A Concise Biography of the Writer and Poet Laureate John Skelton
John Skelton (c. 1460 – 1529)
Although the poet John Skelton is largely forgotten in modern days, he was famous, renowned and even notorious in his own time. Born in circa 1460, probably in Norwich, only little is known about the upbringing and Skelton’s earlier years. In fact, only a total of c. twenty-five records, in which the poet is mentioned, have survived. The main events of his life must be deduced from his poetry (Scattergood ODNB).
Records from the University of Cambridge attest that a certain ‘Dominus Skelton questionist’ was about to take a BA in 1478/9 (Scattergood ODNB). Furthermore, Skelton speaks about the influence of this university in A Replycacion when he indicates: Alma parens O Cantabrigensis. Additionally, Skelton writes about a William Rukshaw in the same poem, a member of university college Peterhouse between 1460 and 1474. Skelton may have met him during this period. Extraordinarily, however, there are no records of a ‘Skelton’ graduating, suggesting that he may have quit his studies. Another Skelton – or very possibly the same one – graduated with a MA from Oxford University and received a laureate title in 1488 from the same university. This title is verified by an account of William Caxton in which he refers to Skelton as, “late created poete laureate in the university of Oxford” (qtd. in Scattergood ODNB). Skelton did not only receive this title from Oxford University, but the university of Louvain also presented the poet with this honour in 1492. Cambridge provided the title a year later in 1493 (Scattergood ODNB).
It was during the years in which he received his poete laureate titles, that Skelton had already become part of the royal service under King Henry VII. He entered the royal court in 1488, though we do not know whether Skelton was initially appointed as a court poet or tutor. During this period, he wrote Manerly Margery Mylk and Ale, Agaynste a Comely Coystrowne, and Dyvers Balettys and Dyties Solacyous. His later works The Bowge of Courte and Magnyfycence reflect the tension and atmosphere of the court of Henry VII (Betteridge 69). As a consequence of the musical influences in Skelton’s works, it is often suggested that Skelton was an important figure for the entertainment at court. However, Walker indicates that this assumption does not have any clear evidence and should therefore not be regarded as the truth (Politics 41).
Clear, on the other hand, is the fact that from 1496 onwards Skelton became the tutor of Prince Henry – the later Henry VIII. Skelton held this position until Prince Arthur, Henry’s older brother and heir to the throne, died in 1502. Skelton educated the young prince in literature, foreign languages and rhetoric. Additionally, Skelton composed a pedagogical work called Speculum Principis (1501 – no longer extant), which was a collection of Latin proverbs for his pupil. It is evident that Skelton took his work as tutor very seriously and others such as Erasmus praised Skelton for his efforts in educating the young Prince Henry (45).
Next to being a tutor to young Henry, Skelton worked as a clergyman. He took orders in 1498 and received the title of subdeacon, deacon, and priest later that year (Scattergood ODNB). It was, therefore, not surprising that after the death of Prince Arthur – which meant that Henry was now the future king and required a different kind of education – Skelton was commissioned to the diocese of Diss in Norfolk where he became rector of St Mary’s; a rewarding alternative in every respect. However, according to Skelton it was “a significant loss of favour” and an undeserved exile (Walker Politics 42). This position was retained until his death but Skelton left Diss to return to Westminster. Scattergood states he remained in Diss until 1512/13 (ODNB). On the other hand, it has also been suggested that he returned to Westminster earlier, that is to say, in 1509 at the accession of King Henry VIII.
Even though it is unclear when Skelton returned Westminster, it is evident when the poet regained his favour at the royal court. Resident in Diss, Skelton continued to write poetry and it was his Phyllyp Sparowe which gained the attention he wanted as other writers referred to the work. His first attempt to regain his favour occurred in 1509 after the death of Henry VII when he wrote a praise to the new king, Henry VIII, in A Lawde and Prayse. Without getting the desired effect, Skelton, subsequently, gave two of his own works as presents to the new King. It seems that with the latter gift his royal position had been restored as Skelton mentions the title of Orator Regius in his next poem Calliope (Walker 43-5).
The critical writings of Skelton, however, caused him – voluntarily – to reside in the sanctuary of Westminster from 1512 onwards (Barnes 30). This place created the opportunity to write against the Catholic Church without any harm. Especially the most influential member of the English Catholic Church at that time, Cardinal Wolsey was the greatest aim of Skelton’s critique. Obviously, Skelton’s and other critical writings did not go unnoticed and in 1518 Wolsey “invaded Westminster under the guise of investigating the scandalous behaviour of the monks” (30). The sanctuary of Westminster was of everlasting length in contrast to the forty days of other churches. Wolsey tried to reduce the length of Westminster to these forty days. Luckily, for Skelton, the cardinal was unable to accomplish this mission and the sanctuary remained a safe haven for Skelton and other political writers (Barnes 30).
It would seem that Skelton’s continuous attempt to gain royal patronage created a stressful existence. Furthermore, Skelton’s royal favour and acquaintance with court life resulted in writings of political and religious critique, often against courtly matters. His writings, moreover, often had a propagandist nature which was emphasised by the rise of the printing press which enlarged his audience (Scattergood ODNB). His writings were often positioned against powerful men of the realm, of which his poems against Cardinal Wolsey are most famous. Skelton was also not afraid to advertise his own works, as can be seen in the Garlande or Chapelet of Laurell in which he speaks about himself in the third person. Skelton, furthermore, was so well-versed in writing poetry that he created his own metre and named it after himself: Skeltonics. Nowadays, John Skelton deserves to be appreciated as one of the greatest poets of his time.