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Skelton, John (c.1460–1529), poet, may have been born about 1460 in the north of England, possibly Yorkshire. His family name may derive from one of the six places called Skelton in Yorkshire (though the name is found elsewhere also) and a number of his early poems are connected with that county. But about his family and early life no records have survived and his poems are silent on these matters. In fact only about two dozen records relating to his life are extant. These are mainly of a technical nature, and while they are useful, it is to his poems that one must turn for details of what mainly concerned him.

University career

In a poem written in 1527 or 1528 against two Cambridge heretics Skelton refers to the university as ‘kind parent’ (alma parens) and says he was once an ‘alumnus’ there (Complete English Poems, 373), and a sidenote to this passage (which was probably written by Skelton) says that he ‘first sucked the breast of learning at Cambridge’. There are several references to students called Skelton at this time but none is indisputably to be identified with the poet. The most likely is that which refers to a ‘Dominus Skelton questionist’ which might indicate that he was about to supplicate for his BA. But there is no record that Skelton did actually take this degree. He may have been at Peterhouse. In a Latin quatrain added to a poem written in 1489 Skelton refers in affectionate terms to Dr William Ruckshaw, ‘most excellent of men’ (ibid., 35), fellow of Peterhouse until 1474. Among his other contemporaries at Cambridge were John Blythe, who eventually became chancellor of the university, master of the rolls, and bishop of Salisbury, and John Syclyng, who later became master of Godshouse (now Christ's College). In 1495 all three dined together in London while Syclyng was there representing the University of Cambridge against the town in a legal dispute; and in 1501 Skelton and Syclyng ate together on several occasions.

But it was from the University of Oxford, which Skelton may have attended in some capacity, that his first degree comes: about 1490, in his preface to Eneydos, William Caxton refers to him as ‘late created poete laureate in the university of Oxford’ (A. S. G. Edwards, 43) and Skelton himself refers, in one of his flytings against Sir Christopher Garnesche, to this honour which was conferred ‘by hole consent of theyr senate’ (Complete English Poems, 131). About 1492, according to a laudatory Latin poem in his honour by the grammarian Robert Whittinton, Skelton, ‘the glory of English poets’, was laureated by the University of Louvain (A. S. G. Edwards, 49–53). No record of this has survived. But it does acquire some confirmation from the terms of the laureateship he received from Cambridge in 1493, which refers to his Oxford degree and to another obtained ‘in places across the sea’ (in partibus transmarinis; H. L. R. Edwards, 287). This record also mentions the fact that Skelton could ‘use dress given to him by a prince’, which evidently meant that he could wear some distinctive apparel, evidently of white and green with the word ‘Calliope’ embroidered on it.

These academic distinctions, which others also had, appear to have been given in recognition of Skelton's achievement as a writer, and other evidence confirms his early fame. Caxton, in the preface already quoted, praises him for his classical learning, his skill in translation, and his ‘polysshed and ornate termes’: ‘I suppose he hath dronken of Elycons well’. In 1499 Erasmus, in a letter to the future Henry VIII, mentions that the prince has in his household Skelton, ‘a light and glory of English letters’ (A. S. G. Edwards, 44). Yet it is impossible to know exactly on what his fame rested, because it is difficult to date his early works and because some of them have undoubtedly been lost. It is fairly certain, though, that, by the time Caxton praised him, he had written the elegy for Henry Percy, fourth earl of Northumberland, killed by a mob of tax rebels on 28 April 1489 at Topcliff, Yorkshire. He had also finished his translation of Diodorus Siculus's ‘Bibliotheca historica’, the sole surviving manuscript of which (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 357) was owned by Robert Pen, gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Caxton also mentions that he ‘hath late translated’ Cicero's letters ‘and diverse other werkes out of Latyn in to Englysshe’ but none of these have survived in an identifiable form.

