John, baron de Stoke Courcy

DIED A. D. 1210.

From The Irish Nation: Its History and Its Biography

By James and Freeman Wills

JOHN, baron de Stoke Courcy, descended from Charles duke of Lorraine, the son of Louis IV. of France, who reigned in the 12th century.

His ancestor Richard, son and successor to the first baron, accompanied William the Conqueror to England, where he distinguished himself at the battle of Hastings, and obtained large grants in the division of the spoil. Among these was Stoke, in the county of Somerset, which thence obtained the name of Stoke Courcy. His son Robert, was steward of the household to Henry I. The next descendant, William, also bore an office of power in the royal household; but having no issue, was succeeded by his brother Robert, whose son William died in 1171, and was succeeded by the celebrated warrior who is the subject of the present memoir.[1]

Sir John, baron de Stoke Courcy, served Henry II. in all his French wars; but our information as to the detail of the earlier portions of his history, is neither full or satisfactory. Among the circumstances which have any distinct relation to the after course of his life, may be mentioned a friendship contracted with Sir Armoric de Valence, who married his sister, and was the brave and faithful partner of his adventures in Ireland, where, like him, he also became the founder of an illustrious Irish house. These two knights became sworn brothers in arms, in the church of "Our Lady" at Rome, where they pledged themselves by a solemn vow to live and die together, and to divide faithfully between them the winnings of their valour. This vow they observed through a long course of service in France and England. At last they were destined to have their fidelity proved, with equal honour, in a trial of sterner dangers and more rich temptations.

In 1179, after Strongbow's death, De Courcy came to Ireland with Fitz-Adelm, whom Henry sent over as deputy-governor. Fitz-Adelm's conduct soon excited among the other English knights and nobles who either accompanied him, or were previously settled, a very general sense of dislike and indignation by his arbitrary usurpations, exactions, and selfish grasping system of policy.

Of these De Courcy took the lead in discontent and in the energetic vigour with which he expressed his feelings, and adopted a course of free and independent conquest for himself. He appealed to his friends and companions in arms against the policy of the governor, which, both cowardly and tyrannical, deprived them of their rights and bribed the natives into a cessation of hostility. He represented that, by a grant from the king, he held a patent to possess whatever lands he might conquer; and promised to share freely with those who might prefer a gallant career of enterprise, to disgraceful inactivity.

Among the warriors of that iron age of chivalric habits and accomplishments, none stood higher than De Courcy in valour, nor could many have been found to rival one who has left a name which stands alone with that of his heroic contemporary the monarch of the lion heart, among authentic characters rivalling the poetic exaggerations of romance. His strength, far beyond the ordinary measure of the strongest class of strong men, was accompanied by an iron constitution, and a courage that held all odds of peril at scorn. With these, we can infer that he had a buoyant and imaginative conception, which gave to enterprise the form and attraction so congenial to romance. . The ardour of his manner, and the general admiration of his associates for personal qualities so congenial to their time and habits, prevailed with many, private friendship with others. A small force was thus secured to follow his fortunes into Ulster, which had not yet been attempted by his countrymen. Of these, the chief were his companion and brother in arms Armoric, and Robert de la Poer, a young soldier who had lately begun to attract notice as a brave knight, with twenty other knights, and about five hundred men-at-arms.

The first enterprise was near Howth, where they met with a severe check, but obtained the victory with some loss of lives. This fight is chiefly remarkable from the circumstance that, De Courcy being sick, Sir Armoric commanded, and was after the battle invested with the lordship of Howth, which still remains with his descendants.

