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Sir John Norris

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Sir John Norris

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John Norris (also commonly spelt ‘Norreys’) was the second of the six soldier sons of Henry, 1st Baron Norris of Rycote, and his wife Margery. Of the "right valiant and warlike progenie" of Rycote, it was John who achieved the greatest renown. He is said to have been born c.1547 (van Meteren, Discovrse Historicall, p. 154). His early military experience was gleaned in France during his father’s embassy to Charles IX, 1567-1571. He and his elder brother William are known to have accompanied the Huguenot armies on campaign (Nolan, Sir John Norreys, p. 11).

In August 1573 William and John set sail from Liverpool as part of the adventurer force raised by William Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex, for his scheme for the plantation of Ulster (CSP Ireland 1571-5, pp. 366-7; Morton, 'Enterprise of Ulster', p. 118). The brothers hoped to be rewarded with land should Essex prove successful (Falls, Elizabeth’s Irish Wars, p. 114). Essex, however, was to meet stiff resistance from the native Irish chieftains and their Scottish mercenaries. At times the conflict was brutal, with John Norris prominent in one infamous episode. In July 1575 troops under his command massacred a two-hundred man garrison and three to four hundred inhabitants of Rathlin Island (CSP Ireland 1571-5, pp. 881-2). Essex’s scheme proved a costly failure. Norris was back in England by November 1575 (Nolan, Sir John Norreys, p. 31). His brother, however, remained in Ireland and died there in December 1579 (Cokayne, Peerage, vol. 9, p. 646).

At the recommendation of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Norris was appointed to the command of one of the English mercenary regiments raised to assist the Dutch Revolt against Spain (CSP Foreign, July 1577-May 1578, p. 716). His campaigns in the Low Countries were to be the source of his contemporary fame.

In July 1584 Norris returned to Ireland as Lord President of Munster (CSP Ireland 1574-85, p. 518). His stay was to be short lived. In May 1585 he was recalled to take command of a royal army being raised to support the Dutch Revolt (MS. St. Amand 8, fol. 67). By August Norris was back in the Low Countries at the head of two and a half thousand English troops (CSP Foreign, Elizabeth, Aug. 1584-Aug. 1585, pp. 668-9; Hammer, Elizabeth’s Wars, p. 120). His autonomous command was to be brief. In December the Earl of Leicester arrived as Elizabeth’s personal representative and supplanted him at the head of the army (CSP Foreign, Elizabeth, Sept. 1585-May 1586, p. 213). Norris was knighted by Leicester in April 1586, having successfully led the relief of Graves (Digges, Briefe Report, p. b.2; CSP Foreign, Elizabeth, Sept. 1585-May 1586, pp. 561-3). Norris’s relationship with Leicester soon descended into bitter acrimony. Their mutual distaste reached such a level that when Leicester was recalled by Elizabeth, in November 1586, the Earl took the extraordinary step of freeing Norris’s principal subordinates from his command (CSP Foreign, Elizabeth, June 1586-Mar. 1587, p. 234). In April 1587 Leicester insisted that Norris be recalled as a condition of his return (CSP Foreign, Elizabeth, Apr.-Dec. 1587, p. 20-1). In a blatant snub, when the Earl returned in June, Norris departed without meeting him (CSP Foreign, Elizabeth, Apr.-Dec. 1587, pp. 134-5, 149).

From November 1587 Norris was prominent in preparing English defences against the threat of the Spanish Armada (Nolan, Sir John Norreys, p. 109). In July 1588 he was commissioned Lord Marshall of the army stationed at Tilbury, under the command of the Earl of Leicester (TNA SP 12/213, fol. 13). He is said to have been present in the Queen’s escort during her visit to the army on 8 August and on the following day, when she famously reviewed and addressed the troops (Mattingly, Spanish Armada, p. 336; Cabala: Sive Scrinia Sacra. Mysteries of State, p. 259; Aske, Elizabetha Triumphans, p. 22).

Following the defeat of the Armada, English eyes turned towards retaliation. The response was led by Norris and Sir Francis Drake. Norris and Drake raised an expedition which aimed to destroy Spain’s surviving Armada ships, free Portugal from Spanish rule and seize Spain’s lucrative trading interests in the Azores Islands (Wernham, Expedition of Sir John Norris and Sir Francis Drake, p. xiv). The expedition sailed in April 1589 (MS. Tanner 79, fol. 48). It returned in July, an abject failure (Wingfield, Trve Coppie, p. 46).

In April 1591 Norris was commissioned Captain-General of an army sent into Brittany by Elizabeth to assist Henry IV's succession to the French throne (List & Analysis of SP Foreign, vol. 2, pp. 26, 325). Norris’s tenure in Brittany would prove a long and frustrating one. The dominant theme was Henry’s failure to live up to his promises and Elizabeth’s subsequent refusals to reinforce Norris. It was also marred by personal tragedy. In November 1591 Norris wrote home to report the death of his youngest brother Maximilian (TNA SP 78/26, fol. 188). Norris achieved a signal success in November 1594 when he destroyed a Spanish fort threatening Brest (van Meteren, Discovrse Historicall, pp. 139-40). It was the final act of his three years in Brittany. He and his army were recalled for service in Ireland (MS. St. Amand 8, fol. 63).

Norris landed in Ireland, as Lord General, in May 1595, to lead the Queen’s forces against the rebel Earl of Tyrone (van Meteren, Discovrse Historicall, p. 144). Two years of fighting and negotiation achieved little. Worn down by the hardships of his years of service, Norris unsuccessfully sought his recall (CSP Ireland 1596-7, pp. 349-50). He died at Norris Castle, Mallow, on 3 September 1597.

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