The Book of Howth was written in the middle of the sixteenth century as a history of the lords of Howth, the port city on the north edge of Dublin Bay, not far from the site of Brian Boru’s Battle of Clontarf. In its account of the victories of John de Courcy, there is a brief aside saying it contains stories not found in Gerald of Wales’s history of the Normans.

It begins with John and his small army abandoning a corrupt Dublin that is commanded by a Norman named William Aldelme, who is described: “Today he would thee worship; tomorrow he would thee unworship. The meek and sober he would undo; the strong and mighty he pleased; soft with the wild men, hard with the peace men … full of treason, and envious, drunken, lewd, and lecherous.”

In no time at all, after a few battles and against amazing odds, John defeated the last of a dynasty that traced its roots back to the age of Cuchulain and the fortress at Emain Macha.

JOHN DE COURCY … took with him of the men of Dublin a few, but they were good and manfully, hardy through all thing[s], so that he had two and twenty knights, fifty squires, and footmen as might be three hundred, and went into Ulester, where no Englishman went before him that was ever seen. Then was fulfilled a prophecy of Marlen, that thus he said: “A white knight sitting on a white horse, bearing fowls in his shield, shall foremost assay Ulester.” This John was a man white, and rode then upon a white horse, and bare in his shield i-painted three herons. He went through Mithth and Eriell in three days going, and the fourth day came early to Doune [Down] without any let of any of his foemen, unknown to any man but his own. The King [of Ulster] was sore afraid, notwithstanding, sped him out of the town; and his men they were misfeysed, and very hungry; where they had at their coming meat and drink enough, and spoil of gold and silver, and clothes, wherewith they were well arrayed, and their hearts well comforted.

Into the town was there come a Legate of Rome, [called] Vivien, and was come out of Scotland. This Legate was about peace to make between O’Donyll the King and John. Much he spake, and much he proferred to him, and promised him to bear every year a certain [reward] to the Englishmen, if they had left the land and turn again. But yet he [John] would not; till he had lost his life, he would not have left the land. Although the Legate spake as much as he could of fair speech, yet he could not speed. The King sent anon after his people. Within eight days he gathered together a host of 10,000 fighting men, and manfully came on towards the city of Doune, where Sir John was. The northern men [being] sturdier and stronger to fight than others.

Sir John saw the hosts coming to Doune. He was but 700 men; nevertheless they were full hardy and manfully of kind. He chose sooner to assay the adventure of battle in the field, rather than he would be kept in a cave within, like a bird in a cage. He came out of the town, and did put his men in good order, and divided them in three companies. He put his brother Sir Amorey de Sancto Laurensino with the horsemen, which was 140, and every horseman had a bowman behind him. Those was set on the left hand the battle. Roger de Power was put with a certain of footmen on the right hand, where as then a marsh ground was. Sir John led the third and last company, though they was but few in number.

The King, perceiving the horsemen but a few, thought to end with them ere that he would join his main battle. The ground was but narrow, where they should encounter, toward a great ditch and hedge, where no horseman could come within. Sir Amorey caused his footmen to be put within that hedge or ditch, and as the King did charge upon Sir Hamore, the shot of arrows came on so fast that their horses were so galled that the horses began to shrink back. Sir Amorey, with his few horsemen, did so fiercely set on that they never suffered the King’s horsemen once to look back for their fellows, as their main battle of footmen, till the King was droven beyond a narrow pass.

Then Sir Amorey called to his few footmen that then was with him, and willed them so to keep the pass that no horsemen should return till they had finished the battle, and retired back, and sent to Sir John, and bade that he should come on and set on the King’s footmen that stood in a great trench waiting the coming of their horsemen which was chased beyond the pass. Sir John did as his brother willed him.

There began such a cry on both sides that no instrument of the wars could be heard of neither side, with the wounded horses that galled was with spears and arrows, the wounded and pale-faced soldiers, which there was grovelling on the ground gaping with their mouths open for want of wind, which were galled and hurt with arrows and spears. The noise of weapon[s] upon helmets was as a hundreds of forges with their smiths and others with hammers and sledges beating upon anvils of steel. And also there was lighting of fire, spears brust [points], and arrows flying in the air. That noise and fight was like heaven and earth were at a combat together.

Who had seen these worthy knights and soldiers in that battle, strange it was to behold. Who had seen Sir John Curcy his brother and Roger Pouer, that was a great man in Ossery, must have said and report[ed] that in all the world there could be none better than they three found. There was none that day that Sir John strack but died with that stroke, beside others that was wounded, but like a wolf amongst a herd of lambs, so did he use himself. Both through the battle of Irishmen he went and returned again and again, making lanes through them so many that his few men that he had might easily pass through and through.

