Butler Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Butler Meaning
In England Butler as an occupational name originally denoted a servant in charge of the wine cellar, from the Norman French word butuiller.  It eventually
came to be used to describe a servant of high responsibility in a noble household, mostly leaving behind its association with the supply of wine.
The surname has its counterparts in France with Boutler and in Germany with Buttlar.

Butler Resources on

England. Butlers in England  were in many cases at first butlers.

The early spelling here was Botiller or Boteler.
Thus Ralph who was the butler to the Count of Meulan in the
early 1100’s was the forebear of Baron Botiller of Wern in Shropshire.  From Robert de Pincerna, butler to the Earl
of Chester in 1086 came Sir William le Boteler, lord of Warrington and sheriff
of Lancashire in the 13th century.  His family later became the
Butlers of Warrington and Bewsey.

Other early Butlers were:

  • the Botelers of Yatton in
    Herefordshire in the early 1300’s who were the forebears of the Butlers of
    Shambrooke in Bedfordshire and subsequently of county Cavan in Ireland.  
  • Thomas Boteler who appeared in a charter
    dated 1313 in Biddenham in Bedfordshire.  The
    line included Sir William Boteler, Lord Mayor of London
    in 1515.  The Botelers were still in Biddenham in the early 1700’s.   
  • and William Boteler, descended from the Botillers of Wern, who took over Sudeley castle in
    Gloucestershire in the 1360’s.  A
    descendant Thomas Butler was made Baron Sudeley in 1441.
    After he died, his young widow Eleanor, known
    as the Holy Harlot, was alleged to have had an affair with King Edward IV.  

There were three John Butlers who were recorded in London in the early 1400’s.  Two were members of the Mercers’
Company, one becoming an MP in 1417.  A
third was a draper who was Sheriff of London in 1420 and died a wealthy man in 1436. 
were cloth merchants in London in the
1530’s.  A later cloth merchant of
London, John Butler, bought Amberley Castle in Sussex in the 1650’s.

Butlers were yeoman farmers at Claines near Worcester in the 17th
century.  Descendants were to be found at
Rye in Sussex and Margate in Kent.  The
Margate line extended to George Butler, Headmaster of Harrow school from 1805
to 1829, and his son Montagu, Headmaster of the same school from 1859 to 1885.  Another line included a number of
Victorian colonial governors in India and the conservative politician
Rab Butler.

By the late 19th century, there appeared to be three main centers for Butlers:

  • in the north, in Lancashire stretching into Yorkshire
  • in the west midlands, primarily in Staffordshire and Warwickshire  
  • and in the southeast around London.   

Ireland.  The Butler dynasty in Ireland began with Theobald Walter from Lancashire, who was part of
the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in the 1170’s and was given at that time the
title of Chief Butler of Ireland.  They changed their name from
FitzWalter to Butler at that time.

These Butlers were ennobled as the Earls of Ormond in 1328 and they acquired their fortress at Kilkenny castle in 1391.  For centuries they remained a great power in SE Ireland, often in dispute with the FitzGeralds, that other great dynastic family in Ireland.

The Butler patrimony
extended through Kilkenny and Tipperary into parts of Carlow.  While the Ormond Butlers remained the senior
branch, other Butler branches developed over time, those of Dunboyne, Cahir, Polestown and Roscrea, and Mountgarret. The Ormond Butlers left Kilkenny
castle and Ireland permanently in 1935.
Charles Butler, the 31st Chief Butler of Ireland and the last of
their line, died in 1997.

Stephen Butler arrived in Ireland from Bedfordshire in 1610, having received a land grant in
Cavan.  He laid the foundations of the
town of Belturbet and his family became prominent landowners in the county,
ennobled in 1756 as the Earls of Lanesborough.
Their title became extinct in 1998.

America.  Richard Butler from Tipperary in Ireland was
the first Butler to step ashore in America.
He was a page-boy on Raleigh’s expeditions to Roanoke in 1584
and 1585, but refused to stay (and therefore did not perish as those who did).

