The Early Life of Anne Boleyn Part Five – The Boleyns and Butlers

James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond (the portrait was once thought to be of Thomas Boleyn)

In 1521, after spending 8 years on the continent, Anne Boleyn was recalled to England. Although Francis I, King of France, was worried that the recall of his wife’s lady-in-waiting and various English students in Paris “seemed to indicate an English intention to make war on France”1, Cardinal Wolsey assured the French King that Anne Boleyn was being recalled to marry. Here is a report of this from the Spanish Calendar of State Papers:-

“The ambassadors complained that Boleyn’s daughter, who was in the service of the French queen, had been called home, and said this was not a sign of continued friendship. The cardinal said that he himself was responsible for her recall, because he intended, by her marriage, to pacify certain quarrels and litigation between Boleyn and other English nobles.”2

This report was dated the 17th January 1522 and Eric Ives points out that seeing as the ambassador who made the original complaint on behalf of Francis I left France before the 6th January 1522 we can be sure that Anne left France in 15213. Anne had been recalled from France to marry James Butler, son of Sir Piers Butler, but who on earth was James Butler?

The Butlers of Ireland

If you remember my article on Thomas Boleyn, Anne’s father, you may remember that Thomas’ mother was Lady Margaret Butler, the daughter of Thomas Butler, the 7th Earl of Ormond. Well, on the 3rd August 1515, Thomas Butler died. He had reached the wonderful age of 89 but he left no legitimate offspring to inherit his title, as he had only daughters, and instead he left the Boleyns (the family of his daughter Margaret) and the St Legers (the family of his daughter Anne) as joint heirs-general. Eric Ives explains that Henry VIII’s favour led to Thomas Boleyn being granted the livery of his mother’s estates within 4 months but that “to be granted and to occupy were two very different things, at least in Ireland, where the rights of the heirs-general were obstructed by the late earl’s cousin and heir-male, Piers Butler, who had been acting for years as the representative of the absentee earl.”4. Piers Butler began styling himself the Earl of Ormond even though a hearing in November 1516 had seen the Boleyns and St Legers prove their case. The problem was that although Thomas Boleyn had the support of Henry VIII, Piers Butler had the backing of the Irish Lords and was pushing for the case to be tried in front of a common-law jury where he was bound to win. A tricky situation seeing as England did not want to upset Butler and the Irish Lords.

Marriage Plans

Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Surrey and 3rd Duke of Norfolk

In September 1520, Henry VIII wrote to Thomas Howard, the Earl of Surrey, and Anne Boleyn’s uncle, who had been appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland “to ascertain whether the earl of Ormond is minded to marry his son to the daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn”5 to unite the two families and put an end to the troubles. On the 6th October 1520, Surrey and the Council of Ireland replied that they thought “it would be advantageous if a marriage were solemnised between the earl of Ormond’s son, now in England, and Sir Thomas Boleyn’s daughter”6. In November 1521, Wolsey wrote to Henry VIII from Calais saying, “On my return I will talk with you how to bring about the marriage between his son and Sir Thos. Boleyn’s daughter”7, so it is evident that the marriage plans were progressing at this point. What is interesting is that James Butler was actually being brought up in Wolsey’s household and in his November 1521 letter to the King, Wolsey also mentions that the marriage plans “will be a good pretext for delaying to send his son over.”8 As Ives points out, it almost appears that James Butler was being kept hostage!

It is likely that Anne was sent a letter recalling her from France in early December 1521, after Wolsey had arrived back in England and discussed matters with the King. Anne Boleyn left France to marry James Butler but the marriage was not to be. We do not know the ins and outs of what happened and why the marriage did not take place, but Eric Ives believes that it was Sir Piers Butler who put an end to the negotiations, “presumably because Boleyn made difficulties”8. Ives also ponders whether Wolsey never meant the marriage to take place and that the negotiations were simply “a long-term inducement to the Butlers to behave”9. Whatever the truth of the matter, in 1522, on her return to England, Anne Boleyn was expecting to marry an Irish Lord and spend the rest of her life in Ireland, she could have had no inkling about how things were actually going to turn out!

