Norreys' great uncle had been a guardian to the young princess Elizabeth, who was well acquainted with the family, and had stayed at Yattendon Castle on her way to imprisonment at Woodstock. The future Queen was a great friend of Norreys' mother, whom she nicknamed "Black Crow" on account of her jet black hair. Norreys inherited his mother's hair colour and in consequence was known as "Black Jack" by his troops.
Norreys grew up with five brothers, several of whom were to serve alongside him during Elizabeth's wars. It is believed he briefly attended Magdalen College, Oxford.
His father was posted as ambassador to France, and in 1567 John and his elder brother William witnessed the Battle of St Denis. They drew a map of the battle which formed part of their father's report to the Queen.
Two years later Norreys served as a captain under the 1st Earl of Essex, Sir Walter Devereux, who was attempting to establish a plantation in the Irish province of Ulster. He supported his elder brother William, in command of a troop of 100 cavalry which had been recruited by their father who was then serving as Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire.
When the Earl of Essex entered Antrim to attack Sorley Boy MacDonnell, it was to Rathlin island that Sorley Boy and the other Scots sent their wives and children, their aged and sick, for safety. Lord Essex, knowing that the refugees were still on the island, sent orders to Norreys, who was in command at Carrickfergus, to take a company of soldiers with him, cross over to Rathlin, and kill what he could find. Norreys had brought cannon with him, so that the weak defences were speedily destroyed, and after a fierce assault, in which several of the garrison were killed, the Scots were obliged to yield at discretion, and all captured, except the chief and his family, who were reserved for ransom, were killed. In total, two hundred were killed in the castle. It was then discovered that several hundred more, chiefly women and children, were hidden in the caves about the shore. They were attacked and all massacred. A fort was erected on the island, but was evacuated by Norreys, and he was recalled with his troops to Dublin within 3 months, when it was clear that the colonisation would fail.
In 1577 Norreys led a force of English volunteers to the Low Countries, where he fought for the States General, then in revolt against the rule of the Spanish King Philip II at the beginning of the Eighty Years' War. In an engagement at the battle of Rijmenam (August 2, 1578), his men were driven back by 3,000 troops under the command of John of Austria (Don Juan de Austria), the king's brother; Norreys had three horses shot from under him. Throughout 1579, he co-operated with the French army, and was put in charge of all English troops, about 150 foot and 450 mounted. In February 1580, he relieved Steenwijk and went on to match the Spanish in operations around Meppel.
On account of these successes, essentially as a mercenary, he boosted the morale in the Protestant armies and became famous in England. The morale of his own troops depended on prompt and regular payment by the States General for their campaign, and Norreys gained a reputation for forceful leadership. After more campaigns in Flanders in support of François, Duke of Anjou, Norreys was sent back to the Netherlands as an unofficial ambassador of Elizabeth I. In 1584 he returned to England to encourage an English declaration of war on Spain in order to free the States General from Habsburg domination.
In September 1584 Norreys accompanied the lord deputy of Ireland, Sir John Perrot, and the earl of Ormond into Ulster. The purpose was to dislodge the Scots in the Route and the Glynns, and Norreys helped seize fifty thousand cattle from the woods of Glenconkyne in order to deprive the enemy of its means of sustenance. The campaign was not quite successful, as the Scots simply regrouped in Kintyre before crossing back to Ireland once the lord deputy had withdrawn south. Norreys returned to Munster, but was summoned to Dublin in 1585 for the opening of parliament. He sat as the member for Cork and was forcibly eloquent on measures to confirm the queen's authority over the country. He also complained that he was prevented from launching a fresh campaign in Ulster.
In December 1585, the Earl of Leicester arrived with a new army and accepted the position of governor of the Low Countries, as England went into open alliance. During an attack on Parma, Norreys received a pike wound in the breast, then managed to break through to relieve Grave, the last barrier to the Spanish advance into the north; Leicester knighted him for this victory during a great feast at Utrecht on St George's Day, along with his brothers Edward and Henry. But the Spanish were soon admitted to Grave by treachery, and Norreys advised against Leicester's order to have the traitor shot, apparently because he was in love with the traitor's aunt.
The two commanders quarrelled for the rest of the campaign, which turned out a failure. Leicester complained that Norreys was like the Earl of Essex in his animosity, but had the cunning to keep it hidden until the deed was done. Norris was clearly the superior military commander, and the queen - contrary to the urgings of Sir Francis Walsingham - refused to recall him for what she perceived as Leicester's jealousy.
