Butler, Lady Margaret (1471?–1542), countess of Ormond , was second daughter of Gerald FitzGerald (qv), 8th earl of Kildare, and his first wife, Alison, daughter of Roland FitzEustace (qv), Lord Portlester. In 1485 her father agreed to marry her to his foster son and political ally, Piers Butler (qv) (d. 1539), although the marriage may not have occurred for some years. They had three sons and six daughters. Kildare supported Piers Butler's claim that he was deputy in Ireland to Thomas Butler (qv), the English-resident 7th earl of Ormond, and thereby effective ruler of Ormond's vast estates in Kilkenny and Tipperary. Ormond contested this claim and during the mid 1490s succeeded in establishing his cousin Sir James Butler (qv) (James Ormond) in Ireland, thereby supplanting Piers. Piers and Margaret were forced into hiding and lived in great penury for a time. This was a particularly difficult period for Margaret, who had been brought up in relative luxury. However, with the help of her father, Piers's position improved and in 1497 he killed James Ormond; in 1505 Earl Thomas was compelled to lease his Irish estates to Piers and accept him as his Irish deputy. This success kindled Margaret's ambitions, and she set her sights on securing her husband's recognition as earl of Ormond and as rightful owner of the Butler estates in Ireland.
In 1515 Earl Thomas died, leaving two daughters who were well connected at the royal court and who disputed ownership of the Butler estates and the title of earl of Ormond with Piers. That autumn, Margaret came before her brother Gerald FitzGerald (qv), 9th earl of Kildare and then lord deputy of Ireland, in Dublin as her husband's representative in the dispute, appearing again in Dublin in 1516 with evidence furthering his claims. She fully expected her brother to uphold Piers's suit, but found him reluctant to do so. Eventually, in April 1516 Kildare declared his support for Piers, but the delay had seriously compromised his brother-in-law's chances. The crown declined to make a decisive ruling and the dispute dragged on for years. Margaret realised that her brother did not want Piers to become powerful enough to threaten his own dominance in Irish politics. She turned against her family and urged Piers to challenge Kildare. In this, she was encouraged by her servant Robert Cowley (qv), formerly an adviser to her father, who had fallen out with her brother, Gerald. Cowley was said to be the only person from whom she took advice.
At first, she and Piers kept their plans to themselves, but during 1517–18 Piers reestablished an independent Butler lordship in Kilkenny and Tipperary, in opposition to the FitzGeralds. He did so by reaching an accommodation with the settled, anglicised, and fiercely anti-FitzGerald gentry of central Co. Kilkenny. Piers was by background a heavily gaelicised warlord, but at Margaret's prompting he began making concessions to English culture. Indeed, Anglo-Irish annalists praised her for rescuing the Butler lordship from Gaelic barbarism. She settled Flemish weavers in Kilkenny city to manufacture luxuries such as Turkish carpets, cushions, and tapestries, and also founded a renowned school in the city. These gestures gained Piers the support of both the Kilkenny landowners and the crown, which had become alarmed at the creeping gaelicisation of traditionally English areas under the lord deputyships of the Kildares.
Meanwhile, she undermined her brother at court by dispatching Cowley there in 1518–19 to complain against Kildare's abuse of political office in Ireland. Her patronage of Cowley proved invaluable, as the embittered former Kildare servant was able to provide damning evidence of the arbitrary manner in which the FitzGeralds governed both their own lordship and Ireland. About 1525 she intercepted a letter written by Kildare to James FitzGerald (qv), earl of Desmond, who was suspected of treason, and forwarded it to London in a bid to discredit her brother. Throughout the 1520s and early 1530s a power struggle raged between the Butlers (supported by the crown) and FitzGeralds, culminating in the failed rebellion of Margaret's nephew Thomas FitzGerald (qv) (Silken Thomas) in 1534–5 and the resulting fall of the Kildare dynasty. In 1537 Thomas and five of her half brothers were executed in London. Far from being constrained by family ties, she seems to have been the driving force behind the vendetta, undoubtedly even more so after her youngest son was killed fighting the FitzGeralds in 1532. However, the plea of her eldest son, James Butler (qv), afterwards 9th earl of Ormond, for clemency for the FitzGerald leaders before their execution may be an indication of some mixed feelings on her part. Having seen off the FitzGeralds, Piers was finally recognised as 8th earl, and Margaret as countess, of Ormond in 1538.
Following the overthrow of the FitzGeralds, the government began to take a closer and more jaundiced look at the manner in which the Butlers maintained their sizeable private army. Royal commissions sent to Kilkenny in autumn 1537 received a flood of complaints against the oppressions and thuggery of the Butlers, including Margaret. Indeed, as late as the nineteenth century local folklore in Kilkenny kept alive tales of her tyrannical behaviour. After the death of her husband (1539) she received one-third of his lands as her widow's jointure and continued to play a leading role in ruling the Butler lordship and in resisting royal encroachments. In spring 1540, soldiers in her pay clashed with royal officials near Arklow. More surprisingly, and indicative of her formidable and fearsome character, she also disputed with her eldest son, James, now earl of Ormond, over the exact delineation of her jointure. In March 1542 three royal judges were appointed to arbitrate between them. She died 9 August 1542, and is buried beside her husband in St Canice's cathedral, Kilkenny.
Her depiction in the near contemporary Holinshed's chronicles and Book of Howth perhaps slightly exaggerates her influence and her role in instigating the Butler–FitzGerald feud. The sight of women wielding political power caused great unease in Irish society and there was a tendency to blame them when events took a turn for the worse, particularly as married noblewomen were expected to foster good relations between their two families. The authors of these annals were FitzGerald sympathisers, and by stressing Margaret's influence they were indirectly demeaning her husband. Moreover, it was apparent in 1515–16 that Piers's best strategy lay in trying to gain the crown's support by establishing himself as a viable alternative to Kildare. This, rather than Margaret's wounded pride, was the cause of the breakdown in relations between the families.
An attempt by a Butler apologist in the early seventeenth century to counter these negative accounts of her personality, by describing her as spending her last years dedicated to prayer and contemplation, fails to convince. Enough evidence survives in the form of official correspondence, the Ormond deeds, and Kilkenny folklore to bear out her earlier critics in their characterisation of her as able, intelligent, ruthless, and ambitious. If not quite the dominatrix of legend, she was an equal partner in her husband's hugely successful political and military enterprises.