Sir John Norris

John Norris, or Norreys, was a renowned soldier who staunchly defended the cause of Protestantism, in Holland and Flanders, Ireland, France and Portugal. There is no question that he was a brave leader of men but he lacked compassion and it could be said of him that he was a well-bred thug. His men nick-named him Black Jack.

He was born in 1547 at Yattendon Castle in Berkshire, the son of Lord Henry Norreys, friend of Queen Elizabeth.

His first experience of military service was in the French Wars of Religion in 1571. Then he fought in Ireland and was responsible for the massacre of women and children of Clan MacDonnell on Rathlin Island, Antrim 1575. He had captured the fortress there and the non-combatants were hiding in caves. He sought them out ruthlessly and his men killed them all.

He fought in the Low Countries in 1577 during the Eighty Years War against the Habsburg Forces of Spain. At Rijmenam 2 Aug 1578 his men were defeated by John of Austria. In Feb 1580 they relieved Steenwijk then went on to Meppel. On 9 April 1580 he conquered Mechelen and brutally sacked the city. It was known as the English Fury, the city having already suffered the Spanish Fury in 1572. The English turned on the population and plundered homes churches and monasteries; 60 civilians were killed. Mechelen was recaptured by the Duke of Parma in 1585. Norris gained his reputation in this war and was regarded as a forceful leader. However, in Sept 1581 he was defeated at the battle of Noordhorn by Colonel Francisco Verdugo, and in 1584 he left the Low Countries and went to Munster in Ireland where he urged the placement of English settlers. His soldiers deserted him and returned to Holland while he fought the Scots in Ireland.

In 1585 he returned to Holland when he heard of the siege of Antwerp. He commanded 4,400 English and Arnhem was stormed. At Aarschot there was a battle against Duke of Parma. In Dec 1585 the Earl of Leicester was made Governor-General of Low Countries. In further fighting Norris was wounded in the chest but broke through to relieve Grave. Norris was knighted by Leicester on St George's Day at Utrecht but Spanish regained Grave. Norris was not an easy man to have as a subordinate and he and Leicester argued and fell out. Norris returned to England in autumn 1586 where he found The Queen was cool towards him because of his emnity towards Leicester.

In 1587 he briefly he returned to Holland under new commander; Willoughby. But in 1588 he was back in England to be marshal of the camp at Tilbury when Elizabeth delivered her famous speech. In October he went back to Low Countries to be ambassador to the States General. There was a withdrawal of English troops to prepare an expedition to Portugal after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. He and Drake led the English Armada against Corunna, Burgos and Lisbon but the expedition petered out and ended in failure.

From 1591 to 1594 he fought for the French King in Brittany, then in 1595 he was in Ireland campaigning against the Earl of Tyrone. By the year 1597 he was suffering from poor health and developed gangrene from badly treated wounds. He was bitter about his lack of royal recognition for his 26 years military service. He died on 3rd July 1597.

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by Stephen Luscombe