Sir John Norris

frankrabournSir John Norris

Norris [Norreys], Sir John (c.1547x50–1597), military commander, was the second son of Henry Norris, first Baron Norris (c.1525–1601), courtier and diplomat, and his wife, Margery or Margaret Norris, née Williams (d. 1599) [see under Norris, Henry, first Baron Norris (c.1525–1601)], younger daughter and coheir of John Williams, first Baron Williams of Thame (c.1500–1559), administrator, and his first wife, Elizabeth. He was one of six brothers, all soldiers, including William Norris (c.1545×50–1579), Sir Edward Norris (c.1550–1603), and Sir Thomas Norris (1556–1599), all but one of whom died while on active service. Of them all, it was ‘Black Jack’, as he became known, who won the greatest renown, eventually becoming celebrated throughout Europe, particularly for his campaigns in the Netherlands. By the time he died he was ‘renowned through the world’ (Stowe, 805). Although his surname is usually rendered as Norris, he himself, his mother, and at least one brother always spelt it Norreys. Since his death Norris has been largely forgotten. He has recently been rediscovered to an extent, appearing prominently in histories of Elizabeth I's reign and foreign wars and has finally attracted a biographer in John Nolan (1997). Yet much of his career remains obscure. Norris's monument in Yattendon church in Berkshire states that he was born in 1529, but this is impossible; an intimate servant later asserted that he was aged fifty at his death in 1597, and 1547 has usually been given as the year of his birth. However, given Lord Norris's age and the probable dates of birth of his first and third sons, a later year of birth for Norris is likely.

Youth and early military career on the continent, c.1547×50–1573

Norris's father was heir of one of Henry VIII's favourites, Henry Norris of Bray (b. before 1500, d. 1536), who was caught up in the downfall of Anne Boleyn and executed on 17 May 1536. In addition to this association with Elizabeth's mother, during Mary I's reign Norris's parents befriended Princess Elizabeth. Henry Norris, protestant in his sympathies, lived quietly at Rycote in Oxfordshire, one of the manors of his father-in-law, a co-guardian of Elizabeth, who was sometimes kept there under house arrest. During those early years she would also have met the Norris children.

John Williams died on 14 October 1559 and Norris's parents inherited the best part of his estates. They made their seat at Rycote. Elizabeth stayed on close terms with them after her accession. Norris was brought up surrounded both by comfort and a feeling of familiarity with the court. However, little definite is known about his childhood and adolescence. There are indications that he may briefly have attended Magdalen College, Oxford. His later correspondence demonstrates that he was comfortable in both Latin and French, and had a working knowledge of Italian and Portuguese, all of which is indicative of a good education.

A soldier's life attracted Norris from an early age. In autumn 1566 his father was appointed resident ambassador to France—always a sensitive post, but even more so at this time because confessional tension was building there between Huguenots and Catholics. It was not uncommon for young English aristocrats to spend time in the household of a great French noble to finish their education and Norris, still in his late teens, was placed by his father in the household of Gaspard de Coligny, admiral of France. The choice of Coligny, one of the Huguenots' leaders, reflects the reformed religious sympathies of the Norris family, but Henry Norris was presumably embarrassed when his sons were not content to sit on the sidelines when the second war of religion broke out in 1567. Norris and his elder brother, William Norris, fought in the Huguenot ranks at the battle of St Denis on 10 November 1567 and drew a ‘spirited’ sketch of the action, which their father enclosed with one of his dispatches (CSP for., 1566–8, 374).

The second civil war was officially ended by the edict of Longjumeau (March 1568) and both sons returned home, where they entered the household of Sir William Cecil, the principal secretary. The two youths sowed wild oats during this time. William Norris (who may already have been party to a scandal in France) was probably a bad influence, and his father summoned him back to the French court in autumn 1568, at about the time of the outbreak of the war of religion. Norris was left in England for the moment, though he may have served with William of Orange against the Spanish in the Low Countries during summer 1568. If so, he returned home and by July 1569 his father called him to France as well, fearing that he was living ‘as idly as his eldest brother’ (CSP for., 1569–71, 96). From autumn 1569 until the end of the third civil war in August 1570 Norris again fought for the protestants, though details are not known. Two years later he may well have served in a mixed Huguenot and English force in the southern Low Countries, during the renewed outbreak of the Dutch revolt.

