Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Courci, John de
COURCI, JOHN de (d. 1219?), conqueror of Ulster, was a soldier of fortune, whose parentage is a problem as yet, it would seem, unsolved. He was certainly one of the well-known house of that name established in Oxfordshire and Somersetshire, for he appears with a Jordan de Courci (probably his brother) as a witness to a grant by William de Courci (a royal dapifer) to St. Andrew of Stoke (Hist. MSS. Comm. 9th Rep. app. i. p. 353 b), which foundation the De Courcis had bestowed on the abbey of Lonlay in Normandy. On this abbey he subsequently bestowed his own foundation of St. Andrew of Ardes, a further proof of the connection, as is also his association with Guarine FitzGerald (see below). It has been pretended by Lodge (Peerage of Ireland) and those who have followed him that John was the son and heir of this William de Courci (who died 1176). But as Alice, daughter of William (and wife of Guarine FitzGerald), is known to have been his heiress, this is impossible. He may have been a natural son of William, or a nephew, or merely a kinsman.
Whatever his origin, the facts of his life have been lost in a maze of legend, and it is now a matter of difficulty to sift the true from the false. His first appearance in history is in the Norman-French poem assigned (but in error) to Mathew Regan, where he is represented (lines 2733–6) as receiving in Ireland from Henry II (1172) a license to conquer Ulster; this, however, is scarcely consistent with the version given by Giraldus (Expugnatio Hiberniæ). According to this, John de Courci was one of three leaders, with ten knights apiece, who were despatched to Ireland by Henry on hearing of Strongbow's death, as an escort to William FitzAldelm, whom he entrusted with plenary powers (cap. xv.). The expedition sailed in December 1176, and within a month of his landing De Courci, with twenty-two knights and some three hundred followers, had set out from Dublin on his daring raid to conquer the kingdom of Ulster (cap. xvii.) Giraldus implies that John and his comrades acted in this on their own impulse, chafing at their enforced inaction under William FitzAldelm's rule. In the ‘Gesta Regis Henrici,’ indeed, he is stated to have forbidden the attempt (Ben. Abbas, i. 137). It was the depth of winter when they sallied forth, but by a forced march they traversed the distance (some hundred miles) so rapidly as to burst upon Down on the fourth day, and to seize it by a coup-de-main. Down (now Downpatrick) was the capital of the land, and had the additional advantage of resting on the sea, so that the Normans had secured a maritime base. The Irish, stunned by the suddenness of the blow, had fled, carrying their king with them, and the adventurers were at length revelling in plunder. The cardinal Vivian now appeared upon the scene, and endeavoured, but in vain, to restore peace. The men of Ulster, thirsting for revenge, soon rallied, and headed by their king made a desperate effort to recover their stronghold. John sallied forth to meet them in the open, and swept them before him in headlong rout. He distinguished himself among his fellows by deeds of Homeric valour: ‘nunc caput ab humeris, nunc arma a corpore, nunc brachia separabat’ (cap. xvii.). Giraldus presents us with an animated sketch of the young and victorious adventurer: ‘Tunc impletum est illud Celidonii [Merlin]: “Miles albus albo residens equo aves in clipeo gerens Ultoniam hostili invasione primus intrabit.” Erat enim Johannes plus quam flavus, et in albedinem vergens, album forte tunc equum equitans, et pictas in clipeo aquilas præferens … miles animosus audacter ingreditur. … Erat itaque Johannes vir albus et procerus membris nervosis et ossosis, staturæ grandis, et corpore prævalido; viribus immensis, audacia singulari; vir fortis et bellator ab adolescentiâ; semper in acie primus, semper gravioris periculi pondus arripiens. Adeo belli cupidus et ardens ut, militi dux præfectus, ducali plerumque desertâ constantiâ, ducem exuens et militem induens, inter primos impetuosus et præceps, turms vacillante suorum, nimiâ vincendi cupidine victoriam amisisse videretur, et quanquam in armis immoderatus et plus militis quam ducis habens, inermis tamen modestus ac sobrius et ecclesiæ Christi debitam reverentiam præstans; divino cultui per omnia deditus, gratiæque supernæ, quoties ei successerat, cum gratiarum actione totum ascribens Deoque dans gloriam quoties aliquid fecerit gloriosum.’ He tells us, moreover, that this ‘white warrior, seated upon a white horse,’ carried about with him on his conquering progress certain prophecies of Columba, in which he claimed it was foretold.
