Butler Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Butler Surname 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 Surname Resources on The Internet

Butler Surname Ancestry

  • from Southern England and from Ireland (Leinster)
  • to America, Canada and New Zealand

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

Early 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.

London.  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.  Butlers 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.

Elsewhere.  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.  Their history was recounted in the 1960 book Butler Family History by Patrick Butler, Baron Dunboyne.

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 stay).

New England.  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 John Butler who was recorded in New London, Connecticut in 1680.  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 British.  

Richard Butler from Essex arrived in New England in 1633 and came with Hooker’s party to Hartford, Connecticut in 1642.  Later Butlers were to be found in Wethersfield, although one branch held a family farm in New Hartford until 1901.

Virginia and the South.  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.

Captain James Butler of this family moved from Virginia to South Carolina in the 1770’s.  He was killed in 1781 in a skirmish during the Revolutionary War.  His son William who also fought in the war was said to have avenged this killing.  Descended from William were:

  • Pierce M. Butler who served as the Governor of South Carolina from 1836 to 1838 and died fighting in the Mexican war in 1847.
  • Andrew P. Butler who was the Senator of South Carolina from 1846 to 1857.
  • whilst a nephew of theirs, Matthew Butler, was its Senator from 1877 to 1895.

Major Pierce Butler, the third son of a well-born family from Carlow 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.  And by 1877 the family had relinquished their Georgia plantations.

John Butler, Scots Irish, was a boy soldier in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War and in 1817 moved south to Autauga county, Alabama.  His descendant Walter Butler, born in 1862, started a book and stationery store in Selma.

Thomas Butler, a gunsmith from Dublin, had brought his expertise to Pennsylvania in 1750.  By the time of the Revolutionary War, he and his five sons were Chief Armorers to the American cause (and were toasted by General Washington after his victory at Yorktown).  After the war one son Thomas moved south to Louisiana where he died of yellow fever in 1805.  His descendants were planters in West Feliciana parish, Louisiana.

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.  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.

New Zealand.  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.

Butler Surname 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.

Another Pierce Butler and His Descendants.  Long after he had served as Governor of South Carolina, Pierce Butler was the renowned Colonel of the famous Palmetto Regiment that fought in the Mexican war.  He fell mortally wounded at the Battle of Cherubusco in 1847.

His son Andrew Pickens Butler served as a captain in the Confederate army during the Civil War.  Soon after the war ended Andrew moved to Bossier parish in Louisiana where he engaged in planting until his death in the 1880’s.

Andrew’s son Andrew had two prized family mementoes.  One was the silver spurs worn by his grandfather in the Mexican war.  The second, from his father, was a walking stick made from the flagstaff that rose from one of the walls of Fort Sumter when it was fired upon at the beginning of the Civil War.

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.

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)

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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Written by Colin Shelley

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