Royal tutor and church career

What Skelton did after his years at university is not clear. He was evidently associated at some stage with the Percy household. There is a text of the elegy for the fourth earl in London (BL, Royal MS 18.D.ii) that at some stage belonged to Henry Percy, the fifth earl, and which contains a Percy family chronicle, in verse, written by William Peeris, ‘clerke and preiste’, which views the death of the fourth earl in very much the same light as Skelton had. And though they are lost, Skelton also claims to have composed ‘pajauntis [pageants] that were played at the Joyows Garde’ (Complete English Poems, 351). ‘Joyous Garde’, Lancelot's castle in Morte Darthur, was sometimes considered to be Alnwick and sometimes Bamborough, both of which were Percy castles in Northumberland; and it may well be that Skelton wrote plays which were performed at one or other of them. It seems he was also at Sheriff Hutton Castle as a guest of the Howard family in 1495, when he began to write ‘The Garlande of Laurell’ in which he describes an embroidery group of Elizabeth Tylney Howard, countess of Surrey, and some of her relatives and friends who embroider a laurel crown in his honour (ibid., 334–43).

Skelton appears to have entered the Tudor royal service in late October or early November 1488. It is not known what his early duties were, but about 1496 he became tutor to Prince Henry, a post he held until about 1502 or 1503. Skelton entered holy orders in 1498: he was ordained subdeacon on 31 March, deacon on 14 April, and priest on 9 June. He was attached to the abbey of St Mary of Graces, a ‘free chapel royal’ near the Tower of London. He is recorded as having celebrated mass there on 11 November 1498 before Henry VII, who made him an offering of 20s. It appears that Skelton involved himself in the ecclesiastical politics of London: Peter Ottey, a royal chaplain, made a complaint against him at the court of requests on 14 May 1501; and on 10 June 1502 he was imprisoned as surety for William Guy, prior of St Bartholomew's, who was delinquent in a debt. But much of Skelton's time must have been spent on his pedagogical duties, which he recalled with pride years later: ‘The honor of England I lernyd to spelle’ (Complete English Poems, 132).

Skelton's writings in this period reflect the multifaceted nature of his situation. Some are panegyrics, such as the ‘Epigramma ad sancti principis maiestatem’, written to celebrate Prince Henry's being created duke of York on 1 November 1494. Probably similar was the now lost ‘Prince Arturis Creacyon’ (Complete English Poems, 345) which may have celebrated Arthur's assumption of the title of prince of Wales in 1489. It is likely too that Skelton wrote or translated a number of pedagogical works, such as the ‘New Gramer’ (ibid., 346), or moral works such as ‘the Boke how Men Shulde Fle Synne’ or ‘the Boke to Speke Well or Be Styll’ (ibid., 345), the second of which may well have been a version of Albertanus de Brescia's Tractatus de doctrina dicendi et tacendi. Both of these are now lost, as are the texts on government Skelton claims to have written such as ‘The Boke of Honorous Estate’, ‘Royall Demenaunce’, and ‘Soveraynte a noble pamphelet’ (ibid., 345–6). One such book of advice, however, has survived—the brief ‘Speculum principis’, written in ornate Latin prose for Prince Henry and finished on 28 August 1501. It looks as though Skelton took his duties as royal tutor very seriously.

But some of Skelton's English poems written in this period give a very different impression of his life. ‘Manerly Margery Mylk and Ale’, which survives with music for three voices by William Cornish in London, British Library, Add. MS 5465 (Fayrfax MS), is a cynical seduction poem. And a lot of the lyrics in the collections entitled Agaynste a Comely Coystrowne and Dyvers Balettys and Dyties Solacyous, both printed by John Rastell about 1527, but written probably in the 1490s, deal with social and sexual competitiveness in London and at court: two are satires on would-be teachers of music at court; another is about a man deceived by a tavern prostitute; and another is about disquiet in a well-to-do knightly household because the wife of a ‘ryght jentyll knyght’ is having an affair with the servant in charge of the horses: ‘He rydyth wel the horse, but he rydyth better the mare’ (Complete English Poems, 43). A number of these themes reappear in The Bowge of Courte, probably written in the autumn of 1498 and printed by de Worde in 1499. This is a sombre anti-court satire cast as a traditional medieval dream-vision allegory. Skelton, in the thinly disguised character of Drede, a man of ‘vertu’ and ‘lytterkture’, finds himself on a ship, ‘The Bowge of Courte’, steered by Fortune and resorted to by those hoping to make their way at court. He is told by Desyre:
Bone aventure may brynge you in suche case
That ye shall stonde in favoure and in grace.
(ibid., 49)
The ship is peopled by a sinister assortment of thieves, gamblers, pimps, potential murderers—a kind of courtly underclass—who all both flatter and scheme against each other, and try to involve Drede in their plots. The language they use is colloquial and demotic, full of innuendo and threat. It is a poem full of conspiratorial whispering—‘I have an errande to rounde in your ere’ (ibid., 60)—but the message is never told. It is a depressed analysis, born out of anxiety and insecurity, out of frustration and disappointment, of the milieu in which Skelton had decided to make his career.

