The Lancastrian leader who faced – or failed to face – Thomas, Earl of Desmond, at the Battle of Piltown in 1462 was the fourth of the five children born to James Butler, 4th Earl of Ormond (otherwise known as the White Earl), and his countess Joan Beauchamp, daughter of William Beauchamp, Lord Bergavenny. John’s older siblings were Anne, Elizabeth and James (the last born towards the end of 1420), whilst his younger brother was named Thomas. All of the children were to use Ormond as their surname rather than Butler, in order perhaps to distinguish themselves from less exalted bearers of the Butler surname. In 1430 their mother, the Countess Joan, died in London, possibly giving birth to Thomas, and two years later John’s father found himself another bride: Elizabeth FitzGerald, the sole child of the 5th Earl of Kildare and the widow of John, Lord Grey of Codnor.
The family’s title derived from its earliest Irish base in East Munster (Oir Mumhan in Irish), but they had long since moved eastwards through Tipperary into County Kilkenny. Their surname derived from
the office of Chief Butler of Ireland, which four generations of John’s ancestors had held during the century following the Norman invasion. But the earls of Ormond were also descended from King Edward I and related to many of the chief families of England. John’s father had served in France during the reign of Henry V, and was for the remainder of his life to be fairly regularly appointed as either Lieutenant, Deputy or Justiciar of Ireland (including Deputy to his distant cousin Edmund Mortimer in the mid-1420s), but his entire career was blighted by the persistent enmity of the Talbots, who had their own lands and interests in Ireland.
The White Earl was diligent in making arrangements for his children’s futures. In 1429 he and his ally the Earl of Desmond sealed a contract for the marriage of Desmond’s son and heir Thomas to Ormond’s daughter Anne; there are no further records of Anne so it is usually assumed that she died before the marriage could take place and that Thomas FitxGerald’s only wife was Ellice Barry, whom he wed in late 1455 or early 1456. But Thomas was a widower when he wed young Ellice, as evidenced by the impediments of affinity included in their dispensation. Only a consummated union would create affinity so the parental marriage contract cannot have been the cause of it, but whether these impediments, which were argued over, are consistent with Thomas’ first wife having been Anne Butler is far from clear.
In 1434 the White Earl made a serious attempt to settle his differences with the Talbots, sealing the accord by the marriage of his remaining daughter Elizabeth to John Talbot’s eldest son, the future 2nd Earl of Shrewsbury. A couple of years later John’s elder brother James, a knight since the age of five and now growing towards manhood, was married to a West Country heiress, Avice Stafford, and also endowed with properties in Cambridgeshire that had belonged to his grandmother Anne Welles; on these lands, Sir James started to carve out a place for himself in the English political system as a retainer of his distant cousin, Richard Duke of York.
SON AND BROTHER
John first makes an appearance in the records in 1441 when, along with his father and elder brother Sir James, he sailed to Normandy to serve York, the newly appointed Lieutenant of France. But John’s father left France again early in 1442, having been appointed once more as Lieutenant of Ireland. Yet again, the White Earl found his tenure of office challenged by accusations made against him by the Talbots, and to cap it all he now fell out with his old ally the Earl of Desmond. In 1447 King Henry’s government finally found a solution to the problem, acquitting Ormond but replacing him as Lieutenant by his former lord, Richard Duke of York. In the summer of 1449 York finally sailed to Dublin, and his speedy, though shortlived, success in bringing peace between Ireland’s warring Anglo-Irish aristocracy was sealed in late October with the christening of his baby son George, at which Archbishop Talbot was the officiating priest and the earls of Ormond and Desmond stood as godfathers. When York left Ireland again the following summer, it was to Ormond that he entrusted the deputyship. After an arduous campaign in the summer of 1452, the Earl took ill and died, to be succeeded by his eldest son, James.
