Tom Butler, Elizabeth’s ‘Black Husband’ by Valerie Christie

Thomas ButlerThomas Butler, 10th Earl of Ormonde was born in 1531 in what is now the Republic of Ireland. He was the son of James Butler, the 9th earl and Joan Fitzgerald, who was the daughter of the Earl of Desmond. The Butlers had risen from being virtual unknowns to Earls of Ormonde, by virtue of being appointed chief cupbearer to the Lord of Ireland in the14th century. A century later, Margaret Butler’s marriage to William Boleyn meant that they would eventually be related to an English Queen Consort. When Anne Boleyn fell from grace, however, it didn’t appear to affect the family’s standing with the English King, as in 1544 Thomas left Ireland for London, having been granted a place at court. He was among a select group chosen to be educated with the future Edward VI and was the first Protestant member of his family. He succeeded as earl in 1546 after the death of his father and was knighted when Edward succeeded Henry VIII as King of England.

Thomas showed himself as someone who could adapt well to the changing regimes in sixteenth-century England. He reportedly earned the nickname of ‘Black Tom’ while suppressing Wyatt’s rebellion in 1554. After the death of Queen Mary four years later her half-sister Elizabeth ascended the throne. Thomas was close to Elizabeth; she is said to have called him her ‘black husband’ and there is a persistent rumour that she bore him a son, Piers Butler of Duiske who was favoured in Thomas’s will, so much so that it was thought his mother was someone of great importance.

Apart from the supposed dalliance with Queen Elizabeth I, Thomas married three times and had four legitimate children, as well as twelve illegitimate ones. Sadly, none of his legitimate sons lived long enough to inherit the earldom and on Thomas’s death the title passed to his nephew, John Butler of Kilcash. Thomas outlived Elizabeth I by eleven years, and died in 1614 in the Elizabethan manor he had built at Carrick-on-Suir. He had built the manor so that the Queen would have a suitable place to stay when she came to Ireland; sadly, she never visited. Thomas Butler, 10th Earl of Ormonde is buried in St Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny.

I had barely heard of ‘Black Tom’ Butler until I visited Kilkenny Castle, and once I saw his picture I fell a little bit in love with him. He seems to have been a remarkable man. One of the things that I find most appealing about him is his adaptability; he was popular with Edward, fought for Mary and was close to Elizabeth and being in favour with all three rulers was something that not a lot of people managed. I don’t believe that Elizabeth had a child with him, but from all accounts they were close and they seem to have held each other in very high regard. I love the story of how he built the manor house for Elizabeth to visit. There is something very sweet about it, and even though I don’t believe that the two of them had a romantic relationship there seems to have been a real warm friendship there, and I’m glad that Elizabeth had someone like him around who genuinely cared for her and thought of her welfare.

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