Thomas and John Butler, brothers from Essex,
came to America in the 1630’s and they settled on Kent Island
which lay between the
colonies of Maryland and Virginia.  This
was dangerous as Maryland was Catholic and they were Protestant and they feared to come under Maryland’s jurisdiction.  In the end the Butlers made their home in Westmoreland county, Virginia.

Three notable early New England Butler families were:

  • the Butlers beginning with Nicholas
    Butler who came to New England on the Hercules
    from Kent in 1637 and stopped first in Dorchester, Massachusetts before moving
    to Martha’s Vineyard.  Benjamin Butler,
    Union General and Governor of Massachusetts, was a descendant.
  • William Butler who came around 1654 and made his
    home in Ipswich, Massachusetts.  He was
    by repute an Irish Butler fleeing Cromwell.  One
    line from him migrated in the mid-1700’s to Connecticut
    and to the Wyoming valley in Pennsylvania.  Another
    line started making paper, initially in Connecticut and Vermont, and then in
    the 1840’s in the Chicago area.  Growing
    rich they built their country estate in 1898 at Oak Brook near Chicago
  • and the Butlers who were recorded in New
    London, Connecticut in the 1680’s.  Walter
    Butler grew up there but moved in 1742 to the Mohawk
    valley in upstate New York.  His son John Butler
    led the notorious pro-British Butler’s Rangers during the Revolutionary War.  John died in Canada, a war hero to the

Major Pierce Butler, the third son of
a well-born family in Ireland, had come to South Carolina with the
British army, but resigned his position in 1773 to join the American cause.  He prospered after the War.
With his rice and cotton plantations in South
Carolina and later on the Georgia Sea Islands, he and his two grandsons who inherited his estate were amongst the largest slaveholders of the antebellum South.  Their edifice began to crumble, however, before the Civil War.

Canada.  The Butler name is old in Newfoundland.  Samuel
Butler, possibly from Bristol, was
among the very first immigrants to land at Conception Bay with John Guy in 1610.  Thomas Butler and his three sons
were living at Port de Grave in 1675; and his line may well have
extended to James Butler who was granted a moiety at Little Belle Island in Conception Bay
in 1757 (James reported property being in his family’s possession for 98 years).  There is a Butler house, built
by Butlers at Cupids on Conception Bay in 1905, that is still with the family.

Later Butlers in Newfoundland came from both England and Ireland.  James Butler arrived at Trinity Bay from
Hampshire in England around 1808.  There
have now been five generations of Butlers living at Port Rexton.  On one stormy winter’s day in 1892 Butlers of
this family were caught up in the tragic outcome of a seal hunt chase.

“John Butler witnessed the events unfolding from land; his nephew James made it ashore in very poor shape; but another relative Isaac perished in his seal boat.”

Australia and New Zealand
.  Laurence Butler from
Wexford was transported to Australia for his role in the 1798 Irish
Rebellion.  He arrived there in 1802 at
the age of 52 on the Atlas 2.  Nine
years later he started to advertise as a
cabinet maker in Sydney.  By the time of
his death in 1820 he was recognized as Australia’s first cabinet maker of note
and a leading businessman of the new colony.

Born in the tiny
Dorset village of Okeford Fitzpaine in 1814 to a clergyman’s family, William Butler ran away to sea at the age of 14.
In 1838 he arrived in New Zealand, bought land at Mangonui on
North Island, and set up a trading post to service whaling ships with supplies and
provisions.  The Butler homestead at
Butler Point where he and his wife Eliza raised thirteen children has recently been restored by descendants.