In these years Norris made contacts that he exploited to good effect later in his career. The protestants of France and the Low Countries maintained close contact, exemplified in 1583 by Orange's marriage to Louise de Coligny, Coligny's daughter. A memorandum to Elizabeth on military aid to continental protestants (undated, but probably from 1575), observed that Norris ‘has always been friendly with the French’ (CSP for., 1575–7, 223). This reflects that he served his apprenticeship with them in the difficult days of 1569–70. In addition, he learned vital lessons, witnessing at first hand the results of inadequate arrangements for wages and logistics. He mastered the intricacies of the financial and logistical sides of war to a remarkable extent and became one of the great military entrepreneurs of the era.

Service in Ireland, France, and the Netherlands, 1573–1584

His early experiences evidently confirmed Norris's taste for a military life. In August 1573 his career took a new turn, when he and William Norris accompanied Walter Devereux, first earl of Essex, on his expedition to Ulster. Norris commanded a troop of horse in which Norris was a gentleman volunteer. Norris saved his brother's life in a skirmish in October 1573 and in the following month carried home dispatches from Essex to the queen, in which the earl singled out the brothers for their good service, but also asked for reinforcements. These were authorized, and in January 1574 Norris returned in command of a company of 100 foot, raised from the family estates in Oxfordshire and Berkshire—his first independent command.

The Irish wars were full of brutal incidents perpetrated by both sides and Norris showed himself as ruthless as anyone. In October 1574 he had over 200 followers of the rebellious Brian Mac Phelim O'Neill killed, ‘men, women, youths and maidens’ (Nolan, 26). In July 1575, with the then little-known Francis Drake, he attacked the stronghold of Sorley Boy MacDonnell on Rathlin Island in co. Antrim. After a siege of four days the island surrendered on 26 July, but Norris put the soldiers to the sword and routed out their families from the caves where they were sheltering. Some 300–400 women and children were slain, including MacDonnell's own family. His actions were acclaimed by his superiors, but by autumn 1577 he had left Ireland.

The European wars of religion continued to rage in France and the Low Countries. In 1577 Norris raised his own battalion of infantry to serve the protestant cause. He was probably initially planning to serve in the Netherlands, but a truce there and the outbreak of the sixth war of religion in France directed him back to the Huguenots. In late summer 1577 he led a force of English troops in the defence of the Île de Ré, which commanded the approaches to La Rochelle, the key protestant port-stronghold. Norris and his men ‘hazarded themselves so well of danger they … honoured their country’—and helped to save the strategically vital island (CSP for., 1577–8, 201). He had now demonstrated that he was not only a brave soldier; he was in addition adept at both the complex business of raising, and the difficult art of commanding, military units or formations.

Peace between the Dutch rebels and Spanish was short-lived and by the end of 1577 war had resumed in the Netherlands. Elizabeth and Cecil (now first Baron Burghley) were wary of openly intervening in the Dutch revolt, as some privy councillors such as Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, and Sir Francis Walsingham (c.1532–1590) advocated. Norris sympathized with them more than with Burghley, his family's long-standing patron. Walsingham was a distant cousin; Leicester a notable patron of military men. At some point in the mid-1570s Norris had become a client of Leicester, though he stayed on good terms with Burghley. In 1578 the government came close to sending a royal army under Leicester to the Low Countries, but eventually the queen decided instead to subsidize a mercenary army, part German and part English. Although frustrated, Leicester and Walsingham endorsed several English captains to Orange and the states general of the United Provinces, who promptly hired them.

Norris was one of these officers and commanded the largest regiment. The Dutch were very short of funds and some English regiments went unpaid and unsupplied. Yet Norris's regiment was different—his knack for military finance and organization revealed itself. The states were late in paying, but Norris filled the gap with credit obtained from a variety of English merchants and nobles. On 1 August 1578 the states' army was attacked by the feared Spanish army at Rijmenam: the bulk of the fighting was done by the English and Scottish regiments. Norris marched for an hour to come to the relief of the main army and took effective command; he led from the front, fighting furiously, and had four horses killed under him. The Spanish were forced to retreat, having lost 1000 dead: their first defeat in pitched battle. The English ‘carried awaie the whole praise and commendation of this victorie’ (T. S[tocker], trans., A Tragicall Historie of the Troubles and Civile Warres of the Lowe Countries, 1583, 4.31v). The Dutch commander-in-chief praised Norris for having ‘borne himself in such manner that a Cæsar could not have done better’; a fellow English soldier compared Norris to ‘a new Hector, another Alexander, or rather a second Cæsar’ (Correspondance, 4.57; Churchyard, True Discourse, 32) .

It is unsurprising that the English government soon afterwards tried ‘to perswade [the] ynglyshe kaptaynes to the good acceptation of John Norrys for theyre onely coronell’ (Lettenhove, 10.713). However, the English colonels and captains were all proud men, who, being in Dutch pay, were reluctant to accept the authority of another Englishman. Although Norris commanded the largest English regiment in the states' service until England openly went to war with Spain in 1585, he never achieved primacy over other English colonels in Dutch employ and the feuds among them often made co-operation in the common cause difficult.

