John de Courcy

For other uses, see John de Courcy (disambiguation).
Coat of arms of Courcy family.

John de Courcy (also John de Courci [1]) (11501219) was an Anglo-Norman knight who arrived in Ireland in 1176. From then until his expulsion in 1204, he conquered a considerable territory, endowed religious establishments, built abbeys for both the Benedictines and the Cistercians and built strongholds at Dundrum Castle in County Down and Carrickfergus Castle in County Antrim.[2]

Early career in Ireland

John de Courcy, of Stoke Courcy, in Somerset, came to Ireland around the year 1171 as part of the Norman invading forces, brought in as mercenaries working for Diarmaid Mac Murchadha, the ousted King of Leinster, to help him regain his position as king. De Courcy's great-grandfather, Richard de Curci is named in the Domesday Book. His grandfather, William de Curci I, married Emma of Falaise. His father, William de Curci II, married Amice, of Brittany, and died about 1155, leaving the family estates in Somerset and elsewhere in England to his son, William de Curci III, John's elder brother.

John was very ambitious and wanted lands for himself. He decided to invade the north of Ireland which was controlled by Irish dynasties. In early January 1177 he assembled a small army of 22 knights and 300 foot soldiers and marched north, at the rate of thirty miles a day. They skirted the back of the Mourne Mountains and took the town of Dún Dá Leathghlas (now Downpatrick) by surprise. After two fierce battles, in February and June 1177, de Courcy defeated the last King of Ulaid, Ruaidhrí Mac Duinnshléibhe.

He did all this without King Henry II's permission.

After conquering eastern Ulster he established his caput at Carrickfergus, where he built an impressive stone castle. He married Affreca, daughter of Godred II Olafsson, King of Mann. 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. John and Affreca are not recorded to have had any children. Affreca built a monastery at Greyabbey dedicated to Saint Mary of The Yoke of God. She is buried there and her effigy, in stone, can still be seen.

In 1183, de Courcy provided for the establishment of a priory at the cathedral of Down with generous endowments to the Benedictines from Chester in England (free from all subjugation to Chester Cathedral). This building was destroyed by an earthquake in 1245. He also created a cell for Benedictines at St. Andrews in the Ards (Black Abbey) for the houses of Stoke Courcy in Somerset and Lonlay in France, which was near Inishargy, Kircubbin, in present-day County Down. The early Irish monastery of Nendrum was given to the Benedictine house of St Bees in Cumberland in order that they might also establish a cell. His wife, Affreca, founded the Cistercian monastery of Grey Abbey, Co. Down, as a daughter house of Holm Cultram (Cumberland) in 1193.

He also made incursions into the west in order to increase his territory and lordship. In 1188 he invaded Connacht, but was repulsed and the next year he plundered Armagh.[3]

Later career in Ireland

Hugh de Lacy, younger son of Hugh de Lacy Lord of Meath, began to wage war on John de Courcy, capturing him in 1204.[4] An account of his capture appears in the Book of Howth. This passage helps explain why John had a reputation as a strong, God-fearing warrior:

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.

In May 1205, King John made Hugh Earl of Ulster, granting him all the land of the province "as John de Courcy held it on the day when Hugh defeated him". John de Courcy returned, sailing across the Irish sea from the Isle of Man in July 1205 with Norse soldiers and a hundred boats supplied by his brother-in-law, Ragnold, King of Mann. John and his army landed at Strangford and laid siege to Dundrum Castle in vain, because the defenses he himself had made were too strong.

King John then had John de Courcy imprisoned and he spent the rest of his life in poverty. He was subsequently released when he "crossed himself" to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. De Courcy died in obscurity just outside Craigavon.[3]

Literary references

The story of John de Courcy's defeat of the French champion, and his winning the privilege to remain covered in the presence of the King, appears in Chapter 12 of Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper.

In his book Saint Patrick's Town, Anthony M. Wilson said 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 Norman invasion 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 mediaeval and the twentieth century citizens can be proud.

Family tree I

    |                                     |
    |                                     | 
    Baudri the German                    Vigor
   =niece of Godfrey (?) of Brionn
    |               |         |            |            |            |           |               |  |      
    |               |         |            |            |            |           |               |  |
    Nicholas      Fulk      Robert      Richard       Baudri       Vigor      Elizabeth        daughters
de Bacqueville  de Alnou   de Courcy   of Neville  of Bocquence   of Apulia  =Fulk of Bonneval
   issue        issue     =Hebrea      issue        issue   
    |              |          |
    |              |          |
    Robert      Richard      William, died c. 1130. 
   =Rohesia de Grandesmil   =Emma de Falise
    |                         |
    |                         |
  William                   Robert, died c. 1151.
    |                         |
de Courcy                   de Courcy
of France           of England and Ireland

Family tree II

          Serlo de Burci      Corbutonis de Falise
           =?                     =Ameline
            |                      | 
            |                      |_________________________________________
            |                      |               |          |           |
            |                      |               |          |           |
   Martin = Geva de Burci = William de Falise      Roger    Gaufridus    Galterus
          |               |
          |               |_____________________________
          |               |                            |
          |               |                            |
 Robert fitz Martin   Emma = William de Courcy    Sibil = Baldwin de Bullers
    |                          |            |
    |                          |            |
    William, died c. 1151.     Robert       Jordan
  =Avice de Rumelly                        =?
    |                                       |
    |____________________                   |___________
    |           |      |                    |          |
    |           |      |                    |          |
    William   Robert   Richard              John     Jordan
                                      Baron Kingsale


  1. "John de Courci" in Encyclopædia Britannica
  2. DeBreffny Castles of Ireland, pp. 104–105.
  3. 1 2 DeBreffny Churches and Abbeys of Ireland, pp. 60–61.
  4. Mac Annaidh Dictionary of Irish History
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