Page images

ing conscious of the impossibility of resisting the power of the English troops, which he knew must gradually collect into a force beyond the utmost of his means, resolved to temporize with his enemies. But private resentment was underhand at work; and his overtures were met with stern and unconciliating demands of submission. In this strait, he offered to justify himself by combat with De Lacy, who refused on the plea of his own high office, and De Courcy's being a subject, and a proclaimed traitor. He likewise also offered a large reward for the seizure of De Courcy, “ alive or dead.” But De Courcy stood so effectually on his guard, that there seemed to be little likelihood of success on the part of his enemy. At length De Lacy contrived a communication with some servants of De Courcy, who declared their fear of seizing the person of a hero, for whose strength, they affirmed, no match could be found; but they represented that he might be surprised on a particular occasion, which they thus described :—“On good Friday, yearly, he wears no arms; but passes the whole day in the churchyard of Down, wandering alone, and absorbed in devotional meditation.” The hint was not thrown away on careless ears. Good Friday was at hand, and when it came, a spy, sent for the purpose, ascertained that the earl was in the place described, unarmed, alone, and by his absent eye and unsettled gait, little contemplating the meditated snare. A troop of horse rushed round the scene of sacred retirement, and the dismounted troopers crowded in upon the astonished knight; two of his nephews had been led by the tumult to the spot, and now rushed forward with heroic self-devotion to the rescue of their valiant uncle; De Courcy was not wanting to himself in the emergency: Seizing on a wooden cross which presented itself to his grasp,

he laid about him with vigour and effect. Thirteen of his assailants fell beneath an arm, not often equalled in power: but his brave nephews lay dead beside him, and, wearied with his efforts, the valiant John de Courcy was at last overpowered, and led away bound and captive, into the hands of his bitter enemies.*

He was cast into the Tower, where he remained, until an incident occurred, the facts of which being misrepresented by contemporary report, have also led historians to commit the common oversight of denying the whole. The facts, as they are most simply related are not, it is true, easily reconciled with other more authentic facts and dates. Yet we see no reason, therefore, to affirm that the aecount is wholly gratuitous. The most unembarrassed statement we can colleet, is as follows:

In the year 1203, there was an active and successful effort made by the French king, to strip John of his Norman dominions.

The eontest was marked by imbecility and slackness on the part of John, which provoked first the earnest remonstrances and then the indignant desertion on the part of his barons. Still his Norman subjects, and still more the English, showed all willingness to second any vigorous effort of the king to reinstate himself in his rights. The king used this disposition to obtain money, which he lavished in extravagance: content

* Lodge throws a doubt on this romantic story on the authority of a record in the Tower, from which it appears that De Courcy surrendered himself. See Lodge, vi. 143, for the whole of this document.

ing himself with threats and remonstrances against Philip, who held him in just contempt, and being exalted by success, increased in his pretensions. The Normans were under a pledge to acknowledge his sovereignty, if not relieved within a year, not yet expired; to divert resistance, and perhaps at worst, to make room for compromise, he claimed the princess Eleanor, sister to the late Duke of Brittany, for his second son, with all the English dominion in France for her dower. The demand was absurd, and created remonstrance and complaint: the negotiation, which had till then been carried on, was abruptly broken off, and John's ambassadors returned into England. Shortly after their departure, and early in the following year, the king of France sent a knight into England to proclaim the justice of his cause, and in accordance with the notions and common usage of the age, to maintain the affirmation with his lance. The knight came and proclaimed a challenge against all who should impeach the actions or the pretensions of his master. It is probable that this knight did not expect his challenge to be taken up; at all events it was a matter of no political importance. But the English court justly felt that the vaunt should not be suffered to pass unanswered, and took it up as a question of sport in which the national pride was in some degree concerned, rather than as a serious matter. The court of John was, however, as likely to be anxious about a trifle, as if Normandy were the stake, and the king was earnest in the quest of a champion. The chivalry of England, ever the first in honourable enterprise, had champions enough, had the cause, the occasion, and the ruler, sufficient respectability to excite their sympathy. They were not asked; the fame of De Courcy was known; he was in the king's power, and there was little doubt as to the effect of the inducements, of freedom and restoration, when held out as the result of his becoming the champion of the royal cause.

