Butler, Thomas (1531–1614), 10th earl of Ormond , nobleman, was born in southern Ireland, eldest son of James Butler (qv), 9th earl of Ormond, and his wife Joan, daughter and heiress of James Fitzgerald, 10th earl of Desmond. He had six brothers, Edmund, John, Walter, James, Edward, and Piers. Because he was dark-haired, he was known to contemporaries variously as ‘Black Tom’, ‘Tomás Dubh’, or ‘Tom Duff’. Following the Irish custom, in his youth Thomas was fostered with Rory O'More (qv), the son of the then Gaelic lord of Laois, and himself a future chieftain of his line. Butler's time with Rory helped his proficiency in the Irish language and served to consolidate his family's links with one of the more important Gaelic lordships in Leinster. Not that he was ever meant to turn Irish. Descended from some of the principal Anglo-Norman warlords to have conquered and colonised Ireland in medieval times, the Butlers were anxious to retain close ties with England, all the more so since the English crown was in the process of reasserting its power in the country. To this end in 1544 Thomas was sent to London to be educated with the future Edward VI.
In October 1546 he inherited the joint earldom of Ormond and Ossory following the sudden death of his father, but being then under age, he became a ward of the crown and had to remain about the royal court several years more. In January 1547, on the death of Henry VIII and the accession of Edward VI, he was attached to the household of King Edward's guardian, the duke of Somerset, a position that augured well for the Butlers’ chances of becoming the premier family in English Ireland under the Edwardian regime. However, following Somerset's overthrow in a palace coup in 1549, Ormond's prospects dimmed, and he spent much of the remainder of King Edward's reign in political isolation at court, trying to regain a position close to the young monarch. Edward's death and the accession of Queen Mary in 1553 allowed him a fresh start. On the outbreak of the Wyatt revolt in January 1554, he took a prominent part against the insurgents, helping to organise the defence of London, and reportedly exhibited both courage and leadership in combat. Having thus demonstrated his dependability to the queen, and earned her gratitude, a few months later he was able to return to Ireland.
His Irish inheritance was vast, comprising hundreds of thousands of acres and dozens of castles and manors situated across the southern and eastern counties of the country. Such was his standing that contemporaries referred to the entire mid south, from the foothills of Mount Leinster to the Galtee mountains, as ‘the Ormond country’ or ‘Butler country’. He held much of Co. Tipperary as a palatinate, that is, as an independent jurisdiction where nearly all legal cases were tried by his own officials rather than by the representatives of the crown. His power in Co. Kilkenny was just as great, and he was able to maintain a permanent private army of about 1,000 men, one of the largest and best equipped in the country. In addition, by descent from his ancestors, he claimed the right to a lucrative tax (or ‘prisage’) on all wine imports into Ireland.
Despite his English upbringing and the monarchy's regard for him, government officials in Dublin were wary of his influence, seeing him as an over-mighty subject and potential source of danger to the state. He was kept off the Irish privy council until 1557, when he was nominated to it by the new lord deputy, his friend and patron, Thomas Radcliffe (qv), earl of Sussex. The accession of Elizabeth I to the throne in November 1558 added enormously to his position. Elizabeth had admired his fortitude during the Edwardian period and determined to make greater use of his service. In August 1559 she promoted him to the post of lord treasurer of Ireland, an office that insured he would stay an honorary member of the Irish council for the rest of his life. She continued to shower him with favours thereafter. By 1566 he had emerged as a major courtier in London, and for a year or more was seen as the main rival to the earl of Leicester as royal favourite – an unusual position for an Irish lord.
However, his growing eminence at court invited criticism of his traditional role in Ireland as head of a lineage increasingly associated with military aggression against its rivals and neighbours. The abolition of private armies was a chief aim of English policy in Ireland. Ormond, as a loyal subject and a confidant of the queen, was committed to it, and in 1561 he had taken his first tentative steps towards demilitarisation by curtailing the imposition of the private military exaction known as ‘coyne and livery’ on parts of his Kilkenny estate. Fear of attack by adversaries such as the earl of Desmond (qv) persuaded him to proceed slowly, but in July 1564 he announced the abolition of coyne in the liberty of Tipperary, having recently concluded a truce with Desmond. The truce proved worthless. Desmond saw Ormond's desire to abandon coyne as an opportunity for aggrandisement, and during the autumn his forces invaded the western marches of Tipperary, burning and spoiling Ormond's lands. Early in 1565 Ormond had his revenge, defeating Desmond in open battle at Affane, Co. Waterford, taking his enemy prisoner. Elizabeth I was not impressed. For a time the scandal over Affane threatened to disgrace Earl Thomas. It is a measure of his personal influence with the queen that he was back in high favour within a year.
Yet the problem of coyne and livery continued to haunt him. Notwithstanding his emergence at court, three of his six brothers and other members of the Butler affinity were unwilling to cooperate with the crown's plans for demilitarisation, and the new English governor, Sir Henry Sidney (qv) (Leicester's brother-in-law), seized on their frequent breaches of the peace to embarrass the earl. After protracted negotiations in London, in summer 1568 Ormond consented to the complete abandonment of coyne across all his territories. His decision caused a rift in the Butler family, and was a major cause of the Butler revolt of 1569.
Remarkably, Ormond received royal permission to return to Ireland to put down the rebellion. Supported by most of the gentry of Kilkenny and Tipperary he dealt ruthlessly with the rebels, hunting them down, executing prisoners without trial, and within a few months the revolt was crushed. He was unable, however, to prevent an act of attainder being passed against his three rebel brothers in the Irish parliament of 1570, with potentially serious implications for the succession to the earldom. The earl's marriage to Elizabeth Berkeley, sister of Lord Berkeley, had produced no children, and there was no prospect of it ever doing so, as the couple had separated, estranged, in 1564. The act of attainder meant that, unless Countess Elizabeth died, and thereby freed Earl Thomas to remarry, the future of the earldom of Ormond would lie probably with one of his nephews. Given the youth of his nephews and the ambitions of other senior Butler lords, it did not seem likely that the succession would go undisputed.