For much of 1579 the English troops operated in Flanders, as part of an army under the celebrated Huguenot general François de La Noue. Norris no doubt learned from the Frenchman, but also further advanced his reputation and, increasingly trusted by his Dutch employers, he successfully sought Leicester's ‘license to stay heer a whyll tyll it may be better seen what wyll become of thes warres’ (BL, Harley MS 6992, fol. 110r). Norris became heir to his father when his older brother died of fever at Newry in Down on 25 December 1579. In spring 1580 he led his men in storming the important city of Mechelen. A friar swinging a halberd wounded him, but the city fell in a day—unusual in an era in which war was dominated by long sieges. That summer Norris and his regiment were shifted to Friesland, in the north-east of the Netherlands, where the war was going badly. In December he was appointed commander of the states' army in Friesland, with the rank of colonel-general. He achieved signal success there over the next two years, despite one close-run defeat at Nordhorn in 1581 where he was wounded.

The campaign in Friesland, especially his relief of the siege of Steenwijk, left Norris high in the estimation of his Dutch employers. It was probably at this time that he was nicknamed ‘Black Jack’ by his troops—partly because of the dark hair and features that were characteristic of his family, but perhaps partly because of his own black temper (Nolan, 9, 12). However, veterans declared that the desire of true honour and glory in Norris inspired his men, and between them there was ‘a naturall love and inclination that the best mindes are stirred therewith’ for him (Blandy, 25). He did face defiance from time to time, but this was the fruit of the Dutch inability at this time to pay and feed their troops adequately. Norris was solicitous for his soldiers' pay and welfare throughout his time in the states' service. His men were not always conscious of his efforts on their behalf with the various Dutch authorities, but when, at one point in 1582, they confronted him over rumours that he was keeping back money owed to them, he ‘so cleared himself of the slander … that not one man … charge[d] him’ (CSP for., May–Dec 1582, 258).

In February 1582 François, duc d'Anjou, the brother of Henri III of France, arrived in the Netherlands. He had been chosen by the states as their new sovereign with the backing of the French king, of Orange, and of Elizabeth, and Leicester escorted him with a large party of English nobles and gentlemen. The number of English regiments in the states' service doubled, as Anjou awarded new contracts. He and Norris were mutually suspicious, however, because Anjou, who was a Catholic (although he had a reputation for religious tolerance), had commanded the royal army during the sixth war of religion, in which Black Jack had of course fought for the Huguenots. One of Norris's great moments came in summer 1582. The allied army, commanded by Anjou and Orange, had been outmanoeuvred by the Spanish army under Alessandro Farnese, prince of Parma, and was in retreat to Ghent. Norris commanded the rearguard and covered the main army's withdrawal with great success:

In continuall fight, from the Sunne rising untill the Sunne setting … about foure of the clocke in the afternoon Monsieur Rochpot [Antoine de Silly, comte de Rochepot], the Duke of Anjowes Lieutenant, and Monsieur Byron [Armand de Gontaut, baron de Biron] Marshall of the same Dukes Campe, came forth unto [Norris and] said unto him: the Duke of Anjow … hath sent us … to give you the honour of … this day as most worthie thereof above all other. (Churchyard, True Discourse, 47)

Orange and Anjou watched the latter part of the retreat from the city walls. By this action (in which he was wounded again), Norris ‘got the renowne of a valorous and most judicious Warriour’, not only in the Netherlands and England but right across Europe (W. Camden, Annales, trans. A. Darcie, 1625, 2.20).

Anjou's fecklessness eventually led him to fall out with the Dutch in early 1583. Norris was appointed general of all the states' forces in Flanders until the crisis was resolved. Anjou withdrew to France in June, and Norris returned home to brief Elizabeth and the privy council on the new situation in the Netherlands. In his absence, Thomas Morgan tried to lure Norris's captains into his own regiment. On Black Jack's return a duel with Morgan was avoided only through the mediation of Walsingham, and the fissures within the English contingent naturally deepened. Things were made worse by the general decline in Dutch military circumstances in 1583–4, thanks to the prince of Parma's strategic brilliance and inadequate Dutch financial resources. A miasma of despair started to suffuse the Netherlands, and among the troops—foreign and native—in the states' army.

