Swayne, John (d. 1442), lawyer, papal secretary, and archbishop of Armagh, was of Anglo-Irish origin and a native of the diocese of Kildare. He may have been related to that John Swayne, priest of the diocese of Ossory, who figured in the Irish patent rolls in 1355. The earliest reference to Swayne is to be found in the papal registers on 30 April 1399, when he received a comprehensive dispensation from Boniface IX concerning his illegitimacy. In a previous application for a dispensation he had, so it was alleged, stated that he was the son of a priest, and now he corrected this to the statement that he was the son of an unmarried man and a woman – apparently there had previously been some doubt about whether his father had held orders. Now he was dispensed in common form, permitting him to hold more than one mutually incompatible benefice, with or without cure of souls, and including major dignities such as an archbishopric. Furthermore he was dispensed from the obligation to mention his illegitimacy in any future petition. On this occasion he appeared as a simple cleric, without orders or an academic degree, and the register gives no indication of his whereabouts at this time. In the light of his subsequent academic and curial career it is probable that he was already in Italy and he may have visited the curia in person in the hope of accumulating benefices with which to finance his university studies.
When he next appeared in the papal registers in April 1404 his situation had changed appreciably. Now he was definitely in residence at the curia and had attained the office of abbreviator litterarum apostolicarum. How or when he acquired this office is unknown, but he seems to have had more protection than was usual for a relatively obscure Irish cleric at the papal court. However, there is no indication that he had at this early stage attached himself to a particular group within the curia. The first indication of a clear demonstration of allegiance on his part did not come until the council of Pisa, when he abandoned the Roman line and rose to the office of papal secretary under John XXIII.
By 1404 he had received, in addition to the office in the papal chancery, the rectory of Galtrim in the diocese of Meath and a canonry in the diocese of Ferns with the prebend of Taghmon. From now on he gradually accumulated a substantial number of Irish benefices, the revenues of which doubtless helped to finance both his university studies and his various property transactions in Rome. On 19 April 1404 he was granted a canonry in Dublin with the prebend of Newcastle and permission to exchange his prebend in Ferns for a wealthier one, that of Tacumshin, all of which were to fall vacant by the appointment on the same day of Nicholas Fleming (qv) to the see of Armagh. A further papal letter of 7 May 1404 makes clear that Swayne had waived all claims to additional benefices in Ferns. The letter of 19 April reveals that he had already received an expectative of the treasurership of the archdiocese of Dublin. This he renounced on 21 July 1405 on condition that he was guaranteed full possession of his canonry in Dublin and the well-endowed prebend of Newcastle. In the Dublin chapter there were elements at work which tried to prevent the absentee curialist from taking possession of his benefice.
Meanwhile he continued to make friends in ecclesiastical circles within the Anglo-Irish colony. On 11 November 1404 he acted as proctor at the curia for the recently appointed bishop of Kildare, the Dominican John Madock, who may have intervened on his behalf before the grant of 19 April, as Madock was the only Irish prelate to whom the usual letters mandatory accompanying the provision were sent. On 7 May 1407 Swayne and five other clerics from the area of English jurisdiction were ordered by Henry IV to return to Ireland with all possible speed. This royal order cannot have reached Rome before early June, but Swayne did not take the instruction about speed too literally – if indeed he obeyed it at all.
He was still in Rome two months later on 30 July 1407. On that day a public notary drew up a deed of sale, recording that ‘John Swayne, canon of Dublin, abbreviator litterarum apostolicarum, now at the Roman curia and resident in the region Arenula’ sold property consisting of two vineyards with the adjoining house, wine barrels, cellarage, plough, and other agricultural equipment, together with a field of bulrushes. The property was located between S. Spirito in Sassia and S. Giacomo in Settignano. Obviously Swayne's vineyards were close to the papal ones and located on the lower slopes of the Gianicolo.
Swayne had acquired this extensive property at some earlier but unknown date. It might seem plausible to assume that the sale was a response to the royal mandate, that Swayne set about putting his affairs in order, sought a buyer for his property, and eventually sold it to his fellow abbreviator in the papal chancery. On the other hand there is no evidence that he obeyed the royal mandate and, if he did return to England or Ireland, this can only have been for a brief visit, to justify his continued absence before he returned again to Italy. From the deed of sale it is clear that he did not live in the house attached to the vineyards, but that he had his residence in the ‘rione Arenula’ on the other side of the Tiber, which had a large English resident population. Elsewhere it has been suggested that the purpose of the sale was to finance a hospice for pilgrims from Ireland in Rome.
On 21 November 1408 Gregory XII wrote to Swayne concerning the latter's petition to exchange some of his Irish benefices for more lucrative ones, and addressed him as doctor of both laws – the first time Swayne is mentioned as having an academic degree. Also by now he was claiming to be rector of the University of Siena – but the rectors of Siena in this period are well known and there is no space for Swayne among them. The absence of an academic title in the precise legal document of 30 July 1407 and the presence of one sixteen months later imply that he had acquired his doctorate in the meantime, most probably in Siena, which was a loose society of jurists and not strict about residency requirements. His doctorate was accepted as genuine in all subsequent papal documents.
