Sir John de Courcy, Earl of Ulster, is the most famous descendant of Robert de Courcei, the founder of the de Courcy line.
Born around 1150 into the Somerset branch of the family, John de Courcy was the great-great-grandson of Richard de Courcy, who fought with Duke William at the Battle of Hastings.
Conquest of Ulster
John first appears in the history books in 1177 when he went to Ireland with William Fitz Audelin. The Oxford History of England (Volume III) describes John de Courcy's intervention as follows:
"A new figure, destined to play a great part in Irish history, now appeared on the scene - John de Courcy. The adventurous soldier, a member of a Norman family settled in Somerset, came over with William Fitz Audelin who had been sent as governor to Ireland on the death of Strongbow. Discouraged by Fitz Audelin's aimless and obstructive policy, de Courcy determined to seek his fortune in a new field. The conquest of Ulster, achieved with almost incredible rapidity and success, is perhaps the most amazing episode in the history of the occupation. Contemporaries describe him as a hero of epic; tall and fair, brave and impetuous, he fought rather like a private soldier than as a commander, lopping off heads and arms of the natives with the stroke of his sword. With a mere handful of men he set out from Dublin early in 1177; in February he captured the city of Downpatrick; and from this centre, after a series of battles generally fought against enormous odds, he gradually penetrated and became master of the whole eastern part of the province..."
John de Courcy was created the earl of Ulster, to which dignity was attached the lordship of Connaught, in 1181. He married Affreca, daughter of Godfred II "the Black" Olafsson, King of the Isle of Man, and Findguala MacLochlainn, in 1182.
Downfall and imprisonment
Having conquered Ulster for Henry II, because of de Courcy's separatist tendencies, in 1199 King John authorized Hugh de Lacy, younger son of the Lord of Meath, to attack him. Hugh captured John de Courcy in 1203, and an account of his capture appears in the Book of Howth:
"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 no 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 him 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 his brother-in-law, Ragnold, King of Man. John and his army landed at Strangford and laid siege to Dundrum Castle, but the siege failed, in part because the defences he himself had made were too strong. De Courcy was subsequently imprisoned in the Tower of London.
The rehabilitation of Sir John
Around 1205, Philip Augustus, King of France, proposed to settle disputes between England and France via single combat of two champions. The French King named his champion. King John thought no subject of his had sufficient strength and valour except the imprisoned Earl of Ulster. De Courcy rejected the proposal, however, alleging the ingratitude of the King for his past services, but he was at length prevailed on, for the honour of the nation, to take up the Frenchman's gauntlet. The French champion, at the last charge of the trumpets, set spurs to his horse and fled, leaving the victory to John de Courcy. King Philip of France desired some proof of John's reputed strength. He laid a helmet on a block of wood, which John cleft asunder, and with the same blow struck so deep into the wood that no person present but himself could withdraw his sword.
For his victory and prowess, John de Courcy won the privilege from King John of remaining covered (that is, wearing his hat) in the presence of the King. Some curmudgeonly observes dismiss this as unfounded legend, but it is incontestable that many of his descendants did indeed invoke this right, and that the King accepted it.
Subsequently reconciled with King John, de Courcy sought to return to Ireland to displace Hugh de Lacy, who had fallen out of favour, but he never recovered his Ulster lands and the family was subsequently compensated with the lordship of Kingsale.
Lodge's Peerage of Ireland (Dublin, 1789)
The following is the description of Sir John's career as recorded by Lodge's Peerage of Ireland (please see "Origins" for Lodge's history of the de Courcys before this and the "Barony of Kingsale" section for their history after the death of Sir John):
"Robert, Baron of Stoke-Courcy, who in the time of King Stephen was a principal commander at the battle of Northampton against the Scots; and married Avicia, one of the two daughters and coheirs to William de Meschines  Earl of Cambridge; by her had William, his successor, Lord of Stoke-Courcy, and Dapifer to King Henry II, who was one of the witnesses to that King’s charter of the lands privileges, he gave to the church of St Peter, Westminster ; and also one of those English noblemen, who testified the league of pacification between that King and William, King of Scots...he was Lord of Islip in the county of Oxford; founded the priory of Stoke-Courcy; and having married Julian, daughter of Richard D’Aquila , a Baron of England in the reign of Henry I, died in 1171, leaving two sons, Sir John de Courcy, Earl of Ulster; Jordan, who in 1197 was killed in Ulster by an Irish retainer, or servant; in revenge of whose death his brother slew many of the Irish; and a daughter, married to Sir Almericus Tristram, ancestor of the Earl of Howth.
