Alban Butler was born in 1710, at Appletree, Northamptonshire, the second son of Simon Butler, Esq. Orphaned at the age of eight, he was sent to be educated at the English College, Douai, in France. In 1735 Butler was ordained a priest. At Douai, he was appointed professor of philosophy, and later professor of theology. It was at Douai, he began his principal work The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints. He also prepared material for Richard Challoner's Memoirs of Missionary Priests, a work on the martyrs of the reign of Elizabeth.
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 on the Grand Tour to the Duke's sons, George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury and his two brothers. Both James and Thomas Talbot later became Catholic bishops,
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.
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. According to Charles Knight, the edition published in twelve volumes in 1847 is considered the best and most complete.
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.
- Works by Alban Butler at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Alban Butler at Internet Archive
- Works by Alban Butler at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- "The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints", Complete text of the 12 vol. ed. of 1866 at Bartleby.com
- 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 0-8146-2382-4; 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)