John de Courcy

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Coat of arms of Courcy family. Coat of arms of Courcy family.svg
Coat of arms of Courcy family.

Sir John de Courcy (also Courci; 1150–1219) [1] 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]

Anglo-Normans Medieval ethnic group in England

The Anglo-Normans were the medieval ruling class in England, composed mainly of a combination of ethnic Anglo-Saxons, Normans and French, following the Norman conquest. A small number of Normans had earlier befriended future Anglo-Saxon King of England, Edward the Confessor, during his exile in his mother's homeland of Normandy. When he returned to England some of them went with him, and so there were Normans already settled in England prior to the conquest. Following the death of Edward, the powerful Anglo-Saxon noble, Harold Godwinson, acceded to the English throne until his defeat by William, Duke of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings.

Dundrum Castle

Dundrum Castle is a castle, situated above the town of Dundrum, County Down, Northern Ireland, not to be confused with Dundrum Castle in Dundrum, County Dublin. It was constructed by John de Courcy, sometime near the beginning of the 13th century, following his invasion of Ulster. The castle, built to control access into Lecale from the west and south, stands on the top of a rocky hill commanding fine views south over Dundrum Bay and the Mourne Mountains, the lands west towards Slieve Croob and the plains of Lecale to the east. The Castle is a State Care Historic Monument in the townland of Dundrum, in Newry, Mourne and Down District Council area, at grid ref: J4047 3700.

County Down Place in Northern Ireland, United Kingdom

County Down is one of six counties that form Northern Ireland, in the northeast of the island of Ireland. It covers an area of 2,448 km2 and has a population of 531,665. It is also one of the thirty-two traditional counties of Ireland and is within the province of Ulster. It borders County Antrim to the north, the Irish Sea to the east, County Armagh to the west, and County Louth across Carlingford Lough to the southwest.


Early career in Ireland

Belonging to a family which took its name from Courcy, Calvados, 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. [3] [ circular reference ] His grandfather, William de Courcy I, married Emma of Falaise. His father, William de Courcy II, married Avice de Meschines and died about 1155, leaving the family estates in Somerset and elsewhere in England to his son, William de Courcy III, John's elder brother.


Stogursey is the name of a small village and civil parish in the Quantock Hills in Somerset, England. It is situated 3 miles (4.8 km) from Nether Stowey, and 8 miles (12.9 km) west of Bridgwater. The village is situated near the Bristol Channel, which bounds the parish on the north.

Somerset County of England

Somerset is a county in South West England which borders Gloucestershire and Bristol to the north, Wiltshire to the east, Dorset to the south-east and Devon to the south-west. It is bounded to the north and west by the Severn Estuary and the Bristol Channel, its coastline facing southeastern Wales. Its traditional border with Gloucestershire is the River Avon. Somerset's county town is Taunton.

Leinster province in Ireland

Leinster is one of the provinces of Ireland, situated in the east of Ireland. The Leinster province comprises the ancient Kingdoms of Meath, Leinster and Osraige. Following the 12th-century Norman invasion of Ireland, the historic fifths of Leinster and Meath gradually merged, mainly due to the impact of the Pale, which straddled both, thereby forming the present-day province of Leinster. The ancient kingdoms were shired into a number of counties for administrative and judicial purposes. In later centuries, local government legislation has seen further sub-division of the historic counties.

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.

Mourne Mountains mountain range

The Mourne Mountains, also called the Mournes or Mountains of Mourne, are a granite mountain range in County Down in the south-east of Northern Ireland. It includes the highest mountains in Northern Ireland and the province of Ulster. The highest of these is Slieve Donard at 850 m (2,790 ft). The Mournes is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and has been proposed as the first national park in Northern Ireland. The area is partly owned by the National Trust and sees a large number of visitors every year. The name Mourne is derived from the name of a Gaelic clann or sept called the Múghdhorna.

Downpatrick town in Northern Ireland

Downpatrick is a small-sized town about 33 km (21 mi) south of Belfast in County Down, Northern Ireland. It has been an important site since ancient times. Its cathedral is said to be the burial place of Saint Patrick. Today, it is the county town of Down and the joint headquarters of Newry, Mourne and Down District Council. Downpatrick area has currently shown to have a population of 10,874 according to the 2011 Census, although it is likely to have increased in recent years.


Ulaid or Ulaidh ) was a Gaelic over-kingdom in north-eastern Ireland during the Middle Ages, made up of a confederation of dynastic groups. Alternative names include Ulidia, which is the Latin form of Ulaid, as well as in Cóiced, which in Irish means "the Fifth". The king of Ulaid was called the rí Ulad or rí in Chóicid.

