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court skelton’s henry poet

A caveat: what little we know of John Skelton’s life often comes from the Scylla and Charybdis of overreading what might be internal evidence in his varied works and accepting apocryphal data that collected around him in alarmingly rapid fashion in his life and afterward in ballads and broadsides and other popular narrative accounts, mostly from the famous jest-books.

In several ways, Skelton, probably born in Norfolk, probably on 2 May 1463 (Brownlow, 92–93), was, with George Cavendish,* the last great medieval figure in the Renaissance court of Henry VIII. More akin to Scotch poets, such as Dunbar* and Douglas* and even Lindsay* than to, say, Wyatt the Elder* or Surrey,* Skelton was well educated in rhetoric and poetry in Latin ultimately at Oxford, Cambridge, and at Louvain in the Low Countries, at all of which he received the advanced degree of rhetoric, the laureate. He was also an expert, like the Scotch poets, in contemporary French literature and at least a student of Italian. Thanks to his early production of a sequence of encomiastic poems on royalty and court nobility, he secured the position of tutor to Henry VII’s second son Henry, then duke of York, whom he claims to have taught spelling— so anomalous, at least in English of the time—and, more likely, the nine Muses. For his poetical services at a court in London that always made him uneasy, Henry VII, we hear, presented Skelton with a white and green dress to wear in court embroidered in gold with the name “Calliope,” the Muse of epic poetry.

Admitted to Holy Orders in 1498, Skelton held the post of parson of Diss in Norfolk until his death, and gradually he saw less time in a court that struck him more and more as vainglorious and deceitful. He remained, however, for the most part, a Londoner. While his early verse was panegyric, his later was pointed satire in the vein of Scotch “flyting” poems of Dunbar and others. Some of his biting derision was mock-satire designed to produce answers in kind—thus, to some degree, self-ironic—but some was apparently vitriolic in essence, some directed at his close contemporary cleric and courtier, Thomas Wolsey. Although he lost some friends at court, in the church, and among the church laity with his satirical turn, he also had powerful supporters to the end, including Elizabeth Stafford, the countess of Surrey, mother of Surrey the poet and sister-in-law to Queen Catherine Howard.

Skelton’s career, thus, was centrally marked by one ambiguous success and one disastrous confrontation. His prize was to be considered poet laureate of England. Caxton* announced that he is the “late created poet laureate in the University of Oxenford,” and Erasmus* spoke of him as “the incomparable light and glory of English letters.” This capacity, which went with the green and white dress and various crowns of bay leaves from the universities and other institutions, carried no stipend. Furthermore, it went unrecorded except in the author’s own ambiguous dream vision, The Garlande of Laurell , which enumerated his forebears and his own works in Chaucerian rhyme royal and in a mass of ribald anecdotes that gathered around this unorthodox and highly theatrical poet/preacher. But the epithet “laureate” stuck. Even though a cleric, Skelton also reveled in a quasi marriage and his several offspring. One apocryphal story has him holding up a newborn son to his congregation saying, in part, “How say you, neighbors all? Is not this child as fair as the best of all yours?”

Skelton’s disaster followed his several satirical attacks in 1521 and part of 1522 on Cardinal Wolsey, whose career reached its apogee around the time of Skelton’s death at Westminster on 21 June 1529. He is credited with satiric verse on Wolsey’s bullying of the archbishop of Canterbury as early as 1521 and 1522 by the chronicler Hall,* and his most famous work after The Boke of Phylyp Sparowe, Colyn Cloute , contains satire of Wolsey’s extravagant lifestyle at Hampton Court in Molesey, as does Speake Parrot and Why Come Ye Not to Court? , both in rhyme royal. The dates of Skelton’s open attacks on Wolsey run, in my estimation, less than a year, but their effects lasted on and off the rest of Skelton’s life. Covert attacks, furthermore, perhaps encouraged by the Howard family, may go back to 1516. Apparently, he was imprisoned briefly on Wolsey’s instigation, finally forcing him, after that disagreeable experience, to seek sanctuary several times in Westminster Cathedral, where he probably died four months before Wolsey’s catastrophic fall, so ably chronicled in the medieval tragical mode of Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale and a bit of Troilus and Criseyde by George Cavendish. Like Ovid’s appeals to Augustus from exile near the Black Sea, Skelton’s final works, including The Garland of Laurel and the Replication against the Cambridge radicals, were all dedicated to Wolsey. The latter work may even have been commissioned by the cardinal.