Select Butler Miscellany

Early Butler Lines.  The first and largest (in
terms of numbers) Butlers had their origins in Cheshire and Lancashire and took
in the Butlers of Ireland.  But the
surname spread as well around England.Other
early recorded Butler families were:

  • the Butlers of Yatton and Wyche in Herefordshire and Worcestershire (from Ralph Butler in the 12th century)
  • the Butler of Oversley in Warwickshire (in the 12th century) which led to the Botillers of Wern in Shropshire
  • the Botelers of Biddenham in Bedfordshire (in
    the early 14th century) and Sir William Boteler, Lord Mayor of London in 1515.
  • the Botelers of Sandwich in Kent (in the early 14th century) which led to the Botelers of Eastry in Kent.
  • the  Butlers of Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire (in the early 16th century) which led to the
    Butlers of Amberley castle in Sussex.
  • the Butlers of Orwell in Cambridgeshire (in the 16th century) which led to the
    Butlers of Barnwell in Cambridgeshire.
  • and the Botelers of Fryerning in Essex (in the late 16th century) which led to the
    Butlers of Ingatestone in Essex.

Kilkenny Castle.  Kilkenny Castle
had been built in Kilkenny in 1195 by William Marshal, Earl of
Pembroke, as a symbol of the new Norman occupation.   James
Butler, the 3rd Earl of Ormond, bought the castle in 1391
and established himself as ruler of the area.

By the 18th century, the castle had become run down, reflecting the failing fortunes
of the Butler family. However, some
restoration was carried out by Anne Wandesford of Castlecomer who brought
wealth back into the family upon marrying the 17th Earl.  In
the 19th century the Butlers attempted to
restore it to its original medieval appearance, as well as rebuilding the north
wing and extending the south curtain wall.

The Butlers lived there until 1935 and they later
sold the castle to the local Castle Restoration Committee for £50.  Shortly afterward it was handed over to the
State and it has since been refurbished and opened to visitors.

The Butler-FitzGerald Dispute.  A dispute
between the two leading dynastic families of medieval Ireland, the Butlers (Earls of Ormond) and the Fitzgeralds (Earls of Kildare) was resolved in 1492
by a brave act and a magnanimous response.

Black James, nephew of the Earl of Ormond, was
fleeing from FitzGerald’s Geraldine soldiers and took sanctuary in the chapter
house of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

Though he had the upper hand, with his
soldiers surrounding Black James and his men, Gearoid Mor FitzGerald, Ireland’s
premier earl, wished to end the bloody feud between both families. He pleaded
with Black James through the chapter house’s oak door to meet him to negotiate
a peace. Black James rebuffed all requests.

FitzGerald then ordered his soldiers to cut a hole in the center of the door.  Having explained how he wished to see peace
between the families, the Earl thrust his hand and arm through the hole to
shake hands with Black James. It was a risky venture.
Any of Black James’s heavily armed men could
have hacked the Earl’s arm off.  However,
James shook his hand and ended the dispute.

Butlers on Kent Island.  Thomas Butler
had been born in Essex a Boteler, but
became a Butler after he and his brother John had come to America and Chesapeake Bay.  Thomas had become a
merchant in London and joined the Merchant Adventurers in partnership with his
brother Captain John Boteler, and their brother-in-law, Colonel William Claiborne.

One story says they traveled
to the New World on the George,
possessing a 1637 Kent Island charter to establish a trading post with the Indians,
which they were successful in doing.  But
then Lord Calvert challenged the Botelers
and Colonel Claiborne for possession, resulting in the first “at sea” conflict in America.  During the conflict
Captain John Boteler died.  He left his
shares to his brother Thomas, who moved his family to Kent Island but apparently died there in 1646.

Under pressure from the Calverts, Joan Boteler, widow of Thomas, escaped to West
Moreland county, Virginia with her five young sons.
In Virginia the Boteler name became Butler
and the five young sons of Thomas grew up in Washington parish in Westmoreland county, Virginia.

John Butler of Butler’s Rangers.  Sir Guy Carleton described him as “very modest and shy.” American historians saw another side to this Loyalist
leader whom they labelled as “diabolically wicked and cruel.”

