On the death of his father by drowning in 1619, the boy was made a royal ward by James I, removed from his Roman Catholic tutor, and placed in the household of George Abbot, archbishop of Canterbury, with whom he stayed until 1625, when he went to live in Ireland with his grandfather. This was very important for Butler's future life, as it meant that, unlike almost all his relatives in the Ormonde dynasty, he was a Protestant. This made his relationship with the rest of his family and dependents somewhat strained, as they suffered from land confiscations and legal discrimination on account of their religion, while he did not.
In December 1629, he married his cousin, Lady Elizabeth Preston, daughter and heiress of Richard, Earl of Desmond, putting an end to the long-standing quarrel between the families and united their estates. In 1634, on the death of his grandfather, he succeeded to the earldom.
On the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1641, Ormonde found himself in command of government forces based in Dublin. Most of the country was taken by the Catholic rebels, who included Ormonde's Butler relatives. However Ormonde's bonds of kinship were not entirely severed. His wife and children were escorted from Kilkenny to Dublin under the order of the rebel leader Richard Butler, 3rd Viscount Mountgarret, who was Ormonde's cousin. In spring 1642 Mountgarret and Ormonde were the commanders of the opposing forces at the battle of Kilrush, with Ormonde's side winning.
In spring 1642 the Irish Catholics formed their own government, the Catholic Confederation, with its capital at Kilkenny, and began to raise their own regular troops, more organized and capable than the irregular militia of the 1641 rebellion. Also in early 1642 the king sent in troop reinforcements from England and Scotland. The Irish Confederate War was underway. Ormonde mounted several expeditions from Dublin in 1642 that cleared the area around Dublin of Confederate forces. He secured control of the area historically known as the Pale, and re-supplied some outlying garrisons, without serious contest. The Lords Justices, who suspected him because he was related to many of the Confederate leaders, recalled him from command after he had succeeded in relieving Drogheda. But he received the public thanks of the English Parliament and a monetary reward, and in September 1642 was put in command with a commission direct from the king.
In March 1643 Ormonde ventured his troops to New Ross, deep in the territory of the Catholic Confederation, and won a small but indecisive victory there (Battle of New Ross) before returning to Dublin. Nevertheless, Ormonde was in a very difficult situation. The Confederates held two thirds of the island. The English Civil War, started in September 1642, had removed the prospect of more reinforcements from England and indeed the king desired to recall troops. In addition the Scots Covenanters, who had landed an army in the northeast of Ireland at Carrickfergus to counter the Catholic rebellion in that part of the country in early 1642, had subsequently put northeast Ireland on the side of the English Parliamentarians against the king; and the relatively strong Protestant presence in and around Derry and Cork City was inclined to side with the Parliamentarians as well, and soon did so.
Isolated in Dublin, with the king desiring to minimize his Irish troops, Ormonde therefore agreed to a "cessation" or ceasefire with the Catholics, which began in September 1643, by which the greater part of Ireland was given up into the hands of the Catholic Confederation (leaving only districts in the north, the Dublin Pale, round Cork City, and certain smallish garrisons in the possession of Protestant commanders). This truce was vehemently opposed by the Lords Justices and the Protestant community in general in Ireland.
Soon afterwards, in November 1643, by the king's orders, Ormonde despatched a body of his troops into England to fight on the Royalist side in the Civil War, estimated at 4000 troops, half of whom were sent from Cork. In November 1643 the king appointed Ormonde as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland -- head of the Irish government executive, in other words. For the previous two years the occupant of this post had not set foot in Ireland. Ormonde's assigned mission was to prevent the king's Parliamentarian enemies from being reinforced from Ireland, and to aim to deliver more troops to fight for the Royalist side in England. To these ends, he had instructions to do all in his power to keep the Scottish Covenanter army in the north of Ireland occupied. He was also given the king's authority to negotiate a Treaty with the Catholic Confederation which could allow their troops to be redirected against the Parliamentarians.
Ormonde was faced with a difficult task in reconciling all the different factions in Ireland. The Old (native) Irish and Catholic Irish of English descent ("Old English") were represented in Confederate Ireland—essentially an independent Catholic government based in Kilkenny—who wanted to come to terms with King Charles I of England in return for religious toleration and self-government. On the other side, any concession that Ormonde made to the Confederates weakened his support among English and Scottish Protestants in Ireland. Ormonde's negotiations with the Confederates were therefore tortuous, even though many of the Confederate leaders were his relatives or friends.
In 1644, he assisted Randall Macdonnell, 1st Marquess of Antrim in mounting an Irish Confederate expedition into Scotland. The force, led by Alasdair MacColla was sent to help the Scottish Royalists and sparked off a civil war in Scotland (1644-45). This turned out to be the only intervention of Irish Catholic troops in Britain during the Civil Wars.