The rebellion and its aftermath changed the course of Ormond's career. Having been long absent from his territories, resident at the royal court, after 1569 the earl was forced to assume a greater role in Irish affairs in order to fully secure his position and protect the interests of his family. After displaying his soldiering ability against his rebel brethren and their allies, and also against the O'Briens in Thomond, in the 1570s the queen came to rely on him as one of her senior military commanders. This was not welcomed by many English servitors in Ireland, who distrusted his motives, and were uncomfortable under his command. Confident of the queen's support, Ormond did little to mollify them; quite the opposite. Disturbed by what he perceived as the aggressively acquisitive policies of low-bred adventurers towards the native lordships, he challenged the English officials head on and began to act as leader of an Irish loyalist opposition to English misrule. He was partially responsible for Sir Henry Sidney's first dismissal as lord deputy in 1571, contributed significantly to the undermining of Sidney's replacement, Sir William Fitzwilliam (qv), in 1574–5, and was almost entirely responsible for Sidney's second and final dismissal from the deputyship in 1578.
The outbreak of the Desmond rebellion in late 1579 was a defining moment for Ormond. To prove his case that the crown could pacify Ireland more easily by delegating authority to loyal Irish lords instead of antagonising them, he lobbied hard to be given command of the war against Desmond. Though many on the Irish council were hostile to the idea, Queen Elizabeth agreed, and he was named lord general of the royal army in Munster. Together with the lord justice, Sir William Pelham (qv), Ormond invaded Desmond's country, laying waste to the land, but following Pelham's recall the earl's policy of granting protections and giving pardons to those of Desmond's confederates that were willing to surrender was denounced by English officials. With the connivance of Elizabeth's secretary-of-state, Sir Francis Walsingham, who desired stronger measures against catholic insurgency in Munster for the sake of England's international security, the queen was led to believe that Ormond and Pelham had killed only three rebels in the course of their costly campaigns. In truth they had killed thousands, but mysteriously Ormond's reports of rebel losses had failed to reach the queen or her advisers, and the earl was dismissed from his post as general in 1581. His sacking achieved nothing. Instead of destroying Desmond, the English officers in Munster succeeded only in prolonging the war. Late in 1582 Ormond was reappointed lord general with additional powers. He brought the war to a successful conclusion in November 1583, procuring the capture, and beheading, of Desmond.
He was now at the peak of his power. Though he continued to encounter criticism from English servitors in Ireland, he had proved his worth, and in 1585 was welcomed back to court as a conquering hero. Following the outbreak of war with Spain, Elizabeth I was greatly in need of experienced military commanders, and for several years Ormond was a key adviser. In 1588 he helped prepare the English army to confront the looming Spanish invasion, serving in a very senior capacity at Tilbury camp on the Thames, and the following year he was probably the most experienced member of a special council of war assembled at Whitehall to devise England's future military and naval strategy. In recognition of his importance he was made a knight of the Garter in 1588, and c.1591 earl marshal of England. Few Irish noblemen had stood so high in English affairs.
In 1593 Ormond resigned the earl-marshalship, arguing that old age and the high cost of living in London made it too great a burden to bear, and he returned to Ireland. The ship conveying him home capsized and he nearly drowned. On hearing of this mishap, Elizabeth allowed him to go into semi-retirement to recover his health. However, his remission from service lasted only until the great Ulster rebellion led by the earl of Tyrone in 1594. In order to allow the royal forces to leave Dublin for the north without fear of attack, Ormond was given military control of Leinster. Despite continuing health problems he helped to contain the threat posed to Dublin and the Pale by the Wicklow chieftain, Fiach MacHugh O'Byrne (qv), and he put down a revolt by his nephews, the Butlers of Cloghgrenan. In 1597 he was appointed lieutenant-general of the entire royal army, and again he proved his worth. Following the destruction of most of the crown's forces in Ulster in 1598 at the battle of the Yellow Ford, English power in Ireland was dangerously exposed. In an atmosphere of mounting panic and recrimination, Ormond remained calm, and by redistributing the remaining royal forces he managed to strengthen the northern frontiers of the Pale so that the threat of a major assault from the north was averted. Similarly, when early in 1600 the earl of Tyrone moved south into Munster, Ormond's forces shadowed him, forcing him to retreat rather than risk a confrontation so far from his Ulster base.
This was Ormond's last great military deed. Soon afterwards, in April 1600, seeking to parley with O'More rebels on the Kilkenny/Laois frontier, he was tricked and taken hostage. Though he survived rough conditions and returned to Kilkenny castle nearly three months later, the period of captivity took its toll. His second wife, Elizabeth Sheffield, died (apparently of stress) during his captivity, and in the months after his release his eyesight began to fail. As a result, age and deteriorating health forced him out of the action as the war with Tyrone reached its climax. Ormond spent the last years of his life in retirement, blind and mostly bed-ridden, being carried around in a litter whenever he wished to move. His main achievement during this time was to overcome the 1570 act of attainder against some of his brothers and their children, which he hoped would prevent a serious succession dispute; in the event, however, as his eventual successor Walter Butler (qv) would discover, dispute was unavoidable, with or without the act. Having consciously evaded public religious commitment for many years, towards the end of his life Earl Thomas began to lean more openly towards catholicism, the religion of most of his family. He died, aged 83 or thereabouts, on 22 November 1614, and was buried in St Canice's cathedral, Kilkenny.