The White Earl’s children, however, had already parted company with their father’s Irish concerns and his political loyalties. Elizabeth was busy providing the Earl of Shrewsbury’s son with heirs. James been admitted to the King’s council and created Earl of Wiltshire, probably through the favour of the young queen, and in 1450 had nailed his colours to the mast by joining the opposition to York at Dartford. In 1449, John had chosen to serve in Normandy under York’s bitter foe, Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset, and when
Somerset surrendered the duchy to Charles VII he had allowed himself to be handed over as a hostage for the retreating duke’s good faith. Thomas had married a West Country heiress, Anne Hankeford, daughter of the late Sir Richard Hankeford of Devon and a stepsister of another court favourite, the Duke of Exeter.
In May of 1453 the Council stripped York of his lieutenantship of Ireland in order to grant it to Wiltshire. At the 1st Battle of St. Albans the young earl, fearing himself to be a special target, chalked up the first of his several known desertions, sloping away from the battle lines and disappearing into the blue yonder disguised as a monk. But when York lost power Wiltshire returned to court, now a close ally of the young Henry Beaufort, 3rd Duke of Somerset, whose sister Eleanor he married in about 1458 after the death of his first wife. John had been a free man since at least 1453, but the only surviving records of him util the very end of the decade show him asssociated with the far South West of England, exporting tin and wool from Cornwall and finally, in 1459, purchasing the farm of all the gold, silver and tin mines in Devon and Cornwall.
After Ludford Bridge, Somerset was appointed to replace Warwick as Captain of Calais and commanded to take control of the town before the fugitive earl could gain entry. John, the only one of the Ormond brothers with suitable military experience, joined Somerset’s force and crossed the Channel in the Duke’s own ship. Their little fleet arrived off Calais in November, but the herald sent ashore to demand entry to the town returned with the news that Warwick was already ensconced and the garrison had no intention of taking another captain.
Somerset now decided to make for Guisnes, the inland fortress guarding the southern border of the Calais Pale. His ships set out westwards but were scattered by a storm, and every vessel except that in which the Duke and John Ormond were travelling fetched up in Calais harbour. Somerset did not even have horses in his vessel and was forced to lead his men on foot; fortunately for John, the
captain and garrison of Guisnes saw no reason to reject the Duke’s letter of appointment, and placed the castle at his disposal. They held out at Guisnes for a full eight months until Warwick, fresh from the Yorkist victory at Northampton at which John’s brother-in-law the Earl of Shrewsbury had been killed, returned to Calais and parleyed with Somerset on Newnham Bridge near Boulogne. In return for a promise of safe passage to Dieppe for himself and John Ormond, Somerset surrendered to the Earl of Warwick his claim to Calais and all its fortresses.
John’s next movements are not clear, but perhaps he sailed to Ireland to gather men. At any rate, this would seem to be the latest reasonable opportunity for his known marriage, to Raghnailt or Reynalda, the teenaged sister of Tadhg the new king of Thomond (the modern County Clare). This may not have been John’s first marriage as his father would surely have found a wife for him before marrying off his younger brother Thomas, unless of course he had simply missed his turn as a result of his imprisonment in France.
John’s marriage to Raghnailt O’Brien was canonically invalid as they were related by consanguinity in the third and fourth degrees (both being descended, through their mothers, from Thomas de Beauchamp, 11th Earl of Warwick, and his wife Katherine Mortimer). This might have been of relatively little concern in Gaelic Ireland but was a fatal flaw in the eyes of the Anglo-Irish and the English Crown, parties that would have been hostile to the marriage per se as contravening the Statutes of Kilkenny, which forbade intermarriage between the ‘English’ of Ireland and the Gaelic Irish. Had King Henry had kept his throne, therefore, a retrospective dispensation would almost certainly have been obtained for this union as for so many other aristocratic Irish marriages.
