Elizabeth Butler

Elizabeth Butler, Duchess Of Ormond

Ann Tierney (2013)

The year was 1652. Because he had confiscated her husband’s lands, Elizabeth boarded a ship and went to see Cromwell. She told him that the house and lands in Dunmore, just north of Kilkenny city, belonged to her in her own right. Cromwell was persuaded and agreed to let her return to Kilkenny on condition she cease all communication with her outlawed husband.
This was Elizabeth Butler, countess of Ormond and a strong-minded woman, well able to look after her family. Her husband was James Butler who would one day be first duke of Ormond. The Butler couple were in exile in France having supported the recently executed King Charles I.
So Elizabeth and her children got back to Dunmore, her favourite home. She threw herself into developing it as a house fit for one of the most powerful families in Ireland. It was already large. Elizabeth built a new wing and undertook extensive refurbishment. She employed upholsterers, stonecarvers and gilders. She gave it rich plasterwork, wainscotting, tapestries and paintings. An inventory lists table and foot carpets, crimson velvet furniture and feather beds. She planted acres of trees, created gardens and orchards, even a bowling green.
Elizabeth’s own story is quite extraordinary. She was the most famous heiress of seventeenth century Ireland. Her mother was a Butler, her father a Scot called Robert Preston who became the Earl of Desmond. When her parents died – her father drowned in the Irish sea on his way to attend his wife’s funeral – Elizabeth became heir to vast Ormond estates. A year later she married her 19 year-old cousin, James Butler. She was by now aged 14 and a half. The marriage brought together the Ormond title and the lands and was effectively arranged by James’s grandfather who handed over £15,000 to Elizabeth’s guardian. The young married couple settled in Carrick-on-Suir, and in Kilkenny.
James was frequently away from home in the service of the king. In 1641, when rebellion broke out, he was in Dublin. The by-then 27-year old countess Elizabeth was in Kilkenny castle with her four children. Hundreds of Protestant refugees were intimidated by a Catholic mob and were forced to abandon their homes. They came knocking at the castle door and Elizabeth welcomed them in. She provided food, clothing and accommodation for 300. When conditions in the castle became chronic, Elizabeth negotiated their evacuation and that of her children and herself. She managed to arrange safe passage for all from Waterford, aboard two ships bound for Dublin.
No long after this the Confederation of Kilkenny got underway. Elizabeth and James were in Dublin where Elizabeth gave birth to two more children and James represented the King. For safety, Elizabeth and the family moved to England then in the middle of a civil war, and on to France. James continued in Ireland, negotiating with the Confederates and eventually joining with them against Cromwell.
It was two years more before James Butler could be with his family in France and a further decade before England’s attempt at being a republic collapsed and Charles II was restored to the throne. Elizabeth and James then became prominent members of the court in London, Elizabeth constantly concerned about the cost of the lavish hospitality they must provide. When James reached retirement age they got permission from the king to return to Kilkenny. Before long, though, James was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and the couple moved to the viceregal residence at Chapelizod.
For all these years Elizabeth closely supervised the employment of staff and her Dunmore estate. She kept up a detailed correspondence with her agent in the presumption that she would eventually settle in Dunmore. But in 1684, at the age of 69, she died in London. She was buried at Westminster Abbey. James followed her there 4 years later.
After her death, Dunmore became neglected and run down. The contents were moved to Kilkenny castle and no trace of the house survives today.