seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA

Poisoning of James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond

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James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond, is poisoned in London on October 28, 1546. He is the son of Piers Butler, 8th Earl of Ormond, and Margaret Fitzgerald, Countess of Ormond. In 1535 he is created Viscount Thurles, and is confirmed by Act of Parliament on November 6, 1541, in the Earldom of Ormond, as 9th Earl with the pre-eminence of the original earls.

About 1520 Butler joins the household of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who praises him as a young gentleman “both wise and discreet.” In early 1522, it is proposed by King Henry VIII that he marry his cousin Anne Boleyn, who is the great-granddaughter of Thomas Butler, 7th Earl of Ormond. This is to resolve a dispute her father Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire has with James’ father over the Ormond inheritance and title. Wolsey himself supports the proposal. The marriage negotiation, comes to a halt for unknown reasons. Butler subsequently marries Lady Joan Fitzgerald in December 1532. Lady Joan is the daughter and heiress of the other great Munster landholder, the James FitzGerald, 10th Earl of Desmond and his wife Amy O’Brien. Their marriage produces seven sons.

During the early 1540s Butler gradually restores the Butler dynasty to their former position of influence, leading to antagonism from the quarrelsome Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Anthony St. Leger. St. Leger gives Butler command of the Irish forces in the Anglo-Scottish War of 1544. On the face of it this is an honour, but allies of Butler accuse St. Leger of deliberately sending him into danger. Butler himself demands an inquiry into claims that St. Leger had planned his murder, and the matter is thought to merit a Privy Council investigation. The Council finds in favour of St. Leger and he and Butler are ordered to work together amicably. Key Government allies of Butler like John Alan and Walter Cowley are removed from office, and Butler is struggling to maintain his standing when he is poisoned.

On October 17, 1546, James goes to London with many of his household. They are invited to dine at Ely Place in Holborn. He is poisoned along with his steward, James Whyte, and sixteen of his household. He dies nine days later, on October 28, leaving Joan a widow in her thirties.

It is surprising, in view of Butler’s high social standing, that no proper investigation into his death is carried out. Who is behind the poisoning remains a mystery. His host at the dinner, John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, though he could be notably ruthless, seems to have no motive for the crime, as he is not known to have had any quarrel with Butler. A recent historian remarks that it would be an extraordinary coincidence if St. Leger had no part in the sudden and convenient removal of his main Irish opponent.

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