On August 25, 1645, Edward Somerset, 2nd Marquess of Worcester, acting on behalf of King Charles, signed a treaty in Kilkenny with the Irish Catholic Confederates without first airing the terms of the treaty with the Irish Protestant community. Irish Protestant opposition turned out to be so intense that Charles was forced to repudiate the treaty almost immediately out of fear of ceding almost all Irish Protestant support to the other side in the English civil war. On March 28, 1646, Ormonde, on behalf of the king, concluded another treaty with the Confederates which granted religious concessions and removed various grievances. However, the Confederates' General Assembly in Kilkenny rejected the deal, partly due to the influence of the pope's ambassador (nuncio) Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, who worked to dissuade the Catholics entering into a compromise. The Confederates called off their truce with Ormonde, and arrested those among their number who had signed the treaty with Ormonde.
Ormonde then judged that he could not hold Dublin against the Confederates. He therefore applied to the English Long Parliament and signed a treaty with them on June 19, 1647 giving Dublin into the hands of the Parliamentarians on terms which protected the interests of both royalist Protestants and Roman Catholics who had not actually entered into rebellion. At the beginning of August 1647 Ormonde handed over Dublin, together with 3000 royalist troops under his command, to the Parliamentarian commander Michael Jones, who had recently arrived from England with 5000 Parliamentarian troops. Ormonde in turn sailed for England, remarking of his surrender that he "preferred English rebels to Irish ones." The combined royalist and parliamentarian troops won a major battle against the Catholic Confederates soon afterward near Dublin (Battle of Dungan's Hill).
The Irish Confederates were now much more amenable to compromise, as 1647 had seen a series of military disasters for them at the hands of English Parliamentarian forces. On 17 January 1649 Ormonde concluded a peace with the rebels on the basis of the free exercise of their religion.
On the execution of the king (30 January1649) he proclaimed Charles II, who made him a Knight of the Garter in September 1649. Ormonde was placed in command of the Irish Confederates' armies and also English Royalist troops who were landed in Ireland from France.
However, despite controlling almost all of Ireland before August 1649, Ormonde was unable to prevent the conquest of Ireland by Cromwell in 1649-50. Ormonde tried to re-take Dublin in August 1649, but was routed at the battle of Rathmines. Subsequently, he tried to halt Cromwell by holding a line of fortified towns across the country. However, the New Model Army took them one after the other, beginning with the Siege of Drogheda in September 1649.
Ormonde lost most of the English and Protestant Royalist troops under his command when they mutinied and went over to Cromwell in May 1650. This left him with only the Irish Catholic forces, who distrusted him greatly. Ormonde was ousted from his command in late 1650 and he returned to France in December 1650. In Cromwell's Act of Settlement 1652, all of Ormonde's lands in Ireland were confiscated and he was excepted from the pardon given to those Royalists who had surrendered by that date.
Ormonde, though desperately short of money, was in constant attendance on Charles II and the queen mother in Paris, and accompanied the former to Aix and Cologne when expelled from France by the terms of Mazarin's treaty with Cromwell in 1655. In 1658 he went disguised, and at great risk, on a secret mission into England to gain trustworthy intelligence as to the chances of an uprising. He attended the king at Fuenterrabia in 1659 and had an interview with Mazarin and was actively engaged in the secret transactions immediately preceding the Restoration.
On the return of Charles to England as king Ormonde was appointed a commissioner for the treasury and the navy, made Lord Steward of the Household, a Privy Councillor, Lord Lieutenant of Somerset (an office which he resigned in 1672), High Steward of Westminster, Kingston and Bristol, chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin, Baron Butler of Llanthony and Earl of Brecknock in the peerage of England; and on 30 March 1661 he was created Duke of Ormonde in the Irish peerage and made Lord High Steward of England for Charles's coronation that year. At the same time he recovered his enormous estates in Ireland, and large grants in recompense of the fortune he had spent in the royal service were made to him by the king, while in the following year the Irish Parliament presented him with £30,000. His losses, however, according to Carte, exceeded his gains by £868,000. See also Act of Settlement 1662.
On 4 November 1661 he once more received the lord lieutenantship of Ireland, and busily engaged in the work of settling that country. The main problem was the land question, and the Act of Explanation was passed through the Irish parliament by Ormonde on 23 December 1665.
His heart was in his government, and he vehemently opposed the bill prohibiting the importation of Irish cattle which struck so fatal a blow at Irish trade; and retaliated by prohibiting the import into Ireland of Scottish commodities, and obtained leave to trade with foreign countries. He encouraged Irish manufactures and learning to the utmost, and it was to his efforts that the Irish College of Physicians owes its incorporation.
