John De Courcy Earl of Ulster
- Born: Bef 1160, Stoke Courcy (Stogursey), Somersetshire, England
- Marriage: Affreca (Aufrick) Godfredsdottier in 1182
- Died: 1210-1219
Earl/Prince of Ulster
Chief Governor (Justicular) of Ireland 1185-1190
JOHN DE COURCY is one of the most interesting characters in history and very important in the development of Norman influence in Ireland.
JOHN DE COURCY, of Stoke Courcy, in Somerset, came to Ireland around the year 1177 as part of the Norman invading forces brought in by one of two feuding minor Irish Kings, Dermot MacMurrough of Leinster and Tiernan O'Rourke of Breifne. His great-grandfather, Richard De Courcy came to England with William the Conqueror and is named as an English landowner in the Domesday Book. His grandfather, William De Courcy I, married Emma of Falaise, thereby gaining landholdings in Somerset. His father, William de Courcy II, married Amice, of Brittany, and died about 1155, leaving the family estates in Somerset and elsewhere in England to his son, William de Courcy III, John's elder brother. [There is some debate on exact lineage here and variations suggest this John was a cousin.]
Sir John De Courcy having served King Henry II. in his wars in England and Gascoigne was sent by that monarch to Ireland in 1177. Of the Anglo-Norman invaders of Ireland, Sir John Da Courcy was one of the most renowned. He was a man of great strength, of gigantic stature, and indomitable courage. Holingahed states that De Courcy rode on a white horse, and had three eagles painted on his standards, to fulfil a prophecy made by Merlin, viz., "that a knight riding on a white horse, and bearing birds on his shield, should be the first of the English who, with force of arms, would enter and conquer Ulster." [DeCourcy may have been the original "white knight in shining armour"]
John was very ambitious and restless as he was stationed in Dublin. He decided to invade the north of Ireland which was controlled by the Irish clans. In early January 1176 (or 1177) he assembled a small army of 22 Knights and 300 foot soldiers and marched north, at the rate of thirty miles a day, skirted the back of the Mourne Mountains and took the town of Dun de Lethglas (later Downpatrick) by surprise. After two fierce battles, in February and June 1176, de Courcy defeated the local chieftain, Mac Duinn Sleibe (Rory MacDunleavy), There is debate as to whether he did all this without King Henry II's permission.
He was described as follows.
'John was a tall, blond man with long bony limbs, a big man, physically very strong, and of exceptional courage. From his youth he had shown himself to be a valiant man of war, always first into action, always grasping the nettle, danger. In battle he fought like a reckless common soldier, rather than a careful commander, conscious of his value to his own troops. Yet in ordinary life he was a moderate and sober minded man, who showed that true reverence which is owed to Christ and his church. He was utterly dedicated to the worship of his God and ready always to give to God the glory, when he had achieved any success.'
After his two battles at Down, de Courcy moved north to the territory of the Dal nAraide, whose king he killed. He then attacked Cu Mide Ua Floinn, a powerful king in county Antrim. He reached the north coast at Coleraine. On his way back, at the Rock of Fergus he built the great stone keep of Carrickfergus castle, one of the two keys to his kingdom. The other was Dundrum <dundrumcastle.htm>. It is clear that the native Irish did not stand much chance of defeating the Normans, who with their bows and arrows, swords, armour and horses, were vastly superior militarily. DeCourcy controlled most of Ulster, but his northern expansion was stopped by the powerful O'Neill (McNeill) tribe - who were both rivals and later allies.
De Courcy divided the newly Lecale among his Knights. The first priority was to build castles, which were, to begin with, small wooden buildings on top of a heaped up mound of earth. Very often the new owners would build on a rath already built by an Irish farmer. Many of the names of those soldiers are still to be found in Lecale and elsewhere in Eastern Ulster today; some in families, some in placenames eg Savage, Russell, FitzSimon, Jordan, White, McMahon, Hackitt, Copeland, Audley. With the exception of the Savages, who had land on the Ards peninsula and retained their influence for many centuries, few of the recipients of de Courcy's land allocations survived his defeat by Hugh de Lacy in 1204. Of those who did so and transferred their loyalty to de Lacy, many were deprived of their land by King John when in 1210 he took over de Lacy's earldom. But this was in the future.