Rector of St Mary's, Diss

On 29 April 1502 ‘the duc of Yorks scolemaster’ received a gift of 40s. from Henry VII (H. L. R. Edwards, 288–9). If this person is to be identified with Skelton it was probably the last gift of this sort that he received. Perhaps by 1503, but certainly by 10 April 1504, when he witnessed the will of Margery Cowper, one of his parishioners, Skelton was in Diss, Norfolk, where he was rector of the parish church of St Mary's—a post he held until his death. Though the rectorship of Diss was quite a lucrative post, Skelton evidently did not enjoy the experience of being a country clergyman very much. He probably lived mainly in Diss until 1512 or 1513. He does not appear, from the official records, to have been anything other than a dutiful clergyman. In, perhaps, 1506 he wrote a Latin couplet rejoicing in the receipt of tithes from his parishioners. Some time after 25 April 1507 he wrote ‘Lamentacio urbis Norwicen’, on the second disastrous fire in the city. Between 3 December 1509 and 4 February 1510 he was in attendance at the Norwich consistorial court for the interrogation of Thomas Pykerell of Diss ‘for the welfare of his soul’—a heresy trial. On 6 December 1511 he was one of the arbitrators in a dispute between William Dale, rector of Redgrave, Suffolk, and Thomas Revet before Bishop Richard Nykke in Norwich.

But some poems written in Skelton's period at Diss suggest that he did not get on well with some of his parishioners or some of his fellow clergymen. A pair of macaronic satiric epitaphs, perhaps written in 1506, and copied out by the parish priest of Trumpington, Cambridgeshire, take as their subject ‘two knaves sometyme of Dis’ (Complete English Poems, 106): John Clarke, whose will was proved on 14 April 1506, and Adam Uddersall, two of his parishioners. The epitaph's normal laudation of a life well spent is here replaced by vicious personalized invective. Clarke had, it seems, either calumniated or criticized Skelton, his own rector. There is no doubt, however, about what provoked ‘Ware the Hawke’, which dates from about the same period: a neighbouring cleric, perhaps John Smith, rector of East Wretham (about 15 miles from Diss), had allowed his hawk to chase an injured pigeon into Skelton's church. Skelton remonstrated with him:
But he sayde that he wolde
Agaynst my mynde and wyll
In my church hauke styll.
(ibid., 64)
Skelton implies that he made a formal complaint about the incident which is recorded in ‘the offycallys bokys’ (ibid.) but that a bribe caused the matter to be dropped, so that the church is ‘abusyd / Reproched and pollutyd’ (ibid., 66). A better-tempered poem, probably dating originally from before 1505, is ‘Phyllyp Sparowe’, a mock elegy on the death of a pet sparrow belonging to Jane Scrope, daughter of the twice widowed Lady Eleanor Wyndham, who, with her unmarried daughters, had gone in 1502 to live in Carrow Abbey, a Benedictine house near Norwich, where the unfortunate bird was killed by the nunnery cat. The poem owes something to Catullus's ‘Lugete, O veneres cupidinesque’, his lament for Lesbia's dead sparrow, and to other classical poems on the deaths of pets, but it is structured around various offices for the dead from the service books of the medieval church, and Latin phrases from these services intersperse Jane's lament.