Ormonde's personality had always been a striking one, and he was highly regarded. He was dignified and proud of his loyalty, even when he lost royal favour, declaring, "However ill I may stand at court I am resolved to lye well in the chronicle". Ormonde soon became the mark for attack from all that was worst in the court. Buckingham especially did his utmost to undermine his influence. Ormonde's almost irresponsible government of Ireland during troubled times was open to criticism. He had billeted soldiers on civilians, and had executed martial law. He was threatened by Buckingham with impeachment.
In March 1669, Ormonde was removed from the government of Ireland and from the committee for Irish affairs. He made no complaint, insisted that his sons and others over whom he had influence should retain their posts, and continued to fulfil the duties of his other offices, while his character and services were recognized in his election as chancellor of the University of Oxford on 4 August 1669.
In 1670 an extraordinary attempt was made to assassinate the duke by a ruffian and adventurer named Thomas Blood, already notorious for an unsuccessful plot to surprise Dublin Castle in 1663, and later for stealing the royal crown from the Tower. Ormonde was attacked by Blood and his accomplices while driving up St James's Street on the night of 6 December 1670, dragged out of his coach, and taken on horseback along Piccadilly with the intention of hanging him at Tyburn. Ormonde, however, succeeded in overcoming the horseman to whom he was bound, and escaped.
The outrage, it was suspected, had been instigated by Buckingham, who was openly accused of the crime by Lord Ossory, Ormonde's son, in the king's presence, and threatened by him with instant death if any violence should happen to his father. These suspicions were encouraged by the improper action of the king in pardoning Blood, and in admitting him to his presence and treating him with favour after his apprehension while endeavouring to steal the crown jewels.
In 1671 Ormonde successfully opposed Richard Talbot's attempt to upset the Act of Settlement. In 1673 he again visited Ireland, returned to London in 1675 to give advice to Charles on affairs in parliament, and in 1677 was again restored to favour and reappointed to the lord lieutenancy. On his arrival in Ireland he occupied himself in placing the revenue and the army upon a proper footing. Upon the outbreak of the disturbances caused by the Popish Plot (1678) in England, Ormonde at once took steps towards rendering the Roman Catholics, who were in the proportion of 15 to 1, powerless; and the mildness and moderation of his measures served as the ground of an attack upon him in England led by Shaftesbury, from which he was defended with great spirit by his own son Lord Ossory.
In 1682 Charles summoned Ormonde to court. The same year he wrote "A Letter, from a Person of Honour in the Country, in answer to the earl of Anglesey, his Observations upon the earl of Castlehaven's Memoires concerning the Rebellion of Ireland", and gave Charles general support. On 9 November 1683 an English dukedom was conferred upon him, and in June 1684 he returned to Ireland; but he was recalled in October in consequence of fresh intrigues. Before he could give up his government to Rochester, Charles II died; and Ormonde's last act as lord lieutenant was to proclaim James II in Dublin.
Ormonde also served as the sixth Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin between 1645 and 1688, although he was in exile for the first fifteen years of his tenure.
Subsequently Ormonde lived in retirement at Cornbury in Oxfordshire, a house lent to him by Lord Clarendon, but emerged in 1687 to offer opposition at the board of the Charterhouse to James's attempt to assume the dispensing power and force upon the institution a Roman Catholic candidate without taking the oaths. Ormonde also refused the king his support in the question of the Indulgence; James, to his credit, refused to take away his offices, and continued to hold him in respect and favour to the last. Ormonde died on 21 July 1688 at Kingston Lacy, Dorset, not having, as he rejoiced to know, "outlived his intellectuals"; and with him disappeared the greatest and grandest figure of the times. His splendid qualities were expressed with some felicity in verses written on welcoming his return to Ireland and printed in 1682:
The eldest of these, Thomas, Earl of Ossory (1634 – 1680) predeceased him, his eldest son (that is to say James Butler's grandchild) succeeded as 2nd Duke of Ormonde (1665 – 1745). The other two sons, Richard, created earl of Arran, and John, created earl of Gowran, both died without male issue, and the male descent of the 1st Duke becoming extinct in the person of Charles, 3rd Duke of Ormonde, the earldom subsequently reverted to the cadet descendants of Walter, 11th earl of Ormonde.
Lineage of the Butlers can be traced back to James Butler born in 1331 in Knocktopher Castle, Arklow, Wicklow, Ireland. This James Butler was the son of Eleanor Bohun who was the daughter of Elizabeth Plantagenet or also called Elizabeth of Rhuddlan(born 1282 in Rhuddlan Castle, Wales). Elizabeth Plantagenet was the daughter of King Edward I of England and Eleanor of Castile. King Edward I can trace lineage to notable monarchs such as Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, William the Conqueror and, of course, Charlemagne, King of the Franks.