Norreys continued his good service and was ordered by Leicester to protect Utrecht in August 1586. The operation didn't go smoothly because Leicester had omitted to put Sir William Stanley under Norreys' command. Norreys joined with Stanley in September in the Zutphen skirmish in which Sir Philip Sidney - commanding officer over Norreys' brother, Edward, who was lieutenant in the governorship of Flushing - was fatally wounded. At an officers' supper, Edward took offence at some remarks by Sir William Pelham, marshal of the army, which he thought reflected on the character of his older brother, and an argument with the Dutch host flared up, with Leicester having to mediate between the younger Norreys and his host to prevent a duel.
By the autumn of 1586 Leicester seems to have relented and was full of praise for Norreys, while at the same time the States General held golden opinions of him. But he was recalled in October, and the queen received him with disdain, apparently owing to his enmity for Leicester; within a year he had returned to the Low Countries, where the new commander, Willoughby, recognised that Norreys would be better for the job, with the comment, "If I were sufficient, Norreys were superfluous". Willoughby resented having Norris around and observed that he was, "more happy than a caesar".
Later in the year, when the Spanish Armada was expected, he was, under Leicester, marshal of the camp at West Tilbury when Elizabeth delivered the Speech to the Troops at Tilbury. He inspected the fortification of Dover, and in October returned to the Low Countries as ambassador to the States-General. He oversaw a troop withdrawal in preparation for an expedition to Portugal designed to drive home the English advantage following the defeat of the Spanish Armada, when the enemy's fleet was at its weakest.
In the following April, Norreys set out with Drake at the head of a 23,000 strong expeditionary force (which included 19,000 troops and is now termed the English Armada) on a mission to destroy the shipping on the coasts of Spain and to place the pretender to the crown of Portugal, the Prior of Crato, on the throne. Corunna was surprised, and the lower part of the town burned as Norreys' troops beat off a force of 8,000. Edward was badly wounded in an assault on Burgos, and his life was only saved by the gallantry of his elder brother. Norreys then attacked Lisbon, but the enemy refused to engage with him, and the expeditionary force returned to Plymouth having achieved little. This "English Armada" , was thus an unsuccessful attempt to follow the defeat of the Spanish Armada and bring the war to the ports of Spain's northern coast and to Lisbon.
In 1591, and again in 1593, Norreys aided Henry IV of France in his struggle with the Catholic League, fighting for the Protestant cause in Brittany, where he led 3000 troops in 1591–1593. He took Guingamp and defeated the French Catholic League and their Spanish allies at Chateau Laudran. Some of his troops transferred to the Earl of Essex's force in Normandy, and Norreys' campaign proved so indecisive that he left for England in February 1592 and did not return to Brittany until September 1593, when he seized the great fortress of Crozon outside Brest, defended by 200 Spanish troops. This was his most notable military success, but he did lose 1,500 men and was himself wounded. He also broke the siege of Mechelen. His youngest brother, Maximilian, was slain while serving under him in this year. Having fallen foul of his French colleagues, Norreys returned from Brest at the end of 1594.
Norreys arrived at Waterford in May 1595, but was struck with malaria on disembarking. In June, he set out from Dublin with 2,900 men and artillery, with Russell trailing him through Dundalk. After flourishing his letters patent at Drogheda upon the proclamation of Hugh O'Neill, 3rd Earl of Tyrone, as a traitor, Norreys made his headquarters at Newry and fortified Armagh cathedral. On learning that artillery was stored at Newry, Tyrone dismantled his stronghold of Dungannon castle and entered the field. Norreys camped his troops along the River Blackwater, while Tyrone roamed the far bank; a ford was secured but no crossing was attempted because there was no harvest to destroy and a tour within enemy territory would have been futile.
So long as Russell was with the army, Norreys refused to assume full responsibility, which prompted the lord deputy to return to Dublin in July 1595, leaving his commander a free hand in the conquest of Ulster. But already, Norreys had misgivings: he thought the task impossible without reinforcements and accused Russell of thwarting him and of concealing from the London government the imperfections of the army. He informed the queen's secretary, Sir William Cecil, that the rebels were far superior in strength, arms and munitions to those previously encountered, and that the English needed commensurate reinforcement.
So quickly did the situation deteriorate, that Norreys declined to risk marching his troops 10 miles through the Moyry Pass, from Newry to Dundalk, choosing instead to move them by sea; but in a blow to his reputation, Russell confounded him later that summer by brazenly marching up to the Blackwater with little difficulty. More troops were shipped into Ireland, and the companies were ordered to take on 20 Irishmen apiece, which was admitted to be risky. But Norreys still complained that his units were made up of poor old ploughmen and rogues.
