John Skelton (c. 1460 – June 21, 1529) is one of the most unusual poets to reside in the English canon. He wrote most of his most famous poetry in an idiosyncratic verse-form consisting of short line-lengths and rapid-fire rhyming; his birth and rank are completely unknown, yet he rose to become one of the closest advisors of King Henry VII; he viciously satirized the Catholic Church, only to find himself appointed (by the king) to its clergy; he was praised by many of the major figures of the Renaissance as the most gifted poet in all of England, yet within decades after his death he would almost be entirely forgotten and remain so for nearly five-hundred years.
Only in the twentieth century was Skelton rediscovered. Although he remains obscure to general readers, his importance to his own time is now believed almost unequaled by any other poet of the fifteenth century. Skelton is primarily remembered as a satirical and humorous poet, and his poetry lampoons virtually every aspect of fifteenth century English society. Yet Skelton is by no means a joker; his satires target some of the most serious and powerful institutions in the fifteenth century: the Catholic Church and the Court of England. Skelton is now believed to be a significant figure in the decades leading up to the Reformation due to his deep distrust of Church corruption and his frequent calls for reform. Skelton was one of the most politically active (and hence, controversial) poets of his times, and as a result has languished in almost total obscurity since his death. However, Skelton's contributions to English literature and his direct influence on some of the most important figures in English history are now coming to light.
Absolutely nothing is known of Skelton's birth or childhood. The earliest documented event in his life is his attendance of the University of Oxford in the early 1480s, although this has been disputed by some scholars. He certainly studied at Cambridge, taking his M.A. degree in 1484. In 1490 the writer and printer, William Caxton, writes of him glowingly, in terms that suggest he had already won fame as an accomplished scholar. Caxton writes that "I pray mayster John Skelton late created poete laureate in the unyversite of Oxenforde, to oversee and correct this sayd booke…for him I know for suffycyent to expowne and englysshe every dyffyculte that is therin."
Caxton refers to Skelton receiving a degree in rhetoric in 1490 from Oxford, and in 1493 he received the same honor at Cambridge, and some time later yet another degree from the University of Louvain, in the Netherlands. It is known that during his time at these various universities Skelton had developed a reputation as a talented translator of Greek and Latin classics. Capitalizing on this reputation as a rising talent, Skelton acquired a patron in the pious and learned Countess of Richmond, Henry VII's mother, for whom he wrote Of Mannes Lyfe the Peregrynacioun, a translation, now lost, of Guillaume de Deguilleyule's Pèlerinage de la vie humaine. An elegy "Of the death of the noble prince Kynge Edwarde the forth," included in some of the editions of the Mirror for Magistrates, and another (1489) on the death of Henry Percy, fourth Earl of Northumberland, are among his earliest poems.
In the last decade of the century he was appointed tutor to Prince Henry (afterwards Henry VIII). He wrote for his pupil a lost Speculum principis, an educational poem presumably on the proper role of a king. By 1500 Skelton had achieved such fame that Desiderius Erasmus, the foremost figure in the northern European Renaissance, referred to Skelton as "the incomparable light and glory of English letters." In 1498 Skelton was successively ordained sub-deacon, deacon and priest. He seems to have been imprisoned in 1502, but no reason is known for his disgrace. (It has been said that he offended Cardinal Wolsey, and the poet and the churchman would indeed become bitter foes, though they had once shared a close friendship.) Two years later Skelton retired from regular attendance at court to become rector of Diss, an office which he retained nominally till his death.
As rector of Diss, Skelton caused great scandal among his parishioners, who thought him more fit for the stage than for the pew or the pulpit. Although a priest, he was secretly married to a woman who lived in his house. He had earned the hatred of the monks of Dominican Order by his fierce satire. Consequently he came under the formal censure of Richard Nix, the bishop of the diocese, and appears to have been temporarily suspended. After his death a collection of farcical tales, no doubt chiefly, if not entirely, apocryphal, gathered around his name—The Merie Tales of Skelton. Although the work is apocryphal and not in any way connected to Skelton, it is invariably associated with his memory.
During the rest of the century he figured in the popular imagination as an incorrigible practical joker. His sarcastic wit made him some enemies, among them Sir Christopher Garneys, Alexander Barclay, William Lilly and the French scholar, Robert Gaguin (c. 1425-1502). With Garneys he engaged in a regular "flyting," undertaken, he says, at the king's command. Earlier in his career he had found a friend and patron in Cardinal Wolsey, and the dedication to the cardinal of his Replycacion is couched in the most flattering terms. But in 1522, when Wolsey in his capacity of legate dissolved convocation at St Paul's Cathedral, Skelton put in circulation the couplet:
"Gentle Paul, laie doune thy sweard
For Peter of Westminster hath shaven thy beard."
In his lengthy satire Colyn Cloute he incidentally attacked Wolsey due to the work's nature as a general satire of the clergy. The later poems "Speke, Parrot" and "Why come ye nat to Courte?" are direct and fierce invectives against the Cardinal who is said to have more than once imprisoned the poet. Colyn Cloute tells the story of an "average country man" who gives his opinions on the state of the church. It is, without question, the most scathing indictment of the Catholic clergy written before the Reformation. Skelton exposes the greed, ignorance, and ostentation of the bishops, and the common practice of simony, or church bribery. Skelton also takes delicate care to explain that his accusations do not include all members of the clergy and that he writes in defense of, not against, the church. Nonetheless, it is rather remarkable Skelton was able to publish this scathing poem and not lose his head.
