Colton, John (d. 1404), justiciar of Ireland and archbishop of Armagh, was born at Terrington, Norfolk, England. He graduated as doctor of canon law at Cambridge c.1348, being appointed shortly afterwards chaplain to William Bateman, bishop of Norwich. In 1349 Colton became first master of Gonville Hall, Cambridge, founded by Edmund Gonville, rector of Terrington, to which benefice Colton succeeded in 1350. He does not appear to have made any significant contribution to the development of the Hall in its first precarious years. He seemed intent rather on making a career at the papal court in Avignon, to which service with Bateman had taken him.
It was at Avignon that his connection with Ireland came about, when he became chamberlain to Archbishop Richard FitzRalph (qv), who was there from 1357 until his death in 1360. In 1361 he was papally provided to the treasurership of St Patrick's cathedral, Dublin, prompting his resignation from the mastership of Gonville Hall. In 1374 he became dean of St Patrick's chapter, which had long been associated with service in the civil administration of the English lordship in Ireland. There is no record of Colton joining the government before 1372, when he was appointed treasurer and thus a member of council. Service in this post (until 1375) called him to defence of the lordship against O'More in Co. Kildare and O'Byrne in Co. Wicklow. He was appointed chancellor on 8 May 1380. The sudden death on 26 December 1381 of Edmund Mortimer (qv), earl of March, deprived the government of its head. The security situation in Munster was such that a replacement was a matter of urgency. As chancellor, it fell to Colton to summon a council meeting, reinforced with a wide variety of Munster opinion, civil and ecclesiastical. Both the obvious candidates, the earls of Ormond and of Desmond, most firmly refused the office. The next to be proposed, the treasurer Alexander Balscot (qv), bishop of Ossory, and Colton himself, also refused to serve. But the council forced a choice between the two officials and, ‘finding the treasurer's excuses more convincing than the chancellor's’ (Richardson & Sayles, Parliaments, i, no. 66), insisted on Colton's acceptance of the justiciarship. Still protesting his inadequacy, Colton eventually agreed, though only on the understanding that he be allowed to resign at the next parliament, a more capable military leader having been found. His resignation was at a parliament at Naas on 3 March 1382.
The see of Armagh had been vacant since the death of Milo Sweteman (qv) in August 1380. There is no evidence that the Armagh chapter postulated the papacy for the appointment of Colton or any other candidate, as established practice allowed, but the government, custodian of the temporalities of the see during vacancy, had entrusted them to Colton. He was duly papally provided and was consecrated in St Paul's, London, on 8 March 1383.
He had been called to a particularly challenging ministry. Richard FitzRalph in 1349 had reported to Pope Clement VI that in his province ‘the two nations are always opposed to one another from a traditional hatred, the Irish and Scots being always enemies of the English’ (quoted in NHI, ii, 343). This was scarcely less true in Colton's day. In 1390 Colton, ever the meticulous canonist, asked the pope for a dispensation from the law concerning episcopal visitations which required a metropolitan to begin visitation of his province with his own church and diocese, as he was unable to make his visitation of Armagh chapter, city, and diocese because of war between Irish and English. In the diocese of Armagh the territorial, juridical, and cultural divide had been institutionalised into the ‘church among the Irish’ and the ‘church among the English’, with Armagh itself – city, cathedral, chapter – firmly in the former sector. Such a division called for a high degree of pastoral skill and sensitivity. Further, Armagh's authority as metropolitan was often challenged, while its claim to a primacy over the whole Irish church was vigorously contested, especially by Dublin, now forcefully urging its own claims to primacy. Colton's register has not survived, so no detailed scrutiny of how he met these challenges is possible. But there is not a total lack of evidence as to how he did respond in different contexts.
The permanent legislation of the Armagh province committed each of its bishops, to the best of his ability, to bring about and maintain the peace between English and Irish. Colton was an active peacekeeper: in Westmeath negotiating with O'Reilly in 1391–2, and more dramatically in 1395. Richard II (qv) in his first expedition to Ireland was seeking, after conquest, to bring Gaelic Ireland to a direct relationship with the crown through its leaders swearing liege homage to him. Colton played a major role, acknowledged by both parties, in bringing the O'Neills to concord with Richard, and through them the leading rulers of Gaelic Ulster, the majority of the other rulers of the province, and even beyond.
In 1397 the see of Derry was vacant. Canonically the metropolitan was custodian of its spiritualities and also, as the diocese lay outside the reach of English law, of its temporalities. Colton's sede vacante jurisdiction was being challenged by the Derry chapter. He therefore set out to demonstrate, with all the legal force at his command, that during vacancy of the see he was its ‘ordinary judge’ (iudex ordinarius, in his chosen term). Essentially, he was acting as the ordinary of the diocese of Derry. To authenticate this position, he made certain that each of his rights was carefully recorded and witnessed in notarial documents: in marriage cases, institutions to benefices, visitation of religious houses, reconsecration of desecrated churches and cemeteries, promulgation of canonical penalties for seizure of ecclesiastical property. He availed himself fully of the customary services which the erenaghs (hereditary tenants) were expected to provide for their episcopal landlord, ratifying their charters where necessary. These transactions too were meticulously notarised. The Derry chapter was brought to acknowledgement of the validity of the metropolitan's jurisdiction and swore obedience to Colton and his successors.
There is no record in Colton's time of that confrontation with Dublin over the primacy which had featured prominently in the episcopates of FitzRalph and Sweteman. But Colton took care to obtain the support of Henry IV. While at the royal court in 1401, he had secured the exemplication on the royal patent roll of clauses of an alleged bull of Pope Urban IV commanding all the bishops of Ireland to recognise the primacy of Armagh and granting the archbishops of Armagh licence to have their primatial cross borne before them throughout the whole country.
In 1389 Pope Boniface IX instructed Colton to undertake formal inquiry in Ireland into the sanctity and miracles of Richard FitzRalph. He was instructed again in 1399 to extend the inquiry to England. There is no evidence to corroborate the claim, often repeated, that Colton wrote two treatises on the contemporaneous schism in the papacy. But in a provincial council, he upheld the authority of Pope Urban VI, condemning those of his province who were acknowledging the jurisdiction of Robert of Geneva (Clement VII of the Avignon obedience) and thereby fostering schism. Other of his constitutions related especially to the proper observance of holy days in the province.
Colton died in Drogheda on 27 April 1404.