Sir John De Courcy (4)

Patrick Weston Joyce

The lists were enclosed and all things were prepared against the day of battle. The two kings were there outside the lists with most of their nobility and thousands of great people to look on, all sitting on seats placed high up for good view. Within the lists were two tents for the champions where they might rest till the time appointed. And men were chosen to see that all things were carried on fairly and in good order.

When the time drew nigh, the French champion came forth on the field and did his duty of obeisance, and bowed with reverence and courtesy to all around, and went back to his tent where he waited for half an hour. The king of England sent for Sir John to come forth, for that the French champion rested a long time waiting his coming; to which he answered roughly that he would come forth when he thought it was time. And when he still delayed, the king sent one of his Council to desire him to make haste, to which he made answer:—“If thou or those kings were invited to such a banquet, you would make no great haste coming forth to partake of it.”

On this the king, deeming that he was not going to fight at all, was about to depart in a great rage, thinking much evil of Sir John de Courcy. While he was thus musing, Sir John came forth in surly mood for memory of all the ill usage that had been wrought on him; and he stalked straight on looking neither to the right nor to the left and doing no reverence to anyone: and so back to his tent.

Then the trumpets sounded the first charge for the champions to approach. Forth they came and passing by slowly, viewed each other intently without a word. And when the foreign champion noted De Courcy's fierce look, and measured with his eyes his great stature and mighty limbs, he was filled with dread and fell all a-trembling. At length the trumpets sounded the last charge for the fight to begin; on which De Courcy quickly drew his sword and advanced; but the Frenchman, turning right round “ranne awaie off the fielde and betooke him to Spaine.”

Whereupon the English trumpets sounded victory; and there was such shouting and cheering, such a-clapping of hands and such a-throwing of caps in the air as the like was never seen before.

When the multitude became quiet, King Philip desired of King John that De Courcy might be called before them to give a trial of his strength by a blow upon a helmet: to which De Courcy agreed. They fixed a great stake of timber in the ground, standing up the height of a man, over which they put a shirt of mail with a helmet on top. And when all was ready, De Courcy drawing his sword looked at the kings with a grim and terrible look that fearful it was to behold; after which he struck such a blow as cut clean through the helmet and through the shirt of mail, and down deep in the piece of timber. And so fast was the sword fixed that no man in the assembly using his two hands with the utmost effort, could pluck it out; but Sir John taking it in one hand drew it forth easily.

The princes, marvelling at so huge a stroke, desired to understand why he looked so terrible at them before he struck the blow: on which he answered:—

“I call St. Patrick of Down to witness that if I had missed the mark I would have cut the heads off both of you kings on the score of all the ill usage I received aforetime at your hands.”

King John being satisfied with all matters as they turned out took his answer in good part: and he gave him back all the dominions that before he had in Ireland as Earl of Ulster and lord of Connaught and of Kinsale in Cork; and licensed him to return, with many great gifts besides. And to this day the people of Ireland hold in memory Sir John de Courcy and his mighty deeds; and the ruins of many great castles builded by him are to be seen all over Ulster.[3]


[3] When I was a boy John de Courcy was well known in tradition and legend among the Limerick peasantry; and stories about him were common. Paddy MacGrath, of Glenosheen, a noted shanachie—of whom I retain a genial and pleasant memory—often told this very story of De Courcy and the foreign champion, and told it with spirit, as he did all his stories; while we boys listened entranced and breathless. I have not the least notion of how the people got these stories.

The usual name by which John de Courcy was known among the people was Sean a bhuille mhúir, "John of the mighty stroke."