At the end of 1460 York was killed at Wakefield, but only a month later Wiltshire found himself facing the forces of York’s son Edward at Mortimer’s Cross. Yet again he fled, and before long all three brothers were together in Yorkshire awaiting the arrival of the vast army that Edward, the newly proclaimed King of England, was bringing against them. All three were at Towton on the eve of the battle, but it is evident from the wordings of their subsequent
attainders that only John and Thomas actually fought. They both succeeded in escaping to Scotland with King Henry and Queen Margaret; had Wiltshire held his nerve and fought with his brothers, therefore, he too would probably have survived. As it was, he was taken alone, sheltering at Cockermouth Castle in the Lake District, brought to King Edward at Newcastle, and there tried and beheaded.
SELF-STYLED EARL IN EXILE
Since both of Wiltshire’s marriages had been childless, his titles now passed to John, who henceforth styled himself Earl of Ormond. All three brothers were attainted by the English Parliament in November, but the English Parliament’s writ did not run in Ireland and it was to Ireland that John now returned. I have elsewhere told the story of John’s failed attempt to assert his rights in Ireland during 1462, and how he and his retinue allegedly sat out the battle that was fought and lost in his name against his late sister’s former husband/ betrothed, Thomas FitzGerald, now earl of Desmond. After the defeat of Piltown, John placed his estates in the hands of his first cousin, Edmund MacRichard Butler of Paulstown, but he does not seem to have fled to Queen Margaret with his brother Thomas, but rather lay low on his own estates in Ireland, where both brothers were soon afterwards attainted.
In the following spring (1463) Desmond was appointed as the new Deputy Lieutenant, and that summer he set out with a large army of ‘his own kinsmen, adherents and their sequel [following] to the number of 20,000‘ to make good John Butler’s attainder. He led this great force ‘into the parties, country and lordships whereas the said John Ormond was most abiding, and kept there residence to the space of 17 days, burning, destroying and wasting all the said Ormond’s lordships for the more party, because the inhabitants thereof would by no mean submit them to the due and restful obeisance of” the Yorkist king. So for the time being the Butlers’ power was broken, but the attainted earl was still at large and collecting rents from his theoretically confiscated properties. The next summer (1464), Desmond evidently made a second attempt to smoke out the Earl, and it may have been in the course of this fighting that Edmund MacRichard Butler died. In the middle of August John of Ormond entrusted the running of his estates to Edmund’s son, James MacEdmund Butler; he then set about finding himself a ship and by the last week of September had made land at the Portuguese port of Porto, where he arranged an audience with King Afonso V and wrote
to Queen Margaret.
The Earl’s letter reached the Queen in early December. She wrote back instructing him on what he was to say on her behalf to King Henry’s cousin the King of Portugal (whose name she did not know) and enclosing further letters: two for ‘please fill in the blank for me’, King of Portugal, from herself and Prince Edward; and two for Ormond, from Prince Edward and King Henry’s Chancellor Sir John Fortescue. Fortescue’s letter was detailed and informative, warmly congratulating Ormond on escaping the power of his enemies and telling him all about the recent relocation of their little court to Saint-Mihiel-en-Bar. After listing the names of King Henry’s supporters who were already there (including John’s brother Thomas and Edmund Beaufort, now styled 4th Duke of Somerset following the recent execution of his brother Duke Henry), he warned Ormond of their extreme poverty and the danger of travelling through the domains of the untrustworthy King Louis without a safeconduct. He concluded: ‘And, if ye find the King of Portugal entreatable in our matters, spareth not to tarry long with him; and if ye find him all estrange, dispenseth not your money in that country in idle (for after that ye come hither it is like that ye shall be put to great costs soon-upon) and peradventure not long tarry there.’
The eleven-year-old prince’s letter was more succinct. He assured Ormond that he had ‘heard the good and honourable report of your sad, wise, and manly guiding against my Lord’s rebels and your adversaries. . . . And I thank God . . . that ye . . . have escaped the cruel malice of your said adversaries. And, forasmuch as I understand that ye are now in Portingale, I pray yow to put you in the uttermost of your devoir to labour unto the king of the said realm for the furtherance and setting forth of my Lord in the recovering of his right and subduing of his rebels. . . . Written at Saint Michael in Bar with mine own hand, that ye may see how good a writer I am.’
