JOHN DE COURCY, of Stoke Courcy, in Somerset, came to Ireland around the year 1171 as part of the Norman invading forces, brought in by one of two feuding minor Irish Kings, Dermot MacMurrough of Leinster and Tiernan O'Rourke of Breifne. His great-grandfather, Richard de Curci came to England with William the Conqueror and 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 the Irish clans. 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, skirted the back of the Mourne Mountains and took the town of Dun de Lethglas (later Downpatrick) by surprise. After two fierce battles, in February and June 1177, de Courcy defeated the local chieftain, Mac Duinn Sleibe (Rory MacDunleavy), He did all this without King Henry II's permission. He was described as follows.
'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.'
After his two battles at Down, de Courcy moved north to the territory of the Dal nAraide, whose king he killed. He then attacked Cu Mide Ua Floinn, a powerful king in county Antrim. He reached the north coast at Coleraine. On his way back, at the Rock of Fergus he built the great stone keep of Carrickfergus castle, one of the two keys to his kingdom. The other was Dundrum. It is clear that the native Irish did not stand much chance of defeating then Normans, who with their bows and arrows, swords, armour and horses, were vastly superior militarily
De Courcy divided the newly Lecale among his Knights. The first priority was to build castles, which were, to begin with, small wooden buildings on top of a heaped up mound of earth. Very often the new owners would build on a rath already built by an Irish farmer. Many of the names of those soldiers are still to be found in Lecale and elsewhere in Eastern Ulster today; some in families, some in placenames eg Savage, Russell, FitzSimon, Jordan, White, McMahon, Hackitt, Copeland, Audley. With the exception of the Savages, who had land on the Ards peninsula and retained their influence for many centuries, few of the recipients of de Courcy's land allocations survived his defeat by Hugh de Lacy in 1204. Of those who did so and transferred their loyalty to de Lacy, many were deprived of their land by King John when in 1210 he took over de Lacy's earldom. But this was in the future.
There is some evidence that de Courcy built himself a castle in Downpatrick. Tradition suggests that the castle site was at the foot of English Street, where there used to stand a building called Castle Dorras, the gate castle, on a site now occupied by The Down Recorder. A castle located here would have commanded both the gateway into the English town, and would have overlooked a landing place for boats at the foot of the hill, now covered by Market Street.
However, since de Courcy seems to have concentrated his military power in the castles at Dundrum and Carrickfergus and to have left Dun da Lethglas as a religious centre, it seems that his small castle gradually decayed and was knocked down.
In 1180, de Courcy married Affreca, the daughter of Godred, the Norse King of the Isle of Man. 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. By marrying his Viking princess, de Courcy was weaving ties of family and political friendship with many powerful allies and, in particular, was making Lecale safe from Viking raids
De Courcy and Affreca had no children. She built a monastery at Greyabbey dedicated to Saint Mary of The Yolk of God. She is buried there and her effigy, in stone, can still be seen.
In 1177 King Henry II appointed his ten-year-old son, John, as feudal Lord of Ireland and in 1185 he visited Ireland for the first time. In the same year John de Courcy was appointed by King Henry as justiciar of Ireland. To receive this prestigious position he must have made his peace with King Henry over his 'unofficial' conquest of Ulster.
Little is known about de Courcy's achievements as justiciar apart from the building of two mighty castles, Carrickfergus to dominate the northern part of his territory and Dundrum to guard the south.
Dundrum Castle stands on a 200 foot high hill overlooking the village and the little harbour in Dundrum Bay. The Castle controls the southern entrance into Lecale and east Down. If you come by the old road, as de Courcy did in 1177 from Newry and Hilltown, you pass by Clough, which had its own motte-and-bailey castle.
Powerful men make powerful enemies and in de Courcy's case among them was Prince John, a mean and vindictive man. It appears that de Courcy backed King Richard in his power struggle with John. He was also insecure and did not trust his barons. Then again, de Courcy's success in Ireland and his exercise of some of the prerogatives reserved for kings, such as the minting of coins, added to his jealousy and insecurity.
The coins were minted at Downpatrick. They were struck with the name of Saint Patrick, but on some of them also appeared the name of John de Courcy, and this usurpation of royalty may have been the final insult. In 1857 a hoard of 1115 coins was discovered hidden in the ruins of a castle near Newry. It has been suggested that they were hidden under the threat of King John's arrival at Narrow Water in 1210. Since they were never retrieved we can assume that their owner was killed or exiled.
The inscriptions on 264 of the coins read PATRICII DE DUNO (from the Dun of Patrick) and GOANDQURCI (John de Courcy). There is displayed in the Down County Museum a tiny silver farthing of de Courcy, discovered among many royal coins of Richard and John, in the excavations at Carrickfergus.
When John succeeded Richard he dismissed de Courcy from office. He sent Hugh de Lacy to capture him. In 1203, de Lacy and his brother, Walter, the Lord of Meath led a raiding force into Lecale and attacked de Courcy in Downpatrick.
There is a colourful story in the Book of Howth, which tells of the capture of the Lord of Ulster in the sanctuary of the church at Downpatrick. This may refer to an event recorded by the annalist in Mac Carthaigh's Book for 1203, but whether it be fact or fiction, it is quoted because it is true to the spirit of this brawny, seasoned and god-fearing warrior, the Lord of Ulster:
"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."
He returned the following year to Carrickfergus, but was again defeated. Although he was offered safe conduct, he would not submit to John, so his lands were forfeited to the Crown and on 29 May 1205 King John granted them to Hugh de Lacy, belting him Earl of Ulster. de Courcy could not accept this and in July 1205 he arrived with Norse soldiers, carried across the Irish Sea from the Isle of Man, in ships supplied by his brother-in-law, Ragnold, King of Man. They landed at Strangford and laid siege to de Lacy's stronghold of Dundrum Castle. Walter de Lacy arrived with his forces from Meath and de Courcy was again expelled from Ulster.
There is a story that, during de Courcy was out of favour, Philip Augustus, King of France, proposed to refer to the arbitration of single combat the disputes subsisting between the French and English Crowns, and named his champion. King John thought no subject of his was of sufficient strength and valour except the imprisoned Earl of Ulster. De Courcy spurned, however, the proposal, alleging the ingratitude of the King for his past services; but was at length prevailed on, for the honour of the nation, to take up the Frenchman's gauntlet. So great, however, was his strength, and so superior his stature, that the French champion, at the last charge of the trumpets, set spurs to his horse and fled, leaving the victory to the Earl of Ulster. King Philip, desirous of seeing some proof of the Earl's reputed strength, a helmet of excellent proof was laid on a block of wood, which the Earl cleft asunder, and with the same blow struck so deep into the wood that no person present but himself could withdraw his sword.
Subsequently reconciled with King John de Courcy accompanied the King to Ireland in 1210, on an expedition to displace Hugh de Lacy, who had fallen out of favour.
De Courcy outlived King John, who died in 1216. The date of his death is uncertain, but is thought to be a short time before September 1219, when Affreca was granted her lawful dower - of lands in Ulster - by a writ of Henry III to the justiciar of Ireland. Affreca herself is thought to have lived on in Ulster, perhaps in her own Grey Abbey, for it was there that she was buried 'where the remains of her effigy, carved in stone, with hands clasped in prayer', are to be seen in an arch of the wall on the gospel side of the high altar'.
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 Anglo-Norman conquest 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.