In February 1584 Norris resigned his commission in the Netherlands and returned to England. He did not regard this as permanent and probably wanted to lobby the queen for official English intervention, but he was greatly frustrated with the inadequate pay and supply arrangements for his men, and his parents, who had always had great influence on him, thought his current service too dangerous and wanted him (and his two brothers, Edward and Henry Norris, who were serving under him) to return home. The Dutch wanted him to stay. Most of their generals valued his abilities in the field, he was popular with many common folk in the Netherlands, and Orange wrote to Elizabeth of his wish that Norris would remain in Dutch pay and continue

the good service which he has hitherto rendered to these countries, for in so many places and ways he has proved his fidelity and his valour, that we cannot but regret his absence, and feel the loss that it will be to us. (CSP for., July 1583 – July 1584, 352)

General in Ireland and the Netherlands, the Spanish Armada, and after, 1584–1594

Norris took some time for rest and recreation on his return to England but, in July 1584, he accepted an appointment as president of Munster. Once in Ireland, he again demonstrated a knack for ruthless efficiency. He took his troops all the way north to Ulster to participate in another government campaign against the Scots, in which he seized no less than 50,000 head of cattle. He also laid out a scheme for the plantation of Munster, which he initiated. However, Norris was uncomfortable in Ireland, for he was unable to get on with the local political factions. He also wanted to return to the Netherlands, for about the time Norris arrived in Ireland a Catholic fanatic assassinated Orange (10 July 1584).

Norris's younger brother, Thomas Norris, had served in Ireland the whole time that John, Edward, and Henry Norris were in the Netherlands. Norris was MP for co. Cork in the parliament that opened at Dublin on 26 April 1585 and spoke out strongly in favour of extending the queen's power in Ireland. In spring 1585, having been in Ireland only a few months, Norris left Thomas Norris to carry out the scheme for the plantation of Munster, while the three brothers with experience of the Netherlands returned east across the narrow seas. Norris secured Thomas Norris's appointment as vice-president of Munster in December 1585, thereby ensuring that he himself kept his salary as president (an office he retained, albeit mainly as an absentee, until his death).

The Dutch had decided at last to ask Elizabeth for direct military assistance. By the end of May 1585 Walsingham had agreed with envoys from the two wealthiest provinces, Holland and Brabant, to send 2000 men to relieve the siege of Antwerp—the greatest city in the Low Countries, now closely invested by Parma. The Dutch wanted Norris to command them: his reputation had not diminished in the year since his departure. Even while negotiations were still going on, Walsingham wrote on 12 May to Norris in Ireland, telling him that Elizabeth ‘hath resolved … to take uppon hir the protection’ of the Netherlands, and that she knew ‘no body more fit to be employed in some honorable charge in the entreprise then you’ (Bodl. Oxf., MS St Amand 8, fol. 67r). On 21 June, although no decision had yet been taken to enter the war outright, the privy council ordered Norris to prepare troops to serve in the Netherlands. However, negotiations between England and the United Provinces moved on apace as the danger to Antwerp increased, and eventually it was agreed that Elizabeth would aid the Dutch republic with a royal army. On 12 August Norris was commissioned ‘colonel-general and governor of the Queen's forces’ (Draft Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1584–1585, List and Index Society, 241, 1990, 194). In addition, that same day the Dutch delegation commissioned him to raise and command an extra 3500 men in their pay, rather than Elizabeth's.

At this time Norris already had nearly 3000 men in the Netherlands, raised in expectation of both the queen's commission and the states' contract. By mid-September he commanded a force of over 7000 English troops, with 1000 more following. Only half of this army was in the queen's pay—but all were under his command, and within weeks he had successfully led his men into battle with the Spanish. Elizabeth, meanwhile, had written to the states that while she knew they already valued Norris because of his past services, ‘we want to tell you now that we hold him dear and that you should hold him likewise’ (Algemeen Rijksarchief, regerings archieven, I.92). In many ways, this was the apogee of his career; but it was to be short-lived.

In October 1585, even while Norris held Parma at bay near Arnhem, Leicester was appointed lieutenant-general of the queen's forces with full diplomatic and political powers to go with his military rank. There was a delay in leaving England, but after Leicester's arrival in the Netherlands in January 1586, Norris ceased to be commander of the army and instead became colonel-general of the foot, with the young Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, as colonel-general of the horse—both under the new lieutenant-general. Leicester, in turn, swiftly accepted the post of governor-general, offered by the desperate states and so Norris continued to hold a states' as well as a royal commission, but there was no question that he was now part of the English military hierarchy.

