Sir James The Lame: James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond
Sometime in 1521, Anne Boleyn left France for England. While she would eventually end up as a maid of honour to Catherine of Aragon and have her first noted romance with Henry Percy, this wasn’t the original reason for her recall — if everything had gone according to her father’s plans, she would shortly thereafter have celebrated her wedding to James Butler, heir to the eighth Earl of Ormond, and very likely gone to live in Ireland. Claire Ridgway has written a thorough account of the backstory to this (it was thought, among other things, that this would solve the problem of Thomas Boleyn’s claim to the Ormond earldom, which came via his mother Margaret Butler) as well as positing a few possible reasons as to why the marriage never took place, none of which involve Henry VIII’s personal interference. Although James Butler spent a large portion of his life in England, his story touched on Anne’s only briefly, so any novelistic treatment of him must be of necessity fairly sketchy.
James Butler’s basic biographical data aren’t hard to find, although his year of birth is even more doubtful than Anne Boleyn’s — anything from 1491 to 1502. He was apparently noted as “the lame” after receiving a wound in battle in 1513 (which would argue a birth year closer to the 1491 end of the spectrum, although not necessarily too close), and after the failure of the Boleyn match went on to marry one Joan Fitzgerald and have seven sons, as well as receiving what must have been a literal gold mine in dissolved monastic properties, so clearly he had enough political acumen to stay on Henry VIII’s good side. Like Anne, however, he was not destined to outlive Henry; he died in October of 1546 of the somewhat startling cause “Mass Poisoning” — he and at least seventeen others died after a feast which took place at Ely House. Sources tend to be vague on how exactly this happened or whether it was intentionally done; at this date, it seems unlikely that anyone can be sure, although according to Lives of Illustrious and Distinguished Irishmen “The entertainment is said, by Ware, to have been given him by his own people — the poison was, in all probability, accidental.” Certainly nobody was ever punished for it. In the days where botulism could successfully account for almost twenty people at one sitting, who needed arsenic?
Anne herself, her parents, and both of her siblings were all dead by the time James Butler succumbed to whatever lurked in the kitchens of Ely House, and even his marriage would have passed unnoticed as by the time it took place, Henry VIII was busy turning Europe inside out for the sake of marrying Anne. So, how does James Butler appear in his fleeting novelistic cameos?
The last is the simplest and, if not quite the commonest solution, probably holds the plurality: he’s not that essential to the plot, so cut him out. “Let’s start with the men,” declares the Anne of Suzannah Dunn’s The Queen of Subtleties (2004) but when she does, she goes straight to Henry Percy; Butler doesn’t even merit a sentence. Nor does he have any better luck in The Concubine (1963), Anne Boleyn (1957), and many others (it doesn’t help that a lot of Anne novels start with or after the Percy episode. Butler has a hard enough time getting a page to himself when he’s the man that’s happening now — the chances of his appearing in a flashback are nil). In The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) he gets barely a sentence and no description at all, not even his proper name.
In the books in which he does get at least a full-name reference, he has to be described and then disposed of with reasonable speed in order to clear the way for Percy, so it’s unsurprising, if rather monotonous, when the descriptions tend to be both unfavorable and curiously similar: the Anne of Margaret Campbell Barnes’ Brief Gaudy Hour (1949) “remembered him vaguely as a quarrelsome, redheaded little man, with a sword cut over one eye. He lived somewhere in Ireland, and she and George had made fun of him as children.” “That red-headed heathen!” cries the Anne of Margaret Heys’ Anne Boleyn (1967). “I will be no man’s pawn. Never, never!” A similar scene is played in Robin Maxwell’s The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn (1997) where Butler is described as “the wimpish ass of a son” to Sir Piers Butler, who is (horrors!) “known to murder relatives.” Well, we certainly can’t have that sort of thing in civilized Tudor England. In none of these books does Butler actually appear, though; he’s merely reviled from a distance. His being consistently a redhead, despite there being no confirmed portrait of him, isn’t necessarily due to stereotyping: as his father was called Sir Piers the Red, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine what hair color may have been predominant in the family.
He gets a bit more attention in Mollie Hardwicke’s Blood Royal (1988) when Anne dismisses him (while speaking to hopeful Thomas Wyatt) with “His hair is foxy, and I like a dark man.” Wyatt finds this promising, but has to admit to himself that Butler has done nothing to truly merit his dislike; he describes Butler as inoffensive, cheerful, and garrulous. The inoffensive appearance turns out to be deceptive in Carolyn Meyer’s Doomed Queen Anne (2002) wherein Butler, who is “comely enough, in an Irish sort of way” proceeds to disqualify himself from the Anne Stakes in record time by announcing that she could “do with a bit of taming,” calling her a hellcat, and announcing that he refuses to have a wife who won’t obey him. After awhile he realizes that Anne won’t be easily “tamed,” and so he begins sucking up to her and flattering her instead, but by this time Percy is on the scene and Butler fades out without much trouble, or indeed (as in many of these books) much explanation.
Butler the inoffensive makes a slightly longer appearance in Jean Plaidy’s The Lady In The Tower (1986). Here, he is “gauche, but not ill-favored” and although Anne refuses for a moment to contemplate going to Ireland (Butler tries unsuccessfully to reassure her: “It’s not all bogs and savagery, you know”) she enjoys his admiration nonetheless and feels a little bad for him when Wolsey torpedoes the match at the King’s behest, although she’s still extremely relieved that she won’t be going to Ireland.
Butler’s fictional apotheosis undoubtedly lies in Francis Hackett’s Queen Anne Boleyn (1939), when he rises high enough to star in the opening scenes of the novel. We’re shown his arrival in London with a manservant and see all the sights and sounds of Tudor London from his perspective. “He thought of the lions housed in the Tower, and boyishly longed to see them. He had seen few beasts from foreign lands. His London had St. Paul’s in it, groping into the city with a mighty hand, and scooping up a multitude of worshippers, with its hucksters in its aisles, and St. Paul’s cross at its mouth, where the King came to hear a sermon, and where preachers burned the books of heretics. In London there were shops for everything, for books, for silks, for dainties.”
He’s presented as amiable enough, if perhaps not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but with a pugnacious streak — especially when he gets drunk, which he does more than once while enjoying the delights of London and to disastrous effect when invited to spend some time at Hever to meet his intended. Anne herself has already announced her displeasure with the idea of marrying him, not because there’s anything especially wrong with him but because she didn’t choose him herself: “I am not to be passed from hand to hand.” The visit itself features a lot of needling from both Anne and George on the subject of the general hilariousness of Butler’s being Irish (“You miss your usquebaugh?”), until at last, after one evening in which Butler has gotten fed up and roaring drunk, he declares, “Bullen, a lord mayor’s whelp! His poor cracked mother, how could she make him Ormonde? The devil take them; I’ll have it, in the teeth of them, or die plain Butler. I’ll have none of them!” Thus, for the first and, as best I can tell, the only time in fiction, Butler decides to call the match off himself.
There let us leave him. Briefly attached to Anne Boleyn, mysteriously divided from her, he may not have known her very well and by the time he sat down to dinner that October evening twenty-odd years later, probably found it better to forget that he had ever known her at all. But through her he found a small and strange sort of immortality, even if he survives mostly as a sketchily drawn obnoxious perpetual redhead. But at least his fictional incarnations enjoy the full use of their limbs; not one of them appears to bear the nickname of “the lame” or have any injuries whatsoever. Perhaps the original Butler would be happy for that.