John Skelton was, in O. B. Hardison’s terms, an epideictic poet, that is, a master of the rhetoric of praise and blame. Early, as we have seen, he solidified an enviable position in Henry VII’s court with elegies and eulogies, mostly lost, beginning with an English poem on the death of Edward IV and an elegy on the death of Henry Percy, fourth earl of Northumberland, killed in a civil disturbance in Yorkshire on 28 April 1489. In the second half of his career, he became, as we have seen, a formidable satirist, but not without relief, even within the works themselves. His is a complex and, as I argue, a medieval mind.

Beyond the strict encomia and satire already mentioned, Skelton produced four remarkably original works, all difficult to date exactly. The first is the morality play, Magnificence , whose title suggests his sarcasm about court life and which best features a group of fools exposing themselves in Chaucerian hubristic poses. The Garland of Laurel , as I have mentioned, is a dream vision whose frame and allegorical center are baffling in their irony and self-irony, especially in mysterious locae that come from the mythographers from Servius and Boccaccio forward and in Skelton’s own list of his major accomplishments. One is a mock elegy on the death of a girl’s pet sparrow, Philip Sparrow . The bird is ambiguous, coming from Catullus, and the delicious satire is partly directed at the liturgical office for the dead. The most remarkable may be The Tunning of Elinour Rumming , a detailed portrait of a B-girl in an alehouse, most remarkable for its “skeltonics,” the three-beat short line alliterated and rhymed for comic effect. All these works have a medieval message of vanitas vanitorum of the court—that is, the venal life with some sympathy. The imminence of death is what Skelton preaches universally. As Colin Clout says,

It is wrong with each degree
For the temporality
Accuseth the spirituality.


No poet, to my knowledge, has suffered the extremes of praise and denigration over the centuries—often simultaneous—as John Skelton did. While his   reputation evolved nicely in the courts of Edward IV, Richard III, and Henry VII, in Henry VIII’s court his habit of flyting by means of satirical skeltonics came under severe opprobrium, and he lost many supporters, as we have seen, outside the powerful Howard family and Europe at large. While Erasmus praised Skelton to the skies, Alexander Barclay, perhaps offended by his attacks on the Scots before and after Flodden, produced several vitriolic attacks on him, including Contra Skeltonium , some of which personal invective found a friendly audience in the jest-books. In the next generation, practically simultaneous to Sidney’s* toying with the idea of an alter ego, Philip Sparrow in Astrophil and Stella , Spenser’s* adopting his pseudonym Colin Clout for both The Shepheardes Calendar and the sixth book of The Faerie Queene , and Shake-speare’s* giving some of his lines to Hamlet, Puttenham* mocked him with the skeltonoic epithet, “rude railing rhymer.” Alexander Pope lent him the epithet “beastly” in 1737, the same year the brilliant and charming Elizabeth Cooper praised his “very rich vein of Wit, Humour, and Poetry.” Thomas Walton called him “a fool in any language” a generation before the Romantic poets, especially Southey and Wordsworth, proclaimed him a “genius.” Only after World War I and especially after Robert Graves’ and W. H. Auden’s various appreciations of him has Skelton’s reputation remained relatively secure. This history of appreciation and rejection brings us back, I think, to a notion of a poet who could be smooth in his roughness and could contain praise in his apparent blame. One of the anomalies of Skelton criticism lies in the fact that two brilliant contemporary students of the seventeenth century and of Milton in particular, Stanley Fish and David Loewenstein, have contributed to our knowledge of Skelton’s rhetorical complexity, notably, his use of irony in, above all, his pseudocompliments to the ladies of the Howard coterie in Garland of Laurel .

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