James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond

As we know, Anne Boleyn ended up marrying Henry VIII, but what about James Butler? What happened to him? Well, in 1532 he married Lady Joan Fitzgerald, daughter and heiress of James Fitzgerald, 10th Earl of Desmond, and the couple went on to have seven sons, one of whom married the granddaughter of Elizabeth I’s spymaster and Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham. In 1539, on the death of his father, James became 9th Earl of Ormond (confirmed by an Act of Parliament on the 6 November 1541) and Earl of Ossory and in the 1530s, in Ireland, he was also given the offices of Lord-Treasurer, Lord-Deputy and Admiral of the Kingdom. In 1535, he was made Viscount Thurles and in 1545 he led Irish troops in Scotland, in the service of Henry VIII. James Butler died on 28th October 1546 after being poisoned at a dinner at Ely House, Holborn, London. He was not the only victim, his steward and at least sixteen servants were also fatally poisoned. James Butler’s body was buried at the Church of St Thomas d’Acres in Cheapside, London, but his heart was interred at St Canice’s in Kilkenny10. His widow, Joan, went on to marry courtier Sir Francis Bryan and then, after his death, her cousin, Gerald Fitzgerald, 15th Earl of Desmond. Joan was known as a peacemaker in Ireland and Elizabeth I relied on her to keep the peace between the warring Butlers and Fitzgeralds. Joan died on 2nd January 1565 and with the peacemaker gone, war broke out and there was the Battle of Affane between the two families, with Joan’s son, Thomas, as the victor.

In Part 6 I will look at Anne’s arrival at the English Court.

Notes and Sources

  1. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Further Supplement to Volumes 1 and 2, 17th January, The Ambassadors in England to Charles V
  2. Ibid.
  3. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives, p372 in Notes, note 71
  4. Ives, p34
  5. LP iii. 1004
  6. Ibid., 1011
  7. Ibid., 1762
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ives, p36
  10. Ibid.
  11. Library Ireland article – An article on James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond, with information taken from Ormond, Duke of, Life 1610-’88: Thomas A. Carte, M.A. 6 vols. Oxford, 1851

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16 thoughts on “The Early Life of Anne Boleyn Part Five – The Boleyns and Butlers”
  1. Planning to live in Ireland, so far away and in the end becoming Queen of England! Anne’s life did take a major twist after the cancellation of her mariage with Butler. Thank you Claire, for part 5! Looking forward for Part 6, which will mark the entrance of Anne in her new world!

  2. This is all so fascinating! I wonder if Anne and Pierce ever actually met and what she thought of him and vice versa. She was probably relieved because I think most Englshmen thought Ireland a wild and slightly uncivilized place back then. I imagine she was not happy to be recalled from France where she had settled in and made friends. Who knows? She may have had a beau there, too. So, instead of Ireland, she went to Court–that, too, must have been exciting and a relief. But wonder what her attitude was after growing up in France?
    I love speculating! THanks, Claire–great piece!

    1. did you mean to say if anne and james had ever met piers was the father of james ,the ironic thing is james married joan fitzgerald and had seven sons with her ,while in england poor anne and henry could not even have one.

  3. Had she indeed married James Butler we would not have the Anne Boleyn we know today. I mentioned James Butler lightly in my book because the relationship between him and Anne of which I feel there was not much going there, and Anne and Percy all seemed to fall at the same time. This girl’s head must have been spinning and when it stopped on the King little did she know that her head would come off……..In the end of the last CD of the series when Anne appears to Henry, she cries out it seems to all of us, I am innocent and I did nothing to you…..How often Henry must have thought of that over the years. I can see that when he was near death he would have given his life past more serious thought and was overcome with guilt.

  4. So both James Butler and Henry Percy were in Wolsey’s household at the same time… I wonder what they thought of each other and whether there was ever any friction between them over Anne Boleyn. Or maybe James Butler was indifferent to the marriage. One of those intriguing little footnotes in history that we’ll never know about!