Swayne does not figure in the published records of the council of Pisa, but in conformity with English policy he accepted the decision to depose his former master Gregory XII on 5 June 1409. At the same time he maintained close links with the Irish church and with Archbishop Nicholas Fleming of Armagh. Following the election of John XXIII on 17 May 1410, Fleming appointed four proctors, led by Swayne, whose doctorate was already known in Armagh, to handle the affairs of the Irish at the court of the Pisan pope. John XXIII rewarded Swayne's loyalty, and in all papal letters after 12 June 1411 he appeared as ‘secretarius noster’. He also received numerous benefices and other privileges, as well as a new range of duties. He acted on several occasions as examiner of candidates for the office of public notary, and not only for applicants from Irish and English dioceses.
In May 1413, before the curia broke up for the journey northwards, Swayne received a large number of privileges, including the prebend of Swords, one of the best-endowed benefices of its kind in medieval Ireland, and the archdeaconry of Meath. He was granted an indult for life to take and farm out, to clerics and laymen alike, the fruits of his benefices, and was further dispensed from the obligation of residence while on business for the Roman court. He could dispose of all his goods by testament, even those emanating from ecclesiastical sources, and he could retain all his other benefices together with the newly acquired archdeaconry of Meath. He was dispensed from the obligation to seek orders for the next ten years, despite the fact that he held benefices with cure of souls, including the rectory of Galtrim, which he had never relinquished.
Despite these privileges Swayne did seek ordination. The records make it clear that he returned, if not to Ireland, at least to England. According to the register of Bishop Richard Clifford of London (1407–21) Swayne was ordained by that prelate as acolyte on 22 September 1414, sub-deacon on 22 December 1414, deacon on 23 February 1415, and priest on 16 March 1415. Shortly afterwards he travelled to the council of Constance, where the deposition of John XXIII on 29 May 1415 left Swayne without formal employment at the curia; but he continued to find work, as various litigants from the German church, with which he had good connections, made use of his services. Hence the unusual composition of Swayne's register. One part of it is his personal register, maintained at the council of Constance. Swayne's decision to record legal proceedings, and maintain them in a form which ultimately came to be regarded as part of the official registers of the archbishops of Armagh, reflect his own experience as a papal official – they were useful as a formulary book of sound curial practice.
After the death of Nicholas Fleming in late June 1416 the see of Armagh remained vacant until the election of a new pope. On 10 January 1418 Swayne was provided to the see by Martin V and he was consecrated in Constance three weeks later. By January 1419 he was back in Ireland, where he claimed outstanding rent due to him from the manor of Trim. On 3 February 1419 Cornelius (Ó Fearghail), bishop of Ardagh, took the oath of fealty to the archbishop at his manor in Athboy. Swayne obviously anticipated difficulty in visiting the dioceses ‘inter Hibernicos’ and in 1418 sought a renewal of the papal exemption from the rule that a metropolitan might not return on visitation to a diocese before he had completed visitation of all other dioceses in his province.
He resided in Louth and conducted his ecclesiastical duties in the Gaelic areas by deputy. He worried that the area under the effective control of the English administration amounted to little more than one shire, and complained in 1427 about the lack of military provision to deal with the Gaelic Irish in the north: he pleaded in vain for the dispatch of 400 archers to put down the latest rising. He also lamented the emigration of the king's lieges in Ireland to England and the difficulty of finding suitable Anglo-Irish clergy to fill vacant ecclesiastical benefices. On 7 July 1428 he sent John Prene (qv) as his proctor with gifts and a letter of introduction to Martin V, and reported that both his archdiocese and his person were being oppressed by adversary forces.
Swayne's period of office in Ireland was dominated by the struggle for control of the administration between the lord lieutenant, John Talbot (qv), and James Butler (qv), 4th earl of Ormond. Swayne was a regular correspondent with the administration in England and provided it with a neutral viewpoint. Apart from concentration on pastoral matters, his main concern was to maintain the security of the Pale, but his activities were hampered by the disruptive nature of Gaelic politics at a time when the Ó Néills were unable to control their neighbours. Swayne was instrumental in convincing several Gaelic lords, including Eóghan Ó Néill (qv) to submit to Edmund Mortimer (qv), earl of March and Ulster, at Trim in January 1425. But Ó Néill's influence forced the archbishop to seek protection in 1435.
In 1438 Swayne replied to a summons to the council of Ferrara that he and his suffragans should attend by calling the latter together. Because of ill health he appointed as his own proctors John White, bachelor of both laws, and John Prene. Swayne resigned his office by proctor on 27 March 1439 and was awarded an annual pension of 100 marks by Eugenius III. He was dead by October 1442 and was buried in St Peter's, Drogheda, in the chapel of St Anne, which he had founded.