De Courcy had been some months in the Tower; when these circumstances occurred. He was sent for, and when he entered the presence, all were strongly impressed by the iron firmness of his gigantic port, and the undaunted freedom of his gait and countenance. “ Wilt thou fight in my cause?” asked king John. “Not in thine," replied the Earl, “ but in the kingdom's right, I will fight to the last drop of my blood.” The king was too eager for the fight, to quarrel with the distinction, and De Courcy's imprisonment was relaxed in rigour; his diet improved ; and his arms sent for to Ireland. But the circumstances becoming the talk of the day, the prodigious feats of De Courcy were everywhere narrated, with all the usual exaggeration. The French champion became from day to day more damped by these communications, until defeat appeared certain. At last, unable to contend with the apprehension of shame in the presence of the English court, and those of his countrymen who were sure to attend, the champion slunk away and concealed his disgrace in Spain. It was on this occasion that the privilege was granted to De Courcy, which yet remains as a standing testimony in his family. To the profuse proffers of king John's gratitude or favour, he replied by expressing his desire, that he and his posterity should retain the privilege to stand covered on their first introduction to the royal presence. This incident, the tradition of the day has so ornamented with the trappings of romance, and this with so

little regard to possibility, that it cannot now be received by the historian with any trust. Yet tradition has also its laws, and the wildest improbability may, when reduced by their critical test, be found so far in harmony with the time, person, and general character of events, that it may safely be affirmed to contain a large residue of real fundamental truth. Admiration always exaggerates and builds tall and goodly fabrics on disproportionate grounds. Yet even in these, if they are invented near the life of the actor, even the very exaggeration is mostly true to life and character. Every one is aware of many instances of the construction of this class of fictions. The main incidents are mostly disjoined from more vulgar circumstances which are omitted, altered, and replaced by other seemingly unimportant circumstances, which are simply used because the story can no more be told without them, than a picture be painted on the empty air. That which is adapted to raise wonder, is soon exaggerated to increase a sensation which the teller has himself ceased to feel. Again, the sayings and acts which are scattered along the memory of a life, will be seized on and made tributary to some special story. The violation of historical probability is long allowed to pass, because few hearers are precise enough to notice it; for it seems a general rule of the story-loving community, that no part of a story needs be true but the peculiar incident for which the tale is told. We begin to fear the charge of refining, and therefore we will pass to the subsequent facts of the tale.

Our authority goes on to state, that sometime after De Courcy being in France, serving in the English army, king Philip expressed to king John a curiosity to witness some proof of the strength of which he had heard so much; on which De Courcy was brought forward to satisfy this desire. A helmet was placed on a stake, and De Courcy stepping up to it, with a stroke of his ponderous twohanded sword, cleft the helmet and fixed the sword so deeply in the stake, that no one but himself could draw it out. Sir Walter Scott describes the feat, which he gives to Richard in “the Crusaders.” Nor is it so marvellous, as on this ground to call for doubt. That the particular scene described ever occurred is, for other reasons, very unlikely. But the feat was one of the reputed trials of strength at a time when the fullest development of strength, was the business of life. The whole tale, taking it even with some minor embellishments which we here omit, has this value, that it is founded probably on the real facts of De Courcy's life, and certainly on the impression of his character, which probably remained distinct enough until it became imbodied in many a tale and written memorial not now to be had. That De Courcy was cast into the Tower, is not a fact confirmed by authentic history, and the meeting of the kings is still less likely. These are not, however, essentials to the characteristic incidents of the narration. The question about Normandy was not settled in the beginning of 1204, when De Courcy must have been in England, and this is the time assigned for the challenge. Again, king John two years after led a force into France, when he recovered parts of Poictou, and concluded a truce for two years with Philip. If these coincidences and the true spirit of the period be allowed for, the romance

dwindles into an ordinary occurrence in which, however historical scepticism may ask for proof, there is assuredly nothing improbable.

The remainder of De Courcy's history is buried in much obscurity. He began to settle into the quiet of ease and the torpor of age. It required the prominent importance of a warrior or a statesman's actions, to fix a lasting stamp on the traditionary records of the time He is supposed to have died in France, about 1210.

His Earldom of Ulster was retained by De Lacy; but Henry III. granted the barony of Kinsale, to his successor (son or nephew), some

This title has descended in the posterity of the noble warrior, for 600 years.

years after.

Sir Armoric de St Lawrence.

DIED A. D. 1189.