Sir John with his small force now continued his northward march. It may be recognised as an incident illustrative of his character, that he appropriated to himself a prophecy of Merlin, that the city of Down was to be entered by a stranger mounted on a white horse, with a shield charged with painted birds. According to this description he equipped himself, and so accoutred, proceeded to his destination. After four days' march he reached Down, where he was quite unexpected. Nor were the inhabitants apprised of the approach of these formidable strangers, until their rest was at an early hour broken by the ringing of bugles, the clash of armour, and the tramp of heavy cavalry in their street. Violent consternation was followed by the confusion of precipitate flight. In this distress, Dunleve their chief, had recourse to Vivian, the legate, who in his progress through the country was at this time in Down. Vivian was not slow in remonstrance with De Courcy, to whom he strongly represented the injustice of an assault on people who had already submitted to Henry, and were ready to adhere to their pledges, and pay their stipulated tribute. His remonstrances, backed by the most urgent entreaties were vain. The stern baron listened with the courtesy of his order and the deference of piety to the dignitary of the church, and pursued a course which he made no effort to justify. He fortified himself in the city of Downpatrick, and made all necessary preparations to secure his possession. The legate's pride and sense of right were roused by the contempt, and the unwarrantable conduct of the knight. Though his commission had been to persuade peaceful submission, he now changed his course, and warmly urged resistance to unjust aggression. He advised Dunleve to have recourse to arms, and exert himself to protect his people and redeem his territories from a rapacious enemy. Dunleve followed his advice, and without delay communicated with his allies. In eight days a formidable power was collected. Roderic sent his provincial force, which, with the troops of Down, amounted to ten thousand fighting men. These, with Dunleve at their head, marched to dispossess the invader. To resist these De Courcy could muster at the utmost a force not quite amounting to seven hundred men. To attempt the defence of the town with this small force, when he was at the same time destitute of the necessary provisions and muniments of a defensive war, would be imprudent: to be shut up in walls, was still less congenial to his daring and impatient valour. Feeling, or affecting to feel, a contempt for the perilous odds he should have to encounter, he resolved to lead forth his little host and stake his fate on a battle. Still recollecting the duty of a skilful leader, he neglected no precaution to countervail the superiority of the enemy by a judicious selection of position and a skilful disposition of his men. He divided his whole force into three companies. His cavalry amounted to one hundred and forty, behind each of these he mounted an archer, and placed the company, thus rendered doubly effective, as a left wing under the command of his friend Sir Armoric. On the right, and protected by a bog, Sir Robert de la Poer, commanded one company of foot. De Courcy at the head of another occupied the centre. The English had thus the advantage of a marsh on the right, while their left was strongly protected by a thick hedge with a deep and broad fosse.

The attack was made with the fierce impetuosity of Irish valour. Prince Dunleve led forward his horse against those of Sir Armoric, thinking thus to cause a confused movement which might enable his main force to act. The English cavalry were immoveable; and the obstinacy of the attack had only the effect of increasing the slaughter of their worse-armed and less expert assailants. The bowmen acted their part so well, that few of those whom the English lance spared, escaped their arrows. Many were pierced, more thrown by their wounded horses. When the quivers were spent, the archers were found no less effective with their swords. After a most gallant resistance, the Irish retired with dreadful loss, and De Courcy with De Poer immediately charged the main body of the enemy, which had now come near his position. The fight now increased in fury. The Irish uttering tremendous yells, fought with all the fierce abandonment of desperation; the strength and composure of the English were tried to the uttermost; they trampled on heaps of the dying and the dead, amidst a tumult which allowed no order to be heard; and the old chronicler describes, with terrible fidelity, the mingled din of groans and shouts—the air darkened with clouds of dust, with darts and stones, and the splinters of broken staves—the sparkling dint of sword and axe, which clanged like hammers on their steel armour. The slaughter was great on both sides, and continued long. At length, that steadiness which is the best result of discipline, prevailed. The Irish suddenly gave ground; and from the pass in which the fight had raged till now, retreated confusedly and with fearfully diminished numbers into the plain. Sir Armoric now saw that it was the moment for a charge from his cavalry. After an instant's consultation with his standard-bearer, Jeffrey Montgomery, he gave the word for an onward movement; a moment brought his company into collision with the Irish cavalry, which, under the command of the brave Connor M'Laughlin, had retired in tolerable order during the late confusion of the battle. The shock was still fiercer than the former. This brave company, aware of the discomfiture of the main body, fought with desperation; Sir Armoric was twice unhorsed, surrounded and rescued during the short interval which elapsed while De Courcy was bringing up his now disengaged company to aid him. In this encounter it is related, that when Sir Armoric was down the second time, and fighting on foot with his two-handed sword, many of his troopers leaped to the ground, and snatching up the weapons of the dead which were thickly strewed under their feet, rushed on and kept a ford in which they fought, and cleared it from horse and man till De Courcy's band was up. The approach of De Courcy now decided this singularly fierce and obstinate, though unequal fight. The Irish, without waiting for a new collision, turned and fled, leaving to the conquerors a bloody field. Amongst the many fierce engagements which we have had to notice, none was more calculated to display the real character of the force on either side. On the part of the Irish, there was no want of spirit or personal valour. Superior arms and, still more, a steadier firmness and a more advanced knowledge of tactics, decided the victory in favour of a force numerically not quite the fourteenth of their antagonists.

