There are three versions of Skelton’s Upon the Dolorus Dethe: one is found in the manuscript British Library MS Royal 18 Dii ff.165r-166v, another is a print edition of Skelton’s Workes, collected by Thomas Marshe in 1568.
In 1765, Bishop Percy, a descendant of the Lord Percy, had the version from R reprinted in his collection Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. It is striking that the poem found its way into manuscript R, a miscellany containing genealogical texts on the Percy lineage and works by Lydgate, among which a treatise on the kings of England and their burial places. Gustafson notes that the manuscript was ordained for Percy’s son, the fifth earl of Northumberland, between 1516 and 1523 (Gustafson 656). In Marshe’s edition, “The dolorus deth of the Lord Percie Erle of Northumberlande” features as item 27, which comes after two of Skelton’s religious poems and before the epitaphs and elegy. Marshe’s order is clearly thematic and not chronological. As Gustafson has noted, Upon the Dolorus Dethe is one of Skelton’s first published poems and generally considered one of his weaker works (Gustafson 645). Nevertheless, the poem is of historic value, as it provides information on the murder of Henry Percy, the fourth Earl of Northumberland. As Skelton’s invocation to the muse Clio suggests, the poem is less an artistic exercise and more a reflection on historic events. It is perhaps therefore that Skelton omitted the poem from the works listed in his Garlande or Chapelet of Laurell.
Compared to the later poems that are written in self-proclaimed Skeltonics Dethe might seem crude and plain in style. Gustafson has analysed Skelton’s early poems and shown they are not so disparate from his later works as is often assumed. By using of rhyme royal Skelton models his historic poem after for instance Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, as do the allusions to classical learning. Apart from describing the situation, Skelton’s poem offers a critical perspective of the rebellion that occurred after the fourth Earl of Northumberland’s murder. “One way Skelton promotes himself as a political writer is by skilfully presenting the rebellion from a court perspective.” (Gustafson 653). Because Skelton is aware of the secrecy of court life, the poem can be read as an insider’s account of the deception and conspiracy surrounding the murder of the Earl of Northumberland.