All this correspondence was intercepted by Louis XI and so John never got to read it. How long he ‘tarried’ in Portugal is not known. He is next glimpsed in Bruges, living with his brother Thomas and
Somerset on a small Burgundian pension. The Lancastrian party had to quit Bruges temporarily for Duke Charles’ marriage in that city to Margaret of York, but they were not thereafter unwelcome at Charles’ court because both Charles and Margaret evidently got to know John; indeed, Margaret seems to have taken rather a shine to him. Whilst in Bruges, John also enjoyed the service, and friendship, of a Castilian gentleman by the name of Ferrando de la Corunna, possibly a goldsmith or jeweller. After the Readeption of Henry VI, rather than going straight back to England with Somerset, John and Thomas waited to join the party of Queen Margaret and Prince Edward as they set off from Paris after Christmas. At Antwerp Ormond managed to scribble a note to Ferrando, who wrote back to him on 19 January, having just learned from a passing servant of Queen Margaret that John and his brother were now with the Queen and Prince in Rouen. After congratulating him on the report that he was to be appointed as the Prince’s governor (unlikely given that the latter was now seventeen and a married man), he warned him that King Edward was in Bruges preparing a fleet and his people were putting it about that they were about to set sail with it for England. But Ferrando thought this was a ruse to get the Queen’s party to put off their own voyage and that Edward would not in fact be ready to sail for another six weeks, so if they had been advised to delay their passage then this was dangerous advice. Equally dangerous now would be John’s deep hatred of the Earl of Warwick, which Ferrando warned him to keep in check. Finally, Ferrando got to the main point: please could his old friend and master get him a job in the Prince’s household?
This missive may have been intercepted before it left Bruges since it survives amongst the documents of the English government rather than amongst the Ormond papers, although according to Earl John’s ODNB biographer, Stephen Ellis, he returned to England in February, i.e. ahead of the Queen’s party which, though scheduled to sail to Sandwich at the end of that month, failed to do so because Margaret was unhappy with the weather conditions.
John’s role in the doomed Lancastrian resistance to Edward IV’s invasion is not clear, but both he and Thomas survived. Initially they went their separate ways. Thomas sued to Edward for a pardon, which he obtained in August, but John was not yet ready to make terms with his old enemy and so returned to Ireland. Yet again he found no place for himself there: his Irish attainder was still in force and Raghnailt had taken advantage of the canonical invalidity of their marriage in order to wed Edmund MacRichard’s younger brother Richard. Sometime during 1472, therefore, he set sail again for Portugal with a few of his Irish followers.
RESTITUTION AND FINAL DAYS
Whatever money John had managed to bring with him from Ireland had evidently run out by the end of 1473, so he bowed to the inevitable and made his peace with King Edward, who on 26 March 1474 granted him a pension of £100 a year ‘until he shall be provided for’. An annuity of £10 from the fee farm of the city of Waterford followed during the summer, and in late November he was finally recognised as Earl of Ormond, perhaps on the basis of the reversal of his attainder enacted by the Readeption parliament. During this time he had, it seems, been busy making or renewing friendships with individuals at Edward’s court, including the King’s brother-in-law Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, a fellow francophone and continental traveller; they may of course have first got to know each other way back during the time when they were both trusted adherents of Henry VI.
