John de Courcy

John de Courcy

John de Courcy (1160 – 1219) was a Norman knight who arrived in Ireland in 1177. 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. [cite book | last=DeBreffny, D| year=1977 |title=Castles of Ireland | publisher=Thames & Hudson | location=London | pages=p104-105]

Early career in Ireland

John de Courcy marched north from Dublin in 1177 with a small contingent of knights and footmen and conquered eastern Ulster from the River Bann to the Irish Sea. After conquering eastern Ulster he established his "caput" at Carrickfergus, where he built an impressive stone castle. He married Affreca Godfredsdottir, daughter of Godfred II "the Black" Olafsson, King of Mann and Findguala MacLochlainn, in "c".1180. A castle at Dundrum was established in the 1180s, although the stone tower is likely the work of Hugh de Lacy II, Earl of Ulster.

Inch Abbey, near Downpatrick, County Down, was established as a Cistercian house by John de Courcy in "c".1180/88 (the date is disputed). Inch, or "Iniscourcy", was founded as an act of repentance for the destruction of the Abbey at Erinagh (or Erenagh) (3 miles (4.8km) to the south) by de Courcy in 1177. It was colonised directly by monks from Furness Abbey in Lancashire, along with some of the monks from Erinagh. [cite book | last=Donnelly, JP & Donnelly, MM| year=1980 |title=Downpatrick and Lecale. A Short Historical Guide | pages=p18] [cite book | last=Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland| year=1983 |title=Historic Monuments of Northern Ireland | publisher=HMSO | location=Belfast |pages=p103]

In 1183, John 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. Andres in 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, 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.cite book | last=DeBreffny, D & Mott, G| year=1976 |title=The Churches and Abbeys of Ireland | publisher=Thames & Hudson | location=London | pages=p60-61]

Later career in Ireland

In 1196 he defeated the King of the Cenél Conaill and most of Donegal was at his mercy. Two years later he returned to devastate Inishowen and on his way destroyed churches at Ardstraw, County Tyrone and Raphoe, County Donegal.

In 1199, because of his separatist tendencies, King John authorized Hugh de Lacy, younger son of the Lord of Meath, to wage war on John de Courcy. Hugh captured John de Courcy in 1203. 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... He was subsequently released when he "crossed himself" to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Description by contemporaries

"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."
Fact|date=January 2008

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 [ (1) ] .

*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 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 medieval and the twentieth century citizens can be proud.


*Seán Duffy, ‘Courcy , John de (d. 1219?)’Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 25 Sept 2007]

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