  5. I find it ironic that the man who was meant to marry Anne who did not end up marrying her in the end actually went on to marry at the same time in the year as Anne went on to marry as the year 1532 was when James Butler married Joan Fitzgerald aswell as it being the same year that Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn coincidence. Also the letter to the king in 1521 which was written by Wolsey does not seem to add up either as it seems to mention delay and another fact that does not make sense to me is why would Wolsey have kept Butler hostage? It makes me laugh just knowing all of this. Also was it not Wolsey that was also responsible for the interuption of anne Boleyns betrothal to Henry Percy too! No wonder why Anne grew to hate him as time went on I can imagine how she had been feeling or was feeling at the time. She must have been feeling somewhat distressed aswell as distraught with everything including life.One of the reasons why she hated Wolsey is probalby because he kept getting in the way of things and I understand why he inteffered during the time of 1526/7 when Anne had been betrothed to Percy as this was around the time that the king of England showed an abbriviated interest in Anne so Wolsey must have just been acting on the Kings orders during that time but why back as early as 1521 did Wolsey interfere when the king had not yet casted an eye on Anne at that moment in time and with Anne being in France serving the french queen and studying aswell as being precontracted to marry someone else at that time it does not add up. Unless the only thing I cam come up with as to why the unitation did not go as planned is apart from the obvious the Butlers perhaps not getting on with the Boleyns and visa versa just like the Butlers did not get on with the Fitzgeralds later on in life was due to the fact that perhaps maybe the King did have his eye secretly cast upon the young Anne as early as 1521 but then if we are to beleive this theory then we would need some sort of evidence to back this up and if perceived true then Anne and Henrys courtship lasted longer than ten years or if Anne and Henrys courtship was just solely for that ten years then 1521 would be the time that maybe the king secretly fell inlove with her but did not perhaps make his intentions well known until 1526. Also perhaps this marriage was never meant to be as we all know that somethings are not in life but it is funny how things turned out in the end is it not!? Anne marrying a king and not just a king but one that would edventually take her head. I also put this just down to a case of bad luck too well on Annes part as whereever she was at any moment in time it seems that she was doomed to be on her own in life and free. Anne if not alive and free was dead and free.

  6. Good article. Thanks.

    The only thing I question is the poisoning of James Butler in 1546 – the Butlers insisted on this conspiracy theory for decades afterward, especially because the earl died while a guest of his St Leger enemy in London, which played in to various dynastic disputes. On balance it looks like a simple case of badly prepared food.

    The trick to understanding Irish influence on English politics is that Ireland was the state’s most vulnerable front, but also the easiest source of colonial wealth. The earl’s successor, Thomas, was Elizabeth’s “black crow”, and increased the family’s power enormously by his loyalty to the crown. Given the Boleyn connection, I’d say Thomas was the most substantial man in her life (apart from Burghley).

  7. Anne Boleyn must have felt so insulted and disappointed ! All the Continental education to waste away in an Irish castle !!!!!!!!!

      1. also have you ever been to kilkenny castle or even ireland for that matter so why do you think her education would have been wasted ,as far as i can see her life was certainly wasted living in england and marrying henry ,ok she would probably not have gone down in history as well known ,but she might have led a somewhat happier life than she did .

      2. Sadly what killed her in the long run was her husband’s STD infections, which increased chances of miscarriages; so she had to go.

        1. Actually, there’s no evidence that Henry suffered from any STDs, it’s a Victorian myth. We have his medical expenses and know what he was treated for – no STDS.

  8. A pity that she was not in the end considered good enough to marry Bulter and go off to he cousins in Ireland. She would have had a better life and Ireland was not some out of the way backwater it was a centre of learning and renowned around the world. It was fashionable and she would have done well as a Countess. Who knows they may have still done well at the various courts of Europe. The family were nobility after all.

    Anne and her family are always put down for not having any pedigree but they obviously had some, with connections to two noble houses from the Middle Ages at least and a third connection in Ireland. I have very proud Irish noble ancestors and we are not nobodies. Her father may have been a knights son, but he was considered important enough to marry the sister of the future third Duke of Norfolk. (He was Earl of Surrey until the second Duke died in 1524). The Howards were cousins of the Plantagenet Kings and so Anne has some pedigree, even if the older nobles did not think so. And the Tudors of course have the greatest royal pedigree in the world! (I do not think).

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