The Great Duke of Ormonde 1610-1688

Written and read by Eamonn Kiely (2019)

This man ruled Ireland for thirty nine years on behalf of the British King. He was successively Earl Marquess and Duke. He was Lord Lieutenant and Viceroy. He served under four Stuart kings. During the Commonwealth rule of Oliver Cromwell he exiled on the Continent with King Charles 11. His career has been well documented by Thomas Carte in 1736 and Lady Burgclere in 1912 Born in Clerkenwell in England as James Butler of the Kilcash branch of the famous Butler family. He spent his early youth between England and Ireland. On one occasion at Carrick-on-Suir the old and blind 10th Earl asked who was whipping his gig or top in his presence. He was told it was little Jimmy of Kilcash. Black Tom as the old Earl was known, prophesised a sparkling career for the youth. This boy was later to be responsible for the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham, the Phoenix Park- despite King Charles II and his mistress The Duchess of Cleveland, – the quays of Dublin, Stephen’s Green, and the making of Kilkenny Castle into the style of a French chateau.

When it became clear that he was heir to the earldom of Ormonde, King James I had him fostered under Archbishop Abbot Protestant Archbishop at Lambeth. James became the only member of his family to become a Protestant. His father had drowned off Skerries in 1619. His grandfather ‘ Walter of the Beads’ taught James Irish.

James made a very judicious marriage in London to Elizabeth Preston, a grand daughter of Black Tom and the heir to the enormous Butler lands. James, being of the male line of the Butlers brought the title Earl of Ormonde with him. The couple were second cousins.

Back in Ireland he befriended the Lord Lieutenant Earl of Strafford. A banquet was given to Strafford, Thomas Wentworth in Kilkenny Castle in the 1630s. He said ‘He had not seen anything so noble since his coming into the kingdom’. The bill was levied on the townspeople as well as local villages. The Kilkennys were less than gruntled to use Woodhouse’s term. Strafford planned to confiscate catholic land and pass it to English settlers who would, by paying for same, defray King Charles 1 large debt. This was largely the plan which Cromwell was to implement in 1650s long after the British Parliament had executed Wentworth.

James Butler, Earl of Ormond was put in charge of 8,000 Royal troops in 1639. He had to use these with the outbreak of the 1641 Rebellion. The first action was the relief of Drogheda being besieged by the Irish rebels under Sir Phelim O’ Neill. Real and exaggerated reports of massacres of Protestants by Catholic rebels caused Butler’s wife Elizabeth to shelter many of them. This stood her in good stead in the future, as her personal appeal to Cromwell to prevent confiscation of her land caused even that tyrant to concede.

The Civil War raged in England between Royalists and Roundheads (Parliament) in the 1640s. Ormonde sent troops under Alasdair MacColla to help the Scottish Royalists and sparked off a civil war in Scotland. In Ireland the Confederation of Kilkenny, an all Catholic body of Irish and Anglo Irish had an army for each of the provinces as well as its Parliament in Kilkenny. In 1641 St Ledger’s atrocities in Munster against Catholics forced Lord Muskerry (Ormonde’s brother in law) into rebellion along with Lord Mountgarrett (Cousin of Ormonde) and Richard Butler (Ormonde’s brother). While Ormonde will never be reckoned a great military leader he did defeat Mountgarret at Kilrush in Kildare on 15 April 1642 and Preston’s Leinster Army at Old Ross on18 Mar 1643. In 1647, Ormonde lost forever the support of Catholic Ireland when handing over Dublin city to Puritan forces. He said’ better English Rebels than Irish Rebels.’ These Irish rebels were willing to accept the British crown, something the Puritans weren’t. 1648 saw Ormonde sign a peace with the Confederation parliament and speaker Sir Richard Blake. 1649 brought the execution of the king in England and Ormonde’s defeat at Rathmines by The Puritan Jones. This was an inglorious event for Ormonde as his army was surprised and heavily defeated.

