So where does the commissioning of a Life of Saint Patrick fit into all of this? Well, for one thing John de Courcy may well have been aware of the cult of Saint Patrick before he ever set foot in Ireland. Steve Flanders has established in his research that a network of family ties stretching from the de Courcy family seat in Somerset through to Cumbria and back to their original homeland in Normandy was of vital importance to John. The cult of Patrick was known in Normandy, it was also known in Somerset at Glastonbury, near the family seat of Stogursey (Stoke Courcy) and it is also reflected in the place names of northern Britain, in Gospatrick in Cumbria, for example. Jocelin himself alludes to de Courcy's reputation as an admirer of Saint Patrick as he lays out the reasons behind the writing of his work saying that he has been 'enjoined by the commands of the most reverend Thomas, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland, and of Malachy, the Bishop of Down; and to these are added the request of John de Courcy, the most illustrious Prince of Ulidia, who is known to be the most especial admirer and honorer of St. Patrick, and whom we think it most becoming to obey' (Proeme, p.133).
Certainly the commissioning of the Life was but one example of John de Courcy's promotion of the cult of Saint Patrick in Down. Another tangible expression was the issuing of a coin bearing the inscription Patricius, which is today used as the logo of the Down Museum, as their website explains:
The Down County Museum logo is based on a coin minted by John de Courcy, about 1190, probably in Downpatrick. It has the name of Patrick, with a crozier, on one side and of de Courcy on the other. It was a symbolic linking of the religious and political associations of the area and because it did not bear the head of Prince John, Lord of Ireland, it was a declaration of independence by de Courcy.The other main evidence for de Courcy's adoption of Saint Patrick is the role which he played in the discovery of the bodies of the three patrons at Down in 1185. His fellow Norman, the chronicler Gerald of Wales, placed John at the centre of the action writing in his Expugnatio Hibernica:
John de Courcy having discovered a precious treasure, the bodies of three Saints, Patrick, Bridget and Columba, at Down, these relics were by his care translated. (Chap. XXXIV, p. 77).Scholar Helen Birkett, however, feels that the primary role in this great discovery was played by Malachy, bishop of Down, but to examine that will require a separate post.
I find John de Courcy's relationship with Saint Patrick and with Saints Brigid and Colum Cille a fascinating one. Obviously there seems to be more than a touch of self-interest involved in his desire to talk up and appropriate the Patrician associations with Down, the territory he conquered. He was doubtless spurred on by what seems to have been a genuine belief that he was the 'white knight on the white horse' who would be the first to conquer Ulster, spoken about in a book of prophecies attributed to Saint Colum Cille and which Gerald of Wales tells us de Courcy was supposed to carry on his person as one of his prized possessions. He remains for me one of the more interesting historical characters to have had a relationship with Ireland's patron saints.
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