Norris was resentful at being supplanted, even by such a great nobleman as Leicester. It did not help that Leicester showed little ability either in military operations or local politics, yet was unwilling to take Norris's advice. Leicester was self-confident and found constant contrary advice from his subordinate irksome, not least because he regarded Norris as a client, who should know his place. Several officers, including Rowland Yorke, from England's small permanent military establishment who had not fought as mercenaries for the Dutch hoped to hold high office in the army sent to the continent; to counteract Norris's standing with the states, they sought to undermine Leicester's confidence in him. All the English captains (many of them his followers from the early 1580s) took sides, for or against Norris. Consequently, English efforts were undermined by dissension within their own ranks. Yorke and Sir William Stanley even eventually went over to the Spanish side, defecting with their garrisons on 18–19 January 1587.

The English army did enjoy some success. Norris resupplied the besieged stronghold of Grave in February 1586, despite being wounded himself by a pike-thrust in the chest on 15 April, and on 23 April, Leicester knighted both Norris and his brother Henry Norris. In May, Norris defeated a Spanish force near Nijmegen. On 22 September he was effective commander when the army clashed with Parma outside Zutphen; the English ‘won her Majesty at this day as much honour as ever … men did their Prince’ (Bruce, 417). In January 1587, after officers of the Leicester faction betrayed two strongholds to Parma, Norris (whose warning that the treachery was likely had been ignored) shored up the front and prevented a major Spanish advance. However, the United Provinces' territory had diminished throughout 1586 and Leicester made Norris a scapegoat. In 1587 Norris was increasingly marginalized. That summer the queen, who initially had backed her Black Jack, was finally persuaded by her favourite, Leicester, that Norris was to blame for the divisions in the army and had to go. In July he returned to England, never to hold a military command in the Netherlands again.

Norris immediately faced charges of corruption and malfeasance, but was able to clear his name, partly because of the enduring support of his oldest patron, Burghley. He forswore Leicester and thereafter he and his brothers were very much the Cecils' men. It was presumably thanks to their influence that he was created MA on 11 April 1588 at Oxford University (he was not the John Norris who matriculated entry on 11 December 1576, because he would have been too old at the time).

Meanwhile Norris had been given high responsibilities for preparing England's defences against the expected onslaught of the Armada. He was on a special committee established for national defence planning and was given particular charge for bringing the militia, on which the country would depend, up to the expected standards. This was a thankless task, made difficult by entrenched local interests and bureaucracy, but Norris and his hand-picked subordinates worked manfully and all was in readiness when the Armada arrived in the channel on 27 July 1588. While the main army under Leicester guarded the approaches to London, Norris was in command of a force in Kent, the county where a Spanish landing was most likely, and remained there almost until the enemy fleet had been driven into the North Sea after 9 August. He escorted Elizabeth to the main army at Tilbury, where he was one of only four gentlemen (Essex and Leicester were two of the others) to accompany her when she made her famous review of, and speech to, the army on 8 August.

During 1587–8 Norris again worked with Drake—both men were ardently Calvinist and champions of the war against Spain. Norris also had a long-standing friendship with Dom Antonio, pretender to the Portuguese throne, which Philip II of Spain had recently annexed. Elizabeth was keen to strike against Spanish naval power, so that the threat of another armada would be removed and Drake and Norris came up with a bold plan. They promised to raise the astonishing sum of £40,000 towards the cost of an attack on Portugal: Drake would command the fleet and Norris the army. They would attack Spanish ports en route for Lisbon (itself a major naval base), where they would proclaim Dom Antonio king of Portugal. The rich Spanish shipping in Lisbon would be captured, and Dom Antonio agreed to let English merchants enter the vastly profitable East Indian trade (dominated by Portugal). At one stroke the expedition could destroy Philip's naval capacity, carry the war to the Iberian peninsula, and also, it was expected, turn a tidy profit. The first two goals were what chiefly interested the queen and her privy councillors. Profit, however, was what chiefly interested the many backers whom Drake and Norris relied on to raise their contribution. Norris had built up a range of contacts who underwrote the costs of his aid to the Dutch in the early 1580s and he called on them now. In consequence, the two commanders always had different priorities from Elizabeth, who had, however, committed royal ships, troops, and large sums of money to the venture.

The fleet sailed from Plymouth in April 1589, with over 20,000 men embarked. The expedition made landfall at La Coruña on 20 April. Norris and the army captured its harbour and seized the shipping there, but they were unable to take the castle, though he utterly defeated a Spanish army that attempted to relieve the siege. The expedition moved on to Lisbon, but it failed to take the city, chiefly because Drake preferred to capture shipping in the Tagus River rather than take the fleet upstream to support the army's attack on the city. The English meanwhile suffered severely from sickness. In late May the fleet returned home, having failed to capture its main objective, Lisbon, and having lost between 4000 and 11,000 men, most of them dead from disease. They arrived in Plymouth on 2 July. The ‘Lisbon voyage’ is usually accounted a disastrous failure and the worst blot on Norris's record. Yet it had been a very successful large-scale raid into enemy territory: the problem was that this was not the expedition's avowed aim. There was a great gulf between what was expected and what was achieved. Had Norris and Drake not talked up the possible outcomes in the first place (in order to get the private financial backing they needed) they would have been regarded both at the time and since as more successful. Norris worked wonders to get the expedition mounted in the first place and handled the tactical side of land operations well, but while he was let down by Drake (who undoubtedly prioritized personal profit), he made a number of misjudgements and his strategic vision was flawed.