After his victory at Down, De Courci pushed his conquests with varying success for some years, fighting no fewer than five battles, the fifth of them ‘apud pontem Iuori’ (identified by O'Donovan with Newry Bridge) ‘in reditu ab Angliâ.’ Eventually he obtained a substantial hold on Ulster (Ulidia), or, more correctly, on the province of Uladh, the district bounded by the Newry and the Bann, and now comprising Down and Antrim. In accordance with the unvarying Norman practice he secured his hold upon the land by building castles as he advanced, and in these he placed his followers and his kinsmen, who, as his ‘barones’ or feudal tenants, became known as ‘the barons of Ulster.’ In their midst he kept at Down his own feudal court. His marriage (about 1180) with a daughter of Godred, king of Man (Chronicle of Man), brought him within the circle of the reigning houses, and he is accordingly spoken of by Roger of Hoveden (iv. 25) as ‘prince of the kingdom of Ulster,’ and similarly by his panegyrist, Jocelin the monk, as ‘Joannes de Cursi, Ulidiæ Princeps’ (Prologus Jocelini in vitam S. Patricii). It was while he thus reigned at Down that he replaced the secular canons of its abbey by monks from St. Werburgh's, Chester, and placed it under the patronage of St. Patrick (in the place of the Holy Trinity), for whom he professed a fervent adoration.
On the failure of John's expedition to Ireland (1185) recourse was had to John de Courci, and the island placed in his charge. He accordingly witnesses three charters as ‘justiciar’ (Cartulary of St. Mary's Abbey, Dublin, i. 125, ii. 4, 21). It is always stated that on the accession of Richard he was displaced in favour of Hugh de Lacy; but this is not so, for one of these documents is demonstrably of Richard's reign. By his expression elsewhere, ‘dum eallirus fui domini mei comitis’ (ib. ii. 12), he appears to imply that in this reign he acted as deputy for John (Count of Mortain). So obscure is Irish history for these years that for a while he is almost lost to view. We gather, however, that like his fellows he took part in the terrible struggles for the succession between the sons of Roderic O'Connor, and was on one occasion signally defeated by the allied forces of the Irish chieftains while attempting to invade Connaught. In 1193 his wife, Affreca, founded the beautiful ‘Grey Abbey’ for Cistercian monks on Strangford Lough, and four years later (1197) his brother Jordan was slain by a native retainer, his death being furiously avenged by John himself upon the natives (Rog. Hov. iv. 25).
Though the records available for the following reign enable us closely to follow his career, it is difficult to explain their opening allusion (4 Sept. 1199) to his having in some way acted with W. De Lacy ‘ad terram nostram Hiberniæ destruendam’ (Obl. 1 John, m. 16 dors.) It would seem that, whatever their offence had been, William de Lacy made his peace, and thenceforth proved his loyalty to the crown by becoming the enemy of John de Courci, who refused to ‘come in’ and defied its power. We accordingly find that the following year (1200) he succeeded with his brother, by a treacherous invitation, in making John his prisoner (Rog. Hov. iv. 176). But this attempt (which probably suggested the legendary tale of his capture at Downpatrick in 1203) was foiled by the loyalty of his adherents, who at once rose and rescued him. Meanwhile his small estate in England (the only hold which the crown had on him) was forfeited (Rot. Canc. 3 John). Our next glimpse of the struggle is in 1203, when Hugh de Lacy (who had charge of Meath during his brother's absence in England) raided into Ulster, attacked John, beat him out of Down, and ‘banished’ him from the province (Annals of Four Masters, Clonmacnois, and Loch Cé). He failed, however, in his main object, that of securing John's person. The royal offer (21 Sept.) of a safe-conduct (Pat. 5 John, m. 6) failed to lure him from his retreat, and on the return of the invading force he was soon back in Down.
