COURCY, JOHN DE (Medieval Ireland)

John de Courcy (d. 1219?), known as "Prince of Ulster," was from a family originating in Courcy-sur-Dives in Calvados who held Stoke Courcy (Stogursey) in Somerset. He was probably a brother of William de Courcy III (d. 1171), lord of Stogursey (both had a brother Jordan), and son of William de Courcy II (fl. c. 1125). The latter’s wife, Avice de Rumilly, was daughter of William Meschin of Copeland in Cumbria, and John succeeded to a fraction of his estate (at Middleton Cheney, Northamptonshire), which suggests his illegitimacy.

Nothing is known of de Courcy’s early life, but he was possibly reared in northwest England whence many of his Ulster tenants hailed. The "Song of Der-mot" claims Henry II granted Ulster to John "if by force he could conquer it," but no evidence exists of Irish involvement until 1176 when, arriving with the king’s deputy William fitz Audelin, he joined the Dublin garrison. Giraldus records him growing impatient, assembling 22 knights and 300 others, marching north in late January 1177, and invading Ulaid (modern Antrim and Down)—against fitz Audelin’s wishes, maintains Roger of Howden. About February 1, John reached Downpatrick, forced Ruaidrf Mac Duinn Sleibe, king of Ulaid, to flee, and built a castle. Unsuccessful mediation was attempted by the papal legate, Cardinal Vivian, who arrived from the Isle of Man having solemnized King Gudr0dr’s marriage to a daughter of Mac Lochlainn of Cenel nEogain. John married Gudr0dr’s daughter, Affreca (in 1180, according to the unreliable "Dublin annals of Inis-fallen"). After early setbacks, he slaughtered the Ulaid at Down on June 24, but was defeated twice in 1178: by the Fir Li (from the lower Bann), and by the Airgialla and Cu Ulad Mac Duinn Sleibe, who killed 450 Englishmen.

In 1179, John initiated a grand program of ecclesiastical patronage, founding new abbeys and priories, and subjecting unreformed monasteries to new orders with mother-houses predominantly in Cumbria. In 1185, he "discovered" at Down the bodies of saints Patrick, Brigit, and Colum Cille, and had them formally reburied. He kept a book of Colum Cille’s prophecies (in Irish), believing they forecast his conquest. He altered the dedication of Down cathedral from the Holy Trinity to St. Patrick (for which, according to the Book of Howth, God later took vengeance), commissioned a Life of Patrick by Jocelin of Furness, minted halfpence bearing the saint’s name—and it is possible that Patrick de Courcy, later lord of Kinsale, was his (illegitimate) son.

Though archaeological evidence such as mottes and stone castles is considerable, documentary records of John’s rule are meager. He quickly won the support of Irish clerics and some Irish rulers. Howden says Irishmen aided his invasion, and "Mac Carthaigh’s Book" has Irishmen wasting Ulaid with him in 1179. Niall Mac Mathgamna of Airgialla plundered Louth with him in 1196. When, in 1197, his brother Jordan was killed by an Irish adherent, he ravaged the northwest with support of Irishmen, and of Gallowaymen under Duncan of Carrick (then rewarded with Ulster lands).

After the failed 1185 expedition of John, lord of Ireland, de Courcy became chief governor and restored order to the lordship. When Lord John rebelled against King Richard in 1193 to 1194, de Courcy remained loyal, joined Walter de Lacy of Mide (Meath) against John’s allies, and aided Cathal Crobderg Ua Con-chobair against William de Burgh. In 1200, Cathal fled to Ulster, but when de Courcy and Hugh II de Lacy invaded Connacht in 1201, de Courcy was captured and brought to Dublin to swear allegiance to John, now king. He and the de Lacys later became enemies, and Hugh de Lacy’s Meath tenants defeated de Courcy in battles at Down in 1203 and 1204. He gave hostages to King John, went to England in 1205, and had his English lands restored, but Ulster was awarded to Hugh de Lacy, along with the title "earl" that was never held by de Courcy. He rebelled, went to the Isle of Man, and was given a fleet to invade Ulster by his wife’s brother, King Rognvaldr, but he failed to capture Dundrum Castle and took refuge in Tfr nEogain with Aed Ua Neill. In November of 1207 he returned to England, only reappearing in 1210 to help King John overthrow the now disgraced de Lacy. However, de Courcy never regained Ulster and possibly survived as a royal pensioner. The justiciar was ordered in 1213 to provide land for his wife Affreca, and was ordered to secure her dower lands on September 22, 1219, suggesting that John had recently died. He possibly was buried, as he wished, at Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire (although Affreca was buried in Grey Abbey, County Down). No legitimate children are known.

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