Butts, Robert (DNB00)

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BUTTS, ROBERT, D.D. (1684–1748), bishop successively of Norwich 1733-1738, and of Ely 1738-1748, was the son of the Rev. William Butts, rector of Hartest, near Bury St.Edmunds, Suffolk, of the elder branch of the Butts of Shouldham Thorpe in Norfolk, collaterally connected with Sir William Butts, M.D. [q. v.] Butts was educated at the grammar school at Bury, and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated as B.A. 1707, M.A. 1711, and D.D. 1728. As an undergraduate he was famous as a pugilist and a football player, and excelled in all manly exercises. After his ordination he served the curacy of Thurlow in his native county, and in 1703 was chosen one of the preachers of Bury. Here he rendered political services to the Hervey family. He was a zealous and unscrupulous party agent, and useful in elections to John, lord Hervey, eldest son of the first earl of Bristol, lord privy seal in Sir Robert Waipole's administration. So powerful a patron secured his steady and rapid preferment. In 1717 he was appointed by Lord Bristol to the rich family living of Ickworth, and in 1728 he became chaplain to George II, receiving his degree of D.D. at the same time by royal mandate. Three years later, 6 Feb. 1731, he was appointed dean of Norwich, retaining the living of Ickworth in commendam, till his succession to the bishopric, on the death of Bishop Baker, 20 Jan. 1733. He was consecrated by Bishop Gibson of London, at Bow Church, 25 Feb. According to Cole his great and sudden rise was a matter of surprise to most people, as he was almost unknown in the ecclesiastical world, and his merit went very little 'beyond hallooing at elections, and a most violent party spirit.' As bishop he is said to have 'shown some zeal and earnestness' in the management of his diocese, but coupled with a haughtiness which rendered him the object of general dislike, being, according to Cole, 'universally hated, not to say detested.' Little pains were taken to conceal the joy felt when, in four years' time, he was translated to the much richer see of Ely, which at that time seems to have been regarded as the natural apotheosis of the bishops of Norwich. As bishop of Ely he found his palace in London a far more agreeable residence than his episcopal city. He spent little time at Ely, and when there, if we may believe the spiteful Cole, he was a far more frequent visitor to the public bowling-green than to the cathedral services. According to the same authority he took little care to restrain his language within professional decorum, having 'sufficient of every necessary language for his episcopal office but good language,' being often heard 'swearing a good round hand,' and using vulgar and scurrilous expressions. He took no more care at Ely than at Norwich to make himself acceptable to his clergy, whom he is charged with treating with the greatest insolence. Though paying little regard to his person in private, and rough and ungentlemanly in his manners, he knew how to comport himself with great dignity on public occasions. He was an excellent speaker, his voice being good, and his manner dignified. As a preacher also he displayed superior powers. During the latter years of his life Butts was crippled with gout, which did not mollify a temper never accustomed to be controlled. This disease flying to his stomach, caused his death at Ely House, Holborn, 26 Jan. 1748. His body was buried in the south aisle of the choir of his cathedral, under a tasteless marble monument, adorned with a bust and a laudatory epitaph, ascribing to him an ardent love for true religion: 'zelo B. Petri similis et sancte quoad licuit semulus.'

The general estimate of this prelate may be gathered from the following passage in the 'Political Will and Testament' of Sir Robert Walpole, a party squib published after that minister's death in 1745: 'My eloquence I leave to that Good Shepherd, the Bishop of Ely, to persuade the Sheep of his Flock to leave off their Prophaneness, to turn from the evil of their Ways, and to follow the pious example of their Leader.' Butts was twice married. His first wife was Miss Elizabeth Eyton, of the old Shropshire family of that name, who died of consumption in 1734, at the age of forty-four, leaving two sons and five daughters. Mrs. Butts was buried in the chapel of the palace at Norwich, with a fulsome epitaph expressing the longing of the brokenhearted widower for 'praeclarus ille dies' which would restore her to him for ever. The bishop, however, consoled himself for his loss the next year, when, being over sixty, he married a young lady of twenty-three, the junior of his eldest daughter, the daughter of the Rev. Mr. Reynolds of Bury, by whom he had six more daughters. In 1753 Mrs. Butts took as her second husband Mr. George Green, the receiver of the late bishop's rents. The union was an unhappy one, the parties separated, and Mrs. Green retired to Chichester, where she died 3 Dec. 1781, at the age of sixty-nine. Butts printed nothing beyond a few charges and occasional discourses. The following may be mentioned: 1. A Sermon preached at Norwich on the day of the accession of George II, 1719. 2. A Charge at the primary visitation of the diocese of Norwich, 1735, London, 4to, 1736. 3. Sermon on Ps. cxxii. 6, preached before the House of Lords in Westminster Abbey, on the anniversary of the accession, 11 June 1737, London, 4to, 1737. 4. Charge delivered at the primary visitation of the diocese of Ely, London, 4to, 1740.

[Cole MSS. xviii. 140, 233; Bentham's History of Ely; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. ii. 80.]

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