Something about Skelton's poem offended Alexander Barclay—possibly the parody of the offices for the dead or, more likely, the questionable prurience of some of Skelton's ‘commendacions’ of Jane—and he referred to it slightingly in a ‘brefe addicion to the syngularyte of some newe folys’ which he appended to his translation of Sebastian Brant's Shyp of Folys (1509):
Wyse men love vertue, wylde people wantones;
It longeth not to my scyence nor cunnynge
For Phylyp the Sparowe the Dirige to synge.
This is the first known occasion on which Skelton's writings attract unfavourable notice. Subsequently it becomes more frequent and Skelton becomes more of a controversialist. He responded, characteristically, to Barclay with an ‘addicyon’ of his own (which made its first appearance in print in ‘The Garlande of Laurell’, 1523, lines 1261–375, and which was included in all subsequent editions of ‘Phyllyp Sparowe’) defending his poem and accusing his detractors of envy. However, about 1510, Skelton is mentioned in The Great Chronicle of London, along with William Cornish and Thomas More, as contemporary satiric ‘poettes … of fame’ (A. S. G. Edwards, 46–7).

Henry VIII's ‘orator regius’

On the accession of Henry VIII in 1509 Skelton made a determined effort to return to court, hoping that his former pupil might favour him. He wrote ‘A Lawde and Prayse made for our Sovereigne Lord the Kyng’, perhaps for 24 June when the new king was crowned, praising him for uniting the Lancastrian and Yorkist lines, and confidently expecting him to be ‘sage’ and ‘just’, and a protector of the commons. He also sent to Henry VIII a copy of the ‘Speculum principis’, perhaps for his birthday on 28 June, with the addition of a twelve-line ‘palinodium’ making many of the same points as the English eulogy. He adds, ‘May Jupiter Feretrius grant that I do not pass my time on the banks of the Eurotas’—alluding, in the last phrase, to the Latin proverb connoting enforced idleness and under-employment (Latin Writings, no. X). Whether Skelton's bid had any immediate effect is difficult to say. The general pardon roll of 21 November 1509 says that he was ‘late of Diss, Norfolk’, so perhaps he was living, for at least part of his time, in London or Westminster. He was in Westminster on 15 July 1511 when he dined with Prior Richard Mane, but he was in Norwich in the autumn of that year.

By 1512, however, Skelton was beginning to write poems very different from the outraged invectives and satires on local issues which characterized his period in Diss. In 1512 and afterwards he frequently used the title ‘orator regius’—which means probably that he saw himself as a spokesman for the king with a range of duties, sometimes diplomatic, sometimes secretarial, and sometimes poetical. It was a title used also by Bernard Andre, Giovanni Gigli, ambassador to the papal curia, and Jean Maillard, French secretary to Henry VIII. Skelton celebrated his new status, characteristically, with two poems of self-praise—one in Latin, one in English—dedicating himself to Calliope ‘for as long as my life lasts’ (Latin Writings, no. XV, l. 4). And the focus of his poems becomes more national. In this year, at the suggestion of Abbot John Islip, he wrote a Latin epitaph to be displayed on the tomb of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey, celebrating him, among other things, for the fear he instilled in the French and the Scots (ibid., no. XVI, ll. 12–14). He also sent to Henry VIII a copy of the Chronique de Rains, a history of the third crusade, written in French prose, which recounts, among other things, the exploits of Richard I. Skelton attached to it a brief dedicatory Latin poem pointing out that the exploits of the English are usually belittled by French writers (ibid., no. XIV, ll. 10–11). The nationalism and latent aggression of these two texts may suggest that Skelton knew that war was coming and that he was in favour of it.

