Anglo-Norman conqueror of Ulster
John de Courcy (1) was a member of a celebrated Norman family of Oxfordshire and Somersetshire, whose parentage is unknown, and around whose career a mass of legend has grown up. It would appear that he accompanied William Fitz-Aldelm to Ireland when the latter, after the death of Strongbow, was sent thither by Henry II, and that he immediately headed an expedition from Dublin to Ulster, where he took Downpatrick, the capital of the northern kingdom. After some years of desultory fighting de Courcy established his power over that part of Ulster comprised in the modern counties of Antrim and Down, throughout which he built a number of castles, where his vassals, known as 'the barons of Ulster', held sway over the native tribes.
After the accession of Richard I, 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 Courcy defied him; and the subsequent history of the latter consisted mainly in the vicissitudes of a lasting feud with the de Lacys. In 1204 Hugh de Lacy utterly defeated de Courcy in battle, and took him prisoner. De Courcy, however, soon obtained his liberty, probably by giving hostages as security for a promise of submission which he failed to carry out, seeking an asylum instead with the O'Neills of Tyrone. He again appeared in arms on hearing that Hugh de Lacy had obtained a grant of Ulster with the title of earl; and in alliance with the king of Man he ravaged the territory of Down; but was completely routed by Walter de Lacy, and disappeared from the scene till 1207, when he obtained permission to return to England. In 1210 he was in favour with King John, from whom he received a pension, and whom he accompanied to Ireland. There is some indication of his having sided with John in his struggle with the barons; but of the later history of de Courcy little is known. He probably died in the summer of 1219. Both de Courcy and his wife Affreca were benefactors of the church, and founded several abbeys and priories in Ulster.
A story is told that de Courcy when imprisoned in the Tower volunteered to act as champion for King John in single combat against a knight representing Philip Augustus of France; that when he appeared in the lists his French opponent fled in panic; whereupon de Courcy, to gratify the French king's desire to witness his prowess, "cleft a massive helmet in twain at a single blow," a feat for which he was rewarded by a grant of the privilege for himself and his heirs to remain covered in the presence of the king and all future sovereigns of England. This tale, which still finds a place in Burke's Peerage in the account of the Baron Kingsale, a descendant of the de Courcy family, is a legend without historic foundation which did not obtain currency till centuries after John de Courcy's death (2). The statement that he was created Earl of Ulster, and that he was thus "the first Englishman dignified with an Irish title of honour," is equally devoid of foundation. John de Courcy left no legitimate children.
See J. H. Round's art. Courci, John de, in Dictionary of National Biography, vol. xii. (London, 1887), to which is added a bibliography of the original and later authorities for the life of de Courcy.
(Editor's notes: (1) 'De Courci' has here been amended to 'de Courcy' which is now preferred; (2) Burke's Peerage no longer gives credit to this story, and indeed casts doubt on suggestion that the Kingsale line of de Courcy has any connection whatsover with John de Courcy.)
Being the entry for COURCI, JOHN DE in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.