Thanks to the latest technology of recent times, it is now possible to speak to historical persons. For this interview the Skelton Project uses a direct connection to 1528 to speak to the renowned writer, poet, and poet laureate, John Skelton. In the following interview John Skelton reveals everything about his eventful life.
Hello John Skelton. It is so nice to be able to speak to you.
Please, call me John or rather John Skelton, poet laureate.
Certainly, John. Let’s start this interview chronologically. Could you tell us somewhat more about your earlier years, your birth and so forth.
I cannot tell too much about my birth since I, myself, cannot remember it. As a Cambridge academic and, of course, a poet laureate, I do not care that much about my own earlier parentage and upbringing. My earlier years were merely years in which I grew up and learnt how to eat and sleep. There was no serious education involved. My significant years only started when I entered university. Professors are one’s true parents who teach the noblest of arts to young men. They are the almae parentes of young lives. Nonetheless, you asked about my earlier years. I know that I was brought up in the northern part of England, somewhere in Yorkshire. This might have been in 1460 but let us not linger on insignificant facts.
As you mentioned, university is a ‘kind parent’. Which university did you attend?
I started my BA in Cambridge somewhere in 1478. However, I thought the university insufficient for my needs and changed to Oxford half-way through my studies and finished my degree in 1480. Even though Cambridge did not fulfil my needs concerning my BA, I met some wonderful people there. Especially the men in Peterhouse, the college which I attended, were delightful. My best friend and advisor of that period was William Ruckshaw, or Ruckshaw as everyone called him. A great companion to have during the first years of university. I mention him at the end of my poem about the dreadful death of young Henry Percy. You should read it, it is beautiful. However, let us return to my academic life. To achieve my MA, I returned to Cambridge because I wanted to give the university a second change. It worked and I received my degree in 1484.
You were made a laureate in both Cambridge and Oxford?
Yes, and by the university of Louvain in Belgium. Do not forget that. First Oxford in 1488, then Louvain in 1492 and, finally, Cambridge in 1493. Cambridge was later in providing their laureate title; probably due to the fact that I changed universities during my BA.
Three years after your final laureate title, in 1496, you became tutor of Henry VIII. Why were you chosen for this position?
Let me get some things straight before we continue. First of all, at that time no one knew that Henry was to become King so I became tutor of Prince Henry: not Henry VIII. Secondly, I was already acquainted with the royal court from 1488 onwards, basically since the end of my university life. Finally, why not me? I have the feeling that you, modern people, do not quite understand the reputation I had after finishing university.
You are probably quite right, John. However, do not forget we speak about a time long past. You speak about your own present. Hence, there may occur more errors due to this difference in time. The same difficulties would appear if you were talking to Geoffrey Chaucer.
Geoffrey! That would be wonderful. Could I do that? Could I talk with him? You modern people should be able to do the same as you are doing to me, isn’t that right? Or maybe, the two Johns? Lydgate and Gower. How I long to speak to them. Could you do this for me?
Sorry, John. Our devices have not been developed quite so far. Nonetheless, if we will consider you as test-object when we are that far in evolving our technology. Please, tell us more about your position as tutor.
Ah yes, tutor. Well, as I said before, I entered royal service in 1488. I was already a renowned poet but court life is cruel and disturbing at times so I had to start as a simple court poet. During those years I climbed up on the social ladder and it was King Henry who placed me in the position of his son’s tutor in 1496. Young Henry, then at the age of five, was a splendid child. He was very keen on learning and wanted to become familiar with all different arts. I taught him literature, rhetoric and languages. He was already fluent in French at that young age and read Latin like any other scholar. I did not only inspire young Henry, he also inspired me greatly. It was in this time of my life that I read and, also, wrote pedagogical works. It is really interesting to see how such a young mind is able to comprehend and analyse the arts in a way so different to adolescents. So different to my education. It was Henry’s tutorship that causes me to plea for an educational system that starts at a very young age. I believe that boys are, in fact, too old when they start university. The mind is so much more apt for learning when it is young and fresh.
If we are not mistaken, you continued to write poems alongside these pedagogical works. Manerly Margery and Agaynste a Comely Coystrowne, for instance.
Writing has always been my passion. Since a very young age, I wrote short poems and works so it was only natural to continue this skill during my years as young Henry’s tutor. I was also still a simple court poet, although my reputation grew increasingly with my position as tutor. Moreover, I loved the musical atmosphere of court and all the dances. This feature is clearly apparent in the poems you just mentioned. They are of a more musical nature than other poems that I wrote.
Then again, court seems not always to have been that promising and fruitful since you plainly criticise it in The Bowge of Courte.
Court life is something you cannot understand when you are not part of it. It is wonderful and attractive but also addictive and creates numerous insecurities. One is never sure whether one is hated or loved. It was this insecurity that I condemned but also, in certain ways, aspired. I wanted to become the court poet. I wanted to become Geoffrey. People needed to love me for my writings and my humour. The only way to obtain this ambition was to become part of court; thus, becoming part of the extremely self-conscious hive. Let us not talk about it anymore. It’s useless to explain when others don’t understand.