But in the spring (1204) Hugh de Lacy returned to the attack, and this time with complete success. The forces of Ulster were utterly defeated and John himself taken prisoner (Annals of Loch Cé, i. 135; Chronicle of Man). It is to this battle that reference is made in the grant of Ulster to Hugh de Lacy (29 May 1205), ‘as John de Curcy held it on the day when Hugh conquered and took him prisoner in the field’ (Cart. 7 John, m. 12). So erroneous are the histories of this warfare that Mr. Gilbert represents this battle as a victory for John de Courci (Viceroys, p. 61). Meanwhile John had secured his release (Chronicle of Man), whether, as implied by the ‘Annals of Loch Cé’ (but the passage is obscure), by submitting to take the cross, or, as distinctly asserted in the records, by swearing to submit to the crown, and giving hostages as a pledge for his doing so (‘sic se venturum [in servitium nostrum] juravit et unâ obsides suos dedit’). A list of these hostages is preserved in the Patent Rolls (Pat. 1 John, m. 6 dors.), and, though assigned in both the official calendars to 1205, is not later than 15 July 1204. This further confirms the date of the decisive battle. On 31 Aug. (1204) the justiciar (Meiller FitzHenry) and Walter de Lacy, his assessor, were ordered to insist on his promised surrender under pain of total forfeiture (Pat. 6 John, m. 9), and the next day ‘the barons of Ulster’ were ordered to produce their lord as they valued their sons (his hostages) and their lands (ib.) It may be gathered, however, from the ‘Irish Annals’ (Four Masters; Clonmacnois) that John sought refuge with the Cenel-Eoghain in Tyrone, and that the safe-conduct offered him (Pat. 6 John, m. 7) in the autumn (21 Oct. 1204) failed to procure his surrender, for the De Lacys were duly assigned (13 Nov.) their share of his forfeited lands, and his hostages were still detained.
After lurking, however, for a while in Tyrone he appears to have changed his mind and accepted a safe-conduct (12 Feb. 1205) to the king (ib. m. 4), his submission being rewarded by the restoration of his small English estate (Claus. 7 John, m. 26). But his rival, Hugh de Lacy, followed him to court (March 1205), and obtaining a grant of the whole of Ulster (2 May), together with the title of earl (29 May), returned to Ireland in triumph (ib. mm. 22, 24). John at once flew to arms, and his English estate was again (22 May) seized and delivered to Warine FitzGerald (ib. m. 26). By the help of his brother-in-law, Ragnvald, king of Man (whom he had himself assisted some years before), he was soon at the head of a pirate fleet, recruited from the Norsemen of the isles. Landing at Strangford the allied chieftains feebly besieged the castle of ‘Rath,’ ravaging and plundering the country round till Walter de Lacy, arriving with his forces, scattered their host in utter rout, and John, after intriguing with the native tribes, fled finally from the scene of his triumphs (Annals of Loch Cé; Chronicle of Man). There would seem to be in the English records a solitary and incidental allusion to this attempt (Fin. 9 John, m. 12).
It is not till the close of 1207 that John reappears to view. He was then apparently with his native allies, for he received (14 Nov. 1207) a license (Pat. 9 John, m. 4) to come to England and stay with his friends (‘moretur cum amicis’), the king engaging not to expel him without forty days' notice. After this glimpse of him he again disappears till 1210, when he is found not only in favour with John, but even a pensioned courtier. The ‘Prestita and Liberate Rolls’ now frequently record his name, and he even accompanies John to Ireland (June 1210), where he is employed by him on several matters, and is despatched from Carrickfergus to Galloway to bring back with him the family of William de Braose (Liber Niger, p. 382). John's pension of 100l. a year enables us to trace his name in the records for some time longer, and on 30 Aug. 1213 the justiciar of Ireland is ordered to provide his wife Affreca with some land ‘unde possit sustentari’ (Claus. 15 John, pars 2, m. 7). Of himself we have a glimpse in letters of commendation for ‘John de Courci’ and his comrades, 20 June 1216 (Pat. 18 John, m. 7), and again in a writ to the sheriff of Yorks and Lincoln, to give him seisin of his lands, in November 1217 (Claus. 2 Hen. III, m. 15 dors.) It would seem that this is the last occasion on which he is referred to as alive; but there is in later years an incidental allusion (ib. 35 Hen. III, m. 1) to his having been ‘ever faithful’ to Henry and to his father, which probably implies that in the struggle with the barons he had embraced the royalist side. We may infer that he died shortly before 22 Sept. 1219, for on that day the justiciar of Ireland was ordered to provide his widow with her lawful dower (ib. 3 Hen. III, pars 2, m. 2). She was buried (Chronicle of Man) in her own Grey Abbey (dedicated to St. Mary ‘de Jugo Dei’), where ‘the remains of her effigy, carved in stone, with hands clasped in prayer, were in the last century to be seen in an arch of the wall on the gospel side of the high altar’ (Viceroys, p. 63). The conqueror of Ulster was bountiful to the church. In addition to his Benedictine priory at Ardes, and his benefactions to Down Abbey, he founded the priories of Neddrum and Toberglory, both in Ulster, the former as a cell to St. Bees, the latter to St. Mary of Carlisle, also Innis Abbey on the isle of Innis Courcy (Mon. Angl.)