De Courcy, by this seasonable success, was now left to secure his ground and effect his plans for a time in security. He parcelled out the lands among his followers, and built his forts on chosen situations, and made all the essential arrangements for the complete establishment of his conquest.

The following midsummer, the forces of Ulster were a second time mustered to the amount of fifteen thousand men, and hostilities were renewed with the same eventual success. A battle took place under the walls of Downpatrick, in which De Courcy gained another victory against tremendous odds of number, but with the loss of many men, among whom were some of his bravest leaders. Sir Armoric was severely wounded, and lay for some time bleeding under a hedge, where he endeavoured to support his fainting strength and subdue a parching thirst by chewing honeysuckles, which flowered profusely over his head; at last he was carried away by four men, having left much blood on the spot where he had lain. His life was little hoped for some days. In the same fight his son, Sir Nicholas Saint Lawrence, was also as severely wounded, so as to leave for a time little hope of his recovery.

Notwithstanding these sanguinary failures, the spirit of Ulster was not subdued. With their native supple shrewdness, the surrounding chieftains changed their game from stern resistance to that wily and subtle cordiality of profession, which even still seems to be one of the native and intuitive resources of their enmity, when repressed by superior power. They thus gained no small influence over the natural confidence of De Courcy's sanguine spirit. From him MacMahon won the most entire confidence. By solemn protestations, he assured him of the most faithful submission and service, and engaged him in the pledge of gossipry, which was, among the Irish, understood to be most binding. In consequence, De Courcy completely duped, entered into a confidential intercourse with this bold but wily and unprincipled chief;[2] and intrusted him with the command of two forts, with the territory they commanded. The consequence was such as most of our readers will anticipate. MacMahon waited his opportunity, and levelled the forts to the ground, in a month after he had received them in keeping. De Courcy soon discovering this proceeding, sent to learn the cause of this breach of trust. The Irish chief replied that "he had not engaged to hold the stones of him, but the lands; and that it was contrary to his nature to dwell within cold stones, while the woods were so nigh." De Courcy's resentment was inflamed by a reply of which the purport was not equivocal. He instantly called out his little force, and entering MacMahon's land, swept away the cattle in vast droves before him. This movement was the precipitate impulse of revenge, and cost him dearly.

The number of the cattle was so great, that it was necessary to divide them into three droves, each of which was committed to a company. The force was thus most perilously divided, and each division compelled to proceed in the utmost confusion and disarray; a space of three miles separated the van from the rear. To complete the dangers of this ruinous and nearly fatal march, their way lay through the narrow passes of a bog, and was every where intercepted by deep mires, with thick copses on either side. In these the enemy, to the number of eleven thousand, took up their ambush, in the certainty of a full measure of vengeance on their invaders. They adopted their precautions with the most fatal skill; the position and circumstances were precisely those adapted to their habits. They so divided their force, that when they burst with sudden fury from their concealing thickets, the three companies of the English were separated by two considerable forces of their enemy. They were further embarrassed by the cattle, which, taking fright, rushed impetuously through them, trampling down and scattering their unformed ranks, so that all the character of military organization was effaced, and they presented themselves singly to the rushing onset of thousands. Such was the fearful combination of disadvantages, from which it is hard to explain how a man could have come out alive.

