John Colton (bishop)

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John Colton (c. 1320 – 1404) was a leading academic, statesman and cleric of the fourteenth century. He was the first Master of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He spent much of his later career in Ireland, where he held the offices of Treasurer of Ireland, Lord Chancellor of Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh. He is chiefly remembered today for the book The Visitation of Derry (1397), which he either wrote or commissioned.

Early career[edit]

Little is known of his parents, or of his early years. He was born at Terrington St. Clement in Norfolk.[1] He was in the service of William Bateman, Bishop of Norwich from 1344 to 1355. He took a degree in divinity at the University of Cambridge in 1348 and the following year became the first Master of the new Gonville Hall, Cambridge, now Gonville and Caius College. The founder of the college Edmund Gonville had been a neighbour of Colton in Terrington, but he seems to have owed the appointment mainly to his patron Bishop Bateman, who was deeply involved in the running of the college in its first years. He also held the living of St. Mary's, Wood Street, London.[2]

Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, of which Colton was the first Master

Irish career[edit]

Colton first came to Ireland as Lord Treasurer in 1373, and became Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral the following year. He was Lord Chancellor from 1379 to 1382, and became Archbishop of Armagh in 1383. He accompanied the Justiciar of Ireland, Edmund Mortimer, 3rd Earl of March,on an expedition to Cork in 1381; March died on the expedition and Colton briefly replaced him as Justiciar.[3] He was held in high regard by the English Crown and was sent by Richard II on a special mission to Rome in 1398; he later received a grant of money as tribute to his fidelity.[4]

Like most Crown officials, even clerics, at the time, Colton was required to perform military as well as administrative tasks, and seems to have been a competent soldier: in 1372 he defeated a band of marauders who had burnt Athy Priory, and in 1373 at his own cost he raised a troop for the defence of Dublin. He clashed with the O'Byrne clan at Carrickmines, and had his horse shot from under him.[5]

Visitation of Derry[edit]

Colton is best remembered for writing or commissioning the Visitation of Derry[6] (the actual author may have been his secretary Richard Kenmore) This is an account of his ten-day tour, in the year 1397, of the Diocese of Derry. The see of Derry happened to be vacant, and Colton took the opportunity to assert his metropolitan authority over the diocese in all matters of religion and morals. That the visitation took place at all is remarkable: Archbishops of Armagh in the Middle Ages were, like Colton, usually Englishmen, to whom Ulster was an unfamiliar and possibly hostile country. As a rule they lived in Dundalk or Drogheda, and they rarely even visited Armagh itself, let alone anywhere further afield. It has been argued that the visitation had a political purpose, namely to demonstrate that the Crown did not regard Ulster as a foreign country and that Crown officials were well able to exercise their jurisdiction in that province, even if their visits were rare in practice.[7] The book, published with extensive notes by the Rev. William Reeves in 1850, is regarded as an especially valuable source of information on life in late fourteenth century Ulster.

Colton, with a sizeable retinue, entered the diocese at Cappagh, and proceeded to Derry and Banagher.[8] The only potential trouble was the refusal of the Archdeacon of Derry and the Cathedral Chapter to recognise Colton's authority, but under threat of excommunication they quickly submitted. Colton conducted a wide variety of business, reconsecrating churches and graveyards, settling a bitter property dispute and hearing matrimonial causes. The most colourful decision he made was the injunction to the Abbot of Derry to refrain from cohabitation with his mistress or any other woman.

He wrote a number of constitutions for the regulation of each diocese under his charge, two of which survive. He also wrote two tracts on the Papal Schism: On the Causes of the Schism and On the Remedy for the same Schism.


Colton, who had resigned his see a few days earlier, no doubt in anticipation of his end, died on 27 April 1404 in Drogheda and was buried in St. Peters Church. Webb calls him "a man of great talent and activity, of high reputation for virtue and learning, dear to all ranks of people for his affability and sweetness of temper".[9]


  1. ^ O'Flanagan J. Roderick The Lives of the Lord Chancellors of Ireland London 1870
  2. ^ Ball F. Elrington The Judges in Ireland 1221–1921 John Murray London 1926
  3. ^ O'Flanagan Lives of the Chancellors
  4. ^ Ball Judges in Ireland
  5. ^ Lives of the Chancellors
  6. ^ Reeves, William Acts of Archbishop Colton in his Metropolitan Visitation of the Diocese of Derry Irish Archaeological Society 1850
  7. ^ Frame, Robin Colonial Ireland 1169-1369 (1981) Reprinted Four Courts Press 2012
  8. ^ Reeves Acts of Archbishop Colton
  9. ^ Webb, Alfred A Compendium of Irish Biography 1878


 Archer, Thomas Andrew (1887). "Colton, John". In Stephen, Leslie. Dictionary of National Biography 11. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 408–409. 

Academic offices
Preceded by
New Creation
Master of Gonville Hall , Cambridge
Succeeded by
William Rougham