John de Courcy is one of the most colourful characters of the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland, and a key figure in their attempts to take control of Ulster. He was described by Giraldus Cambrensis as:
‘…fair-haired and tall, with bony and sinewy limbs. His frame was lanky and he had a very strong physique, immense bodily strength and an extraordinarily bold temper. From his youth he was a man of courage and a born fighter, always in the front line, always taking upon himself the greater share of the danger.’
Though it appears that he wasn’t entirely trusted by his contemporaries and deemed unreliable. Later events would demonstrate that this may well have been a fair assumption.
He was a man of enormous ambition. Without the permission of King Henry II, in 1177, de Courcy led a small force into Ulster where he took Downpatrick, and after two battles he defeated the last King of Ulaid, Ruaidhrí Mac Duinnshléibhe. This ambition proved to be his undoing, though, as he was never fully trusted by the English kings again. In 1205, John de Courcy was formally stripped of all his lands in Ireland by King John, with his estates being given instead to his rival Hugh de Lacy, who was appointed the first Earl of Ulster. John de Courcy did not take this lying down, however, and returned with a fleet of ships and supporters and marched on Dundrum Castle, where he besieged Hugh de Lacy. In response, Walter de Lacy marched northwards in support of his brother. They defeated de Courcy and scattered his forces.
John de Courcy fled the king’s wrath, presumably to France. He was eventually pardoned but he was a diminished character. He may later have acted as an adviser for King John’s campaigns in Ireland though he appears not to have taken an active role in Ireland himself. His later years are not recorded in great detail, but it is thought that he retired to a monastery in Chester when he was in his sixties. The year of his death is not recorded, however, his wife Affreca was confirmed in her widow’s dower lands in the year 1219.
If you are interested in digging deeper into the story of John de Courcy, we recommend reading the biography: De Courcy by Steve Flanders.