Skelton is said to have been educated at Oxford. He certainly studied at Cambridge, and he is probably the "one Scheklton" mentioned by William Cole as taking his M.A. degree in 1484. In 1490, William Caxton writes of him, in the preface to The Boke of Eneydos compyled by Vyrgyle, in terms which prove that he had already won a reputation as a scholar. "But I pray mayster John Skelton," he says, "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. For he hath late translated the epystlys of Tulle, and the boke of dyodorus siculus, and diverse other works ... in polysshed and ornate termes craftely ... suppose he hath drunken of Elycons well."
The laureateship referred to was a degree in rhetoric. In 1493 Skelton received the same honour at Cambridge, and also, it is said,[by whom?] at Leuven. He found 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 Diguileville'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, and Erasmus, in dedicating an ode to the prince in 1500, speaks of Skelton as "unum Britannicarum literarum lumen ac decus." In 1498 he 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[by whom?] that he offended Wolsey but this would be impossible if the date is correct, given Wolsey was not yet an influential figure at court - Wolsey's rise began in 1508). Two years later he retired from regular attendance at court to become rector of Diss, a benefice which he retained nominally until his death.
Skelton frequently signed himself "regius orator" and poet-laureate, but there is no record of any emoluments paid in connection with these dignities, although the Abbé du Resnel, author of Recherches sur les poètes couronnez, asserts that he had seen a patent (1513–1514) in which Skelton was appointed poet-laureate to Henry VIII. As rector of Diss he caused great scandal among his parishioners, who thought him, says Anthony Wood, more fit for the stage than for the pew or the pulpit. He was secretly married to a woman who lived in his house, and he had earned the hatred of the Dominican monks 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 round his name—The Merie Tales of Skelton.
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 Garnesche or 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, but Skelton's four poems read as if the abuse in them were dictated by genuine anger. 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, Skelton put in circulation the couplet:
Gentle Paul, laie doune thy sweard
For Peter of Westminster hath shaven thy beard.
In Colyn Cloute he incidentally attacked Wolsey in a general satire on the clergy, "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 author. To avoid another arrest Skelton took sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. He was kindly received by the abbot, John Islip, who continued to protect him until his death. The inscription on his tomb in the neighbouring church of St Margaret's described him as vales pierius. It is thought that Skelton wrote "Why come ye nat to Courte?" having been inspired by Sir Thomas Spring, a merchant in Suffolk who had fallen out with Wolsey over tax.
In his Garlande of Laurell Skelton gives a long list of his works, only a few of which are extant. The garland in question was worked for him in silks, gold and pearls by the ladies of the Countess of Surrey at Sheriff Hutton Castle, where he was the guest of the duke of Norfolk. The composition includes complimentary verses to the various ladies concerned, and a good deal of information about himself. But it is as a satirist that Skelton merits attention. The Bowge of Court is directed against the vices and dangers of court life. He had already in his Boke of the Thre Foles drawn on Alexander Barclay's version of the Narrenschijf of Sebastian Brant, and this more elaborate and imaginative poem belongs to the same class. Skelton, falling into a dream at Harwich, sees a stately ship in the harbour called the "Bowge of Court", the owner of which is the "Dame Saunce Pere". Her merchandise is Favour; the helmsman Fortune; and the poet, 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, until at last Drede, who finds they are secretly his enemies, is about to save his life by jumping overboard, when he wakes with a start. Both of these poems are written in the seven-lined Rhyme Royal, a Continental verse-form first used in English by Chaucer, but it is in an irregular metre of his own—known as "Skeltonics" —that his most characteristic work was accomplished.
The Boke of Phyllyp Sparowe, the lament of Jane Scroop, a schoolgirl in the Benedictine convent of Carrow near Norwich, for her dead bird, was no doubt inspired by Catullus. It is a poem of some 1,400 lines and takes many liberties with the formularies of the church. The digressions are considerable. We learn what a wide reading Jane had in the romances of Charlemagne, of the Round Table, The Four Sons of Aymon and the Trojan cycle. Skelton finds space to give an opinion of Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower and John Lydgate. Whether we can equate this opinion, voiced by the character of Jane, with Skelton's own is contentious. It would appear that he seems fully to have realised Chaucer's value as a master of the English language. Gower's matter was, Jane tells us, "worth gold," but his English she regards as antiquated. The verse in which the poem is written, called from its inventor "Skeltonical," is here turned entirely to whimsical use. 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. For its comic admixture of Latin Skelton had abundant example in French and Low Latin macaronic verse. He makes frequent use of Latin and French words to carry out his exacting system of frequently recurring rhymes. This breathless, voluble measure was in Skelton's energetic hands an admirable vehicle for invective, but it easily degenerated into doggerel.