August 1650 has Cromwell’s army landing at Ringsend. A last ditch effort to stop his invasion has Ormonde allying himself with Eoin Roe O’Neills Ulster Army. The death of Ireland’s greatest soldier at Lough Uachter and the handing of command to a bishop ended this proposal. Ormonde did not engage Cromwell and we know of the latter’s massacres at Drogheda and Wexford.

Ormonde goes into exile with king Charles 11 and spends about twelve years on the Continent as chief advisor and often financier of the king. While in Paris he once met the son he had from outside the blanket with Lady Isabelle Thynne. This lady subsequently shared a home with Ormonde and Elizabeth at Caen.

At the Restoration of King Charles to the throne in England in 1660 Ormonde as Lord Steward carried the crown at the coronation. He was also to do this later for King James 11. Charles presented him with a beautiful trophy described as a silver –gilt fountain, a photograph features in Burghclere’s book. James was made an Irish Duke in March 1661. In July 1662 he returns to Kilkenny to an enormous reception – he had been away 15 years. President O’Dalaigh told us at the Castle on the occasion when the windows fell to artillery fire that “Thugamar Fein an Sahraidh linn” was written for the famous return.

In the 1660s Ormonde was key in the restoring of Irish lands to original owners- not all of course, at most one third, as long as they could prove they were innocent in the 1641 rebellion or nocent as they called it. How do you prove a negative! Ormonde was often in England and people seeking land restoration often did so through his wife Elizabeth situated at Dunmore. Invariably she wrote a splendid case on their behalf to Ormonde. She had a secret code with Ormonde where she might have written more in compliance than respect. She signed leaving out the ‘e’ in Ormonde. That person seeking restitution of his estate was left wondering that such a glowing recommendation could be refused.

Ormonde sent 30,000 cattle to London in 1666 after the Great Fire of London. English laws would not have allowed Irish cattle be sold there. By 1668 the Cabal was set up in London influencing King Charles 11 against Ormonde. This was a political clique whose names spell cabal ie Clifford ,Arlington ,Buckingham, Ashley and Lauderdale. They managed to get Ormonde sacked as Lord Lieutenant in 1669. He was however made Chancellor of Oxford University. His son Earl of Ossory was meanwhile an outstanding Naval Commander in the war against the Dutch.

Most people spoke well of Ormonde –Erlington Ball says ‘Those whom Ormonde had ever loved, he loved to the end’. Himself a merciful man, he encouraged the Irish judges to show a similar spirit of clemency; as he remarked,’ a man who has been reprieved can later be hanged, but a man who has been hanged can never be reprieved’. A historian said of him ‘If nobility of character combined with almost infinite patience could have availed him, Ormonde would have saved Ireland from impending ruin’. Burghclere says ‘He had stood for a great principle – the suzerainty of England – and to the sovereign alone he was accountable for his trust’. One might have thought having served under four Stuart kings he might have questioned their vaunted divine right.

Ormonde survived a murderous attack by Thomas Blood on him on St James’ Street London in 1670. It is believed Buckingham of the cabal was behind it. Ormonde’s son ‘The Gallant Ossory cautioned Buckingham with instant death if any harm came to his father –this in the hearing of King Charles 11.

In November 1682 Ormonde was created Duke in the English peerage’ His wife died in 1684. All his eight sons pre deceased him, somewhat like the earlier occupant of Kilkenny Castle, Earl Marshal. A daughter Elizabeth married Earl Chesterfield. Their descendent Queen Elizabeth 11 sits on the throne of England through her Bowes Lyne connections.

Innumerable streets and roads are named after Ormonde. He always promoted the sale of Irish goods and established the very talented Huguenot craftsmen in many towns in Ireland. One of the World’s greatest children’s hospital bears his name Great Ormonde St Hospital in London. He died in 1688 at Kingston Lacy, Dorset and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

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