"Sir John Courcy, who succeeded, having served King Henry II in his wars of England and Gascoigne, for the space of two years, was sent into Ireland in the year 1177, with ten gentlemen at arms in his retinue, as an assistant to William Fitz-Adelm in the government of the kingdom: And that same year, having prevailed on some of the choice of the army to accompany him, and follow where he should lead them, he invaded Ulster, being the first of the English who entered that province. He set out from Dublin on this wonderful expedition in January, with 22 Knights, 50 Esquires, and about 300 foot soldiers (all chosen men, on whose courage he could depend) which were afterwards increased to 700; and marching through Meath and Louth, arrived at Downe on the fourth day of his departure, without any disturbance from the Irish, being an unsuspected visitor, and there found provisions and other necessaries for his small company, who had been half famished in Dublin. - O Donel having intelligence of his arrival, and being amazed at so sudden an invasion of his province, fled before him; but in eight days, assembling an army of 10,000 men, purposed to beseige him in Downe; when Sir John, judging it better to adventure the fight in the field, than to be shut up and famished in the town, came to an engagement, and forced O Donel, after the loss of numbers, to retreat before him, who performed wonders, killing or wounding by his single stroke every man that came in his way; so that (says Camden) whoever had seen him, must needs have commended him for a right worthy, noble, and right valiant warrior.
"After this successful introduction to his conquests, he fought four other remarkable Battles; the two first at Dublin in February and July, when with few men he routed (says the same author) 1500, but according to others, 15000, with the slaughter of many: The third encounter was at Ferlie, in carrying off a prey, against unequal numbers, when, by reason of the narrow passes, some of his men were killed, and others dispersed; so that having only eleven left, they quitted their horses, and secured their prey by fighting on foot, in their armour, for 30 miles, during two days and nights, 'till they arrived at his castle: And the fourth engagement happened in the country of Louth, where many of his men were lost and scattered, but at length he acquired the victory. By these and many other prosperous battles, fought with great hazard of his life, and indefatigable labour, he subdued Ulster to the obedience of King Henry II; stretched the bounds of the English Pale as far as Dunluce, in the most northern parts of the province; which he endeavoured to secure by building castles and fortresses in convenient places, and was requited for that service, by being the first Englishman dignified with any title of honour in Ireland by a formal creation, the King in 1181 creating him Earl of Ulster, and annexing thereto the Lordship of Conaught, with a grant, by patent, to him and his heirs, that they should enjoy all the land in Ireland, he could gain by his sword, together with the donation of Bishopricks and Abbies, reserving from him only homage and fealty.
"From the year 1177 to 1179 he was assistant to William Fitz-Adelm in the government, and in 1180, having settled his province in a state of quiet and peace, that he might the better strengthen himself against his enemies, by uniting Godfrey, King of the Isle of Man, to his interest, he proposed to marry his daughter, which being readily accepted, the marriage was soon celebrated. - In the beginning of the summer of 1182 he entered Dalreida, part of which is the territory of the Route in the county of Antrim, and obtained a great victory at Dunbo over Donald O Loghlin. - In September 1185 he was constituted sole governor of the kingdom, in which year John, Earl of Montaigne, the King's son, having been sent by his father into Ireland, as Lord of the country, landed at Waterford, on the Thursday in Easter week, whither many Irish chiefs repaired to pay him obedience and homage; but he being only about 19 years old, and attended by a company of young gentlemen, careless of the country's good, and devoted to their pleasures, they ridiculed the dress and manners of the Irish, and lived in such open violation of all rule and decency, that the country, through their misgovernment, become so wasted and disordered, that none were secure from murder, robbery, or imprisonment: For, the Irish, upon their rude entertainment, relating what had happened to the Kings of Limerick, Conaught, and Cork; they, who had been prevailed with to profess their fidelity to Earl John, fearing greater mischiefs might ensue from such ill beginnings, did now (though at variance before) confederate for the defence of their country and liberty, and destroyed much of the English plantations. To redress these enormities, the young Prince assembled his Council, who at length acknowledged themselves to be the cause thereof, by their disorderly life; which being know to the King, he commanded his son into England, and sent over the former old and experienced soldiers, among the chief of whom was Sir John de Courcy, who had the charge of the whole country committed to him, with directions to regulate and reform it; which he instantly undertook by a progress into Munster and Conaught, and was so vigilant, that he daily kept the enemy in action; and by his reputation and conduct, brought the whole kingdom in one year into such regularity and order, that (as history relates) a man with a wand, having treasure about him, might travel along the country with safety.