In May and June 1513 Henry VIII crossed the channel to France with a large and well-equipped army and besieged Therouanne. An attempt by the French to relieve the town on 16 August led to a disastrous defeat at Guinegate, usually called ‘the battle of the spurs’ because the French ran away so fast. In support of his French ally, with whom he had signed a treaty of mutual aid on 16 March 1512, James IV of Scotland crossed the English border on 22 August. A number of castles fell to the Scots initially, but they were confronted and disastrously defeated at Flodden by an English army under Thomas Howard, earl of Surrey, on 9 September, and James IV was killed. These events provided the material for a number of poems, glorifying the achievements of Henry VIII and belittling his enemies. Where Skelton was during these momentous events—in France with Henry VIII's army, in Diss, or in Westminster—is much argued about, but he got speedy information (not always accurate) about what was happening.

Skelton's ‘Chorus de Dys contra Gallos’, written on 28 August 1513, celebrates the capitulation of Therouanne, denigrates the French, and praises Henry VIII as Mary's knight who will rule the French nation under her might (sub ope; Latin Writings, no. XVII). Four poems, however, deal with the battle of Flodden and its aftermath, and Skelton was clearly principally concerned with the Scottish war. The earliest is ‘A Ballade of the Scotyshe Kynge’, printed as a single leaf by Richard Fakes, evidently hurriedly because it is full of mistakes. Skelton knows that there has been a battle, but, reflecting earlier reports of it, does not know exactly where it took place and is not sure whether James IV is dead or has been taken prisoner. Most of the poem deals with an interview between the Lyon king of arms, James IV's herald, and Henry VIII in France, of which Skelton obviously had a detailed account. In the style of a flyting Skelton denigrates James IV for his treachery and maintains that through his actions he has forfeited the right to be called noble. At some time probably shortly after 22 September, Skelton revised this poem and reissued it as Agaynste the Scottes with a variety of changes: he knew by then that the battle had taken place at Branxton Moor and Flodden Edge, and what had happened to James IV's body. Some of the additions add extra insults to the Scots and their dead. He is also concerned to set the record straight, dismissing derisively the early claims that the Scots had won the battle. He is also clearer about the double intention of the poem: it is to ‘angre the Scottes and Irish keterynges’ by rejoicing over the death of their king, and to ‘comfort with gladnes’ the hearts of England (Complete English Poems, 117).

To praise the king, celebrate victories in battle, and to denigrate the enemies of England may have represented some of the literary functions of the ‘orator regius’, but it seems clear that Skelton also had a responsibility to entertain and amuse the court. A number of satires in the form of flytings were written in the years between 1514 and 1518 apparently for this purpose. The most interesting and extensive poems of this sort—four lengthy English offerings and a Latin couplet—disparage the ancestry, personal appearance, moral make-up, and career of Sir Christopher Garnesche, a prosperous East Anglian knight, who had seen service in France and had become gentleman usher to Henry VIII in 1509. There were two sides to this poetical contest, but the poems written on behalf of Garnesche have not survived. In the heading to his second poem Skelton refers to Garnesche's helper as ‘Gresy, Gorbelyd Godfrey’—which may refer to Stephen Hawes or to Alexander Barclay (Complete English Poems, 122). The latter had attacked Skelton in the same year as ‘voyde of wisedom’. From 1515–16 come two other flytings: one against George Dundas, in which all Skelton's anti-Scottish feelings are rehearsed; and ‘Against Venemous Tongues’, an attack on backbiters at court. In 1517 or thereabouts Skelton wrote ‘Elynour Rummynge’, an anti-feminist diatribe in the guise of describing a tavern, its owner, and its clientele. It was evidently based on a real person: an ‘Alianora Romyng’ of Leatherhead, Surrey, was described as being a ‘common tippellar of ale’ and was fined 2d. for selling ale ‘at excessive price by small measures’.

The only eulogistic poem to date from these years is the Latin elegy for Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, which is dated 15 August 1516. Lady Margaret had died in 1509 and the occasion for Skelton's poem was probably the completion of Pietro Torregiano's tomb for her in the south aisle of Henry VII's chapel in Westminster Abbey, where the poem was displayed. But in July 1518, or a little later, he wrote another epitaph—satiric and vituperative this time—on William Bedell, Lady Margaret's former treasurer and receiver-general, with whom Skelton would have come into contact when he was in Diss and subsequently in Westminster. Bedell is twice referred to as a hater of priests (Latin Writings, no. XXI, ll. 6–8), and since Lady Margaret had significant holdings in the parish of Diss, which she discharged through Bedell, the quarrel may have originated there.

