This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 13th March 1995, reproduced by kind permission of the author, the late Desmond Holden.

The “What's in a Name” series was a regular feature in the Advertiser over the period 1993‑2004, taking a refreshing look at the derivation of some typically Derbyshire surnames.

Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames, and do not indicate any particular interest on Desmond's part in the genealogy, descent, or family history of individuals bearing the surnames featured.

Editor's Note: Articles are provided for general interest and background only. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive treatise for any individual family history - investigations of which may yield quite different results. Or, in Desmond's own words:

“In the end it must remain with individual bearers of the names to draw upon family traditions and to seek out such documentary evidence as is available to decide the matter for themselves.”

WHAT'S IN A NAME … Are you called BUTLER?

Among the things we have long taken for granted is the ability to carry on working even when it is dark. Until artificial light was introduced everything more or less came to a standstill at sunset. In the Middle Ages especially. daylight was a valuable commodity and wasn't wasted over "elevenses" and "tea-breaks". People just rose before dawn and began work immediately. Breakfast as at present understood was not taken: indeed it is first mentioned only in 1463. There was usually a light "refreshment" about the eleventh hour (when people had already been at work for some seven hours!) but tasks were resumed until the evening set in. Then it was time for the main meal.

This was the high point of most peoples day. During the Middle Ages. although it wasn't all gloom and doom, there wasn't much in the way of entertainment except what could be associated with feasting, and so a great deal went into the arrangements for this meal - "dinner". A very large percentage of the population lived collectively and were attached to big households presided over by the Lord of the Manor. In the Great Hall (often the only apartment anyway!) a huge fire would provide adequate warmth and light and the entire establishment would settle down for several hours of guzzling and swilling incredible quantities of liquor. Solid food was dumped on the rough trestle tables which could be assembled and dismantled as required and each diner had to scramble for his share. The literature of the time indicates that table-manners left a lot to be desired! Drink was available in large flagons disposed along the tables and were in constant need of replenishing - though a few privileged persons could signal for their cups to be topped-up individually.

The people who did much of the running around between the tables fetching drink were the "bottle-ers" - which might now be rendered as "bottle-boys'! It is from this source that the name "butler" has been derived. The amount of drink consumed in those days was prodigious - but it is worth noting that in their hot fire-heated halls and wrapped-up in layers of clothes or in armour, our ancestors actually continued to sweat out almost as much as they imbibed and didn't get quite as drunk as we might think! Still there was plenty to keep the "bottle-ers" busy - and they had many other tasks to perform, such as assembling and taking-down the trestles and the boards and clearing away. This might seem surprising since nowadays we have created the image of a "Butler" in the form of an imposing figure treated with great deference by the rest of the domestic household. This notion came much later because even during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) books on housekeeping refer to butlers in much the same way as modern texts on catering would refer to "waiters".

The origins of the name are confused but it is accepted that it can be traced to a Latin word "buticula" which is a diminutive of another word "Butts". This gives us "butt" - e.g. "water-butt" - but it was formerly applied to a wide range of vessels designed to hold liquor such as flagons and wine-skins. During the Middle Ages individual container made from pot or glass were still rarities and drink was stored largely in bulk and drawn off as required in jugs. At first guardianship of all those casks of ale and wine would have vested in a "Steward" and it was he who superintended the work of the "bottle-ers". Under his direction they would have filled their flagons with drink and run off to distribute it among the diners. As time went by the custom of entire establishments assembling in the Great Hall for a communal meal was abandoned and so the number of men needed to arrange the dinner and to dodge among scores of diners gradually diminished. Furthermore, meal-time menus grew select and varied and people, especially if they were wealthy, began to cultivate sophisticated palettes for wine. So the job of a "Butler" became more specialised and professional and by the middle of the eighteenth century, in the mansions of the affluent. the Butler was virtually the man in charge.

At that point in time, of course, surnames had become standardised and so few people whose name was "Butler" could really have claimed descent from an ancestor of much standing. As we have seen, the occupation of a butler had been comparatively modest and there were plenty of them - which accounts for the widespread distribution of the name across the country. In "league tables" it has generally ranked in the mid-30's and in the U.S.A. it is the 35th most frequently encountered surname. The local directories here list about 400.

However people who have reason to believe they have Irish connections might be able to claim distinguished forebears. In former Royal and Noble households titles such as "High Steward" and "Chief Butler" were often conferred upon supporters. The duties were purely nominal (but not the salaries: of course!) and the real work was loaded on to others. In the year 1177 King Henry II (1154-1189) made Earl Fitzwilliam the "Chief Butler" of Ireland. and following which his descendants have assumed the surname "Butler".

The name has been borne by many distinguished people and it is almost invidious to be selective. Church-goers can be grateful to Alban Butler (1710-1773) whose monumental "Lives of the Saints" (1759) is still a standard reference work. And of course in recent times there has been Richard Butler ("RAB") (1902-1982) who will be inseparably associated with the Education Act of 1944.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 13th March 1995.

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