John de Courcy, the first Anglo-Norman conqueror of Ulster, is perhaps the most famous member of a family which originated in western Normandy at the end of the first millennium. His stunning victories at Downpatrick in 1177 won him lordship of all the territory east of the river Bann and gained him the epithet princeps – principal, top man, prince even – of Ulster. The story of the family, however, is much more than that of one man. It ranges from its origins in a modest lordship near Falaise to a cadet line based in Stogursey, Somerset, which itself controlled scattered territory from the south Midlands to Yorkshire. Courcys could claim kinship with some of the most important families of their time, including the kings of Scotland.
Courcy lords not only gave their duke and king fealty, they also served them as dapifers and seneschals; key posts within evolving royal government which only faded into ceremonial titles in subsequent generations.
Lords and warriors, conquerors and administrators, the Courcys epitomise the Anglo-Norman elite and their impact on Britain and Ireland during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
Steve Flanders is a part-time lecturer and tutor at Queen’s University, Belfast.