De Courcy and Sir Armoric rushed from the woods to endeavour to ascertain the true position of affairs. They saw each other at the distance of a quarter of a mile. Each of these brave warriors had contrived to extricate some of his companions. They turned to approach each other. As they came on, De La Poer was seen at a small distance from Sir Armoric; he had also been endeavouring to disengage himself from the press, but in the attempt was surrounded by a crowd of the enemy, who were pulling him from his horse. Sir Armoric (whose niece he had married a few days before) rushed to his rescue; the party who had seized him gave way; but their shouts brought from the bushes a considerable force, who now blocked up the way between De Courcy and Sir Armoric. With desperate slaughter, and with some loss, they cut a passage to each other, and seeing that the ground was impassable for horses, they alighted and endeavoured to extricate themselves on foot from the surrounding bogs. Loaded with the weight of their massive accoutrements, it was no easy task to make way through mosses and quagmires which might well task the utmost activity of more lightly equipped pedestrians. They were instantly pursued. De Courcy was quickly overtaken by one Sawyard with a party. He turned on them with his two handed sword, and being bravely seconded by a few persons who were with him, the Irish assailants were driven off, leaving a hundred and twenty dead on the spot. Another chief came quickly on with several hundred followers, and again compelled De Courcy to have recourse to his fatal weapon, of which one hundred and eighty victims attested the prowess. Last of all, MacMahon came rushing breathless up; a stroke from a son of Sir Armoric intercepted his career, and laid him on the ground. The nearly fainting English took advantage of the pause of terror and surprise occasioned by the result of these slaughtering stands: their foes fell back to a safe distance from where they stood, "few and faint, but fearless still," having lost the fight, yet dearly won the honour of that dreadful day. They were allowed to retreat; and as night fell, De Courcy led them to a secure fort of his own. Here they were enabled to take rest and refreshment after their toil. The enemy resolving to secure the advantage they had gained, encamped at the distance of half a mile: thus menacing them with a distressing siege, for which they were utterly unprovided.

As the darkness fell, the watch fires of the enemy shining in vast numbers, starred the horizon for a wide extent with lights that lent no cheerfulness to the aspect of reverse; and the distant noises of triumphant revellings, sounded like insult to the pride of the knights who had but escaped from the carnage of that day. But at midnight, Sir Armoric with characteristic vigilance and fertility of expedient, after awaking from a short sleep, conceived a desire to steal forth and look out upon the revellers of the hostile encampment. For this purpose he cautiously awakened a few of the trustiest of his followers, and soon, without interruption, came near enough to the enemy to perceive that they were feasting or sleeping, and quite free from the fear of an enemy. He returned speedily, and rousing De Courcy, proposed a sally. He informed him that by the cabins of the enemy he could judge them to amount to five thousand; but that it was quite evident, that if they did not now make good their way through these, they should have no future chance, as the numbers of the enemy were likely to increase. These reasons were convincing; but the English were seemingly in the lowest stage of weariness, and many of them disabled from their wounds. It was nevertheless agreed on that they could not expect so good a prospect of deliverance; and when Sir Armoric had done speaking, De Courcy's mind was resolved, and his plan formed for the assault. He ordered two men to mount his horse and Sir Armoric's, and taking all the other horses that remained between them, to drive them furiously across the encampment, while himself with his knights and men-at-arms, following close in the rear, might serve them with a still more effective retaliation of the stratagem of the morning. Every thing turned out according to these directions, the horses galloped fiercely among the drinkers and the sleepers, who scarcely suspected the nature of the disturbance when sword and spear were dealing rapid and irresistible destruction on every side. Five thousand were slain, and only about two hundred collected their faculties time enough to escape. Of the English, but two were missing. De Courcy was by this fortunate stroke, enabled to supply the wants of his men. He was also, for some time at least, secure from further molestation, and sent to Dublin and elsewhere among his friends for reinforcements and other supplies.