For though my ryme be ragged,
Tattered and jagged,
Rudely rayne beaten,
Rusty and moughte eaten,
It hath in it some pyth.
Colyn Cloute represents the average country man who gives his opinions on the state of the church. There is no more scathing indictment of the sins of the clergy before the Reformation. He exposes their greed, their ignorance, the ostentation of the bishops and the common practice of simony, but takes care to explain that his accusations do not include all and that he writes in defence of, not against, the church. He repeatedly hits at Wolsey even in this general satire, but not directly. Speke, Parrot has only been preserved in a fragmentary form, and is exceedingly obscure. It was apparently composed at different times, but in the latter part of the composition he openly attacks Wolsey. In Why come ye not to Courte? there is no attempt at disguise. The wonder is not that the author had to seek sanctuary, but that he had any opportunity of doing so. He rails at Wolsey's ostentation, at his almost royal authority, his overbearing manner to suitors high and low, and taunts him with his mean extraction. This scathing invective was not allowed to be printed in the cardinal's lifetime, but it was no doubt widely circulated in manuscript and by repetition. The charge of coarseness regularly brought against Skelton is based chiefly on The Tunnynge of Elynoare Rummynge, a realistic description in the same metre of the drunken women who gathered at a well-known ale-house kept by Elynour Rummynge at Leatherhead, not far from the royal palace of Nonsuch.
"Skelton Laureate against the Scottes" is a fierce song of triumph celebrating the victory 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. This, which is the earliest singly printed ballad in the language, was entitled A Ballade of the Scottysshe Kynge, and was rescued in 1878 from the wooden covers of a copy of Huon de Bordeaux. "Howe the douty Duke of Albany, lyke a cowarde knight" deals with the campaign of 1523, and contains a panegyric of Henry VIII. To this is attached an envoi to Wolsey, but it must surely have been misplaced, for both the satires on the cardinal are of earlier date.
Skelton also wrote three plays, only one of which survives. Magnificence is one of the best examples of the morality play. It deals with the same topic as his satires, the evils of ambition; its moral, "how suddenly worldly wealth doth decay," being a favourite one with him. Thomas Warton in his History of English Poetry described another piece Nigramansir, printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1504, and dealing with 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.
Illustration of the hold Skelton had on the public imagination is supplied from the stage. A play (1600) called Scogan and Shelton, by Richard Hathwaye and William Rankins, is mentioned by Henslowe. In Anthony Munday's Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, Skelton acts the part of Friar Tuck, and Ben Jonson in his masque, The Fortunate Isles, introduced Skogan and Skelton in like habits as they lived.
Very few of Skelton's productions 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.
Five of Skelton's 'Tudor Portraits', including 'The Tunnying of Elynour Rummyng' were set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams in or around 1935. Although he changed the text here and there to suit his music, the sentiments are well expressed. The other four poems are 'My pretty Bess','Epitaph of John Jayberd of Diss', 'Jane Scroop (her lament for Philip Sparrow)', and 'Jolly Rutterkin'. The music is rarely performed, although it is immensely funny, and captures the coarseness of Skelton in an inspired way.
See 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).
John Skelton's lineage is difficult to prove. He was probably related to Sir John Shelton and his children, who also came from Norfolk. Sir John's daughter, Mary Shelton, was a mistress of Henry VIII's during the reign of her cousin, Anne Boleyn. Mary Shelton was the main editor and contributor to the Devonshire MS, a collection of poems written by various members of the court.
Interestingly, it is said that several of Skelton's works were inspired by women who were to become mothers to two of Henry VIII's six wives. Elizabeth Boleyn, Countess of Wiltshire and Ormonde, was said to be so beautiful that Skelton compared her to Cressida and a popular but unverifiable legend also suggests that several poems were inspired by Margery Wentworth. Elizabeth was the mother of Anne Boleyn, Henry's second wife; Margery was the mother of his third, Jane Seymour.
- "Skelton, John (SKLN493J)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
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- "Skelton, John (1460?-1529)". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- The Skelton Project
- Works by or about John Skelton at Internet Archive
- Works by John Skelton at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- Skelton's Grave
- Ware the Hawk
- Philip Sparrow
- John Skelton's "Speke Parott" video