Sidney were reconciled, and as proof of his goodwill he crushed, at Sidney's request, a rebellion of the Earl of Thomond, one of the Munster malcontents. In April Ormonde's three brothers, Edmund, Edward, and Piers, were attainted, and Ormonde passionately protested against the indignity; but though the three Butlers were pardoned in 1573, and became loyal subjects, they were not, through some legal error, restored in blood. In 1571 Ormonde was busily engaged in repressing further tumults in Munster, which the Desmond influence continued to foment. At the beginning of 1572 Fitzwilliam, the lord deputy, wrote to Burghley that ‘the South was always the ticklish part of Ireland, and that Ormonde alone could manage it.’

In 1572 the earl spent several months in London, and visited his old rival, the Earl of Desmond, who was still in confinement. Desmond begged Ormonde to use his influence to secure his release, and probably Ormonde recommended the course, which was soon after adopted, of letting Desmond return to Ireland under guarantees of good behaviour. Ormonde's domain grew very turbulent in his renewed absence, and Desmond, scorning all his promises, resolved on striking a desperate blow at English rule in South Ireland. In July 1573 Ormonde entreated him in vain to abandon his threatening designs. While Ormonde was on another visit to London, news reached Elizabeth (December 1579) of a rising of the Desmond faction in Munster, aided and encouraged by papal envoys and Spanish soldiers. Ormonde was straightway appointed military governor of the province, with a commission ‘to banish and vanquish those cankered Desmonds.’ In March 1580 he marched from Kilkenny to Kerry, ravaging the country with fire and sword. In the mountains of Kerry he captured many of the rebel leaders, and in a report of his services drawn up in July 1580 he claimed to have put to the sword within three months 46 captains, 800 notorious traitors and malefactors, and 4,000 other persons. In September, when the rebels were encouraged to renew the struggle by the arrival of a second detachment of Spaniards at Smerwick, Ormonde showed less activity, although he still maintained a large army and supported the movements of the government. His conduct gave rise in England to some groundless suspicions of his loyalty. In April 1581, when the immediate danger had passed, he declared himself weary of killing, and induced Elizabeth to proclaim pardon to all the rebels save Desmond and his brothers. But in 1582 the country was still disturbed. ‘They seek,’ wrote Sir Henry Wallop of the native Irish (10 June 1582), ‘to have the government among themselves,’ and Lord Burghley and Walsingham thought to conciliate Irish feeling by appointing Ormonde lord deputy. Wallop and other English officials, however, who, like Sidney, were jealous of Ormonde's influence both at the English court and in Ireland, protested that ‘Ormonde is too great for Ireland already,’ and he was merely confirmed in the military government of Munster. Desmond was still at large in the Kerry mountains, and a few of his supporters maintained the old warfare. Ormonde was inclined to treat the enemy leniently for a time, but in May 1583 he deemed it prudent to attack with his former rigour all the known adherents of Desmond. At the same time he set a price on Desmond's head, and in October the rebellious earl was captured and slain. Ormonde thus succeeded in pacifying Munster. In November he insisted on the grant of an indemnity to all who had taken part in the revolt, and spoke very roughly in letters to Burghley of those English officers who advocated further rigorous measures, or wished him to break faith with the penitent rebels whom he had taken under his protection. In 1588 he helped to capture and kill the Spanish refugees who had escaped the wreck of the Armada.

In October 1597 Ormonde was appointed lieutenant-general of the army in Ireland, and he supported the English troops in their tedious attempts to repress the rebellion of O'Neill, earl of Tyrone, in 1598–9. With Essex he was on no friendly terms (Spedding's Bacon, ii. 93 et seq.). Ormonde complained that Essex did not honestly strive to crush Tyrone, and Essex and his associates retaliated by hinting suspicions of Ormonde's loyalty. In 1602 Elizabeth granted him much confiscated lands in Munster, and a pension of 40l. In 1612 he was vice-admiral of Ireland and sought to repress piracy. He died 22 Nov. 1614, at the age of eighty-two.

Ormonde was thrice married: first, to Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas, tenth lord Berkeley, by whom he had no issue; secondly, to Elizabeth, daughter of John, ninth lord Sheffield, by whom he had two sons, James and Thomas, and a daughter Elizabeth; and thirdly, to Helen, daughter of David, viscount Buttevant. His sons both died before him, and his title descended to Walter, son of his brother John of Kilcash. In 1597 Ormonde conveyed some rich church lands (originally granted by the crown to his brother James, and reverting to him on the death of James's only son without issue) to an illegitimate son, Piers FitzThomas (b 1576). This son married Katherine, eldest daughter of Thomas, lord Stone, and was the father of Sir Edward Butler, created Viscount Galmoy 16 May 1646.

A sonnet in Ormonde's praise is prefixed by Spenser to the ‘Faerie Queene’ (1590).

[Bagwell's History of Ireland under the Tudors, vols. i. and ii.; Froude's Hist. of England, vols. vii. and x.; Burke's Peerage; Chamberlain's Letters, temp. Elizabeth (Camden Soc.); Camden's Annals; Cal. State Papers (Irish), 1560–1614; Carew MSS.; Cal. State Papers (Dom.), 1600–1614.]

S. L. L.