Sir William Butts, Royal Physician

William ButtsOn 22nd November 1545, Henry VIII’s trusted physician, Sir William Butts, died at Fulham Manor, Middlesex, after suffering from a “dooble febre quartanz”, a form of malaria.

Butts acted as a royal physician at the court of Henry VIII from 1528 until his death. His patients included the King himself, queens Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, the Lady Mary (Mary I), Henry Fitzroy the Duke of Richmond, George Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey and the Duke of Norfolk. He treated Anne Boleyn when she had sweating sickness in June 1528, and acted as her “talent spotter” when she was queen, helping her find and employ reformist scholars as her chaplains. He also helped advance men like Hugh Latimer and Sir John Cheke.

Henry VIII discussed his difficulties in consummating his marriage to Anne of Cleves with Butts and Dr John Chamber, explaining that “he found her body in such sort disordered and indisposed to excite and provoke any lust in him”. The marriage was later annulled due partly to this lack of consummation.

Butts was buried in a tomb against the south wall of All Saints Church, Fulham, but his tomb and brass were later destroyed. In 1627, his epitaph (a slab with verses by Sir John Cheke) was restored by Leonard Butts of Norfolk.

Here are some facts about Sir William Butts:

  • Butts had Reformist sympathies
  • Henry VIII sent Butts to Hever Castle to treat Anne Boleyn when she had sweating sickness in June 1528. Butts also took a love letter from Henry with him.
  • He tried to convert some of the monks of Syon Abbey who were refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII as the supreme head of the Church
  • Butts used his influence to advance the likes of Hugh Latimer and Sir John Cheke
  • Eric Ives writes of how Butts acted as Anne Boleyn’s “talent spotter”, helping Anne to choose her chaplains “from the most promising young reformist scholars, particularly from Cambridge” and his old college there, Gonville Hall. He introduced Hugh Latimer to Anne and Latimer became one of Anne Boleyn’s chaplains. You can read more about Anne Boleyn’s household in my article “Anne Boleyn’s Household”.
  • Felicity Heal writes of how French reformer, Nicolas Bourbon, approaches Butts for help in 1535 after he was forced to flee because of his beliefs. Butts told Anne Boleyn and she employed Bourbon as a tutor.
  • Henry VIII discussed his difficulties in consummating his marriage to Anne of Cleves with Butts and Dr John Chamber, explaining that “he found her body in such sort disordered and indisposed to excite and provoke any lust in him”.

Notes and Sources

  • C. T. Martin, Rachel E. Davies, ‘Butts, Sir William (c.1485–1545)’, rev. Rachel E. Davies, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives, p266
  • Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, David Starkey
  • Reformation in Britain and Ireland, Felicity Heal, p228
  • On this Day in Tudor History, Claire Ridgway
  • 22nd November 1545 – Death of Sir William Butts, Henry VIII’s Physician, article by Claire Ridgway, posted on The Anne Boleyn Files on 22nd November 2011

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23 thoughts on “Sir William Butts, Royal Physician”
  1. Hi Claire,
    I love the articles you post on your website and enjoy reading them very much. Each is very well written and full of interesting facts and information and you write on all sorts of diverse topics dealing with Tudor history.
    Keep writing and thank you so much for the fantastic research you share with all of us interested in all aspects of Tudor history.
    Your site is fabulous!

  2. Henry must have had great confidence in Butts and he seems like a man of honour that took his oath as a doctor that I assume included patient confidentiality even then as it does now and asa servant of the crown; acting in so many confidential and important roles as above. It must not have been easy for Henry to confide in his doctor; given that the subject touched his sexual prowess and a delicate subject. Do you think Henry decided to confide this to his doctor in case he called him to give evidence if Anne of Cleves did not agree to the anulment of the marriage on the grounds of none consumption? Do you think Henry also confided in Dr Butts as he could not confide in anyone else?