In 1590 Norris was sent back to Munster, charged with constructing a series of fortifications there along Dutch lines, to ensure that if a Spanish armada was sent to Ireland instead of England, any army it disembarked would not find an easy target. He was not pleased, but with his brother, now Sir Thomas Norris, carried out the job efficiently. By winter 1590–91 his mother's influence had left the queen once again well disposed to him. In addition, the threat of Spanish invasion fleets still occupied the minds of Elizabeth and Burghley. The Spaniards were now seeking to obtain bases closer to England and were therefore pouring resources into Brittany, where the new and protestant king of France, Henri IV, was hard-pressed. When the government decided to send an army to Brittany, Norris was the obvious man to command it, but Essex (Leicester's political and military heir) connived unsuccessfully in an attempt to get the command for himself. Throughout the years 1591–4 Norris commanded a small English army in Brittany. Essex's clients defamed him, hoping he would be replaced by one of them (if not by Essex), but Henri and his generals wanted Norris and so he maintained command throughout.

The English army took several towns in these years but the campaign was generally very indecisive; by the end of 1594, as Norris's biographer observes, ‘his finances, his career and his once-mighty reputation had all been ruined’, or so it seemed (Nolan, 203). In fact, simply by keeping an English army in being, Norris had done a great service, preventing the Spanish from winning control of the province, whose ports were the ideal embarkation point for an invasion of England. The turning point in the campaign occurred in 1594. In a brilliant operation Norris captured the Spanish base of operations at El Léon which threatened the great port of Brest. In the final assault, carried out at his insistence, against the advice of the French general, Norris himself was wounded (again). He was ‘widely hailed, and once again … enjoyed a moment of international renown’ (ibid., 217). Having essentially achieved its ends the army was withdrawn back to England early in 1595, but Norris had preceded it. His health was increasingly poor and Henri had converted to Catholicism in 1593—Norris had finally had enough of France.

Final service in Ireland and death, 1594–1597

Norris was in favour with the queen in spring 1595, or so the description of Elizabeth's court by a visiting German ambassador suggests. Nevertheless, he remained a controversial figure: old accusations of financial irregularities continued to be raised by Essex and his protégés. Despite this, he was, again, the obvious man to send to Ireland, where the great rebellion of Hugh O'Neill, second earl of Tyrone, was under way and the lord deputy, Sir William Russell, was unable to cope. Recognizing his own limitations, Russell asked for an experienced officer to command the army in Ireland. Norris's health was still poor and he made great efforts to avoid the command, but the privy council insisted that he go—testimony to the esteem in which he was held.

Unfortunately, this last command proved an inglorious one for Norris. He arrived in Waterford on 4 May 1595. Russell, an old enemy from the Netherlands in 1586 (and also Essex's man), was not happy at the appointment of Norris, who was independent of the lord deputy while in Ulster. Norris also had to fend off attempts by Essex to have his clients made Norris's subordinate officers. Despite these difficulties and persistent attacks of fever, Norris joined Russell's hosting against Tyrone from 26 June to 13 July. On 22 August, Tyrone made overtures to Norris for a pardon. Norris ignored this and invaded Ulster on the same day, campaigning there until 5 September. He still led from the front, was twice wounded, and was frustrated by the caution of the Old English establishment, complaining he ‘would fayne have foughte with the Rebells’ (St John's College, Cambridge, MS I.29, fol. 7r). Tyrone and Hugh O'Donnell were concerned enough to submit on 18 October, agreeing with Norris to a truce on 27 October (to last until 1 January 1596), but each side recognized that the other was playing for time, and Elizabeth was unimpressed. She reproached Norris for retiring back to his base in Munster too quickly and ruefully observed that she only ever received bad news from Ireland—though she added ‘our meaning is not nowe to taxe yourself’ (CUL, MS Kk.1.15, pt 1, fols. 124r, 177r).