There is some evidence that de Courcy built himself a castle in Downpatrick. Tradition suggests that the castle site was at the foot of English Street, where there used to stand a building called Castle Dorras, the gate castle, on a site now occupied by The Down Recorder. A castle located here would have commanded both the gateway into the English town, and would have overlooked a landing place for boats at the foot of the hill, now covered by Market Street.
However, since de Courcy seems to have concentrated his military power in the castles at Dundrum <dundrumcastle.htm> and Carrickfergus and to have left Dun da Lethglas as a religious centre, it seems that his small castle gradually decayed and was knocked down.
In 1180, de Courcy married Affreca, the daughter of Godred, the Norse King of the Isle of Man. It is likely that the marriage, as in the case of many kings and those aspiring to be kings in those days, was political, to seal an alliance with her father who paid homage to the King of Norway. By marrying his Viking princess, de Courcy was weaving ties of family and political friendship with many powerful allies and, in particular, was making Lecale safe from Viking raids. He also now had many ships aligned with his powerbase.
De Courcy and Affreca may have had no legitimate children - but questions remain. Affreca built a monastery at Greyabbey dedicated to Saint Mary of The Yolk of God. She is buried there and her effigy, in stone, can still be seen.
In 1177 King Henry II appointed his ten-year-old son, John, as feudal Lord of Ireland and in 1185 he visited Ireland for the first time. In the same year John de Courcy was appointed by King Henry as justiciar of Ireland. To receive this prestigious position, he must have made his peace with King Henry over his 'unofficial' conquest of Ulster.
Carrickfergus Castle is well known and stands to this day. Dundrum Castle <dundrumcastle.htm> stands on a 200 foot high hill overlooking the village and the little harbour in Dundrum Bay. The Castle controls the southern entrance into Lecale and east Down. If you come by the old road, as de Courcy did in 1177 from Newry and Hilltown, you pass by <Clough.htm>, which had its own motte-and-bailey castle.
Powerful men make powerful enemies and in de Courcy's case among them was Prince John, a mean and vindictive man. It appears that de Courcy backed King Richard in his power struggle with John. The prince was also insecure and did not trust his barons. Then again, de Courcy's success in Ireland and his exercise of some of the prerogatives reserved for kings, such as the minting of coins, added to his jealousy and insecurity. The coins were minted at Downpatrick. They were struck with the name of Saint Patrick, but on some of them also appeared the name of John de Courcy, and this usurpation of royalty may have been the final insult. In 1857 a hoard of 1115 coins was discovered hidden in the ruins of a castle near Newry. It has been suggested that they were hidden under the threat of King John's arrival at Narrow Water in 1210. Since they were never retrieved we can assume that their owner was killed or exiled.
The inscriptions on 264 of the coins read PATRICII DE DUNO (from the Dun of Patrick) and GOANDQURCI (John de Courcy). There is displayed in the Down County Museum <DownMuseum.htm> a tiny silver farthing of de Courcy, discovered among many royal coins of Richard and John, in the excavations at Carrickfergus.
When John succeeded Richard he dismissed de Courcy from office. He sent Hugh de Lacy to capture him. In 1203, de Lacy and his brother, Walter, the Lord of Meath led a raiding force into Lecale and attacked de Courcy in Downpatrick.
There is a colourful story in the Book of Howth, which tells of the capture of the Lord of Ulster in the sanctuary of the church at Downpatrick. This may refer to an event recorded by the annalist in Mac Carthaigh's Book for 1203, but whether it be fact or fiction, it is quoted because it is true to the spirit of this brawny, seasoned and god-fearing warrior, the Lord of Ulster:
"Sir Hugh de Lacy was commanded to do what he might to apprehend and take Sir John de Courcy, and so devised and conferred with certain of Sir John's own men, how this might be done; and they said it were not possible to take him, since he lived ever in his armour, unless it were a Good Friday and they told that his custom was that on that day he would wear no shield, harness nor weapon, but would be in the church, kneeling at his prayers, after he had gone about the church five times bare-footed. And so they came at him upon the sudden, and he had no shift to make but with the cross pole, and defended him until it was broken and slew thirteen of them before he was taken."
