COLVILLE, Sir John (c.1337-1394), of Newton, Cambs. and Walsoken, Norf.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Jan. 1377
Apr. 1384
Nov. 1390

Family and Education

b. between 1336 and 1340, s. of Sir John Colville (d.1360) of Newton by Sibyl, da. of William Weston of Thorpe, Norf. m. bef. 1365, Alice (c.1340-bef. 1394), da. and h. of John Lisle (d.1361), of Fulbourn, Cambs. and Street in Lympne, Kent by his w. Millicent, 2s. 1da. Kntd. bef. Dec. 1360.

Offices Held

Commr. of sewers, coast between Tydd St. Giles and Chatteris, Cambs. Oct. 1367, Cambs. May 1373, marshland, Norf. Feb. 1377, Mar. 1378, Mar. 1388, July 1391, Isle of Ely Apr., Oct. 1377, Nov. 1382, June 1391, Elm, Cambs. Apr., May 1392; array, Cambs. Apr., July 1377, Apr. 1385, Mar. 1392; to put down rebellion, Cambs., Norf. July 1381; make proclamation prohibiting price rises in the sale of arms and armour, Cambs. Sept. 1386; of arrest, Norf. 1393.

J.p. Cambs. 6 Dec. 1375-May 1380.

Tax collector, Cambs. Nov. 1377, Dec. 1384.

Tax surveyor, Cambs. Mar. 1381.


The Colvilles had come over with the Conqueror by whom they were granted lands in Cambridgeshire before 1080. Later, though then seated in Suffolk at Carlton Colville, they became lords of the manors of Newton and Tydd St. Giles in the Isle of Ely and of Walsoken, Walton and Walpole, Norfolk, in the same coastal region near the Wash, through marriage to the heiress of Geoffrey de Marisco (fl.1268). Thereafter the family was prominently associated with Newton until the end of the 18th century. Our Sir John Colville’s father fought at Crécy and took part in the later French campaigns of Edward III,1 only to meet his death in France in February 1360. Despite the fact that before going overseas he had placed his estates in the safe-keeping of trustees to hold on behalf of his son John, the property was taken into crown possession on the grounds that an investigation showed that John had been a minor aged 20 when his father died, and that the enfeoffments had been made with the intention of defrauding the King of his rights to the heir’s wardship and marriage. The latter was subsequently granted to a yeoman of the Household named Walter Whithors. However, when further inquiries were conducted in 1361, local juries then asserted that John had in fact been 23 or 24 at the time of his father’s death; and on this basis it was eventually decided that the trusts had been set up without collusion. The estates of Colville’s patrimony in Norfolk were to be valued at more than £54 a year at the time of his own death, while those in Cambridgeshire were worth at least £42 annually (according to the estimates for taxation made in 1412 when they were in his son’s ownership).2

To this annual income, probably exceeding £100, Colville added yet more through his marriage to Alice Lisle. His principal estates were held as a tenant of the bishop of Ely, and it may well be that the match had first been suggested by Alice’s kinsman, Bishop Thomas Lisle, whose turbulent career ended in 1361 with his death in exile at Avignon, after a violent quarrel with Edward III. But whether planned by the bishop or not, the marriage brought Colville an interest in Thomas Lisle’s manor and advowson of Great Staughton, Huntingdonshire. Even more important, Alice’s inheritance from her father included a moiety of the manor of Street in Kent as well as rents from other properties in the same county, which later gave the Colvilles an annual income of over £21, while from 1375 Sir John and his wife also held the manor of Fulbourn near Cambridge, although their continued possession entailed paying her kinsman Robert, Lord Lisle, and his wife for their lives an annuity of £20 charged on Colville’s own estate at Newton. Fulbourn was a valuable property, and with it went the patronage of the free chapel of St. Edmund situated near the manor-house. But the Colvilles encountered difficulties with their neighbours, Sir Hugh Zouche and his wife Philippa, who alleged at the assizes held in 1382 that they had altered the course of a stream, thereby preventing the Zouches’ mill from working. It is indicative of Colville’s standing and of his continued close relations with the bishops of Ely that when, in 1388, the archdeacon Thomas Feriby made his profession of obedience to the newly-installed bishop, John Fordham, the ceremony took place in the principal chamber of Colville’s house at Fulbourn.3

