Saturday, 19 March 2016

Jocelin's Secular Patron: John de Courcy

We continue the series of posts on the Life of Saint Patrick by Jocelin of Furness with a look at the secular authority who commissioned its writing - the Anglo-Norman adventurer, John de Courcy. In 2012 I attended a conference on the theme of John de Courcy and the Normans in Downpatrick at which I was privileged to hear several leading scholars in the field talk about this compelling yet still enigmatic figure in our history. The term adventurer is a particularly apt one for de Courcy as he was a man who seems to have made his own luck. He was the son of a younger son of the de Courcy family and thus whilst he had the family name he had no prospect of inheriting the family land. John arrived in Ireland in the autumn of 1176, landing in Dublin with a small group of 22 knights and 300 other soldiers. He left the garrison without permission and led his band northwards, passing peaceably through two Irish kingdoms and possibly even recruiting Irish auxiliaries en route. He appears to have exploited the rivalries between native rulers and arrived unannounced in Downpatrick, taking the town the following summer after two bloody battles. The entire enterprise was undertaken without the consent of King Henry II and as his newly-conquered Ulster territory did not adjoin any other Anglo-Norman lands, de Courcy was free to run it as his personal possession. This independence eventually caused him to fall foul of King Henry's successor, King John, and by 1204 John de Courcy drops out of the historical record, with even the date and circumstances of his death uncertain.

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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1 comment:

  1. i find this story fasinating as my maiden name is decourcey my uncles name was john decourcey he would have been so happy to read all about this he passed a few years back i was overwhelmed by the fact that we have a family coat of arms i didnt catch where john decourcey was buried i will read all this info again and would love to visit the castle some day