Skelton's most ambitious work from this period is ‘Magnyfycence’, an elaborate morality play, first performed perhaps in the London Merchant Taylors' Hall (Complete English Poems, 179). It is set in London and deals with a struggle for power in the household of a ‘prynce’, and, though it is peopled by allegorical abstractions, it appears to refer to the ‘expulsion of the minions’ of May 1519, a move by Henry VIII's council to expel from their places in the privy chamber a group of young men, including Sir Nicholas Carew and Sir Francis Bryan, who were thought to be having a deleterious influence on the king. In Skelton's play, irresponsible and scheming vice figures persuade Magnyfycence to dismiss his steward, Measure, and misappropriate and spend the prince's money, leaving him impoverished and degraded until Good Hope, Redresse, Sad Cyrcumspeccyon, and Perseveraunce bring him back to good order—these last probably a reflection of the ‘foure sad and auncient knights, put into the kynges privie chamber’ by the council. Skelton, through this play, seeks to persuade Henry VIII to be careful whom he chooses to have as his most intimate advisers, to curb his financial excesses, and to run his household according to the Aristotelian ‘golden mean’.

In 1519 Skelton became involved in the ‘grammarians' war’, which turned on how it was best to teach Latin—by rule and precept, or by means of seeking to imitate the best classical authors and giving less attention to formal grammar. Skelton, predictably, took the part of the more formal traditionalists. He was praised in this year by Robert Whittinton, whose traditionally based Vulgaria (1520) was one of the texts at the centre of the quarrel. Skelton, in his turn, attacked William Lyly, headmaster of St Paul's School, London, one of the reformers, in a Latin invective of 64 lines, which has been lost. Lyly wrote a brief but brilliant epigram on Skelton which concludes by describing him as ‘neither learned nor a poet’ (‘doctrinam nec habes, nec es poeta’; A. S. G. Edwards, 48). Skelton returns to this issue in ‘Speke Parott’ (1521) where he jibes that the modernistic teachers set their minds ‘so moche of eloquens’ that the complete meaning of things (‘hole sentens’) is lost (Complete English Poems, 235). And he widens his attack to include the way Greek, which had recently become available at both Oxford and Cambridge, was taught. Again it is the non-utilitarian focus which offends him.

Skelton and Wolsey

‘Speke Parott’, however, is about rather more than grammar, being for the most part a thinly disguised attack on Cardinal Thomas Wolsey for his high-handedness and his manoeuvrings at the Paris peace conference between 2 August and 24 November 1521, which Skelton took to be to serve his own ambitions for the papacy rather than the interests of Henry VIII and England. Skelton uses the Parott of the title as a mouthpiece and pretends to be repeating what he has heard, ‘shredis of sentence’, around the court, so distancing himself somewhat from what he writes. The learning and allusiveness of the earlier part of the poem evidently made it difficult to understand: according to ‘lenvoy primere’ some ‘folys’ who had read it said that it hung together ‘as fethyrs in the wynde’ (Complete English Poems, 239). Skelton rejects this criticism by saying that these cavillers are ‘lewdlye … lettyrd’ (ibid.). But he responds to the suggestion that he should ‘sette asyde all sophysms, and speke now trew and playne’ (ibid., 244), and closes off the poem with a set of generalized ‘abuses of the age’. And his other poems against Wolsey are simpler and more direct in style. In ‘Collyn Clout’ (1521–2) Skelton assumes the persona of a poor countryman and abandons the rhyme royal of the previous poem for the simpler short-lined rhyming to which he gave his name—‘Skeltonics’. But even though his poem is simple, ‘ragged / Tattered and jagged’, he asserts that it ‘hath in it some pyth’ (ibid., 248). It is an attack on various aspects of the contemporary church, particularly on the bishops for dereliction of their duties, greediness, worldliness. In ‘Why come ye not to courte?’ (November 1522) the approach is a lot plainer. This is a question-and-answer poem which deals with contemporary events in an up-to-date manner. ‘What news? What news?’ and similar questions produce a review of the political issues of the day. But the latter part of the poem is an attack on Wolsey—direct, trenchant, often highly personal, as in lines 1166–201, where Skelton mentions his eye trouble and suggests he is also syphilitic. But what concerns Skelton principally is the way in which Wolsey, in the council and in Star Chamber, overbears the aristocracy and, he suggests, sets himself up as an equal to Henry VIII:
Set up a wretche on hye,
In a trone triumphantlye,
Make him of great astate
And he wyll play checke mate
With ryall majeste.
(ibid., 293)
It is impossible to tell whether Wolsey was aware of these poems or not: they do not appear to have been printed until after his death, but they may well have circulated in manuscript.