Certainly, John. Our next question focuses on the fact that you were not only a writer and poet but also a clergyman. At one point you became the rector of the parish church in Diss. How do you recall this period of your life?
Disappointing. Very disappointing. The thing is, if Prince Henry had not become King Henry VIII, my life would have been so entirely different. We had wonderful times together, Henry and I, and I knew he would become a great man. No one, of course, would have foreseen the death of young Prince Arthur. I do not blame Henry’s parents for wanting a different education for their son although my teaching would have been perfectly fine for a future king (pensive). Nevertheless, let’s not dwell. After I was removed from my position as royal tutor, the most suitable alternative was becoming rector in Diss since it was certainly a rewarding job. I had taken my orders in 1498 and was already placed in the position of deacon of the abbey of St Mary of Graces, next to the Tower. But you know, I am a city man. And Diss is miles and miles from London. I hate the countryside and I love the hectics of the city and especially of court; even with its insecurities. Diss was one large disappointment. I bet Wolsey was behind all these plans to place me in that diocese. The most annoying thing was not even being rector, but the presence of the parishioners. So down-to-earth without any imagination. And the other clergymen… No status, no personality and no humour at all. Especially John Clarke and that other man, Adam Uddersal. They were so keen to criticise me as if I was just a simple clergyman. I was their rector! In contrast to their status, I was the Head of the Church, I was Wolsey! And they dared to condemn me. John Smith, regard the unimaginative name, is another one. He was also rector but in East Wretham. An even more awful place than Diss. His parish consisted out of, merely, ten parishioners. His life must truly have been hellish. He and his hawk were always annoying me. Don’t get me wrong, I love birds but this hawk was a pure incarnation of the devil. (pensive) I guess you can recall my life in Diss as disappointing and boring. Luckily, three years later, there was a house in Westminster available. A bit of a disappointment again because Westminster, with all its clerks, is so much more boring than London but, fortunately, I was close to the city again.
It was only in the last years of your life that you started writing personal satire. Nowadays, the most famous are the ones against Cardinal Wolsey. Why did you oppose him?
The most famous ones, you say? Interesting… They were not all that good or, better said, perfect. All my poetry is good, obviously. But indeed, I wrote three poems against Wolsey. The first one was Speke, Parott. The main character is a parrot. Amazing creatures, they are. I truly love birds and try to incorporate them in all my poems. However, with Speke, Parrot, I realised that not everyone is as fond of birds as I am. Trying to write powerful critique against the Head of the Church which is appealing to the audience as well does not function when the main character is a bird. Sadly, most people do not have the same imagination as I have.
But why did you oppose Cardinal Wolsey?
Yes, yes. Opposition. The thing is that I did not oppose him. Well not in that extremity as you modern people seem to think. To be a professional writer is really difficult because all you need is money even though a good reputation at court is, in the end, more effective. Since I had been Henry’s tutor, it was the likeliest choice for him to be my patron as well. He had the money; I had the writing skills. One and one is two. And the next logical step was to attack the second most influential man of England: Thomas Wolsey. To be able to write against powerful men is a skill not every writer and poet has. I, however, was born with it. Wolsey, in my eyes, was too powerful and too present at court and, as a matter of fact, I did not like him. He was a nuisance and treated Henry as a small boy. Moreover, the thing with powerful men is that once you write against him, a writer will obtain a larger audience because there are always people who are against the person. Wolsey was someone who, certainly, had people who were against him which was a delight for me.
Wait a second. You started your answer by saying that you did not oppose Wolsey. However, now you declare you did oppose him.
I am sorry but if you did not interrupt me you would have heard the end of the story.
Excuse us. Please continue, John, since we would really want to understand this complex situation.
Well, as I mentioned, before you annoyingly interrupted me, being a writer and poet means that one has to receive patronage. I had Henry as patron but I wanted more. I was an ambitious lad at that time and I realised attacking the most powerful man in England did not fully work out the way I wanted it. To be honest, I did not get the audience I wanted due to the earlier-mentioned bird reference which these unimaginative people did not comprehend. The large audience that was against Wolsey did not understand my negative comments and, consequently, did not become interested in my poetry. My next step was to, essentially, swallow my pride and request the attention and patronage of Cardinal Wolsey. It was probably one of the hardest decisions of my life but my career was everything. He thought it wonderful because it showed that he was one of the most powerful men who could not be attacked by anything. Not even by my critical quill. So, I began to write in favour of Wolsey. I still did not like him, far from to be exact, but I needed the money and the patronage to control my developing reputation. That is why the Garlande was dedicated to Henry and that lousy Wolsey. Dark days, they were, dark days. Some say that I was silenced by Wolsey. All but true. It was a rumour that I brought into life. I did not want my audience to know I wrote for the money. I wanted them to perceive my poems as sincere and critical. It interests me greatly to know that my rumour is still up and running. Although… I have ended that now.
With this sincere and honest answer, we would like to thank you for this open interview, John Skelton. It has been a great honour to be able to speak to you.
A votre service, modern people.