The downfall of John de Courcy
1206 - The fall of John de Courcy. Battle ensues between Normans, Irish, Norse Irish and Norse in a confusing tangle very typical of Ireland at the time. I was originally going to write this about the battle of Dundrum but on reading the sources I’m now not sure it happened there after all.
De Courcy was the first Norman or “English” man to invade and conquer Ulster, which in the late 12th Century was called Ulaidh, and was a territory covering only what is now covered by the modern Counties of Antrim and Down. John did this largely as a private enterprise, his only authorization from his supposed Lord (Henry II of England) coming from a throwaway comment made at Christmas in 1176, which the King may possibly have even made in jest.
De Courcy’s real intentions quickly became clear as he began acting like a King in his own right. He styled himself “princeps Ultoniae”, built castles and administered his own justice. He even started minting his own coins (one pictured below).
Needless to say, this annoyed the King of England, whose Irish barons were, after all supposed to be ruling in his name (and returning taxes to him). By 1205 that King was “Bad” King John and he had had enough of all his rebellious Irish Earls. De Courcy in particular was accused of refusing to pay homage to the King and also for suggesting King John might have had something to do with the death of his nephew, Arthur (which was true). King John issued an arrest warrant for de Courcy, which interestingly refers to him as “King” of the barons of Ulster. He directly sub-contracted the de Lacys (another Anglo-Irish family) to get rid of De Courcy, promising them his lands if they succeeded.
This was no mean feat. John de Courcy was a redoubtable warrior in his own right. He was a big, long limbed man if the description of him written by Gerald Cambrensis is accurate. He is remembered in Irish folklore as “Sean a bhuille mhúir - John of the mighty stroke.”
Stories about him say that, like Smokie (from Smokie and the Bandit) and his hat, he only took his armour off for one thing. In De Courcy’s case that was in honour of Jesus Christ so that he could pray and do penance on Good Friday. One of his own men betrayed him and De Lacy’s men are supposed to have taken de Courcy by surprise, barefoot and only in his shirt, praying in Church in Downpatrick on Good Friday 1204 (or 1203, depending on the source). John’s reverence clearly only went so far as he grabbed the cross from the altar, and killed thirteen of his assailants with it before it finally broke and they captured him. According to a couple of Irish annals there was a battle between the supporters of both sides with “many foreigners [English/Normans] slain”.
As a reward, King John made Hugh de Lacy the first Earl of Ulster, and gave him all of de Courcy’s lands and castles. For some reason in less than a year de Lacy then let de Courcy go, maybe because de Courcy had “crossed himself” and pledged to go on Crusade. Also the Annals of Ulster say de Lacy “expelled” de Courcy “into Tir-Eogain, to the protection of Cenel-Eogain.” The Clan Owen, of Tyrone, would have not been that friendly to the former Norman invader who until recently had been trying to steal their lands, and de Lacy possibly thought that their “protection” would mean he had probably seen the last of de Courcy.
De Courcy was clearly a remarkable man, however. Geraldus Cambrensis wrote that he was “one of the four great men of our age” and possibly for good reason. Within a year De Courcy had formed an alliance with his former Irish enemies of Tyrone and was once more invading Ulster, this time at the head of an army that combined his own knights with Irish forces of the Cenel Eogain. The defences he had built himself proved too strong for him and his attempt failed.
De Courcy did not give up, however. He travelled to his brother in law in the Isle of Mann. Following tradition for Kings of Ulster, De Courcy had married Affrecca, the daughter of the Guðrøðr Óláfsson, Norse King of Mann and the Isles around 1180. Rǫgnvaldr Guðrøðarson gave de Courcy 100 long ships and men and they set sail for Ireland. The Chronicle of Mann takes up the tale:
“John went to King Reginald [Rǫgnvaldr], by whom he was received with distinction, because he was his brother-in-law….In the year 1205, John de Courcy, recovering his strength, collected a large force, and was accompanied by Reginald, King of the Isles, with nearly one hundred ships, to Ulster. Putting into the port called Strangford, they laid siege, but carelessly, to the fort of Rath. Walter de Lacy came upon them with a large army, and totally routed them; and after that time John de Courcy never recovered his possessions”
There seems to be consensus that “Rath” is the castle de Courcy built at what is now Dundrum in County Down, though the Irish annals all say the fight took place outside Carrickfergus, making me now think it was actually at the place now called Rathcoole, which lies between Carrick and Belfast. Here is a picture of Dundrum castle anyway.
What the the eventual fate of de Courcy was, is obscure. Wikipedia says he “died in poverty near Craigavon but when I checked the book it references (The Churches and Abbeys of Ireland) there is no mention of this. There is also an entertaining story about de Courcy fighting a French champion related by Mark Twain in “The Prince and the Pauper” but that would extend this post even further.