Tyrone presented Norreys with his written submission, but this was rejected on the advice of the Dublin council, owing to Tyrone's demand for recognition of his local supremacy. Norris could not draw his enemy out and decided to winter at Armagh, which he revictualled in September 1595. But a second trip was necessary because of a lack of draught horses, and on the return march, while fortifying a pass between Newry and Armagh, Norreys was wounded in the arm and side (and his brother too) during an Irish attack at Markethill, where the enemy cavalry was noted to be more enterprising than had been expected. (Norreys had once commented that Irish cavalry was fit only to catch cows.) The rebels had also attacked in the Moyry pass upon the army's first arrival but had been repelled.
With approval from London, Norreys backed off Tyrone, for fear of Spanish and papal intervention, and a truce was arranged, to expire on the 1st of January 1596; this was extended to May. In the following year, a new arrangement was entered by Norreys at Dundalk, which Russell criticised since it allowed Tyrone to win time for outside intervention. To Russell's way of thinking, Norreys was too well affected to Tyrone, and his tendency to show mercy to the conquered was wholly unsuited to the circumstances. In May, Tyrone informed Norreys of his meeting with a Spaniard from a ship that had put into Killybegs, and assured him that he had refused such aid as had been offered by Philip II of Spain.
Owing to troubles in the province of Connaught, Norreys travelled there with Sir Geoffrey Fenton in June 1596 to parley with the local lords. He censured the presidential government of Sir Richard Bingham for having stirred up the lords into rebellion - although the influence of Tyrone's ally, Hugh Roe O'Donnell, in this respect was also recognised, especially since Sligo castle had lately fallen to the rebels. Bingham was suspended and detained in Dublin (he was later detained in the Fleet in London). However, during a campaign of six months, Norreys failed to restore peace to Connaught, and despite a nominal submission by the lords hostilities broke out again as soon as he had returned north to Newry in December 1596.
At this point Norreys was heartily sick of his situation. He sought to be recalled, citing poor health and the effect upon him of various controversies. As always, Russell weighed in with criticism and claimed that Norreys was feigning poor health in Athlone and seeking to have the lord deputy caught up in his failure. An analysis of this situation in October 1596, which was backed by the Earl of Essex, had it that Norreys' style was "to invite to dance and be merry upon false hopes of a hollow peace". This approach was in such contrast to Russell's instincts that there was a risk of collapse in the Irish government.
In the end, it was decided in late 1596 to remove both men from Ulster, sending Russell back to England and Norreys to Munster. Being unclear as to how Dublin wanted to deal with him, Norreys remained at Newry negotiating with Tyrone, while Russell was replaced as lord deputy by Sir William Burgh in May 1597. Burgh too had been on bad terms with Norreys during his tour of duty in the Low Countries, and was an Essex man to boot, a point which had grated with Cecil, who maintained his confidence in the experience command of Norreys. Although he did meet the new lord deputy at Dublin "with much counterfeit kindness", Norreys felt the new appointment as a disgrace upon himself.
It was generally supposed that his death was caused by a broken heart. Another version, recounted by Philip O'Sullivan Beare, states that a servant boy, on seeing Norreys go in to the chamber in the company of a shadowy figure, had listened at the door and heard the soldier enter a pact with the Devil. At midnight the pact was enforced, and on breaking in the door the next morning the frightened servants found that Norreys' head and upper chest were facing backwards.
Norreys' body was embalmed, and the queen sent a letter of condolence to his parents, who had by now lost several of their sons in the Irish service. He was interred in Yattendon Church, Berkshire - a monument there has his helmet hanging above - and his effigy (portrait by Zucchero, engraved by J.Fane.) was placed on the Norreys monument in Westminster Abbey.
Mountjoy referred to Norreys as his tutor in war, and took note of his former understanding that Ireland was not to be brought to obedience except by force and large permanent garrisons. But Norreys' conduct at the start of the Nine Years War suggests a mellowing during his maturity. Ironically, the aggressive Essex - an equally ill-fated hero of the people - also came to temporise with Tyrone, and it was Norreys' original notion that eventually succeeded under the generalship of Mountjoy.
The most significant legacy of Norreys' long military career lay in his support of the rebellion in the Netherlands against the Habsburg forces, and later in helping the French in holding Brittany against the Catholic League and Habsburg Spain.
Norreys is pronounced "Norr-iss".