John Skelton

The English poet and humanist John Skelton (ca. 1460-1529) is chiefly remembered for his satires on the court and the clergy.

Little is known of John Skelton's youth except that he may have come from Yorkshire and that he attended Cambridge. His earliest works, which included a translation of Cicero's Familiar Letters and another of Deguileville's Pèlerinage de la vie humaine, do not survive. Skelton was declared poet laureate by Oxford in 1488, by Louvain shortly thereafter, and by Cambridge in 1493. These degrees, partly honorary, were also given in recognition of his achievement in grammar. Skelton's earliest poetry is occasional, including, for example, the poem The Dolorous Death and Most Lamentable Chance of the Most Honorable Earl of Northumberland (1489). About 1495 Skelton became tutor to Prince Henry (later Henry VIII), a position he held for about 7 years. He was ordained a priest in 1498.

Skelton's first satire, The Bowge of Court (1499), was a dream vision attacking the vices of courtiers. In 1501 Skelton wrote Speculum principis, an adaption of a Latin version of the Historical Library of Diodorus Siculus. The book emphasizes the necessity for virtue and learning among princes.

In 1504 Skelton became rector of Diss, Norfolk. There he wrote some satirical poems on local personages and his famous mock dirge, Philip Sparrow. A young nun Skelton knew had lost her pet bird to a voracious cat. Skelton's poem, the first part of which is structured around the Mass for the Dead, represents the nun's lament for her bird. The lament is followed by Skelton's praise of the nun. The tone is pleasant and jocular.

In 1512 Skelton gave up his benefice at Diss and settled at Westminster, where he remained for the rest of his life. He was designated court poet, and he wrote a number of political poems. He also probably wrote a number of plays, but only one of these, Magnificence (1516), survives. During this period Skelton also wrote several songs for the court of Henry VIII, such as Mannerly Margery Milk and Ale. One of his most important poems, The Tunnyng of Eleanor Rummyng, has as its protagonist an amusing variant of an evil old woman.

Between 1521 and 1523 Skelton wrote several satirical attacks on Cardinal Wolsey: Colin Clout; Speak, Parrot; and Why Come Ye Not to Court? To escape the cardinal's wrath he took refuge with the Countess of Surrey. There he sought to appease Wolsey and to justify himself in The Garland of Laurel (1523). His last important work was an attack on heresy, A Replication against Certain Young Scholars. His favorite verse forms, consisting of short rhymed clausulae of irregular length, are called Skeltonics. Skelton died at Westminster on June 21, 1529.

Further Reading on John Skelton

The Poetical Works of John Skelton was published by the Reverend Alexander Dyce (1843). A modernized version of the poems, The Complete Poems of John Skelton, was edited by Philip Henderson (1931; 2d rev. ed. 1948). A good introduction to Skelton is William Nelson, John Skelton, Laureate (1939). More recent studies are lan A. Gordon, John Skelton, Poet Laureate (1943), and H. L. R. Edwards, Skelton: The Life and Times of an Early Tudor Poet (1949).

Additional Biography Sources

Lloyd, Leslie John, John Skelton: a sketch of his life and writings, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978.