"In 1186, Hugh de Lacie, the elder, building a castle at Durrow, in King's County, and having occasions to give some directions, bowed his head, when a workman, seized the opportunity, and with an axe severed his head from his body; the latter was interred at Bectiff, in Meath, and the former in St Thomas's Abbey, in Dublin; his death occasioned great confusions in the kingdom; to appease which, and settled the country, Sir John Courcy, and Hugh de Lacie, son to the deceased, reduced the rebellious Irish by the sword; and uniting in a strict friendship, continued in wealth and honour to the first year of King John's reign, when the Earl of Ulster met with an unkind return for his services. - In 1188 with the assistance of Cornelius O'Dermada, he invaded Conaught, and encamped at Esadar, but understanding in his way towards Tyrconnel, that O'Flachertach O'Moildery was on his march to Tyrconnel with a great army, he altered his design, burned Esadar and retired; in his return, he met the armies of Cornelius Maenmoigi, son of Roderic O'Conor, King of Conaught, and Donald O'Brien, King of Limerick, with whom engaging, he was defeated with great loss, among whom were 15 or 16 persons of quality: However assembling his forces he overrun in that and the following year many parts of Ulster, of which he was styled Prince, by Jocelyn in his prologue to the Life of St Patrick, nor did he spare Armagh, defeating also the forces of O'Carrol and a garrison-castle at Kilfandall, where he placed one Ruffel, who making an incursion into Tyrconnel, was killed, in his return with a great booty, with many of his men, by Flachertack O'Moildory, King of Tyrconnel, which King dying 10 February 1197, and being succeeded by O'Doghterty, Sir John Courcy marched into Tyrconnell with a strong army, killed him, and returned to Inisowen with many cattle . - That King succeeding his father, as Lord of Ireland, on 6 July 1189, appointed Hugh de Lacie his governor of the kingdom, who dismissing his predecessor the Earl of Ulster with disdain, and cashiering his friends, he retired to his Earldom, with a resolution never to enter Dublin, or even Leinster again. His many worthy actions, performed with the utmost bravery, and his just administration of the government, had gained him so high a reputation, that they raised the envy of Lacie, and made him consider his own services, as eclipsed by the splendour of Sir John Courcy's; for which reason he determined his ruin, and at length is said to accomplish it in the following treacherous manner.
"In the year 1190, Lacie having alleged by letters, that Sir John had refused to do homage to the King, and uttered some disrespectful words, reflecting on him for the murder of his nephew Arthur, Duke of Bretaigne (only son of his elder brother Geoffrey, by Constance, daughter and heir to Konan, Duke of Bretaigne) whose right to the crown was prior to his; the King, highly displeased, ordered Lacie to seize the Earl of Ulster, and send him prisoner to England. The pleasing command was gladly obeyed, and he attempted several times to take him by force, but in vain; so that he published a proclamation, offering a large reward to the person, who should bring him in (whom he proclaimed traitor) alive or dead: But finding this also prove ineffectual, he at last prevailed, by promises of abundant recompense, on some of the Earl's servants, or Captains, to betray their master into his hands; which took effect on Good Friday, in the year 1205, when the Earl (according to the devotion of that time) walking unarmed and barefoot five times around the church-yard of Downpatrick for penance, was attacked unawares, and having nothing to defend himself with but the pole of a cross, was overpowered and forced to yield, after he had killed thirteen of Lacie's men, and lost two of his brother's sons, who were slain in his defence.