He returned the following year to Carrickfergus, but was again defeated. Although he was offered safe conduct, he would not submit to King John, so his lands were forfeited to the Crown and on 29 May 1205 King John granted these lands to Hugh de Lacy, belting him as Earl of Ulster. De Courcy could not accept this and in July 1205 he arrived with Norse soldiers, carried across the Irish Sea from the Isle of Man, in ships supplied by his brother-in-law, Ragnold, King of Man. They landed at Strangford and laid siege to de Lacy's stronghold of Dundrum Castle <dundrumcastle.htm>. Walter de Lacy arrived with his forces from Meath and de Courcy was again expelled from Ulster. DeCourcy was imprisoned by King John in the Tower of London as one of its early high ranking nobles. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_prisoners_of_the_Tower_of_London)
The story of DeCourcy and the “Privilege”
(This story has been retold hundreds of times in song and verse and is most recently documented in Mark Twain's Prince and the Pauper.)
There is a story that, while de Courcy was out of favour and languishing in the Tower of London, Philip Augustus, King of France, proposed to refer to the arbitration of single combat the disputes subsisting between the French and English Crowns, and each should name his champion. King John thought no subject of his was of sufficient strength and valour except the imprisoned Earl of Ulster. De Courcy spurned the proposal alleging the ingratitude of the King for his past services; but was at length prevailed on, for the honour of the nation, to take up the Frenchman's gauntlet. So great, however, was his strength, and so superior his stature, that the French champion, at the last charge of the trumpets, set spurs to his horse and fled, leaving the victory to the Earl of Ulster.
The French King Philip being informed of the earl's powerful strength wished to witness some exhibition of it. A helmet of excellent proof was laid on a block of wood. De Courcy, at the request of King John, cleft the massive helmet in twain at a single blow and with that blow struck so deep into the wood that no person present but himself could withdraw his sword. King John was so well satisfied with this signal performance, that he not only restored the earl to his estates and effects, but desired him to ask anything within his gift, and it should be granted. The earl replied, that having estates and titles enough, he desired only that his successors might have the privilege (their first obeisance having been paid) to remain covered in the presence of the sovereign, and all future Kings of England; which request was immediately conceded. [Remaining "covered" and thus not being required to take off one's hat in the presence of royalty might today be construed as not having to bow or "bend the knee" to the sovereign. This is the special privilege of the DeCourcy family.]
Subsequently reconciled with King John he accompanied the King to Ireland in 1210, on an expedition to displace Hugh de Lacy, who then had fallen out of favour.
De Courcy outlived King John, who died in 1216. The date of DeCourcy's death is uncertain, but is thought to be a short time before September 1219, when Affreca was granted her lawful dower - of lands in Ulster - by a writ of Henry III to the justiciar of Ireland. Affreca herself is thought to have lived on in Ulster, perhaps in her own Grey Abbey, for it was there that she was buried 'where the remains of her effigy, carved in stone, with hands clasped in prayer', are to be seen in an arch of the wall on the gospel side of the high altar'.
In his book, 'Saint Patrick's Town', Anthony M. Wilson has this to say about John de Courcy.
"Giraldus, a contemporary, names John de Courcy as one of the four great men, a hero of his time. Goddard Orpen, the respected historian of the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland, clearly admired this remarkable man who first established a power base in Ulster and then dominated the whole country. His conspicuous place in Irish history is secure. The people of modern Ulster can look back to him as a counterpart of William the Conqueror in England, the man who brought Ulster, albeit by force, into the mainstream of European law, religion and culture.
"By the inhabitants of Downpatrick he must be regarded and honoured as the founder of their town. He came as an alien Englishman, a foreign invader and, by that process so often effective in the very air of Ireland, he was converted into a true Irishman. He personally fostered and promoted the fame and honour of Saint Patrick and linked the name of the town and Abbey to the name of the patron saint. As well as the Benedictine Abbey on the hill, he founded three other monasteries close to the town and he created on the hills of Down a city, both monastic and mercantile, of which both the medieval and the twentieth century citizens can be proud."