We shall not here pause in our narrative, to detail two other fights which occurred in the same period of our hero's life. An extract from Hanmer's Chronicle, may tell the most personally interesting incidents of a fierce and sanguinary fight, in which De Courcy was himself in the most imminent hazard which we meet, in the strange romance of his adventurous course. The peculiarity of the battle, which took place near Lurgan, was this: that upwards of six thousand Irish were staid in their flight by an arm of the sea, "a mile from the Lurgan, on the south side of Dundalk," where there was no advantage of ground, and, of course, far less than the usual advantages from superior discipline. As the sense of a desperate necessity makes the coward daring, so it imparts steady and stern composure to the truly brave: in this position of the utmost extremity, says our authority, "there was nothing but dead blows; the foot of the English drew back, Sir John Courcy, their leader, was left in the midst of his enemies, with a two-handed sword, washing and lashing on both sides like a lion among sheep. Nicholas [St Lawrence] posted to his father Armoric, who was in chase of the scattered horsemen of the Irish, and cried, 'Alas! my father, mine uncle Sir John is left alone in the midst of his enemies, and the foot have forsaken him.' With that Sir Armoric lighted, killed his horse, and said, 'Here my son, take charge of these horsemen, and I will lead on the foot-company to the rescue of my brother Courcy; come on fellow-soldiers,' saith he, 'let us live or die together.' He gave the onset on the foot of the Irish, rescued Sir John Courcy, that was sore wounded, and with cruel fight in manner out of breath; at sight of him the soldiers take heart, and drive the Irish to retreat."

The result of this action was rather in favour of the Irish; and it was followed shortly after by another, of which we can find no satisfactory description, but that it is represented by the Irish annalists as unfavourable to De Courcy. Yet there was, we learn with certainty, no interruption to his arms sufficiently decided to arrest the progress of his conquest of Ulster, where he maintained his settlements against all efforts to disturb them.

After some time, an intermission of these hostilities allowing his absence, De Courcy thought it high time to visit England, and endeavour to secure his interest with the king. Henry, pleased with the progress of his baron's arms, created him lord of Connaught and earl of Ulster. On his return he had to fight a severe battle at the bridge of Ivora, the result of which was such as to secure a continued interval of quiet, which he employed in strengthening his government, securing his possessions, and making many useful arrangements for the civilization of the natives. He erected many castles, built bridges, made highways, and repaired churches; and governed the province peacefully to the satisfaction of its inhabitants, until the days of king John's visit to Ireland.

In 1186, as has been already related in a former notice, the king recalled prince John from the first brief exposure of that combination of folly and imbecility, which afterwards disgraced his reign. Eight months of disorder were, so far as the time admitted, repaired by the selection of a wiser head and a stronger hand. The brave and wise De Lacy had fallen the victim of an ignoble, but it is believed, insane murderer; but king Henry, seeing the approach of new dangers and resistances from a people thus irritated by acts of oppression, and strengthened by the absence of all caution, thought the adventurous valour and rough strong-headed sagacity of De Courcy the best resource in the urgent position of his Irish conquest.

De Courcy's first step was a stern exaction of prudent vengeance for the murder of his predecessor. He proceeded with energy and prompt vigour to the business of repelling the encroachments and repressing the hostilities which had, during the previous year, again begun to spring up on every side, to an extent, and with a violence, which had begun to shake the foundations of English power. Fortunately, for his purpose, incidental circumstances, at this time, had begun to involve the most powerful of the native princes in mutual strife, or in domestic dissensions. The aged Roderic was driven by his ungrateful children from his throne. The chiefs of the Maclaughlin race were destroying each other in petty warfare, and the practice of seeking aid against each other from the English settlers, gave added temptation, and more decisive issue to their animosities.

To rest satisfied with merely defensive operations, formed no part of the temper of De Courcy. The state of Connaught was not unpromising, but it was enough to attract the heart of knightly enterprise, that it was the most warlike province of Ireland, and had yet alone continued inviolate by the hand of conquest. He collected a small, but as he judged, sufficient force, and marched "with more valour than circumspection, into a country where he expected a complete conquest without resistance." He soon learned his mistake, though not in time altogether to prevent its consequences. He received certain information that Connor Moienmoy, the reigning son of Roderic, was leagued against him with O'Brien, the Munster chief, that their force was overwhelming, and much improved in arms and discipline. Under such circumstances, his further progress, without more suitable preparation, was not to be contemplated, even by the rashness of knight-errantry. De Courcy resolved to measure back his steps. He had not proceeded far on his retreat, when he was met by the alarming intelligence, that another large army had taken up a difficult and unassailable position on his way; there remained no choice, and he retired to the army he had recently left. Here he found the confederate force of Connaught and Thomond drawn up to the best advantage, in order of battle. Little hope seemed left, but much time for doubt was not permitted ere he was attacked. Charge succeeded charge, from an enemy confident in numbers—brave to desperation—improved in discipline, and encouraged by the weak appearance of the invaders' force. Their charges were calmly met, and after each they recoiled with diminished ranks; but De Courcy's little force was also beginning to be thinned, and, under the oppression of numbers, fatigue itself might turn the odds. It was necessary to cut their way through the armed mob. This they at last effected with vast and bloody effort, in which some of De Courcy's bravest knights were slaughtered.