It is one of the conditions of a period—of which the record that remains, approaches nearer to the character of tradition than regular history—that its persons are rather to be seen through the medium of the events in which they were the actors, than in the light of distinctly personal memorials. When in our transition down the current of time we come to the worthies of our own period—we must ever find the deepest interest in that portion of our inquiry, which brings our curiosity nearest to the person and makes us best acquainted with the moral and intellectual constitution; the feelings and the motives of the object of our admiration or contempt. The earliest indications of the philosopher, the poet, the orator, or the statesman—the Boyle, the Goldsmith, or the Burke; are not too simple for the rational curiosity which would trace the growth and formation of that which is poble and excellent in the history of consummate minds. Nor will the personal fondness with which enthusiasm, is so apt to dwell on the simplest record of that which it admires or venerates, be easily contented with the utmost effort the biographer can make to infuse into his persons that characteristic reality, which like faithful portraiture ever depends on the nice preservation of minute and nearly evanescent lineaments.

It is with a painful consciousness of the unsatisfactory nature of our materials, to satisfy this condition of successful biography, that we have laboured through the heroes of this eventful period. Of these some, it is true, are to be regarded but as links of history, only important for the facts that carry on the tale; and of these the biographies are to be read, simply as the narrative of the public movements in which their fortunes or their vices and follies render them the prominent agents. Thus, while we are compelled to expend pages on the base Dermod, a scanty page will deliver all that we are enabled to add, to the facts already mentioned in the last memoir, of Sir Armoric de Valence. United inseparably with his valiant brother in arms, so that to relate the achievements of either, was necessarily to give the history of both; we have, in our memoir of De Courcy, been compelled nearly to exhaust the scanty materials for the biography of the noblest and most

[blocks in formation]

chivalric hero of a romantic age. The original name of Sir Armoric's family is said to have been Tristram: the subsequently assumed name of St Lawrence is not very clearly accounted for. A member of the family which he established in Ireland, is said to have gained a battle near Clontarf on St Lawrence's day; and from that event to have taken the saint's name, in consequence of a vow made before the battle. The sword of this warrior yet hangs in the hall at Howth. We have already mentioned the first battle gained by Sir Armoric on his landing near Howth, and the consequent grant of the lordship of that district, still in the possession of his descendants who bear the title of earl and baron of Howth. His subsequent career, as the companion of De Courcy, we cannot here repeat without needless repetition. Through the whole of these years of imminent peril, and fierce exertion, and formidable


he was as a guardian and guiding spirit to the more fierce and headlong impetuosity of his redoubted brother-inlaw. In the moment of dangerous extremity, his faithful rescue; in perplexity, his wise counsellor—as remarkable for the caution of a leader, as for the heroic fearlessness of a knight: in those awful moments of defeat when all but life and honour seemed lost, the ever wakeful and sagacious discoverer of the redeeming opportunity, or the daring last resource, which turned the fortune of the field. Enthusiastic like his heroic brother in arms, but without his impetuosity; as daring, without his grasping ambition; as scornful of baseness, without his harsh and stern rudeness: Sir Armoric's whole course, shining even through the blurred line of the meagre annalists, conveys a resistless impression of high knightly valour and faith, calm, resolute, and devoted. He showed, in his last heroic field, one of the most noble on record; the same calm intrepidity in resigning his life to a high yet punctilious sense of honour, that brave men have been often praised for exhibiting in self-defence.

In the reign of Richard, while De Courcy was superseded by his rival De Lacy, and anxious to strengthen himself in Ulster against the rising storm which in its progress so fatally overwhelmed his fortunes, he sent a messenger to Sir Armoric who was engaged in some slight enterprise in the west. Sir Armoric returned on his way, to come to the assistance of the earl, with a small force of thirty knights and two hundred foot. The report of his march came to Cathal O'Conor, who instantly resolved to intercept him, and collected for this purpose a force which left no odds to fortune. He laid his measures skilfully; and this, it will be remembered, was the science of the Irish warfare. He took up a concealed position, and by the most cautious dispositions for the purpose, prevented all intelligence of his intent or movements from reaching Sir Armoric. He came on unsuspecting danger and having no intimation of any hostile design; his scouts went out and brought no intelligence, and all seemed repose along the march, until he came to a pass called the “Devil's mouth." Here it was at once discovered, that a vast force lay in ambush to intercept his way.

That there was no alternative left but a soldier's death for the two hundred foot soldiers which composed his army, was instantly comprehended by all present: for these, flight was impossible and resistance hopeless. The force of O'Conor was at least a hundred to one. The fatal in

« PreviousContinue »