Sir John De Courcy (2)

Patrick Weston Joyce

By the death of Henry II. in 1189, Sir John de Courcy lost his best friend: and things began to go ill with him when King John came to the throne in 1199. For another Anglo-Norman lord, Hugh de Lacy, grew jealous of his great deeds and hated him with his whole heart, so that he took every means to poison the king's mind against him. In a very old volume written by some Anglo-Irish writer, there are several entertaining stories of all that befell De Courcy after his return to Ulster from Dublin in 1189. Two of these somewhat shortened and re-arranged are given here combined in one, and much of the fine old language in which they are told is retained, as it is easily understood.

The first story relates that whereas Sir Hugh de Lacy, who was now appointed general ruler of Ireland by the king, did much disdain and envy Sir John de Courcy, and being marvellous grieved at the worthy service he did, he sought all means that he could possible to damage and hinder him and to bring him to confusion, and promised much rewards in secret to those who would invent any matter against him; for which De Lacy had no cause but that Sir John's actions and commendations were held in greater account than his own. He feigned also false charges against him and wrote them over to the king, and sore complained of him.

Amongst other his grievous complaints, he said De Courcy refused to do homage to King John, and he charged him also with saying to many that the king had somewhat to do with the death of Prince Arthur, lawful heir to the crown of England;[1] and many other such like things. All these were nothing but matters feigned by De Lacy to bring to a better end his purpose of utterly ruining De Courcy. On this De Courcy challenged him, after the custom of those times, to try the matter by single combat: but De Lacy fearing to meet him, made excuses and refused.

By reason of such evil and envious tales, though untrue they were, Sir Hugh de Lacy was at last commanded by King John to do what he might to apprehend and take Sir John de Courcy. Whereupon he devised and conferred with certain of Sir John's own men how this might be done; and they said it was not possible to do so the while he was in his battle-harness. But they told him that it might be done on Good Friday; for on that day it was his accustomed usage to wear no shield, harness, or weapon, but that he would be found kneeling at his prayers after he had gone about the church five times barefooted. And having so devised, they lay in wait for him in his church at Downpatrick; and when they saw him barefooted and unarmed they rushed on him suddenly. But he, snatching up a heavy wooden cross that stood nigh the church, defended him till it was broken, and slew thirteen of them before he was taken. And so he was sent to England and was put into the Tower of London to remain there in perpetual, and there miserably was kept a long time without as much meat or apparel as any account could be made of.

Now these men had agreed to betray their master to Sir Hugh de Lacy for a certain reward of gold and silver; and when they came to Sir Hugh for their reward, he gave them the gold and silver as he had promised. They then craved of him a passport into England to tell all about the good service they had done; which he gave them, with the following words written in it:—

“This writing witnesseth that those whose names are herein subscribed, that did betray so good a master for reward, will be false to me and to all the earth besides. And inasmuch as I put no trust in them, I do banish them out of this land of Ireland for ever; and I do let Englishmen know that none of them may enjoy any part of this our king's land, or be employed as servitors from this forward for ever.”

And so he wrote all their names, and put them in a ship with victuals and furniture, but without mariners or seamen, and put them to sea, and gave them strict charge never to return to Ireland on pain of death. And after this they were not heard of for a long time; but by chance of weather and lack of skilful men, they arrived at Cork, and being taken, were brought to Sir Hugh de Lacy; and first taking all their treasure from them, he hung them in chains and so left them till their bodies wasted away.

This deed that Sir Hugh de Lacy did was for an ensample that none should use himself the like, and not for love of Sir John de Courcy: since it appeareth from certain ancient authors that he would have it so that De Courcy's name should not be so much as mentioned, and that no report or commendation of him should ever be made.


[1] Prince Arthur the rightful heir to the English throne was cast into prison by John; he was soon after murdered, which it was believed was done by John's orders.