"The Earl being thus betrayed, was sent by Lacie to England, and condemned by the King to perpetual imprisonment in the tower, where he was miserably supported; and in 1204, the King granted to Lacie the lands of Ulster, in as large and ample manner, as the Earl had held the same, which the year after was renewed and confirmed unto him.
"After about a year's confinement, a dispute arose between King John and Philip-Augustus of France, concerning their respective titles to the Duchy of Normandy, the decision of which was referred to single combat between two champions. King John, being more hasty than advised, appointed the day against which the French King provided his champion, but the King of England, after consulting with his Council, and strictly inquiring where to find a man, who would undertake so weighty and hazardous an enterprise, found none of his subjects willing to answer the challenge; which threw him into great perplexity, until he was informed by a gentleman of his Privy Chamber, that the Earl of Ulster, then a prisoner in the Tower, was the only man in his domains, to serve him in that exigency, if he would undertake it.
"The King sent twice to prevail with the Earl, to accept the challenge, but he refused, saying, "Not for him, for I esteem him unworthy the adventure of my blood, by reason of the ungrateful returns he hath made me for my services and loyalty to the crown, in imprisoning me, unheard, at the suit of my rival and enemy Hugh de Lacie." But the King sending a third time, bade him ask what he would, and it should be granted to him and his friends; adding, That the honour of his country depended solely upon his accepting the combat. Which when he heard, he returned the answer. "As for myself, the King is not able to grant my request, which is, the freedom of heart I want by his unkind dealing, which I never after look to obtain: As for my friends, they are all slain in his service, saving a few, by reason whereof, I mean never to serve the King more: but for the honour and dignity of the realm, in which many an honest man lives against his (the King's) Will, I shall contend to hazard my life, and defend it to the utmost of my power, so I may have such things as I will call for" .
"His desires being complied with, his sword was sent for, from within the altar of the church of Downe; but when every thing was prepared for the fight, and the champions had entered this lists in the presence of the Kings of England, France, and Scotland, the French champion, neither liking the strong proportion of the Earl's body, his stern countenance, or the terrible weapon he bore in his hand, set spurs to his horse when the trumpets sounded the last charge, broke through the lists, and fled into Spain, whence he never returned, whereupon victory was adjudged to the Earl of Ulster. But the French King being informed of his great strength, and willing to be satisfied by some trial of it, desired King John to order the Earl to gratify them; who, complying with the request, directed an helmet of excellent proof, full faced with mail, to be set upon a coat of the same, and both placed on a block of wood; which with one blow he cut asunder, and struck his sword so deep into the wood, that none present with both their hands could draw it out; yet with one hand, and at one effort his instantly disengaged it; which, together with his armour, are to this day preserved in the Tower of London.
"King John was so well satisfied with this signal performance, that he not only restored to him his titles and estate, then estimated at 25,000 marcs a year, but bade him ask for anything in his disposal, and it should be granted; to which the Earl replied: "He had titles and estate enough, but desired that he and his successors, the heirs male of his family, might have the privilege, their first obeisance being paid, to be covered in the royal presence of him and his successors, Kings of England." The King readily granted his request, and that remarkable privilege is enjoyed by his family to this time.
"He is said after this, to have attempted a passage into Ireland fifteen times several times, and to be prevented by contrary winds, among which the three last attempts are related to have been very singular. In the first, he reached the harbour, but before the ship could anchor, the wind suddenly changed, and drove him back into England: In the second he cast anchor, but the fury of the tempest obliged him to cut his cable, and return from whence he came: In the last he was so near landing, that he had the boat out of the ship, and was stepping into it, when on the sudden such a storm arose, as forced him into England with great hazard. He then desisted, and retiring into France, died there, in, or about the year 1210.