John de Courci is usually stated to have died in 1210; this, which is taken from his legendary history, is but one of the strange misstatements which disfigure his received history. Another of these is the assertion that he was created earl of Ulster. This is repeated, it would seem, by all, even by the best, authorities, including Mr. Bagwell (Encyc. Brit.), Mr. Gilbert (Viceroys of Ireland), Mr. Walpole (History of Ireland), Mr. O'Connor (History of the Irish People), the ‘Liber Munerum,’ &c. &c., Mr. Lynch adding (Feudal Dignities of Ireland) that ‘the grant made on that occasion does not seem to have been enrolled’ (p. 145). It is, however, certain that this title was the invention of a late chronicler, and that it first appears in the ‘Book of Howth,’ where we read of ‘Sir John Courcey, earl and president [sic] of Ulster.’
So also with John's issue. We have the positive statement of Giraldus himself that he had no legitimate issue. Yet Munch holds that the ‘Affreca’ who laid claim to Man in 1293 was ‘no doubt’ his granddaughter (Chronicle of Man, p. 136), and peerage-writers, following Lodge, have assigned him a son Miles, from whom, by a grossly fictitious pedigree, they have derived the Lords Kinsale.
The well-known tale of his great exploit, as given in Fuller's ‘Worthies,’ and reproduced in Burke's ‘Peerage,’ is that by which he is best known; but it first appears in the ‘Book of Howth’ and in the Laud MS. (15th cent.) of the ‘Annals of Ireland’ (Cartulary of St. Mary's, ii. cxx), and is certainly a sheer fiction. It is pretended that the privilege of remaining covered before the sovereign was conferred upon John and his heirs in memory of this exploit; but this is an even later addition to the legend, and one of the earliest allusions to ‘the offensive hat’ is found in a letter of George Montagu, who so describes it to Horace Walpole in 1762 (Hist. MSS. Comm. 8th Rep. App. ii. 115 a).
[For fuller details see the papers by the writer on ‘John de Courci’ (Antiquarian Magazine and Bibliographer, vols. iii–iv.), and on the Book of Howth (Antiquary, vols. vii–viii.). The original authorities for the subject are the Patent Rolls, Close Rolls, Charter Rolls, Oblate and Fine Rolls, Prestita and Liberate Rolls, and Chancellor's Rolls (Record Commission Calendars); the Expugnatio Hiberniæ of Giraldus Cambrensis (being vol. v. of the Rolls edition); the Annals of Loch Cé (Rolls edition); Benedictus Abbas (ib.); Roger de Hovedene (ib.); Gilbert's Historical Documents of Ireland (ib.); Cartulary of St. Mary's, Dublin (ib.); the Book of Howth, being vol. v. of the Carew Papers (ib.); Munch's Chronica regum Manniæ (Christiania); Annals of the Four Masters (ed. O'Donovan); Regan's Anglo-Norman Poem on the Conquest of Ireland (ed. Michel); Dugdale's Monasticon Anglicanum; and Hearne's Liber Niger. The other authorities referred to are the Reports of the Historical MSS. Commission; the Ulster Journal of Archæology; Gilbert's Viceroys of Ireland; and Lynch's View of the Feudal Dignities of Ireland.]