The Bowge of Court, another satire, is directed against the vices and dangers of court life. The poem is fantastical, written in a style popular in Skelton's time, but its allegory of courtly manners and mores is unmistakable to one familiar with the politics of Skelton's time. In the poem, the narrator, falling into a dream at Harwich, sees a stately ship in the harbor called the "Bowge of Court," the owner of which is the Dame Saunce Pere. Her merchandise is Favour; the helmsman Fortune; and the narrator, who figures as Drede (modesty), finds on board F'avell (the flatterer), Suspect, Harvy Hafter (the clever thief), Dysdayne, Ryotte, Dyssymuler and Subtylte, who all explain themselves in turn, and who all represent various figures of the English court. At last Drede, who finds that all those aboard the ship are secretly his enemies, is about to save his life by jumping overboard, when he wakes with a start. The Bowge of Court, though thoroughly Skeltonic in its irony and wit, is surprisingly regular in its meter; Skelton uses the Chaucerian stanza here to full effect, as he would not begin using his idiosyncratic "Skeltonics" until sometime later.
The Boke of Phyllyp Sparowe is one of Skelton's most famous satires, written by Jane Scroop, a girl in a Benedictine convent, in the form of a farcical lament for her dead bird. The poem is also rather clearly a parody of Catullus and classical elegies in general. It is a poem of some 1,400 lines and takes many liberties with the formalities of the church. The digressions are considerable. We learn what a wide-reading Jane had through a number of detours that reference medieval romances and classical epics. Skelton also finds space to give his opinions of Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate. It is in The Boke of Phyllyp Sparow that Skelton at last seems to have fully realized himself as a master of the English language. The poem marks Skelton's first use of his whimsical, rapid, and idiosyncratic verse style, referred to by himself as "Skeltonical." The lines are usually six-syllabled, but vary in length, and rhyme in groups of two, three, four and even more. It is not far removed from the old alliterative English verse, and well fitted to be chanted by the minstrels who had sung the old ballads. Skelton's system of frequent, rapidly-recurring rhymes often strike readers as bizarre and even confounding. Skelton was aware of the limitations of his style, but nevertheless argued for its quality. He wrote:
"For though my ryme be ragged,
Tattered and jagged,
Rudely rayne beaten,
Rusty and moughte eaten,
It hath in it some pyth."
Skelton Laureate against the Scottes is a fierce song of triumph celebrating the Battle of Flodden. "Jemmy is ded / And closed in led / That was theyr owne Kynge," says the poem; but there was an earlier version written before the news of James IV's death had reached London. The earliest singly printed ballad in the language, it was entitled A Ballade of the Scottysshe Kynge, and was rescued in 1878 from the wooden covers of a copy of Huon de Bordeaux.
Skelton also wrote three plays, only one of which survives. Magnificence is one of the best examples of the morality play, and the first morality play written in English. It deals with the same topic as Skelton's satires: the evils of ambition and corruption. The play's moral, "how suddenly worldly wealth doth decay," became a proverb of the sixteenth century. Thomas Warton in his History of English Poetry described another play by Skelton Nigramansir, printed in 1504, which addresses simony and the love of money in the church; but no copy is known to exist, and some suspicion has been cast on Warton's statement.
Very few of Skelton's works are dated, and their titles are here necessarily abbreviated. De Worde printed the Bowge of Court twice. Divers Batettys and dyties salacious devysed by Master Shelton Laureat, and Shelton Laureate agaynste a comely Coystroune have no date or printer's name, but are evidently from the press of Richard Pynson, who also printed Replycacion against certain yang scalers, dedicated to Wolsey. The Garlande or Chapelet of Laurell was printed by Richard Faukes (1523); Magnificence, A goodly interlude, probably by John Rastell about 1533, reprinted (1821) for the Roxburghe Club. Hereafter foloweth the Boke of Phyllyp Sparowe was printed by Richard Kele (1550?), Robert Toy, Antony Kitson (1560?), Abraham Veale (1570?), John Walley, John Wyght (1560?). Hereafter foloweth certaine bokes compyled by mayster Shelton...including "Speke, Parrot," "Ware the Hawke," "Elynoure Rumpiynge" and others, was printed by Richard Lant (1550?), John King and Thomas March (1565?), by John Day (1560). Hereafter foloweth a title boke called Colyn Cloute and Hereafter...why come ye nat to Courte? were printed by Richard Kele (1550?) and in numerous subsequent editions. Pithy, plesaunt and profitable workes of maister Shelton, Poete Laureate. Nowe collected and newly published was printed in 1568, and reprinted in 1736. A scarce reprint of Filnour Rummin by Samuel Rand appeared in 1624.
The Poetical Works of John Shelton; with Notes and some account of the author and his writings, by the Rev. Alexander Dyce (2 vols., 1843). A selection of his works was edited by WH Williams (London, 1902). See also Zur Charakteristik John Skeltons by Dr Arthur Koelbing (Stuttgart, 1904); F Brie, "Skelton Studien" in Englische Studien, vol. 38 (Heilbronn, 1877, etc.); A Rey, Skelton's Satirical Poems... (Berne, 1899); A Thummel, Studien über John Skelton (Leipzig-Reudnitz, 1905); G. Saintsbury, Hist. of Eng. Prosody (vol. i, 1906); and A. Kolbing in the Cambridge History of English Literature (vol. iii, 1909).
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