He and his son Walter were so feared it
was said there was more rejoicing among the Yankee rebels of the Mohawk valley
at the death of Butler’s son Walter than at the surrender of British General Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. The object of this bitter and understandably
biased hatred was John Butler, the renowned leader of Butler’s Rangers and the scourge of the rebels.

By 1778 Butler’s Rangers had a complement of 300 men and had begun to carry guerilla-type raids along the valleys of New York and Pennsylvania. The
Rangers’ mission was simpler: “Seek out and destroy.”  Their hit-and-run raids wreaked
havoc and great hardship to the American cause.

Walter Butler was
killed at West Canada Creek in New York in 1781.  Following
the surrender at Yorktown, Butler’s
Rangers were mustered for the last time and disbanded in 1784.
John Butler and his Rangers then retreated to the Niagara region in Canada where they were
well-established by the time Loyalists started arriving there. 

Major Pierce Butler and the Rev. Weedon Butler.  Paddy
Dunboyne’s book When the States Were Young, released
in 2006, is a compilation of
letters exchanged over the period 1784 to 1799 between Major Pierce Butler, slave-owner and signatory to the American Constitution, and the un-related Rev.
Weedon Butler in London, an ancestor of the politician Rab Butler.

Their opinions offer intriguing insights into
history in general, the American Constitution and slavery in
particular. The letters, which have been preserved in the British Library, have been transcribed in full and have been annotated and presented with a
scholarly introduction
and a sequel of events.

Major Pierce’s
grandson, also named Pierce, put all his slaves up for auction in
Savannah in 1859.  The book contains a harrowing
eye-witness account of the auction by Mortimer Neal Thomson of the New York Daily Tribune.

The Butlers of Oak Brook.  In 1898 Frank Butler, the Butler paper company magnate, acquired what was to become the Butler family seat, Oak Brook Farm,
some 17 miles west of Chicago near Hinsdale.

By the early 1920s, as the
sport of polo was gaining popularity in the United States, Frank and his son
Paul developed such a passion for the game that they founded the Oak Brook Polo Club.  Frank also took his passion
West, establishing a polo pony-breeding ranch near
Hot Springs in South Dakota and becoming a charter member of the Hot Springs Polo Club.

His son Paul was more the businessman, although
he did turn his back on the company’s old paper mills.
He turned his attention instead on
incorporating Oak Brook in 1958 as a community where field sport and corporate
boardrooms could share equal billing.  It
turned out to be a very successful venture.

Paul’s son Michael was the
millionaire playboy-turned-hippie daring enough to take a musical proclaiming
the Age of Aquarius out of a dingy back-street theater in the late
1960’s and turn it into the $80 million Broadway hit Hair.

However, things for Michael ended unhappily.  For
years he had battled his brother and sister in court as to how to divide their father’s fortune, estimated at one time to be as much as $100 million.  This
legal turmoil severely strained family relationships.
Michael himself declared bankruptcy in 1990
and three years later he had been forced out of Oak Brook.

In October 1993 Michael had his “Leaving Oak
Brook” garage sale, in which sweatshirts, books and various other personal
items were lumped on tables in the backyard of the bungalow in which he had
been living.  Michael Butler was leaving the family’s historic
home forever.


Butler Names

  • Chief Butler of Ireland was the
    title given to Theobald Walter in 1171.
  • James Butler was a prominent 17th
    century Anglo-Irish soldier and statesman.  He fought against the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland but returned to English favor after the Restoration.
  • Pierce Butler represented South
    Carolina in the Constitutional Convention and was a large plantation owner in South Carolina and Georgia.
  • Samuel Butler was the Victorian
    writer of the Utopian satire Erewhon.
  • Rab Butler was a prominent postwar Conservative politician who was expected to but didn’t become
    Britain’s Prime Minister.

Select Butler Numbers Today

  • 63,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in Kent)
  • 72,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 58,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)


Select Butler and Like Surnames  

These were status positions within the feudal position of that time – usually positions serving noble families, lords of the manor, or in the church.  Here are some of these status position surnames that you can check out.






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