Theophilus Butler, Cavan MP and book-collector

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2005), News, Volume 13

To the north of the Old Library in Trinity College sits a bay of over 1,000 books and pamphlets donated to the library in the late eighteenth century. The main contributor was a Dublin politician, Theophilus Butler. He was born in 1669 in County Cavan. He had two brothers, James and Brinsley. On 27 September 1686 Theophilus and Brinsley entered Trinity College as undergraduates. Later, in March 1718, both were awarded LLDs by the university.
Butler’s first year in Trinity coincided with the accession of the Catholic monarch, James II, who increased concessions to Catholics and Protestant dissenters. After 1689, and with the outbreak of full-scale war, many Protestants, including Brinsley and Theophilus, chose to move to England for their own safety.
Jonathan Swift forged a friendship with both Brinsley and Theophilus during their time at Trinity. Swift attended Trinity as an MA candidate at the same time as the Butlers. Theophilus’s future wife, Emily Stopford, was also known to Swift. In his later correspondence he refers to Theophilus as ‘Ophy’ and to Emily as ‘my mistress’, suggesting closeness between Swift and the Butler couple.
In the years following the Williamite victory, Protestant ascendancy reached its zenith in Ireland. Theophilus was now back in Dublin and he benefited from being a member of such a privileged group. In 1703 he was elected MP for County Cavan, a position he held until 1713. During this time it was common for prominent gentlemen to establish private book collections in their homes. The Dublin book industry was of little interest to the Irish book-collector. Owing to a lapse in the copyright and licensing legislation, London reprints formed the majority of business for the Irish printer. They often used inferior print and a smaller format, which kept their prices low. London editions tended to have a more lavish style with elegant binding, making them more likely to increase in value over time, an attractive feature for the ‘gentlemen collectors’.
It appears that Butler became a serious book-collector in the early 1690s. Many of his books are marked with either his bookplate or his stamp, something that many collectors did to signify that the owner considered himself to be a collector of books and not purely someone who bought books for pleasure. This period also coincides with a series of trips made by Butler to London.  After a time spent living in England after 1689, Butler regularly returned. In 1697 he was elected steward to London’s Musical Society. Butler surely used his time in London to further his book collection. Like most Irish gentlemen, Theophilus Butler was averse to the inferior Irish productions, and few Dublin imprints appear in his collection.
By the end of the seventeenth century the library had become less a place of scholarship and more a public room, similar to a sitting room. A gentleman had to be sure that his library contained those books that were socially prestigious. Little popular prose appears in Butler’s collection. Instead, many books appear to have been bought partly for their ‘gentlemanly’ status. Science books, for example, are prevalent in the collection, though no evidence exists of any scientific interest on Butler’s part. The Gentleman’s Journal, a periodical aimed squarely at the literary tastes of gentlemen, also frequently appears.
In 1715 George I was crowned. King George was unwilling to return a Tory ministry that failed to acknowledge his legitimacy. In 1715 eleven new peerages were created in the House of Lords. Butler was undoubtedly pro-Whig in his sympathies. Archbishop William King noted in a letter to the earl of Sunderland that Butler had opposed the Tory ministry ‘in every vote both in parliament and in council’. Butler was rewarded for his political leanings and on 21 October 1715 was made Lord Baron Butler of Newtown-Butler.
Butler’s political preferences may have led to a deterioration of relations between him and Jonathan Swift. Though Swift’s loyalties shifted according to who was in power, his support mainly lay with the Tories. Brinsley, Theophilus’s brother, was notoriously pro-Tory, a fact that almost certainly resulted in Swift’s switch of affection from the older brother to the younger. Indeed, in much of Swift’s correspondence he refers to Brinsley as ‘my Prince Butler’.
The topical events of the early eighteenth century are represented in Butler’s library by numerous pamphlets. England’s war with France was a particularly controversial topic and is discussed in such texts as Butler’s copy of The fatal effects of arbitrary power. Ireland’s political status is also discussed in such works as Burbridge’s A short view of the present state of Ireland.
Personal choices are also evident. Butler’s own pro-Whig tendencies can be seen in the inclusion of such pamphlets as The succession of the House of Hanover vindicated. In 1697 the St Cecilia’s Day feast was sponsored by the London Musical Society. As a steward for the society Butler was responsible for commissioning Dryden to write his St Cecilia’s Day ode Alexander’s feast: or the power of music in honour of St Cecilia’s Day. The ode itself is contained in one of Butler’s bound volumes and is dedicated to the eight stewards of the feast, Butler included. Numerous works by Swift are also present, including Tale of a tub.
On 11 March 1723 Theophilus Butler died in his house in St Stephen’s Green. His will achieved some notoriety through his request that £13 worth of bread per year be distributed to the poor of St Ann’s parish. The shelves constructed to hold the loaves of bread can still be seen in the church today, along with a plaque explaining their origin.
Though no exact date can be placed on the donation of the Butler collection to Trinity, the most plausible assumption is that it was donated according to the wishes of Brinsley’s great-grandson Robert, after his death in 1779.
Theophilus Butler undoubtedly held his library in great esteem. He chose books that reflected his gentlemanly status, making purchases likely to increase in value, and marking many of them with his Butler coat-of-arms. And he wanted it to be used after his death, only expressing concern in his will that, after studying them, persons should place ‘such books againe Regularly’. Yet he also stipulates that the collection be kept within his family, ‘neither to be sold or lent to any P[er]son Whatsoever’. It would appear, then, that the very basis of Butler’s (admittedly limited) fame entirely contradicts his own wishes.

Sylvia Earley is a freelance editor and writer.


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