By this event, the Connaught men had the glory of compelling the retreat of their invader, and preserving inviolate the honour of that unconquered province. Repelled from this design, De Courcy made amends by a combination of firmness and vigilance, which, with the assistance of the popularity acquired by his knightly fame and open generous temper, awed some and conciliated others, and still maintained with universal honour the authority of his Master through the country. Affairs were in this position when the brave and sagacious king Henry, worn by successive shocks of anger, vexation, and wounded feeling from the conduct of his unnatural children, breathed his last in the town of Chinon, in France. On the succession of Richard, the feeble and impolitic John, who thenceforward began to exercise a more absolute interference in Irish affairs, was won by the insinuations of the younger De Lacy to supersede De Courcy, and appoint himself to the government of Ireland. De Courcy did not fail to express his indignation at the insult, and thus laid the foundation of an enmity, which was soon to lead to a fatal reverse in his prosperous fortunes. He now resolved to attend to his own interests alone, and retired to the cultivation of his territory, in his province of Ulster. Here, soon perceiving the urgent necessity of strengthening himself against the fast rising power of fresh confederacies, he sent to call for the assistance of his dear friend Armoric St Lawrence. St Lawrence obeyed the call, but in marching through the province of Cathal O'Conor, met with a fatal disaster, which we have already noticed in the memoir of Cathal.

For some time De Courcy went on strengthening himself in Ulster, and although he met with occasional checks from time to time, still, by the most indefatigable watchfulness and valour, he not only maintained the ascendancy of his arms, but was even enabled to avail himself of the weakness of John's government. He assumed an independent position, not only denying the authority of the king, but impeaching his character, and questioning his title to the crown. In this course of conduct he was for some time joined by his rival, young De Lacy. But the perpetually shifting aspect of the political prospect in Ireland, appeared at length to assume a turn favourable to the power of John. The Irish barons, were mutually contentious, and, like the native chiefs, involved in perpetual strife with each other. De Lacy grew jealous of the growing power of De Courcy, whose superiority he could not help resenting. He reconciled himself by flattery and submission to the king, and exposed the danger of allowing a revolted subject to go on gathering power, and affecting the state of independent royalty. He was thus enabled to awaken a keener and more vindictive spirit in the breast of this base tyrant. The murder of the hapless prince Arthur, which had excited a universal sensation of abhorrence, drew from the generous and romantic ardour of the rough but high-spirited warrior, the most violent expressions of indignation and disgust. These were, by his rival, conveyed to the royal ear. John was enraged, and immediately summoned De Courcy to do homage for his possessions. De Courcy refused with scorn, to submit to the mandate of one whose authority he denied. A commission to seize his person was intrusted to De Lacy and his brother Walter, who, well pleased with the commission, which thus gave a specious appearance of right to their vengeance, proceeded alertly to their office.