Norris took advantage of the brief cessation of hostilities to go to Connaught to resolve local disputes there, hoping he could then concentrate all the crown's military resources on Ulster. The president of Connaught was an old comrade from the Netherlands, Sir Richard Bingham, but the two men (both of black temper) had long since fallen out. Norris now dismissed Bingham, on the grounds that his ruthless policies only excited opposition. Bingham accused him of wanting to appoint his younger brother Sir Henry Norris in Connaught, and Russell used Bingham's case to attack Norris. Soon the quarrel between the crown's two chief officers in Ireland was open knowledge, even on the continent. By late 1596 Norris was spending as much of his failing energies quarrelling with other English officers as fighting the Irish and he asked to be recalled.

Soon after, in early 1597, war broke out again across Ireland. Norris was needed too much to be allowed home, but his commission of 1595 was superseded and he was left with only his office as president of Munster. Crushed, Norris retired there and though he kept the Munster Irish in check he lost the will to resist illness. His many old wounds had been troublesome for some time and his mother appealed to the principal secretary, Sir Robert Cecil, for her son's recall, but it was too late. Norris was staying at the home of Sir Thomas Norris, Norris Castle in Mallow, co. Cork. On 3 September 1597, he died there, clasped in his brother's arms.

The story spread among the Irish that Black Jack's military successes had come only because he ‘had sold himself to the devil, who carried him off unexpectedly’ (AFM, 5–6. 2021 n. i). The story of contemporary English chroniclers, including Thomas Churchyard, that Norris died of exhaustion and disappointment seems likely to be closest to the truth. On hearing of his death Elizabeth wrote to his mother, full of sympathy for her old friend and perhaps feeling a trifle guilty: it is one of the most oft-quoted of the queen's letters, because of the glimpse of humanity it provides. The queen added a salutation in her own hand—‘mine own Crow’—and continued:

Harm not thyself for bootless help; but show a good example to comfort your dolorous yokefellow … we have … resolved no longer to smother either our care for your sorrow, or the sympathy of our grief for his love, wherein … we do assure you … that nature can have stirred no more dolorous affection in you as a mother for a dear son, than gratefulness and memory of his services past hath wrought in us, his Sovereign, apprehension of our miss of so worthy a servant. (Letters, ed. Harrison, 250–51)

It was a fitting tribute to the greatest English soldier of her reign.

Character and posthumous reputation

Norris lived a passionate life, as befitted a man of his time. He placed above all else the reformed religion, personal honour, and the service of his queen and country. The Norris and Williams families had been supporters of, or at least were sympathetic to, protestantism since the 1530s, but Norris himself was Calvinist. He urged the queen to help the Dutch because they were not just fellow protestants fighting Catholics: they had ‘no other relygion but the Reformed’, by which he meant Calvinism (Bodl. Oxf., MS Rawl. C. 836, fol. 6r). Before embarking on the Lisbon voyage Norris asked a group of Calvinist clergymen whether or not ‘a professor of the true Reformed Religion may without offence aid a Popish king to recover his kingdom’—even against the king of Spain (Wernham, Expedition, 28). He was not just a Calvinist: he was devout, with a ‘personal iconoclastic hatred of Catholicism … evident from the conduct of troops under his command’ (Trim, 303). Indeed, he attracted iconoclastic soldiers, or at least encouraged them. Thus, in 1583, when Norris's troops were serving with an army under Anjou's general, they insulted its mostly Catholic troops by publicly profaning sacred objects plundered from Catholic churches, and his men attacked Catholic churches in Brittany in 1594. It is no wonder that a senior Spanish officer once told an English prisoner that Norris was ‘the mortallest enemy they had’ (CSP for., 1579–80, 467).

Norris also had the sixteenth-century gentleman's passionate regard for his honour, which was best established by deeds of martial prowess. This came through in his sometimes reckless bravery. Norris had a penchant for leading from the front—at times he deliberately discarded armour. He was wounded at least nine times in his career, and a ballad about the queen's appearance at Tilbury sang of how his colours were carried there, all rent and torn The which with bullets was so burned when in Flanders he sojourned. (A. F. Pollard, ed., Tudor Tracts, 1532–1588, 1964, 493–4)

It is worth stressing, however, that Black Jack was more than just a firebrand; if an ability to inspire his men was an important explanation of his military success, he was also exceptionally energetic and a very skilled battlefield tactician, while his careful management of logistics marks him out from most of his contemporaries. Concern for whether he was being treated honourably goes a long way towards explaining the number of fierce disputes Norris had with fellow officers. This temper, reinforced by his Calvinistic certainty that he was among the elect, was perhaps his greatest weakness.