"He was the pious founder of many churches and abbies, which he plentifully endowed with lands; particularly (with his wife) the Benedictines in Downpatrick (whose abbot was a spiritual Lord of parliament) which he endowed, among other things, with the tenths of all his hunting in all his lands, wherever his huntsmen should meet to hunt; the tenth cow, and every tenth animal out of all his flocks and herds, that he had either acquired by victory or purchase, to which charter his brother Jordan was a witness. - He founded the Crouched Friars in the said town; the Dominicans of Carlingford; three abbies of Bernadines in the county of Downe, viz St Andrew's in the Ardes, Nedrum, and Tubberglory; likewise, 30 May 1180 the abbey of Ines for Cistertians in the island of Inescurry, where the old abbey of Carrick stood, which being made a fort in his wars with Ulster, and infesting him much, he caused to be demolished, and gave to its mother of Furnes, those lands for the building thereof, which the said abbey had before possessed, when it had been founded in 1127 by Magnellus, King of Ulster, and supplied it with monks, from the abbey of Furnes. - In 1183 he placed Benedictine Monks of the abbey of St Werburgh in Chester, in the cathedral of Downe, in room of secular canons, and made William de Etleshale, one of the same society, their abbot, when, by his persuasion, that church, though before dedicated to the name of the Holy Trinity, was made sacred to St Patrick; which many believed (says Christopher Pembridge in his annals) was the cause of all those misfortunes, that afterwards befell him. - He was besides, a considerable benefactor to numbers of religious houses , and all his donations were confirmed by the charter of 12 Edw II. His wife also in 1193 founded the abbey of our Lady de Leigh, de Jugo Dei, or Gray-Abbey in the county of Downe, for Cistercian Monks, in which she lies buried, as appears by the Chronicle of Man; and her image of grey freestone though much defaced, is yet to be seen in the nich of the wall, on the gospel side of the altar.
"He is described to to have been a man of prodigious strength and equal courage (which is evinced by what is already observed concerning him); of a fair complexion and tall stature; a meek and courteous behaviour; a devout worshipper of God, a great benefactor to his church, and whenever he obtained a victory, or good success in his affairs, he would thankfully ascribe the honour to God. - He married Africa, daughter of Godred III (made King of the Isle of Man and the western isles of Scotland in 1144, King of Dublin in 1147, and died in November 1187, descended from Godred, the son of Styric, who by the Danes, Norwegians, and other people of the North, who had taken the Isle of Man from the King of Northumberland, was ordained the first King thereof in the year 1065, and died the year after) and by her he had Miles (Milo) his successor  who was kept out of the earldom of Ulster by Hugh de Lacie, to whom King John had granted it upon his father's apprehension; and when he claimed the earldom as heir to his father (which further confirms him to be his lawful son) Lacie replied, that he would maintain the King's grant of it to himself, since Earl John never returned to make the claim in person; and Lacie being then much esteemed by the King, and very powerful in Ireland, Miles was forced to drop his pretensions; but to make some requital, King Henry III conferred on him the barony of Kingsale, to hold per integram Baroniam, and confirmed all the lands of Ulster to Lacie by patent, dated 29 May 1223, 7 of his reign: After which, Miles, by his tenure being obliged to reside in Ireland, neglected to claim the barony of Stoke-Courcy, and dying not long after, was succeeded by his son..."
 He was created Earl of Cambridge in 1139; his wife was Cicely, daughter of William de Rumeli, Lord of Skipton; and he was younger son of Ranulph de Meschines, Earl of Carlisle, Lord of Cumberland and Westmoreland, by Maud his wife, eldest sister and heir (after her nephew’s death to Hugh D’Abrincis, surnamed Lupus, the great Earl of Chester, son of Richard, surnamed Goz, Viscount Auvranche in Normandy, by his wife Margaret, half sister to William the Conqueror.
 Idem, I 522
 He was the son of Gilbert D’Aquila, lord of the honour of Pevensy in Sussex; and his wife Juliana, daughter of Geoffrey, Count of Mortaigne and Perche, by his wife Beatrix, daughter of Hildwin de Roucy, Count de Roucy, by Adela, daughter of Eblo I, Count de Roucy, by Beatrix, daughter of Raynerious V, Count of Hainault, by Hedewige, daughter of Hugh Capet, King of France: which Eblo, Count de Roucy, derived his descent, both in the male and female line, from Charles the Simple, King of France, by his Queen Edgina, daughter of Edward, King of England before mentioned, son of Alfred the Great, first absolute monarch of England.