Roger Pouer on the right side with his company so well did that there was none that could pass on his side to take succour of the marsh ground that was nigh the battle on his side but died; that between him and the main battle there was no way but upon dead corpses, or harness, legs and heads, that lay on the ground, or such weapons that they had that was slain, for no man could tread on the ground or grass by reason of the premises, for the King’s footmen, I mean the Irish, always they looked for the King and the aid of their horsemen, amongst whom were all their gentlemen [officers], in whom the footmen had all their trust. And perceiving the furious and terrible onset of the English, that so stalworthy did use themselves in their first charge on them, and no succour maintenance they could find, they as long as they might fought more out of order than it became such that so great a charge had to enterprise, always looking more for the comfort and aid of their leaders, captains, and gentlemen than they were willing to do that of themselves. And they perceiving all their fastness[es], as the moor, was taken from them, and that could be no succour for them by reason of the great slaughter that Roger Pouer did on that side, they with so much power as they had left made to the plain where as Sir Amore was with a few horsemen, thinking that the English soldiers was so tired with the great fight and sad harness [heavy armor], they [the Irish] being naked, was not able to travail nor follow them in the plain, being lighter and lustier than they in travail and footmanship.

As they came ahead in the plain, Sir Amore met them, running without order, and set upon them with his horsemen that few stop or could save himself, but he that was able to overrun a horse by speed. There was of this number a two hundred or thereabouts of the Irish, with their leader Rory A’Hanlane, that always kept together, and was like to take the plain. Sir Amore called to his banner or standard bearer, called Geffrey Moungomrey, and said, “It is not time for thee to stay back for this small company that so well hath done all this day, and if we should suffer those to escape it would be said that that goodness that we hath done were lost. I pray thee, Mongomry, let us give the setting on.” “Nay,” said Mongomry, “we are but forty horsemen able to fight; the rest are tired and wounded, and you will never give over your stout stomach till you win more dispraise than ever you won of commendation.” “Well,” said Sir Amore, “I never heard out of thee so uncourteous an answer. Is it dishonour to die manfully in battle? Can we win ever more commendation? Give me my standard in mine own hand, for we will end that that we hath well began.” “Nay,” said Mongomry, “with this standard I hath won my living, and with this standard I will end my life. Now come on, in the name of God and Saint Patrick.”

Great work there was this time with these few horsemen, for Sir Amore was put twice on foot, and was helpen up to horse again, till the third time, being beyond a ford as the foremost passed through, was unhorsed, and his horse slain. But, as God would, three of his men lighted a-foot by him, which took four spears which they took of dead men that there was, and kept that ford upon the footmen till Sir John Coursey came to that rescusse, for his horsemen knew not where he be gone. Who that might behold that battle, first and last, would a-counted Sir Amorey worthy of high praise and commendation, were it not that he had been at the first onset upon these footmen wounded above the forehead, and the blood disturbed him much. His praise would have been as much as might be given to any knight or horsemen then alive.

During this sport few or none escaped; at which time this hundred men, that was left to keep the pass, was inforced to cut [down the trees in] the pass, and [lay] it over with wood, for the horsemen often charged upon them, thinking to come to rescue their fellows that was in the battle, where as in that pass was slain Lyonell Saint Larans, Sir Amore’s nephew, and two gentlemen more, which over all other there did best; and if those horsemen and the King had not by such fortune be separate from the footmen, it had not be like the fortune of battle to turn on Sir John Coursey’s side. They were of the Irish side ten thousand; of the English, seven hundred horsemen and footmen. You may see that policy helpeth good fortune, for this field was won by the help of God, to Sir John’s great honour and worthy commendation.

This story, and divers other of the thrice noble and worthy conqueror, that none his peer was in all Europe for the manliness and stalworthness with his own hand, I mean Sir John de Coursy, Earl of Ulster, was left out of the book written by Geraldus Cameranse [Gerald of Wales], Archdeacon of Landaffe in England, and yet he was sent by the King with his son John to Ireland for the declaration of the truth.

It fortuned that A’Hanlone [O’Hanlon] and those of Yryell, finding a ship at Torsse Head in Euryell full of victual and other things else coming to Sir John Course to the north was by tempest of weather driven within a creek or haven, which was devoured by them [O’Hanlon], and the mariners slain, and other of Sir John’s servants; the said Sir John, coming toward the Nuery [Newry] to revenge this shame, did understand that those Irishmen was gathered together with all their power to defend their cause … on the north side of Dondoygen. Sir John came, not thinking they were so many as they were indeed till they came within a mile and a half of the Irish camp, for then was the men of that quarters of the country all gathered at the same water side in camp.

Sir John called his brother Sir Amore, and Roger Pouer, and asked what was best to be done. Roger Pouer stood by, a valiant knight, and said, “Let us take fortune; the longer we do behold them, the worse our soldiers will think of them, for the sight of man is the marring and making of man, it giveth both courage and discourage to man.” “What?” said Sir Amorey; “We cannot be so hasty in setting on, their number of men is greater than we have been accustomed to meet in so great a plain with so few a number of men as we are, for in battle three things are requisite, first the quarrel, the second the number of soldiers, and the third the place. In speaking these words I would not discourage no valiant heart. First, it is to be understand that we be come of noble parentage, which cannot be denied, and we are upon our peril to crave, win, and look for that we want, and that is a living in our old age, and then to be quiet. For this we asked of our Prince, and this same hath given to us our winnings and conquest for the reward of our perilous and painful service, for it is our necessity we look to relieve.

