Norris (Norreys), Sir John (c.1547–97), military commander and lord president of Munster, was second son of Henry Norris, 1st Baron Norris of Rycote, and his wife Margaret, daughter of John Williams, 1st Baron Williams of Thame. In the course of one of the most distinguished of Elizabethan military careers (extending from 1567, when he enlisted as a volunteer under Admiral Coligny in the civil wars in France, to his death in Co. Cork), ‘Black Jack’ Norris served in Ireland on four occasions.
He came first to north-east Ulster in 1573 as captain of a company in support of Walter Devereux (qv), earl of Essex, in his project to establish a colony in Antrim, and was one of the ‘gentleman adventurers’ to whom lands were prospectively assigned in January 1574. The plan involved the expulsion of the Scottish settlers, and it was in furtherance of this objective that Francis Drake and Norris were secretly dispatched to the MacDonnell refuge on Rathlin Island in July 1575, though Elizabeth had countermanded the project in May. Norris was in command of the force that massacred almost everyone on the island, garrison, refugees, and inhabitants alike, to the number of some 600. A year later he went to fight the Spanish in the Netherlands, where he rose to high rank and established a reputation as an outstanding military commander who was equally proficient in logistics and battle.
On his return to England he was at once engaged by the new lord deputy, Sir John Perrot (qv), to accompany him to Ireland (May 1584); a month later, he was appointed lord president of Munster. In October he revisited north-east Ulster, joining the lord deputy in yet another expedition against the Scots and assisting in the capture of Dunluce, the stronghold of Sorley Boy MacDonnell (qv). His brief experience of Munster convinced him that it needed to be repopulated and he concurred with the growing official agreement on a plantation policy, adding the rider (which proved fruitless) that the opportunity should be taken to endow the presidency itself. In April 1585 he went to Dublin to attend the first session of Perrot's parliament as a knight of the shire for Cork. He had already received permission to go to Antwerp to assist in its defence against the besieging Spanish army, and his brother Thomas (qv) was commissioned as his deputy in Munster on April 25.
Norris left Ireland immediately after parliament was prorogued on 25 May and was in the Netherlands as colonel-general of an English army by early autumn. In January 1586, however, he came under the command of the newly appointed lieutenant general, the earl of Leicester, who knighted him on 23 April 1586. The relationship was uneasy and Norris, despite his notable success, was recalled at Leicester's request in July 1587. In England he became involved in organising defence against a potential Spanish invasion and, after the defeat of the armada, in tandem once more with Sir Francis Drake, he led an unsuccessful expedition to destroy Spanish ships on the coast of Spain and Portugal and to place the pretender Antonio on the throne of Portugal. A brief visit to Munster followed in 1590, with the object of improving its defences against a new Spanish attack. Thereafter he served in Brittany, in support of Henry IV against the Catholic League, from 1591 to December 1594, when he returned to England in poor health.
When the lord deputy of Ireland, Sir William Russell (qv), requested that an efficient senior officer be sent to assist him in dealing with the threat posed by Hugh O'Neill (qv), earl of Tyrone, the queen responded in April 1595 by appointing Norris, who was still officially president of Munster, to act as general of the army in Ulster. The appointment was unwelcome to Russell, both because he regarded the terms of Norris's commission as ‘prejudicial to his patent’ (PRO, SP 63/181/143) and because the two men had quarrelled in the Netherlands and were aligned with different factions at the English court, Norris with the Cecils and Russell with the earl of Essex. On 4 May Norris arrived in Waterford, where a contingent of troops from Brittany under the command of his brother Henry awaited him, and in early June he and Russell set out for Newry. Almost at once differences arose between them, and in July Russell returned to the Pale, leaving Norris in charge of the war in Ulster. Norris, whose exceptional managerial ability was widely acknowledged, was frustrated by the inefficiency of the administration and believed that Russell was being deliberately obstructive; he complained that his instructions from the privy council in London were being delayed in Dublin, and that the lord deputy refused to forward either the reinforcements or the treasure newly arrived from England.
In September he succeeded in revictualling Armagh but was wounded in an engagement with the confederate forces. This mishap, together with the shortage of men, victuals, and equipment, led him to negotiate a truce from 21 October to 1 January 1596. In the meantime, the breach between Russell and Norris widened, with Russell complaining that he was unable to direct Norris, who would take instructions only from the whole Irish council, and Norris pressing to be recalled on grounds of ill health. Their disagreements were temporarily set aside when news that Tyrone was seeking help from Spain prompted the queen to instruct them to conclude a treaty and issue a pardon to O'Neill, even if all desirable conditions could not be met. When tentative negotiations failed, Norris and the secretary of state, Sir Geoffrey Fenton (qv), were appointed commissioners to execute the queen's order, and an acceptable (if unconvincing) treaty was concluded in April.
In May 1596 Russell appointed Norris and Fenton as commissioners for Connacht, where Norris quickly concluded that there was justice in the rebel claim that the disorders in the province were due to the arbitrary and avaricious conduct of the governor, Sir Richard Bingham (qv), with whom he had also quarrelled in the Netherlands. Bingham was detained in Dublin while Norris collected charges against him and explored the possibility of achieving a settlement without resort to force. The familiar delay in forwarding correspondence from London, and the failure of the Irish council to reply to queries, convinced Norris that his efforts to achieve peace were being subverted by Russell, who freely expressed his view of the futility of Norris's approach. When Bingham escaped to England in late September, Norris's credibility was seriously damaged. He stayed on in Connacht until December, but the constant undermining of his efforts left him deeply depressed, and he begged his friend Sir Robert Cecil, now Elizabeth's secretary of state, to obtain his recall. His request was not granted, and in December he left Connacht for Ulster, where he relieved Newry, revictualled Armagh, and reentered negotiations with O'Neill, who systematically exploited the differences between Norris's faith in negotiation and Russell's contempt for it. When O'Neill ignored a deadline set for 16 April 1597, Norris returned to Dublin.
Already despairing of a positive outcome, the privy council had decided to revoke the commissions of both Russell and Norris and to reestablish a unified command under Thomas, Lord Burgh (qv), who was appointed lord deputy on 5 March 1597. Russell left Ireland in May 1597 and Norris, although not recalled, felt deeply humiliated and hurt by what he saw as the queen's indifference to his long and faithful service. He was also very ill. He wished to go to England, but permission was refused, and in June he left Dublin for Munster.
On 3 July he died in the castle of his brother Thomas in Mallow. He was unmarried and predeceased his father, whose heir he was. His body was embalmed and he is believed to have been buried in Yattendon, Berkshire, where his father had given him a manor house and where there is a monument to him in the church. Another monument, with his effigy, is in Westminster abbey.