In late July of 1475 John’s Irish attainder was also reversed. By this time he was back in France, serving Edward IV in his bid to reclaim that kingdom from King Louis, though his retinue was, not surprisingly, modest: only two men-at-arms and sixteen archers. Shortly after the English army’s arrival in Calais one of John’s old Burgundian friends, who styled himself as the Prothonotary of Bourbon, dashed off a letter enthusiastically congratulating him on his restoration to his lands and titles and telling him how pleased everyone at Charles’ court had been to receive the news. In particular, he described to John how the Duchess Margaret had never ceased to ask after him and on hearing of his restoration had fallen to her knees, clasped her hands to heaven and given thanks to God. The Prothonotary also asked Ormond to pass on his regards to Lord and Lady Rivers, whom he had once met and who had spoken warmly to him of John. This is another letter that may have been intercepted by Edward. That, in reality, John still had a little way to go in winning the King’s complete confidence may be guessed from the fact that he did not participate in the great council meeting of 13 August at which Edward and his lords agreed to hold peace talks with Louis.
Given his history, it should come as no surpirse that John did not choose to settle for life as an English courtier. He was unlikely to be able to re-establish himself successfully in Ireland given that his rival Thomas, Earl of Kildare, was ruling the colony as deputy to the Duke of Clarence but, as luck would have it, he was not the only nobleman who returned home from Edward’s controversial French expedition with a yen to go back over the sea. Another such was his new friend Rivers, who decided to make a pilgrimage to the churches of Rome as it was a Jubilee year and so this would gain him a full indulgence or pardon of all his sins. Just two days after the King’s return to London, Rivers received the royal permission for his trip on the understanding that he would slot in a diplomatic visit to Milan. Ormond signed up to join the party. They reached Rome during the winter, where they may be assumed to have visited the city’s many glorious churches and to have been granted an audience with Pope Sixtus IV.
In February they set off again for home, but at the end of their very first day’s ride, at a little place called Bracciano or Torre di Baccano, disaster struck Rivers, who was robbed of his money, jewels and silver cups. His response was to lead his companions back to Rome to report the crime to the Pope, probably because Baccano lay within the diocese of Sutri, which was immediately subject to the Holy See. At the same time, he wrote to his sister the Queen to send him over enough cash to enable him to get home. On 1 March the Pope offered a reward of 300 ducats to anyone offering information about the theft, and a week later the Queen’s messenger with the moneybags reached Turin. By early May, it had been concluded that the money and valuables had been stolen by a small group of German merchants, who had taken their plunder to Venice where they had sold on the jewels. Rivers therefore travelled to Venice, where the authorities bent over backwards to placate the King of
England’s brother-in-law. The suspects were placed under arrest, and since they persisted in denying the crime the Signoria authorized the formation of a committee, ‘the majority of which to have liberty to examine and rack them all or each’. The cash, once recovered, was to be sent on to London.
According to Caxton, after his ‘great tribulation and adversity’ Rivers took the long way home, taking in visits to holy places in southern Italy and even Galicia, but perhaps these were places he and John had visited by ship en route to Italy, because Rivers very clearly set off home overland, arriving at Duke Charles’ camp near Murten or Morat in Switzerland on 9 June. He famously scuttled out of Morat two days later on learning that the enemy army was approaching, and was back in England in time for the Duke of York’s reburial at the end of July. But he was not yet done with his continental pilgrimages, and popped up briefly at the French court in September on his way to visit the relics of his name saint, Anthony. He seems to have arrived home for good during the second week of November.
John, the 6th Earl of Ormond, is last noted as having been with Woodville during his second sojourn in Rome, after the robbery. He is not mentioned again in any source until June 1477, when King Edward issued a patent describing him as deceased and announcing that he had recognised his brother Thomas as the new earl of Ormond. According to family tradition Earl John had died fully six months earlier, on 14 December 1476, on pilgrimage in the Holy Land. Now, this may be simply a later improvement of the story of John’s recent pilgrimage to Rome, but if it were true it would explain the long delay between his death and his brother’s succession, and it also fits surprisingly well with Rivers’ Italian itinerary.