 To this effect, Hammer in his chronicle, Sir Richard Cox, and other historians relate this matter; but, by a record in the tower of London [Rot. Pat, Anno 6 Johannis f M 9] which alone deserves our notice, and is to be relied on, it seems as if he surrendered himself to the King, and delivered hostages for his appearance within a certain time, limited even by the L J Lacie himself; and if so, where was the necessity of proclaiming him traitor, offering rewards for his apprehension, and at last taking him by surprise? The whole transaction therefore, previous to the challenge, bears the complexion of a monkish fable, and might very probably be invented to magnify so great a benefactor to the church, as he undoubtedly was. - Upon the King's accepting the challenge, he demands of his barons in Ulster, by the aforesaid record, (a proof he was not then in the tower) which, for the clearing up of this piece of history, we shall here give the reader from an attested copy, imparted to the Author, by the Lord Kingsale.
Rex omnibus Baronibus de Ultonia etc qui juraverunt et Obsides dederunt pro Johanne de Curcy, Salutem. Mandamus vobis et vos districte summonemus, quatenus venire faciatis Dominum vestrum Johannem de Curcy in Servitium nostrum, unde jurastis et Obsides vestros nobis tradidistis, ficut eosdem Obsides et Feoda vestra diligitis; scientes, quod nisi venerit in Servitium nostrum infra terminum qui ei inde a Justiciario nostro statutus fuit, Nos ad Obsdies vestros, et ad Feoda vestra nos capiemus. Et in hujus Rei, etc. Teste Domino Norwicensi apud Greitinton primo die Septembris.
His hostages were Milo filius Johannis de Curcy, Juvenis, et Robinus filius Willielmi Salvage, liberantur Roberto de Veteri-Ponte in custodia Johannes de Curcy, filius Rogeri de Cestria, liberatur Willielmo Briwer. Wlekinus, filius Augustini de Ridall, liberatur Willielmo Boterell, Vicecomiti Cor???. Petrus, filius Willielmi Hacket, liberatur Reginal de Clifton, confibularis de Dunster, Alexander, filius Willielmi Sarazin, liberatur Willielmo de Blunvill, Constabulario de Corf. Johanned, filius Adae Camerarii, et Johannes, filius Richardi filii Roberti, liberatur Hugoni de Nevil.
And upon their assent to send him to the King, he grants him a safe conduct, Rex, etc. Omnibus & Salutem. Sciatis quod concessimus fal??? et fecurum Conductum Johanni de Curcy et fuis, quos fecum duxerit, in veniendo ad Nos, et in redeundo, usque ad medium Quadragesimae Anno, ???? Teste mepso apud Brehill XXI die Octobre.
This procedure shews his confinement in the tower to have happened upon the delivery of him to the King by his hostages, who, for his safe custody, confined him there until the day of combat.
 As appears from Dugdale's Mon. Angl: II 1019, 1020, 1021, 1025, 1046, etc
 Giraldus Cambrensis, in his history of the conquest of Ireland, and others from him, assert that the Earl died without lawful issue; but there reason to pronounce them mistaken in this point, from the foregoing record of King John, where he son seems to be mentioned the first hostage for his appearance, viz Milo, filius Johannes de Curcy, Juvenis. Miles, the son of John de Curcy, a youth; unless it be supposed that Milo was the son of his (the Earl's) natural son John de Courcy, Lord of Rathenny and Kilbarrock in the county of Dublin, whom Walter de Lacie, Lord of Meath, and Hugh de Lacie, Earl of Ulster, basely caused to be murdered in the year 1208, suspecting him to be a spy over their actions, and to have made grievous complaints of them to the King; on account whereof great confusions ensued, and obliged the King in person to come over, to restore peace, or banish the Lacies, which he did in 1211. - Had Milo been the son of John, Lord Rathenny and Kilbarrock, he must have succeeded to those honours, which he never did; but what puts it beyond doubt, that the Earl left a son, is that the privilege of being covered in the King's presence (which he demanded for himself and his issue male) is to this day enjoyed by the Lord Kingsale, as the lineal heir male of his body.