“To the second part, we are far less in number than our enemies, wherefore it were very requisite that a closer ground were our best advantage, which at this time we lack. Therefore, if you follow my advice, let us send a beggar or friar to the camp, and not to go ahead without reason, and cause him to say that Sir Hue de Lassy is come yesterday to Trodathe, for we must use policy [trickery] where force doth want; and that also he shall say that he saw coming out of the West, about a two mile off, a number of horsemen and footmen, supposing to him it was Sir Hue de Lasy and his English soldiers that came by night from Trodathe. And in the mean time we shall put our lackeys upon our bearing horses, with my son Nicholas and twenty good horsemen with him, that way that the friar shall say he saw that number of people, with a sign between him and me what he shall do; and I will with our horsemen ride toward them upon our chief horses, and I shall see by their moving and stirring what they mean to do. And if they shall turn their faces to us to fight, we shall without great losses return to Dondalke, for their footmen shall never overtake our footmen, and as for their horsemen we shall use them to their dishonour.”

The which sayings Sir John liked well, and so did all the rest, saving they feared his son Nicholas to be over willing to battle, “which might turn all this device to all our undoings,” smith they. “Well then,” said Sir Amore, “prepare your footmen in a readiness.” Sir John appointed Roger Pouer with certain in the rearward, and Sir John himself in the forebattle, as he that first should give the charge, and also if they were enforced to give back, that he would himself be in the rearward, for it was most danger, which was his only desire in all fight.

Sir John mustered his men upon a hill, as large and far off as with honesty he might, so that his enemies did not perceive his policy. The Irish, after they heard the friar’s tale, and saw as they thought the number of horsemen coming out of the West, and saw the horsemen coming with Sir Amorey very nigh at hand, then said they plainly that the friar’s tale was true, and that Sir Amorey would not be so bold in coming so nigh, but for that there was more succour at hand than Sir John Coursey’s own men.

In the mean time there went a bold horsemen of A’Hanlon’s to view and scout over-see the English horsemen, whose name was Dermot Karraghe; then being also afore Sir Amore, a bow shot, a base son of Sir Amorey’s, called the Bastard Berefott, and encountered with that Irish horseman, and overthrew him, for he struck him through; at which time seeing now O’Hanlon said it was but the first token of their evil fortune; “therefore,” smith he, “let us go over the water, for the sea is coming in apace, and once we be beyond this river we are safe, and may go where we will, for none can come at us.”

Sir Amorey, seeing them going over the river, nigh half-endell of them, made signs to Sir John Coursey and to Nicholas his son to come on apace, and so incontinent did give the charge upon them, and by reason the water divided the Irish host or army a-two, and the further half, being beyond the water, could not come to succour their fellows being on the other side, they were slain and drowned nigh all.

After that done, Sir John and his men followed the rest through a ford that the friar learned them, and Sir Amorey with the horsemen did overtake the Irish footmen at the great water be-south the Lorgone [Larne] a mile, and skirmished with them a while till Sir John Coursey with the footmen did overtake them. The sea water came so speedily in that there they could not pass over, and also they were disturbed by the horsemen that run before, that very necessity constrained the Irish to fight, being then above the number of six thousand, and Sir John Coursey not then fully the number of one thousand.

The gentlemen and captains of the Irish, seeing that, did gather them in one place together which gave the charge upon Roger Pouer, then being in the woward, and did with very force constrain him and his to retire to Sir John and his band. The fight was so great, fought of necessity by the Irish, that Sir John was left alone amongst his enemies like a lion among a herd of sheep, for his men gave back. With that, young Nicholas came to his father Sir Amorey, riding apace, he then chasing the Irish horsemen, which then was broken upon, told that their footmen would not stand, and Sir John was left, and all was like to be lost. With that he came to the footmen, crying on them, and willed them to return, and that they should have good help. They promised that they would, so that he had lighted afoot amongst them; for Sir John then they missed.

With that Sir Amorey called his son Nicholas, and spake these words: “My dear son, take the charge of these good horsemen, and do with them this day, for it shall then sound thy honour.” And with that Sir Amorey light in the forefront of the footmen, and drew his sword, and thrust his horse through, and bade the footmen come on stoutly, and so did, with such a cry and force that they constrained the Irish to give back. At which first charge all the captains and gentlemen were slain of the Irish together in one heap, as sheaves of corn laid upon a ridge. After that they fled every man.

Who that had seen Sir John that day, being not in fear nor danger, might say he was [another Hercules]. He fought that day with a two-hand sword more like a lion than a lamb; his blows were so weighty and so to be wondered at that very strange it was to behold, for there was never blow he strack but slew a man or two, for no harness could bear out his force. For similitude he was like a mower in a field of thistles, for God gave him in this battle force, victory, and good fortune. And after this Sir John returned to Ullestere again, where as he made many castles and strong houses.

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