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

Henry II of England 12th-century King of England, Duke of Aquitaine, and ruler of other European lands

Henry II, also known as Henry Curtmantle, Henry FitzEmpress or Henry Plantagenet, ruled as King of England, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou, Maine, and Nantes, and Lord of Ireland; at various times, he also partially controlled Scotland, Wales and the Duchy of Brittany. Before he was 40 he controlled England, large parts of Wales, the eastern half of Ireland and the western half of France—an area that would later come to be called the Angevin Empire.

After conquering eastern Ulster he established his caput at Carrickfergus, where he built an impressive stone castle. Other monasteries and castles that he built are Inch Abbey and Dundrum. 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.

Carrickfergus town in County Antrim, Northern Ireland

Carrickfergus is a large town in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. It sits on the north shore of Belfast Lough, 11 miles (18 km) from Belfast. The town had a population of 27,903 at the 2011 Census. It is County Antrim's oldest town and one of the oldest towns in Ireland as a whole. Carrickfergus was the administrative centre for Carrickfergus Borough Council, before this was amalgamated into the Mid and East Antrim District Council in 2015, and forms part of the Belfast Metropolitan Area. It is also a townland of 65 acres, a civil parish and a barony.

Affreca de Courcy Manx-Hebridean noblewoman and religious patron

Affreca de Courcy or Affrica Guðrøðardóttir was a late 12th-/early 13th century noblewoman. She was the daughter of Godred Olafsson, King of the Isles, a member of the Crovan dynasty. In the late 12th century she married John de Courcy. Affrica is noted for religious patronage in northern Ireland.

King of Mann Wikimedia list article

The King of Mann was the title taken between 1237 and 1504 by the various rulers, both sovereign and suzerain, over the Kingdom of Mann – the Isle of Man which is located in the Irish Sea, at the centre of the British Isles.

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.

Down Cathedral

Down Cathedral, the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, is a Church of Ireland cathedral located in the town of Downpatrick in Northern Ireland. It stands on Cathedral Hill overlooking the town. It is one of two cathedrals in the Diocese of Down and Dromore in the Province of Ulster. The cathedral is centre point in Downpatrick.

Chester city in Cheshire, England

Chester is a walled city in Cheshire, England, on the River Dee, close to the border with Wales. With a population of 79,645 in 2011, it is the most populous settlement of Cheshire West and Chester, which had a population of 329,608 in 2011, and serves as the unitary authority's administrative headquarters. Chester is the second-largest settlement in Cheshire after Warrington.

Kircubbin, County Down village and townland

Kircubbin is a village and townland in County Down, Northern Ireland. It is on the shores of Strangford Lough, between Newtownards and Portaferry, in the Ards and North Down Borough. The village harbour contains leisure craft, yachts, and a sailing club. The main street was remodelled in 2008 with some old houses knocked down and rebuilt as new. the village had a population of 1,153 people in the 2011 Census.

He also made incursions into the west to increase his territory and lordship. In 1188 he invaded Connacht, but was repulsed and the next year he plundered Armagh. [4]

Later career in Ireland

After the accession of Richard I in 1189, de Courcy in conjunction with William de Lacy appears in some way to have offended the king by his proceedings in Ireland. De Lacy quickly made his peace with Richard, while de Courci defied him, and the subsequent history of the latter consisted mainly in the vicissitudes of a lasting feud with the de Lacys. [5] Hugh de Lacy, younger son of Hugh de Lacy Lord of Meath, began to wage war on John de Courcy, capturing him in 1204. [6] 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 himself 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 defences 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 what is now Craigavon. [4]

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    issueissue     =Hebrea      issueissue                               |                               |                            Richard                           =Wandelmode                               |     __________________________|     |              |          |     |              |          |     Robert Richard William, died c. 1130.     =Rohesia de Grandesmil   =Emma de Falise     |                         |     |                         |   William Robert, died c. 1151.     |                         | de Courcyde Courcyof Franceof 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 
Derived from Flanders 2009, pp. 177, 178, 180, 181.


  1. "John de Courci" in Encyclopædia Britannica
  2. DeBreffny Castles of Ireland, pp. 104–105.
  3. read online
  4. 1 2 DeBreffny Churches and Abbeys of Ireland, pp. 60–61.
  5. Chisholm 1911.
  6. Mac Annaidh Dictionary of Irish History


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