However, when Skelton's ‘Garlande of Laurell’ was published by Richard Fakes on 23 October 1523 it contained a double dedication—to Henry VIII and, surprisingly, to Wolsey. The latter is reminded that he had promised Skelton a prebend (Complete English Poems, 356). Whether Skelton was bought off by patronage (which is what this suggests) or whether he thought England had worse enemies than Wolsey, is impossible to say. But after 1523 most of his poems appear to have been commissioned by Wolsey. That he could dedicate his poem to the two most powerful men in the kingdom adds something to Skelton's poem, though, because it is very much a summation and justification of his poetic career. Much of the narrative, which relates in a dream-vision how Skelton was accepted into the company of other eminent poets by the Queen of Fame, was probably written in 1495 or a little later. All that he appears to have done in 1522 and 1523, besides write the dedicatory lines, is to update his autobiography (ibid., 346–50). But it is clear that by 1523 Skelton believed that he had achieved distinction in his chosen career and that his position of eminence was assured. The Queen of Fame tells him that ‘your place is here reservyd’ (ibid., 344).

After this Skelton wrote only two substantial poems, both commissioned by Wolsey, and both dealing with threats to state and church. In early November 1523 John Stewart, duke of Albany and regent of Scotland, crossed the English border with a large force of Scots and Frenchmen and besieged the castle of Wark, but, after a fierce engagement, failed to take it. Skelton celebrates the failed siege in ‘The Douty Duke of Albany’, written between 6 and 12 November, using material from Surrey's dispatches and ideas from his earlier anti-Scottish poems. The purpose of the poem appears to have been to counter Albany's propaganda as much as to celebrate his discomfiture, and Skelton, in a predictable and personalized way, stresses his unknightly behaviour:
This Duke so fell
Of Albany,
So cowardly,
With all his hoost
Of the Scottyshe coost,
For all theyr boost,
Fledde lyke a beest.
(Complete English Poems, 359)
Several years later, in late 1527 or 1528, Skelton wrote against two heretics who had appeared before Wolsey in November 1527. Thomas Arthur and Thomas Bilney, both Cambridge scholars, made abjurations (though Bilney's was very oddly framed), and both were imprisoned for about a year. On their release Arthur disappeared from heretical circles, but Bilney, after a while, resumed his heterodox preaching and was burnt as a relapsed heretic on 19 August 1531. Skelton was much involved in countering heresy in 1528: he appeared as a witness in the trial of Thomas Bowgas, a fuller from St Leonard's, Colchester, who was cited before Cuthbert Tunstall, bishop of London, on 4 May. Skelton's poem, A Replycacion agaynst Certayne Yong Scolers Abjured of Late, published by Pynson probably in 1528, seems to have been part of an orchestrated strategy: it was commissioned by Wolsey, and bears a marked resemblance to Thomas More's Dialogue Concerning Heresies (published in 1529) which was written at Tunstall's request. Skelton accuses the ‘recheless yonge heretykes’ of overreaching intellectual pride which has taken them ‘farther than their wytte wyll reche’ (ibid., 374), and advises them to submit to the authority of the ‘doctours’ of the church (ibid., 381). But though the poem may be unfair in presenting them as bar-room intellectuals, it is also astute in not giving credence to Bilney's abjuration. Skelton asserts that he is ‘now as yll … As ye were before’ (ibid., 379), and events proved him to be correct.