    His reputation seems to have been good and as a royal physician he would have been at the top of his career and expertise. I have read about his visit to Anne during the sweating sickness and in context of the royal doctor; but I did not know he had an interest in the reformed beliefs. This adds another dimention to his life and takes him into the world of some of the most interesting people of that cause; including as said above Latimer. I wonder, did the King know of his refromist ideas or was it merely an interest that he shared with them? Was he actually a reformer? Henry did not patronise reformers officially, but by his naming of Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury we know that he made use of them for his own cause when he found them useful. Just how much Henry knew about the beliefs of Cranmer and how much he actually cared; I think is something of a mystery. Cranmer had a wife and it seems that Henry knew this unofficially but said nothing. Some of the council in 1545 came to attempt to bring charges of heresy against Cranmer, but Henry is meant to have intervened. He obviously shut his eyes to Cranmer’s beliefs as he had worked to get his divorce from Catherine of Aragon for him and Henry thought highly of the man. It was Cranmer who he called to his bedside at the end.

    I have tried to find a biograthy or history of the doctors at Henry’s court since 2009 when I went to the Man and Monarch exhibition and there were medical texts there and writings about how Henry had a special interest in the medical profession. They gave him the confidence that he did not have in other people, I think and he saw some of the new advances in medicine at this time. Henry regulated the profession giving them special charters in 1546. The Schools that followed would transform the way we see the medical world and the natuaral world in the centuries to come. These men were forwad thinkers and I think that Dr Butts had a great responsibility, especially as a royal doctor, and he would have to be discrete having to know secrets of the royal health, things that may affect the health of the dynasty. I am sure that he was like he is played in the Tudors, gentle and helpful and comforting to those whom he treated in a way that left them feeling good.

    One other aspect of being a doctor in the royal or great households; doctors could go anywhere almost and could be used to pass messages between people as well as witnesses to a person in their last moments; they could be vital if something needed to be protected within the household; and they could be a means to making confidential plans. Dr Augustine was the last person known to have seen Edward V alive for example and Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville are believed to have used a mutural doctor to pass messages when plotting against Richard III. I know all this is beside the point but it shows how they were trusted within the royal household and how that trust was rewarded and not abused. Dr Butts and his fellow doctors must have been of the highest character to commend them for the services they gave to Henry and his family and associates. The clientel is almost a whose who of the great and the good; their still must also have been great within the knowledge of the time that is.

  3. He certainly was held in great esteem.
    And for Henry to send him to Anne when she was ill, I see as a great token of his love and worry for her.
    Henry himself is reputed to be very interested in ‘pills and potions’, I wonder if he was coached in this by Butts.
    I presume he had other doctor/s before Dr. Butts, was it Augustine?

    1. An online article/paper by Edmond Hammond states that one of the early doctors was Augustine de Augustinas; a native of Venice served Henry VII, Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey; so you are right he will have been the King’s earliest doctor as well as others; including Linacre and a Dr Clegg and I am not sure when Dr Butts came to court; but it must have been quite early on. Medical History Website has a phd download of the article.

  4. He had a most unusual if not a most peculiar surname “Butts” even by today’s standards it is rare! There is also a portrait of his wife online painted by Holbein referred to as “Mrs Butts”. The remedies what his physicians had could not of done much though if anything at all to treat or cure the patient even the “King”. It was just down to sheer luck at the end of the day if you lived died got better or got worse! Even today with our advanced technology people are still dying! We just all have to be thankful that neither one of us was born then! Can you imagine? Even if we had the best physician of the day by our sides and that includes “Doctor Butts”! Oh and “Rowland Lee”! 🙂

  5. That’s a great picture — I’d never seen that one before and didn’t even know a picture of Dr. Butts existed. It’s good to know a bit more about him! I had no idea he’d been involved with Syon Abbey at all. I did know that he had been sent to Anne when she was ill, along with the letter telling her that Butts was the second-best physician he had. A somewhat ambiguous compliment, that. I wonder who the first-best physician was at that time? Not Linacre, because he was dead by then, but I’m a little fuzzy on the other ones who were at court at the time.

    Dr. Butts has also, of course, had a minor posthumous career as a character in novels about Anne Boleyn, usually having to deliver the news that Elizabeth is a girl and, in a few cases, getting a minor crush on Anne. I wonder what the original would think of that?

