Sir John De Courcy

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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De Courcy, Sir John, Earl of Ulster, was one of the most valiant of the Anglo-Norman adventurers in the invasion of Ireland. An ancestor had accompanied the Conqueror to England and there obtained large estates. Sir John de Courcy served Henry II. in his French wars, and after Strongbow's death came to Ireland with De Burgh. Dissatisfied with De Burgh's conduct, he, with Armoric St. Laurence (his sister's husband) and Robert de la Poer, in 1177 proceeded northwards to carve out their fortunes by the sword.

Having arrived at Downpatrick, De Courcy seized upon the district, and fortified the town, regardless of the remonstrances of the Papal legate, Vivian, and of the claims of MacDunlevy, prince of the district, who insisted that he had done homage to Henry II. for his estates. MacDunlevy, assisted by Roderic O'Conor of Connaught, collected a force of 10,000 men to dispossess De Courcy and his fellows.

After many bloody encounters, at the bridge of Ivora and elsewhere, the discipline of the Normans prevailed over the numbers of the native owners of the soil. De Courcy now parcelled out Ulidia (the counties of Down and Antrim) among his followers. He was confirmed in his possessions by Henry II., who created him Lord of Connaught and Earl of Ulster. Wills says: "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 1178 he was obliged to retire for a time to Dublin wounded, after suffering a defeat from one of the northern chieftains. In 1185 he was appointed deputy to Prince John, a post he held for four years.

He is thus described by Cambrensis: "In person John de Courcy was of a fair complexion, and tall, with bony and muscular limbs, of large size, and very strong make, being very powerful, of singular daring, and a bold and brave soldier from his very youth. Such was his ardour to mingle in the fight, that even when he had the command he was apt to forget his duties as such, and exhibiting the virtues of a private soldier, instead of a general, impetuously charge the enemy among the foremost ranks; so that if his troops wavered he might have lost the victory by being too eager to win it. But although he was thus impetuous in war, and was more a soldier than a general, in times of peace he was sober and modest, and paying due reverence to the Church of Christ, was exemplary in his devotions and in attending holy worship; nor did he forget in his successes to offer thanksgivings, and ascribe all to the Divine mercy, giving God all the glory as often as he had achieved anything glorious. 'But,' as Tully says, 'nature never made anything absolutely perfect in all points,' so we find in him an excessive parsimony and inconstancy which cast a shade over his other virtues."

De Courcy married Affreca, daughter of the King of Man and the Isles. Soon after the accession of King John, he incurred his displeasure by speaking of him as a usurper, and Hugh de Lacy the younger was appointed Lord-Justice and sent against him, with directions to carry him prisoner to London. By Scandinavian and Irish aid, however, De Courcy managed to hold possession of Ulidia against the Viceroy, whom he defeated in a battle at Down in 1204. As Cox says: "The valiant Courcy sent Lacy back with blows and shame enough." He was eventually captured by some of De Lacy's followers, as, in the garb of a monk, he was doing penance at Downpatrick, one of the many monasteries he had founded. He defended himself with the only weapon at hand, the pole of a cross, and is said to have killed thirteen before he was overpowered. He was committed to the Tower of London, and the King granted his lands to De Lacy.

We are told that about a year after his arrest a quarrel arose between King John, and Philip Augustus of France, concerning the Duchy of Normandy. It was referred to single combat, and De Courcy was prevailed upon to act as champion, for King John. According to the chroniclers, his proportions and appearance so terrified the French King's champion, that he fled, and in recognition of this service the King restored him to his estates, and granted him and his successors the privilege of standing covered in the royal presence. After this he is stated to have been fifteen times prevented by contrary winds from landing in Ireland, and he retired to France, where he died about 1219. Lords of Kingsale, who claim to be descendants of Sir John de Courcy, asserted their privilege of standing covered in the royal presence in the reigns of William III. and some of the Georges.

Sources

54. Burke, Sir Bernard: Peerage and Baronetage.

134. Four Masters, Annals of Ireland by the: Translated and Edited by John O'Donovan. 7 vols. Dublin, 1856.

148. Giraldus Cambrensis: Topography, and History of the Conquest in Ireland: Forester and Wright. London, 1863.

196. Irishmen, Lives of Illustrious and Distinguished, Rev. James Wills, D.D. 6 vols. or 12 parts. Dublin, 1840-'7.

216. Lodge's Peerage of Ireland, Revised and Enlarged by Mervyn Archdall. 7 vols. Dublin, 1789.

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