Vice Admiral Thomas Butler, 6th Earl of Ossory, KG, PC, PC (Ire), Irish soldier and politician, is born on July 8, 1634 at Kilkenny Castle. He is the eldest son of James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond, and Elizabeth Preston. He predeceases his father and therefore never becomes duke.
When Butler is born, his father is then the 12th Earl of Ormond but is raised to marquess and duke. His family, the Butler dynasty, is Old English and descends from Theobald Walter, who had been appointed Chief Butler of Ireland by King Henry II in 1177. His mother is a second cousin once removed of his father as she is a granddaughter of Black Tom, 10th Earl of Ormond. Her father, however, is Scottish, Richard Preston, 1st Earl of Desmond, a favourite of James I. Both parents are Protestants. They married on Christmas Day 1629.
Butler is one of ten siblings, eight brothers and two sisters, but five of the sons die in childhood. As the eldest living son, he is the heir apparent and is styled with the corresponding courtesy title, which at first is Viscount Thurles but changed to Earl of Ossory when his father becomes marquess in 1642. His early years are spent in Ireland until 1647 when he accompanies his father to England. In 1648 his father renews his support for the royalist cause and he and his son have to flee to France, arriving in Caen in February 1648. Lady Ormond also moves to Caen, where she arrives on June 23, 1648 with his siblings.
Butler is an accomplished athlete and a good scholar. Having come to London in 1652 he is rightly suspected of sympathising with the exiled royalists, and in 1655 is jailed by Oliver Cromwell. After his release about a year later he goes into exile to the Netherlands where Charles II has his exile court at the time.
On November 17, 1659, while in exile, Butler marries Emilia van Nassau, the second daughter of Louis of Nassau, Lord of De Lek and Beverweerd. They have eleven children, including two sons: James (1665–1745), who becomes the 2nd Duke of Ormonde in 1688; Charles (1671–1758), who becomes the de jure 3rd Duke of Ormonde following his elder brother’s attainder in 1715; Elizabeth (died 1717), who marries William Stanley, 9th Earl of Derby in 1673; Amelia (died 1760), who inherits the estates of her brother Charles and never marries; and Henrietta (died 1724), who marries Henry de Nassau d’Auverquerque, 1st Earl of Grantham.
Butler accompanies Charles II back to England in 1660. In 1661 he becomes a member of both the English and the Irish houses of commons, representing in the former Bristol and Dublin University in the latter.
In 1662 Butler is called to the Irish House of Lords under a writ of acceleration as the Earl of Ossory. His father holds the title “5th Earl of Ossory” as one of his subsidiary titles. The acceleration makes Thomas Butler the 6th Earl of Ossory. This is the only substantive title he ever holds, as he predeceases his father and therefore never succeeds to his father’s titles. His eldest son, however, would later become the 2nd Duke of Ormond and the 7th Earl of Ossory.
Butler holds several military appointments: lieutenant-general of the army in Ireland (appointed in 1665); created an English peer as Lord Butler (in 1666); Lord of the Bedchamber to Charles II (appointed in 1660), a post he holds until his death.
In 1665 a fortunate accident allows Butler to take part in the Battle of Lowestoft against the Dutch, and in May 1672, being now in command of a ship, he fights against the same enemies in the Battle of Solebay, serving with great distinction on both occasions. He is partly responsible for this latter struggle, as on March 12, 1672, before war is declared, he attacks the Dutch Smyrna fleet, an action which he greatly regrets later in life. While visiting France in 1672 he rejects the liberal offers made by Louis XIV to induce him to enter the service of France, and returning to England he adds to his high reputation by his conduct during the Battle of Texel in August 1673. From 1677 until 1679, he serves alongside his father as a Lord of the Admiralty.
Butler is intimate with William, Prince of Orange, and in 1677 he joins the allied army in the Netherlands, commanding the British contingent and winning great fame at the siege of Mons in 1678. He acts as deputy for his father, who is Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and in parliament he defends Ormond’s Irish administration with great vigour. In 1680 he is appointed governor of English Tangier, but his death prevents him from taking up his new duties.
Butler dies on July 30, 1680 at Arlington House in London. He is buried provisionally in Westminster Abbey on July 31, 1680. The ceremony of burial is performed belatedly on November 13, 1680. Some say Butler’s body is later taken to Ireland and reburied in the family vault in St. Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. James, his eldest son, succeeds him as the 7th Earl of Ossory and in 1688 becomes the 2nd Duke of Ormond.
(Pictured: “Thomas Butler, Earl of Ossory” by Peter Lely, painting, circa 1678, National Portrait Gallery)