NOTES AND SOURCES:
The Privilege Story described in Burke's Peerage
de Courcy, The Baron Kingsale, Baron Courcy of Courcy
Sir John Courcy, having distinguished himself in the wars of Henry II in England and Gascony, was sent into Ireland, in the year 1177, as an assistant to William fitzAdelm, in the government of that kingdom. Sir John having appealed to some of the veteran soldiery to accompany him, invaded the province of Ulster with twenty-two knights, fifty esquires, and about three hundred foot soldiers, and after many hardfought battles, succeeded in attaching that quarter of the kingdom to the English monarchy, for which important service he was created, in 1181 (being the first Englishman dignified with an Irish title of honour), Earl of Ulster. His lordship continued in high favour during the remainder of the reign of his royal master; but upon the accession of King John, his splendour and rank having excited the envy of Hugh de Lacie, appointed governor of Ireland by that monarch, the Earl of Ulster was treacherously seized while performing penance, unarmed and barefooted, in the churchyard of Downpatrick, on Good Friday, anno 1203, and sent over to England, where the king condemned him to perpetual imprisonment in the Tower, and granted to Lacie all the earl's possessions in Ireland.
After de Courcy had been in confinement about a year, a dispute happening to arise between King John and Philip Augustus of France concerning the Duchy of Normandy, the decision of which being referred to single combat, King John, more hasty than advised, appointed the day, against which the King of France provided his champion; but the King of England, less fortunate, could find no one of his subjects willing to take up the gauntlet, until his captive in the Tower, the stout Earl of Ulster, was prevailed upon to accept the challenge. But when everything was prepared for the contest, and the champions had entered the lists, in presence of the Kings of England, France and Spain, the opponent of the earl, seized with a sudden panic, put spurs to his horse, and fled the arena; whereupon the victory was adjudged by acclamation to the champion of England.
The French king being informed, however, of the earl's powerful strength, and wishing to witness some exhibition of it, de Courcy, at the desire of King John, cleft a massive helmet in twain at a single blow. The king was so well satisfied with this signal performance, that he not only restored the earl to his estates and effects, but desired him to ask anything within his gift, and it should be granted. To which the earl replied, that having estates and titles enough, he desired that his successors might have the privilege (their first obeisance having been paid) to remain covered in the presence of the sovereign, and all future Kings of England; which request was immediately conceded. This heroic warrior and able statesman died in France, about the year 1219.
John de Courcy had two sons according to O' Hart: John de Courcy, Lord of Raheny or Ratheny, who was killed by the de Lacys, and another called Miles, Baron of Kinsale, who had descendants.
Story of the English Champion:
The Literary World, Volume 31,p 317, 1885.
Lives of Illustrious & Distinguished Irishmen, James Wills, Vol I Part II. p308, 1841
Appt. as chief governor of Ireland by King John 1185 (see The Office of Chief Governor of Ireland, 1172-1509; Herbert Wood; Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature
Vol. 36, (1921 - 1924), pp. 206-238.
Names of witnesses [to a charter?] in Pat. [Roll]. 42 Ed. III., part 2:--John de Courcy, conqueror of Ulster, and Affrica his wife; John de Courcy, nephew of the Lord Wm. de Courcy, brother of John de Courcy, conqueror of Ireland. MS 608, f. 73b [n.d.]
These documents are held at Lambeth Palace Library
John DeCourcy of Ulster is listed as one of the rulers of the known world (1201) by Roger de Hoveden in Annals Vol II.
Controversy and historian JH Round
John DeCourcy is a very significant character in the history of Ireland. Many of his feats seem larger than life and may indeed have been exagerated. He may also have played a role in the rise of these stories during his lifetime.
Well respected historian JH Round has expended considerable effort attempting to strip the myths from fact, but seems to have taken this objective too far.
JHR suggests that John was NOT Earl of Ulster and this title had never been granted to him but instead was first granted to Hugh DeLacy in 1205 (many cite his writings as source). However writings of Gerald of Wales at the time confirm his title. Further, the Ulster Archeaology Society studied this matter and referenced original documents (See Ulster Journal of Archaeology, First Series, Vol. 1 (1853), pp. 38-42)
JHR also suggests there is no support for the legend leading to the DeCourcy privilege of wearing one's hat in the royal presence. Indeed, documentation of such a privilege would be difficult to secure, yet this "myth" has survived centuries and been recounted many times in writings and songs. Further the privilege has actually been exercised on multiple occasions (and recorded) with royal acknowledgement. Perhaps there is more to this myth that JHR suggests.
http://www.americanliterature.com/PP/PP12.HTML (Prince & Pauper)
John married Affreca (Aufrick) Godfredsdottier, daughter of Godfred II Olafsson "The Black" King of the Isle of Man and Unknown, in 1182. (Affreca (Aufrick) Godfredsdottier was born in 1162.)