De Lacy led his troops into Ulster, and coming to an engagement with De Courcy, was obliged to retreat with loss. But he, soon becoming conscious of the impossibility of resisting the power of the English troops, which he knew must gradually collect into a force beyond the utmost of his moans, resolved to temporize with his enemies. But private resentment was underhand at work; and his overtures were met with stern and unconciliating demands of submission. In this strait, he offered to justify himself by combat with De Lacy, who refused on the plea of his own high office, and De Courcy's being a subject, and a proclaimed traitor. He likewise also offered a large reward for the seizure of De Courcy, "alive or dead." But De Courcy stood so effectually on his guard, that there seemed to be little likelihood of success on the part of his enemy. At length De Lacy contrived a communication with some servants of De Courcy, who declared their fear of seizing the person of a hero, for whose strength, they affirmed, no match could be found; but they represented that he might be surprised on a particular occasion, which they thus described:—"On good Friday, yearly, he wears no arms; but passes the whole day in the churchyard of Down, wandering alone, and absorbed in devotional meditation." The hint was not thrown away on careless ears. Good Friday was at hand, and when it came, a spy, sent for the purpose, ascertained that the earl was in the place described, unarmed, alone, and by his absent eye and unsettled gait, little contemplating the meditated snare. A troop of horse rushed round the scene of sacred retirement, and the dismounted troopers crowded in upon the astonished knight; two of his nephews had been led by the tumult to the spot, and now rushed forward with heroic self-devotion to the rescue of their valiant uncle; De Courcy was not wanting to himself in the emergency. Seizing on a wooden cross which presented itself to his grasp, he laid about him with vigour and effect. Thirteen of his assailants fell beneath an arm, not often equalled in power: but his brave nephews lay dead beside him, and, wearied with his efforts, the valiant John de Courcy was at last overpowered, and led away bound and captive, into the hands of his bitter enemies.[3]

He was cast into the Tower, where he remained, until an incident occurred, the facts of which being misrepresented by contemporary report, have also led historians to commit the common oversight of denying the whole. The facts, as they are most simply related, are not, it is true, easily reconciled with other more authentic facts and dates. Yet we see no reason, therefore, to affirm that the account is wholly gratuitous. The most unembarrassed statement we can collect, is as follows:—

In the year 1203, there was an active and successful effort made by the French king to strip John of his Norman dominions. The contest was marked by imbecility and slackness on the part of John, which provoked first the earnest remonstrances and then the indignant desertion on the part of his barons. Still his Norman subjects, and still more the English, showed all willingness to second any vigorous effort of the king to reinstate himself in his rights. The king used this disposition to obtain money, which he lavished in extravagance: contenting himself with threats and remonstrances against Philip, who held him in just contempt, and being exalted by success, increased in his pretensions. The Normans were under a pledge to acknowledge his sovereignty, if not relieved within a year, not yet expired; to divert resistance, and perhaps at worst, to make room for compromise, he claimed the princess Eleanor, sister to the late Duke of Brittany, for his second son, with all the English dominion in France for her dower. The demand was absurd, and created remonstrance and complaint: the negotiation, which had till then been carried on, was abruptly broken off, and John's ambassadors returned into England. Shortly after their departure, and early in the following year, the king of France sent a knight into England to proclaim the justice of his cause, and in accordance with the notions and common usage of the age, to maintain the affirmation with his lance. The knight came and proclaimed a challenge against all who should impeach the actions or the pretensions of his master. It is probable that this knight did not expect his challenge to be taken up; at all events it was a matter of no political importance. But the English court justly felt that the vaunt should not he suffered to pass unanswered, and took it up as a question of sport in which the national pride was in some degree concerned, rather than as a serious matter. The court of John was, however, as likely to he anxious about a trifle, as if Normandy were the stake, and the king was earnest in the quest of a champion. The chivalry of England, ever the first in honourable enterprise, had champions enough, had the cause, the occasion, and the ruler, sufficient respectability to excite their sympathy. They were not asked; the fame of De Courcy was known; he was in the king's power, and there was little doubt as to the effect of the inducements, of freedom and restoration, when held out as the result of his becoming the champion of the royal cause. De Courcy had been some months in the Tower, when these circumstances occurred. He was sent for, and when he entered the presence, all were strongly impressed by the iron firmness of his gigantic port, and the undaunted freedom of his gait and countenance. "Wilt thou fight in my cause?" asked king John. "Not in thine," replied the Earl, "but in the kingdom's right, I will fight to the last drop of my blood." The king was too eager for the fight, to quarrel with the distinction, and De Courcy's imprisonment was relaxed in rigour; his diet improved; and his arms sent for to Ireland. But the circumstances becoming the talk of the day, the prodigious feats of De Courcy were everywhere narrated, with all the usual exaggeration. The French champion became from day to day more damped by these communications, until defeat appeared certain. At last, unable to contend with the apprehension of shame in the presence of the English court, and those of his countrymen who were sure to attend, the champion slunk away and concealed his disgrace in Spain. It was on this occasion that the privilege was granted to De Courcy, which yet remains as a standing testimony in his family. To the profuse proffers of king John's gratitude or favour, he replied by expressing his desire, that he and his posterity should retain the privilege to stand covered on their first introduction to the royal presence. This incident, the tradition of the day, has been so ornamented with the trappings of romance, and this with so little regard to possibility, that it cannot now be received by the historian with any trust. Yet tradition has also its laws, and the wildest improbability may, when reduced by their critical test, be found so far in harmony with the time, person, and general character of events, that it may safely be affirmed to contain a large residue of real fundamental truth. Admiration always exaggerates and builds tall and goodly fabrics on disproportionate grounds. Yet even in these, if they are invented near the life of the actor, even the very exaggeration is mostly true to life and character. Every one is aware of many instances of the construction of this class of fictions. The main incidents are mostly disjoined from more vulgar circumstances which are omitted, altered, and replaced by other seemingly unimportant circumstances, which are simply used, because the story can no more be told without them, than a picture be painted on the empty air. That which is adapted to raise wonder, is soon exaggerated to increase a sensation which the teller has himself ceased to feel. Again, the sayings and acts which are scattered along the memory of a life, will be seized on and made tributary to some special story. The violation of historical probability is long allowed to pass, because few hearers are precise enough to notice it; for it seems a general rule of the story-loving community, that no part of a story needs be true but the peculiar incident for which the tale is told. We begin to fear the charge of refining, and therefore we will pass to the subsequent facts of the tale.