Death and reputation

On 8 August 1518 Skelton is recorded as living within the sanctuary at Westminster in an apartment ‘south of the great Belfrey’ and it may be assumed that he lived there for the latter part of his life. He died on 21 June 1529 and was buried before the high altar in St Margaret's, Westminster, to all intents and purposes an honoured churchman.

But stories which circulated after his death, especially the Merie Tales of 1567, presented him very differently as a scandalous libertine (who kept a concubine with whom he had a child), and an eccentric wit and jester (Poetical Works, 1.lxxi–xci). Many of the stories turn on clever retorts or pithy sayings, which are not inconsistent with the reputation he had for learning and for being, as Henry Bradshaw termed him, ‘inventive’ (A. S. G. Edwards, 47). It is worth noting that both More and Erasmus were renowned as wits and jesters, and John Grange, in Golden Aphroditis (1577), links Erasmus and Skelton in this regard: ‘by what means could Skelton the Laureat poet, or Erasmus that great and learned clarke have uttered their mindes so well at large, as thorowe clokes of mery conceytes in wryting of toyes and foolish theames?’ (ibid., 59). Implicit in such a question is the view that witty jests had serious intentions.

Skelton was the last great poet of Catholic England, and was a determined and thoroughgoing conservative on religious and political issues. He was also the first notable poet whose career coincided with printing. A number of his texts were circulated in the traditional way in manuscript form, but a good many were printed in his lifetime, and this brought him to the notice of a readership from a wide social spectrum. Since he was essentially a public and occasional poet the availability of print was important: his poems had a propagandist value, which was exploited by him and by his patrons. After his death there appeared numerous editions of his works, both single poems and small collections, culminating in Marsh's extensive collection of 1568, Pithy, Pleasaunt and Profitable Works of Maister Skelton, Poete Laureate. This was prefaced by an adulatory poem by Thomas Churchyard, comparing Skelton to a list of poets both classical and modern, both European and English. He stresses Skelton's talent for satire: ‘His terms to taunts did lean’ (A. S. G. Edwards, 56–9). And this was very much the way he was seen in the sixteenth century: according to John Bale, he told the truth ‘under a mask of laughter’ (‘sub persona ridentis’; H. L. R. Edwards, 306). His early followers tended to imitate his controversial and polemical works, especially those in ‘Skeltonics’—long leashes of monorhymed short, mainly two-stressed, lines: the earliest is probably William Roy's and Jerome Barlowe's Rede me and be nat Wrothe (1528), a vituperative attack on Wolsey, but several controversial works in this form survive from the 1540s and 1550s. Skelton, however, did not see himself exclusively as a satirist. He had a high view of the worth of poetry and of the dignity of the poet, which is probably why he insists so much on his titles to fame, ‘poete laureate’, ‘orator regius’. In some of the last lines he wrote he asserts that ‘God maketh his habytacion’ in poets and that it is through ‘divyne inspyracion’ that poets write. And this, he argues, applies to poetry of all sorts, which are all equally valid, for poets write in all sorts of circumstances:
Somtyme for affection,
Sometyme for sadde dyrection,
Somtyme for correction.
(Complete English Poems, 384–5)
Praise, advice, blame—in small compass this is not a bad summary of the nature of his poetry.

John Scattergood

Sources  

A. S. G. Edwards, Skelton: the critical heritage (1981) · The poetical works of John Skelton, ed. A. Dyce (1864) · H. L. R. Edwards, Skelton: the life and times of an early Tudor poet (1949) · John Skelton: the complete English poems, ed. J. Scattergood (1983) · The Latin writings of John Skelton, ed. D. R. Carlson, Texts and Studies (1991)

Likenesses  

line engraving, pubd 1821 (after unknown artist), BM, NPG