A majority of pilgrims to the Holy Land at this period took passage to Jerusalem on one of the ships that sailed there from Venice every May. It is therefore entirely feasible that John, perhaps disillusioned by the unedifying spectacle of the King of England’s loaded brother-in-law roaming the Italian states in an increasingly vindictive hunt for his stolen jewels, and equally unenthusiastic about returning to England, simply parted company with Rivers in Venice and joined up with a group of pilgrims bound for Jerusalem. What is not so easy to guess is why he would still have been in the Holy Land in December given that the normal pattern was for the pilgrims to sail back in the autumn. Was he planning to ‘do’ Christmas in Bethlehem? or had he run out of funds? or been too ill to embark when the ship sailed? Perhaps the last would be the most likely; the surviving diary of an English pilgrim of the late 1450s recounts how just about the entire party was seriously ill by the time they took ship for home.
If, that is, Earl John really did die in the Holy Land. . . .
During the final years of Edward IV’s reign John’s brother Thomas, the 7th Earl of Ormond, successfully saw off an attempt by the Earl of Kildare to confiscate his Irish lands under the pretext of an Act of Resumption. He was summoned to be knighted at the coronation of Edward V, and whilst it is not clear whether he was, in the event, knighted at the coronation of Richard III, he avoided involvement in Buckingham’s rebellion and was certainly a knight by the end of Richard’s reign as well as a commissioner of array for Devon and Cornwall. But he made a smooth transition after Bosworth, and thereafter enjoyed a safe and prestigious career, far from the scenes of rebellion in Ireland, as a Knight for the Body and Chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth of York.
Considering their bastardy, John’s sons by Raghnailt O’Brien did not fare so badly. Their uncle Earl Thomas took them under his wing and helped establish their careers. The eldest, James, known as Black James on account of his hair colour, was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn to study law but when ‘Perkin Warbeck’ arrived in Ireland he was sent with an army to oppose him and his Irish supporters. As a reward for his success, he was appointed Treasurer of Ireland and granted extensive lands there, but in 1497 he was murdered by his rival, Piers Butler, son of his father’s old steward and ally James MacEdmund Butler. Meanwhile, the 6th Earl’s second son, John, had married a Derbyshire heiress named Joan Chaworth.
Raghnailt herself outlived both her Butler husbands – the illicit and the licit – to become the bride of Christ, entering Killone Abbey in Thomond, of which her family were founders and patrons, and dying as its abbess early in 1510.
Thomas, 7th Earl of Ormond, died in 1515 leaving two daughters, one of whom had married Sir William Boleyn and had a certain grand-daughter by the name of Anne. But the earldom of Ormond was entailed in the male line and so passed to Piers Butler, the man who had slain John’s eldest son.
Most biographies of the 6th Earl of Ormond will tell you that he was fluent in every European language and had been an ambassador to several European courts, and furthermore that Edward IV said he was ‘the goodliest knight he ever beheld and the finest gentleman in Christendom; and that if good breeding, nurture and liberal qualities were lost in the world, they might all be found in John, earl of Ormond’. There seems, unfortunately, to be no basis for these claims, which I have been unable to trace back further than John Lodge’s late-18th-century Peerage of Ireland. Prior to 1461 John was still working to make his mark on the world, and after his pardon in 1474 Edward IV had only a limited time in which to get to know him before he disappeared again (besides which, Edward’s alleged accolade sounds suspiciously modern in its use of language). Perhaps one could claim for John some sort of ambassadorial role as companion to Earl Rivers in 1475-6, but that would seem to have been the sum of his diplomatic career. That he was fluent in every European language is a rather inflated claim, though he must have spoken several. His upbringing would have furnished him with English, Irish and some Latin and French, to which the years he spent in exile would have added Portuguese, Italian, Flemish, a greater proficiency in French, plus, very possibly, a smattering of Spanish.
But the greatest quality that comes across from the few surviving letters written to him is the warmth of affection that he inspired in those who knew him, a warmth adequately displayed in the concluding words of Ferrando de la Corunna’s missive of 1471:
“I recommend myself to Master Thomas, your brother; and the whole company recommend themselves to you a hundred thousand times, as do I.”