James Butler, 12th Earl and 1st Duke of Ormonde, is born at Clerkenwell, London on October 19, 1610. An Anglo-Irish Protestant, he is the leading agent of English royal authority in Ireland during much of the period from the beginning of the English Civil War (1642–1651) to the Glorious Revolution (1688–1689).
Butler is born into the prominent Butler family, the eldest child of Thomas Butler and his wife Elizabeth Poyntz. He grows up in England and succeeds to the earldom of Ormonde in 1633. That same year he begins his active career in Ireland by offering his services to Lord Deputy of Ireland Thomas Wentworth, later Earl of Strafford. Upon the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 in Ireland, he is appointed a lieutenant general in the English army. He defeats the rebels of the Catholic confederacy at Kilrush, Munster on April 15, 1642 and at New Ross, Leinster on March 18, 1643. Those triumphs, however, do not prevent the confederates from overrunning most of the country.
Butlers’s attempts to conclude a peace are blocked by a Catholic faction that advocates complete independence for Ireland. The situation deteriorates further and, in July 1647, he departs from Ireland, leaving the Protestant cause in the hands of the parliamentarians, who had defeated King Charles I in the first English Civil War (1642–1646).
Returning to Ireland in September 1648, Butler concludes a peace with the confederacy in January 1649. He then rallies Protestant royalists and Catholic confederates in support of Charles II, son and successor of Charles I. For several months most of Ireland is under his control. But the parliamentarian general Oliver Cromwell lands at Dublin in August 1649 and swiftly conquers the country for Parliament. Butler flees to France and becomes one of Charles II’s closest advisers at his court-in-exile in Paris.
When Charles II returns to England in the Restoration of 1660, Butler, who had urged constitutional rather than military rule, is made commissioner for the treasury and the navy. Appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1662, he makes vigorous attempts to encourage Irish commerce and industry. Nevertheless, his enemies at court persuade Charles to dismiss him in 1669. He is restored to royal favour in 1677 and is again appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Although he is created a duke in the English peerage in 1682, he is recalled from Ireland in 1684 as a result of new intrigues at Charles’s court and because of the determination of James, Duke of York, to strengthen his supporters in Ireland.
Butler dies on July 21, 1688 at Kingston Lacy estate, Dorset. He is buried in Westminster Abbey on August 4, 1688. His eldest son, Thomas, 6th Earl of Ossory, predeceases him, but Ossory’s eldest son James succeeds as 2nd Duke of Ormonde (1665–1745).
(Pictured: “James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde,” oil on canvas by William Wissing, National Portrait Gallery)