Colville may have seen military service with his father on the campaign of 1359-60, for he would appear to have been knighted at about that time. Obscurity now clouds the motives for his actions in the spring of 1364 when he and his men, hastily assembled by the ringing of the town bell at Walsoken, rode out to rescue certain prisoners who had escaped from Wisbech castle pursued by a force led by the royally-appointed keeper of the castle, John Harling, and allegedly stole Harling’s horses and goods. Two royal commissions of oyer and terminer were set up to bring him to trial for this and other felonies. The incident had no serious effect on his career, and had evidently been forgotten by 1367 when he was appointed to his first royal commission. In June 1368 he obtained the King’s licence to go to Rome on a pilgrimage, taking with him four yeomen as an escort. Further military action followed as a member of the force serving at sea, probably in the summer of 1372, under the command of Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford.4 The situation of Colville’s estates near the Wash was no doubt an important factor considered by the government in his employment on commissions authorized to supervise the state of waterways and drains in the fenlands, although the frequency of his appointment to such bodies suggests that he proved competent in the task assigned him. Before his first election to Parliament in 1377 he had also gained some experience of service as a j.p. On the opening day of that assembly he provided securities in Chancery for a former Member of the Commons, John Avenel of Gamlingay, then facing serious charges of debt. Colville is not known to have been retained by any of the aristocracy, but his appointment to a commission in March 1388, when the Lords Appellant were in control of the government, suggests that they considered him sympathetic. Nevertheless, the period of their rule coincided with personal difficulties for Colville, occasioned in part by their proscription of Richard II’s ministers: the London financier, John Hende, sued him for debt, and his wife’s moiety of Street was forfeited to the Crown along with the estates of Sir Robert Bealknap, the former chief justice of the common pleas, by virtue of the judgement of the Merciless Parliament, Colville having rented the property to Bealknap on a 20-year lease agreed long before in 1369. In December 1388 Sir John succeeded in securing custody of his wife’s property at Street, though he was required to pay £8 a year for it at the Exchequer, and two more years elapsed before he was fully restored to possession on the advice of the royal judges. Meanwhile, in 1389 he had twice appeared in Chancery as a mainpernor, on both occasions under a penalty of £200: first, he had guaranteed that Sir Laurence Everard (perhaps already his son-in-law) would keep the peace, and then he had undertaken that Adam Friday esquire, who had been committed to the Tower for certain misprisions in connexion with a dispute over the church at Walsoken, would appear in court if released on bail. Then, early in 1390, he became drawn into a major disagreement between members of the family of Robert Hethe* and several prominent Suffolk knights, in which he lent his support to the latter. All the parties were bound over to keep the peace, each under a penalty of 1,000 marks, and were required to appear before the King’s Council to explain their actions. The origins of this evidently serious rift among the gentry of Suffolk, and how Colville came to be involved, are now unclear.5

Colville obtained a papal licence to have a portable altar in November 1393, and died on 31 Jan. or 1 Feb. following.6 His heir was his son, another Sir John Colville (c.1365-1446), who quickly showed himself to be the most outstanding figure produced by the family. His distinguished career as a diplomat in the service of all three Lancastrian kings took him to the General Councils of Pisa (1409) and Basle (1433-4) as well as on many other embassies to all parts of western Europe; while his foundation of the college of St. Mary-on-the-Sea at Newton gained papal approval as a result of his efforts ‘for the restoration of unity in the Universal Church’.

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Author: L. S. Woodger


  • 1. C., C.R. and Z. Colville, Hist. Colville Fam. 3, 19-20; CChR, ii. 99; CPR, 1350-4, p. 406; VCH Cambs. iv. 202, 227.
  • 2. CIPM, x. 655; xii. 461; CPR, 1358-61, pp. 554, 587; 1361-4, p. 147; CFR, vii. 134, 194; CCR, 1360-4, pp. 215, 225; Feudal Aids, vi. 405.
  • 3. E326/4680, 8719; CP25(1)94/30/151; CIPM, xi. 363; xiv. 221; CFR, viii. 315; CCR, 1377-81, pp. 480-1; JUST 1/1494 m. 18; Cambridge Antiq. Soc. Procs. i. 211; Ely Episcopal Recs. ed. Gibbons, 394; Ely Diocesan Remembrancer, 1897, p. 78; Feudal Aids, vi. 471.
  • 4. CPR, 1361-4, pp. 545-6; 1364-7, p. 143; 1367-70, pp. 144, 152; E101/32/20.
  • 5. CCR, 1374-7, p. 517; 1385-9, pp. 473, 682; 1389-92, pp. 4, 107, 234; CIMisc. v. 38, 236; CFR, x. 264; Vis. Norf. (Norf. Arch. Soc.), i. 46.
  • 6. CPL, iv. 480; C136/80/9.