He was born at Appletree, Northamptonshire and educated at the English College, Douai, in France. In 1735 Butler was ordained a priest. He laboured for some time as a missionary priest in Staffordshire, served several young Roman Catholic noblemen as tutor/escort/guide in Europe, held successively the chairs of philosophy and divinity, and was finally appointed president of the English seminary at Saint Omer in France (see Colleges of St Omer, Bruges and Liège), where he remained till his death.
In 1745, Rev. Butler came to the attention of the Duke of Cumberland, younger son of King George II, for his devotion to the wounded English soldiers during the defeat at the Battle of Fontenoy. Butler served as tutor and guide to George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury and his two brothers, James and Thomas Talbot, both afterwards Catholic bishops, on the Grand Tour. Butler returned to England in 1749 and was made chaplain to the Duke of Norfolk,whose nephew and heir, the Hon. Edward Howard, Butler accompanied to Paris as tutor. While he was in Paris, Butler completed his Lives. During his term as President of the English seminary, Butler also served the bishops of Arras, Saint-Omer, Ypres, and Boulogne-Sur-Mer as their Vicar-General. Butler died in Saint-Omer in 1773 and was buried in the parish church of Saint-Denis.
The Lives of Saints
Butler's great work, The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints ("Butler's Lives"), the result of thirty years study, was first published in four volumes in London, 1756–1759. It is a popular and compendious reproduction of the Acta Sanctorum, exhibiting great industry and research, and is in all respects the best compendium of Acta in English. Butler's magnum opus has passed many editions and translations.
The first edition (1756–1759)
This edition was printed initially in 4 octavo volumes, with no stated publisher or author's name. However they were so thick that they were usually bound in more volumes. There were actually 6 title pages since Vol. 3 and Vol. 4 both have a "part II" issued thus: vol. I, vol. II, vol. III, vol. III part II, vol. IV, and vol. IV part II. Each "volume" contained three months of the liturgical calendar's Saints' lives. Vol. I also had a copperplate engraving with figures of the Roman devices of torture used, and a 2-page explanation of their use. (This is only found in the first edition.)
Charles Butler's assertion that "all the notes" were left out of the first edition at the suggestion of Bishop Challoner is exaggerated. There are many useful, and even extended notes in the first edition, but not to the extent that they appear in the second, and succeeding editions. W.T. Lowndes[who?] has suggested there was a 1745 quarto first edition, but this is incorrect. Lowndes may have been thinking of Challoner's Britannia Sancta which was printed that year in two quarto volumes, and deals with all of the Saints' lives from the British Isles. Possibly the best edition, which included valuable notes, was in 12 volumes and published in Dublin, 1779–80.
Since Fr Butler published his original edition of his Lives, many successors have revised and updated the work. Father Herbert Thurston, SJ, edited and significantly rewrote the work; his 12 volume "Revised Edition" was published between 1926 and 1938 by an English layman, Donald Attwater made further significant changes in the "Second Edition" published in 1956, in the same number of volumes.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press
- "The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints", Complete text of the 12 vol. ed. of 1866 at Bartleby.com
- Works by or about Alban Butler in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- One modern abridged Concise Edition is: ISBN 0-06-069299-5
- A modern complete edition (1995–2000) is also available in 12 volumes, organized by month and feast day: (The January volume is ISBN 0-8146-2377-8; February ISBN 0-8146-2378-6; March ISBN 0-8146-2379-4; April ISBN 0-8146-2380-8; May ISBN 0-8146-2381-6; June ISBN 0-8146-2382-; July ISBN 0-8146-2383-2; August ISBN 0-8146-2384-0; September ISBN 0-8146-2385-9; October ISBN 0-8146-2386-7; November ISBN 0-8146-2387-5; December ISBN 0-8146-2388-3)