Our authority goes on to state, that sometime after De Courcy being in France, serving in the English army, king Philip expressed to king John a curiosity to witness some proof of the strength of which he had heard so much; on which De Courcy was brought forward to satisfy this desire. A helmet was placed on a stake, and De Courcy stepping up to it, with a stroke of his ponderous two-handed sword, cleft the helmet and fixed the sword so deeply in the stake, that no one but himself could draw it out. Sir Walter Scott describes the feat, which he gives to Richard in "the Crusaders." Nor is it so marvellous, as on this ground to call for doubt. That the particular scene described ever occurred is, for other reasons, very unlikely. But the feat was one of the reputed trials of strength at a time when the fullest development of strength was the business of life. The whole tale, taking it even with some minor embellishments which we here omit, has this value, that it is founded probably on the real facts of De Courcy's life, and certainly on the impression of his character, which probably remained distinct enough until it became embodied in many a tale and written memorial not now to be had. That De Courcy was cast into the Tower, is not a fact confirmed by authentic history, and the meeting of the kings is still less likely. These are not, however, essentials to the characteristic incidents of the narration. The question about Normandy was not settled in the beginning of 1204, when De Courcy must have been in England, and this is the time assigned for the challenge. Again, king John two years after led a force into France, when he recovered parts of Poictou, and concluded a truce for two years with Philip. If these coincidences and the true spirit of the period be allowed for, the romance dwindles into an ordinary occurrence in which, however historical scepticism may ask for proof, there is assuredly nothing improbable.

The remainder of De Courcy's history is buried in much obscurity. He began to settle into the quiet of ease and the torpor of age. It required the prominent importance of a warrior or a statesman's actions, to fix a lasting stamp on the traditionary records of the time. He is supposed to have died in France, about 1210.

His Earldom of Ulster was retained by De Lacy; but Henry III. granted the barony of Kinsale to his successor (son or nephew), some years after. This title has descended in the posterity of the noble warrior, for 600 years.

[1] Lodge, vi. 36.

[2] Girald. Hanmer, &c.

[3] Lodge throws a doubt on this romantic story on the authority of a record in the Tower, from which it appears that De Courcy surrendered himself. See Lodge, vi. 143, for the whole of this document.

Library Ireland Facebook