There are three manuscript witnesses of the poem: the so-called Welles Anthology (STC 12653); London, British Library Harley 2252, ff. 147-153v; and London, British Library Lansdowne 762, f. 71. Furthermore, there are two extant print copies: Here after followeth a lytell boke called Collyn Clout printed around 1531 by T. Godfray, and Here after foloweth a litel boke called Colyn Cloute compyled by mayster Skelton poete Laureate by R. Copland c. 1545.
A clear indication as to the date is the fact that the poem is mentioned in Skelton’s later work Garlande or Chapelet of Laurell. The latter is dated 1 October 1523, hence, Collyn Clout must have been written before this date. Moreover, there are several references to events from 1521 and 1522 (Scattergood 465). According to John Scattergood, the wolfe and rambes (ll. 153;157) may define heretics and, subsequently, have a clear connection to Bishop Fisher. He preached against heretics on 12 May 1521 and can be referred to in the lines: “Almoost two or three, / … / Full worshypfull clerkes” (ll. 148;150) (467). Another event of which a reference can be found in the poem is the fall of Edward Stafford, third Duke of Buckingham who was arrested and, afterwards, executed due to high treason in 1521 (ll. 1011-19). It is not surprising that Stafford is mentioned in an anti-Wolseyan poem since “shocked observers” linked his death directly to the “awful malice”of the Cardinal (Harris 1). A final event which links the date of the poem is the suppression of certain nunneries between 1521 and 1522. These references can conclude that the poem must have been written between 1522 and October 1523.
An earlier event that might have been of importance to the poem is a gathering of bishops at St. Paul’s in 1512 (Hill 153). There, Bishop Colet was asked to give a sermon against Lollardy, but instead he chose to preach against the sinful bishops before him (153). Probably, Skelton was one of the bishops who attended the convention; if not, he was at least familiar with Colet’s sermon (153). It is likely that Skelton modelled the angry shepherd Collyn Clout on bishop Colet, both in his character and name (153). The name Colyn, moverover, is traditionally used to describe country bumpkins, and is derived from Latin colinus (countryman) (Scattergood Authority and Resistance 194)
Collyn Clout is, as Greg Walker indicates, one of the Wolsey poems which Skelton wrote against the Cardinal. It can be seen as the successor to Skelton’s satirical Speke Parott in which the poet implicitly attacked Wolsey’s politics. Collyn Clout, however, is of a much more explicit nature in which he uses the persona of Collyn Clout to make “a barely concealed assault on what he declared to be the dangers inherent in Wolsey’s dominance of Church and state, his monopoly of the King’s ear and his personal vices” (Walker 1).
One of the main goals of Skelton’s writings was to attract patronage and acclamation. Even though the main character of Collyn Clout has a more personal nature than the parrot of Speke Parott, it is uncertain whether Skelton gained this popular audience he wanted through this particular poem. Nonetheless, an increase in the poem’s popularity and Wolsey’s developing dislike towards William Thynne who openly sympathised with the poem makes this suggestion quite likely (Walker 118). The inability to attract enough attention with his first anti-Wolseyan poem Speke Parrot can also be abstracted from the opening of the poem in which he writes: “What can it avayle / … / To wryte or to indyte, / Other for delye / Or elles for despyte” (ll. 1; 6-8). Instead he decides to use a different way by creating his alter-ego, Collyn Clout: “My name is Collyn Clout. / I purpose to shake oute / All my connynge bagge, / Lyke a clerkely hagge” (ll. 49-52) (Meyer-Lee 213; Walker 118).