Between religion and honour there was room for little else. Norris was not even very interested in his estates. His uncle, Sir John Norris, left him lands in Yattendon and Hampstead Norris in Berkshire. He possibly even sold off land in Buckinghamshire in April 1585 to supplement his income. Norris got most of his revenue, however, from his military offices, both from the wages paid and from plunder. The nature of state finance in this period, though, was such that military officers usually paid their troops' wages and expenses out of their own pockets in the hope of later reimbursement—which in practice was very risky. Norris may have successfully manipulated the system during his brief presidency of Munster (1584–5), but any profits thus made were very small. Generally, his personal salary and emoluments were paid well in arrears, if at all, and he was only able to keep going through a complex credit network.

The private man is something of an enigma. Orange was among those who enjoyed pleasant evenings with Norris in the early 1580s, and one contemporary called him a man of ‘excellent wit’ (Stowe, 805). He seems to have had a sardonic sense of humour. He was once said to be on the verge of marrying, but did not. However, he was very close to his family. Lord Norris and his wife were always solicitous of all their sons' welfare. Norris's mother wrote to Sir William Cecil in 1569 to thank him for being ‘more like a father than otherwise’ to her son (CSP for., 1569–71, 70). In 1583 Norris asked Burghley to try to arrange for Norris to stay in England and not return to the Netherlands, because he and his wife felt it was too dangerous. Although Norris turned to his family for support throughout his career he was single-minded enough to ignore his parents' concerns for his safety.

Norris's fame arose from his martial ability and honourable personal conduct, which were widely recognized and praised. When Leicester requested in May 1578 that Norris be appointed commander of all the English troops in the Netherlands, it was because his ‘birthe, skyll, courage, wisedome, modestye and faithfullnes’ put ‘him above all englishmen yet there’ (TNA: PRO, SP 83/6, fol. 173r). William Blandy spent a summer fighting under Norris and not only praised him ‘for his valiant actes’ but also characterized him as a ‘fountayne of fame, a welspring of vertue [and] a river of royaltye’ (Blandy, 25v). In 1585 Elizabeth declared that he and his men had ‘won our nation honour and themselves fame’, while in 1596 she wrote to Norris that ‘noe man, then yourself’ knew better ‘what is true honour’ (Harrison, 178–9; CUL, MS Kk.1.15, pt 1, fol. 177r) . This admiration was not restricted to his countrymen: the states of Utrecht praised him and Henri IV valued his abilities highly. Edmund Spenser made Norris one of the dedicatees of The Faerie Queene (1596), at the beginning of which he declared him ‘the honor of this age’ (E. Spenser, Poetical Works, ed. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt, 1970, 412).

Later writers, including George Chapman, himself a veteran of the war with Spain, also praised Norris. In recording Norris's death John Stowe wrote of his numerous ‘excellent services’, though ‘many and singular exployts hee performed which are not here mentioned … he was excellent, either to plant a siege, or raise a siege, and could pitch a battell bravely’. Stowe concluded that ‘an honourable remembrance’ was appropriate for Norris's ‘noble dedes, true valour, and high worth’ (Stowe, 805). Early historians, like Sir Robert Naunton and Thomas Fuller, generally shared these sentiments. Gradually, however, Norris and his family dropped out of sight. Subsequent generations regarded Elizabeth's reign anachronistically, as the dawn of England's turning away from Europe and towards the Atlantic. This was not at all how most English people at the time saw matters. For centuries England had been allied with Burgundy and fought against the French. The war with Spain was not a contest to win control of the Americas or transoceanic trade routes, but a struggle for the domination of Europe, with Catholicism as the enemy. However, the heroes of later historical narratives were sailors like Sir Walter Ralegh, Drake, Sir Martin Frobisher, and Sir John Hawkins, who apparently presaged the era of British naval victories and maritime exploration, rather than the Elizabethan soldiers whose attitudes seemed to hark back to the medieval, rather than to prefigure the modern.

In his own time Norris was as famous as Drake. He was also arguably more significant in terms of English policy. Norris made a greater contribution to international history, for he played an important role in the Dutch struggle for nationhood and was an active participant in the process by which the French absolutist state was created. His role was not as significant as that of Leicester or Essex, for unlike them Norris was largely an executor, rather than a framer, of policies, yet he was indubitably their superior in military matters. Norris played a pivotal, positive role in ensuring the survival of the United Provinces until financial and military reform in the 1590s paved the way for counter-offensive and national independence. The first modern historian of the Netherlands observed that Norris ‘combined much of the knight-errantry of a vanishing age with the more practical … spirit of … the new epoch’ (Motley, United Netherlands, 1.334). Norris played an important role on a European stage during a great historical drama. His international renown will never be recaptured, but he deserves recognition for his chivalry, courage, and capability, as great as possessed by any Englishman of his era.

D. J. B. Trim