Sir John de Courcy was English. He was huge, skilled with weapons and horse, charismatic, and usually running with few men and few supplies. Yet he conquered Ulster for the English. (On his own initiative. Without getting permission from King Henry II. Torqued him off a lot.) He did bad things and good things. But he did it all with such gusto and such deeds, and he had such epic English friends (his brother-in-law and true friend, Sir Amory Tristram de St. Lawrence) and such loathsome English enemies (King John! The de Lacys! Boo!), that he also had his own cycle of popular tales in Ireland. Strange but true.
The most famous tale of his prowess was the tale of how he carried his cross.
Sir John de Courcy was an old enemy of King John, ever since John had come to Ireland as a prince to rule the English part of the country, and totally torqued off everybody, English and Irish, allies and enemies. Henry II had sent for de Courcy and put him in charge of fixing things. Within a year, de Courcy had everybody so in favor of the rule of law (as opposed to the rule of his giant broadsword) that a man carrying a stick and a bag of gold could have ridden throughout all the English parts of Ireland, and a lot of Irish parts too. This made had made young Prince John look really bad, and middle-aged King John still remembered it.
De Courcy remembered too. He announced that King John wasn’t the real heir of England, that Prince Arthur of Brittany had been the real heir, and that Prince Arthur had been murdered by John’s orders. In response, King John ordered Sir John de Courcy’s arch-enemy, Sir Hugh de Lacey, to capture de Courcy and/or kill him. Immediately.
Meanwhile, de Courcy’s conscience was bothering him. A long time back (after plundering Armagh, St. Patrick’s cathedral town — bad stuff!), he’d sworn to go and spend a night in Armagh praying at St. Patrick’s tomb. But he’d never done it because his enemy de Lacey held that land. He decided he had to fulfill his vow, and that the best way to go unnoticed was to ride there unarmed and alone, dressed in pilgrim’s garb. He’d go fasting, he’d stay the night fasting, and then he could slide off home in the gray dawn.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t inconspicuous enough. De Lacey heard about his coming, gathered his own men, and his brother, and his brother’s men, and rode off in the middle of the night to get de Courcy.
So there he was, just before the dawn, praying all alone and totally unarmed. De Lacey had him surrounded. He was going to die, and the lack of chivalry of it all was not going to protect him. And darn it, he’d already repented and confessed the whole plundering thing, and done penance, and fulfilled his vow! He was now innocent! St. Patrick would want him to fight back!
So de Courcy, in desperation, trusted in the power of the Cross very literally. He wrenched a stone cross out of the ground and proceeded to lay about him with it like a giant stone mace. De Lacey’s men were frightened, and their horses were even more frightened. He got away and rode off.
And that’s the legend of how Sir John de Courcy carried his cross.
The truth is practically just as dramatic, but a good deal sadder. According to the Book of Howth, Sir Hugh de Lacey found out that it was de Courcy’s pious custom never to wear armor or arms on Good Friday. Instead, he would go barefoot in humility, walk around the church five times, and then go kneel inside church and pray. “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.”
Sad to say, after a lot of back and forth, Sir Hugh de Lacey ended up solidly Earl of Ulster. Sir John de Courcy was imprisoned by bad King John until set free temporarily — because King John needed a champion to beat King Philip Augustus’ guy in a tourney! Really! Actually, de Courcy refused to fight at first, because he had no wish to defend the honor of weaselly King John. But the third time, the king’s messenger said that it was not for King John, but for the honor of England. For that, de Courcy agreed to fight. “For the honor and dignity of the realm, in which many an honest man lives against his will, I shall be content to hazard my life, and defend it to the utmost of my power.”
In the event, something happened worthy of a samurai movie. When de Courcy and the French champion were performing their pre-melee turns for the crowd, de Courcy gave the Frenchman such a look of killing intent that the man rode off and never came back.
The French king reacted with savoir faire, asking de Courcy to give them an exhibition of his strength instead. De Courcy chopped right through a helmet and the piece of wood it was set on, leaving his broadsword stuck so deep in the wood that only he was able to pull it out.
This broadsword of his is supposedly still kept on display in the Tower of London. The Tower of London also records that King John didn’t trust just to de Courcy’s word; he had his son Milo as his hostage.
So temporarily King John gave him his favor and his possessions back, as well as granting the men of his family the extraordinary perpetual privilege of wearing their hats in the king’s presence. He tried to get Ulster back, but was given Kinsale instead. But he and John butted heads soon enough. De Courcy was imprisoned again, until he promised to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He was so weak that he didn’t even make it out of the country before he died.
But he married a king’s daughter, he founded monasteries and towns, he commissioned Jocelin’s Life of St. Patrick, he won privileges for his line, he died a pilgrim, and his legend lived on. Mark Twain actually stole bits of his tourney for The Prince and the Pauper! He was sung in Ireland, England, France, and Hy Breasail!
What more could a bold knight wish for?
UPDATE: The Tower of London used to show off this helmet as being Sir John de Courcy’s, but it pretty obviously wasn’t. Several hundred years off.