  6. The website of the Royal College of Physicians lists Thomas LInacre as the first President with the first charter being 1518. The charter also says that the purpose was not just to regulate the college and doctors but to ensure that doctors did not practice out of avarice or greed but to the better purpose of helping people and for the good of the profession. In other words payment was not to be their first object but the care of the sick. Interestingly Sir William Butt is not registered as a president, but other royal doctors are including a later doctor Edward Wotton. Dr Linacre was in service at the start of the reign but died in 1524. Being the size that it was there would have been several medical people and clergy all over the royal court, but only the best would have access to the King. Henry had a hands on interest in the development of medicine and made his own remedies for many things; probably prefared those to some of the ones that the doctors used. Something called the ‘king’s own plaster’ was applied to wounds and mentioned in a recent documentary; but sounded as if it would have done more harm than good had he used it on his ulcers on his leg.

  7. I appreciate the information as I do family research. My son looks so much like Sir William, and his service sounds very much like the family line, many took orders of service in one way or another, be it, Holy orders, or medical, political etc. I found in much of my research a silence in service, even the Blake paintings and collections had a silent Butts in the background either inspiring or in the latter, purchasing Blake collections at silent auction. There is a great connection between Butts and the arts, having collections at many museums around the world. Thank you for posting such kind words – Mike Butts

  8. I have read that Dr Butts was One of Henry’s favorites. Property and title were bestowed on him. I have done extensive family genealogy and have not been able to go far beyond Sir William. BTW. Dr Butts appears in Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII.

    1. Dear Nicole, I have just discovered your letter and wonder if you are descended from Dr. Butts in which case, you would be a very distant cousin. I have all the research done by one of my great great grandfathers, Edward Drury Butts, which I got from Yale University. His daughter, Martha Beatrice Butts, married Alfred Howell, my great grandfather. The Butts family was in the Holy Orders for five generations( which makes the research very much easier) and I am descended from Robert Butts, Bishop of Ely.

      1. Can either of you tell me the Name of sir Williams parents. i Cannot find any information on them and trying to trace the family line as far back as possible.

        1. Sir William was my 12 Great-Grandfather, have done much research on the Butts family. The Butts started out as makers of archers in Ireland, that’s were the last name comes from. Sir William was the last Archer and then the name changed to Butts.

  9. My grandmother was a Butts. When we were tracing her family we ended at Sir William Butts. Unfortunately I can’t find any verifiable information on his parents and beyond. Some records indicate a Thomas Butts who married a N.Kervul. Other sources connected Sir William to the Archer family. How could someone so re known have such obscure origins.

  10. I just traced my acestry to Sir William. Thank you so much for writting about him, Its awesome to have a story to go with the name.

  11. thank you so much for this information. i too am a descendent. my mother, Eileen Clara Boswell’s mother was Doris Amelia Armstrong and her mother was Clara Fanny Butt.

  12. Hello, I just came across this site and am also a descendant of the Butts family by way of William Butts, Lord of Shouldham Thorpe, the uncle of Sir William Butts the Physician. (We are in posession of the extensive family tree going back to 1345). Sir William Butts the Physician had four uncles, named Thomas, William, Edward and John. To answer the main question of Sir William’s ancestry, his father was John Butts who was the MP for Liskeard. His father was William Lord of Shouldham Thorpe, Co. of Norfolk and Congleton, Co. of Chester. This lineage of titles goes back 6 generations: William Butts, William Butts, Edward Butts, Robert Butts, William Butts, and Sir William Butts who was slain in the battle of Poitiers in 1356. Before him was Fitzherbert Butts who faught in the battle of Crecy in 1346.

  13. How interesting. Just getting into this. Archer turned into Butts – very appropriate

  14. Thank you for this history. I too just started officially researching my history in Feb 2019 through ancestry,com and have learned so much. I am trying to take the Butts line back as far as I can go and then begin verifying the information. Given my health, I pray I am able to pass this on to my family and my granddaughter takes up the torch. Our family is a melting pot – Heinz’s variety.

  15. Thank you for this history. I too just started officially researching my history in Feb 2019 through and have learned so much. I am trying to take the Butts line back as far as I can go and then begin verifying the information. Given my health, I pray I am able to pass this on to my family, and that my granddaughter picks up the torch. Our family is a melting pot – Heinz’s variety.

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