Skelton & Wolsey

Skelton & Wolsey

Thomas Wolsey (1470/1-1530) was probably born in Ipswich. He graduated with a BA from Magdalen College Oxford at the age of fifteen, and he was ordained as priest in 1498. After Wolsey proceeded MA, he remained for a brief period Master of Magdalen School and later Dean of Divinity. In 1509, Wolsey became Henry VIII’s almoner and was therefore in charge of charitable giving. As he was rising in favour and power he became dean of Lincoln, Hereford and York, registrar of the Order of the Garter, canon of St George’s, Windsor, and also bishop of Lincoln. After the death of Cardinal Bainbridge in 1514, Wolsey was elected to fill the archbishopric of York and he was subsequently made cardinal on 10 September 1515. Not only was Wolsey powerful in status, he was also extremely wealthy. In 1519 his yearly income was possibly around £ 9,500, which means that he was Henry VIII’s richest subject, and before his fall from power ten years later, it is possible that his annual revenues can be estimated at around £ 30,000 (Sybil M. Jack ODNB).

The Cardinal’s successes – his power and wealth, mostly due to the king’s favour – were received quite bitterly by some people, especially since Wolsey was the son of a butcher. Therefore, Wolsey’s career and riches invited writers to compose satire against him. John Skelton, among others such as Robert Whittinton (c. 1480/1553) and John Palsgrave (c. 1485/1554), attacked Wolsey on various accounts (Gunn and Lindley 2). Skelton has written three major political and clerical satires in the beginning of the 1520s in which he targets the Cardinal. In Speke Parott (1521), a court poem written in rhyme royal, Skelton uses a parrot as a mouthpiece to criticise Wolsey and his selfish dealings at the Paris peace conference (between 2 August and 24 November 1521) which Skelton observed to be narcissistic and did not serve the well-being of Henry VIII and England. Skelton’s next work is Collyn Clout (1522), which is written in Skeltonics. In this poem, Skelton assumes the persona of a poor countryman who criticises Wolsey, the contemporary Church, and their greed (Scattergood ODNB). For example, Skelton condemns the Cardinal’s riches by describing Wolsey’s extensive tapestry collection (Gunn and Lindley 46). In 1522, Skelton writes Why Come Ye Nat to Courte?, which deals with contemporary events in the beginning and ends as a highly personal attack on Wolsey, who according to Skelton presents himself as Henry VIII’s equal. The three satires are written in different styles and focus on different perspectives, yet all are directed against Wolsey which shows, according to Greg Walker, that Skelton desired to reach the biggest audience as possible. Skelton reaches out to a courtly audience in Speke Parott, a clerical public in Collyn Clout, and a London City audience in Why Come Ye Nat to Courte?. (Walker The Politics 102).

At the beginning of the twentieth century, scholars also considered works such as Against Venemous Tongues (1516) and the play Magnyfycence (1519) to attack the Cardinal, but scholars agree that the so-called anti-Wolseyan tradition did not begin until the 1520s. This practice of mocking Wolsey, upheld by Skelton and his contemporaries, played a highly important role on how later generations regarded Wolsey. Through the works of Wolsey’s opponents, a prejudiced view of the Cardinal as an egocentric, proud, and avaricious man, who deserved his fall from power after failing to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon, came into being. To be fair, Wolsey was evidently far from perfect and he certainly often started projects that were far too ambitious to ever finish (Guy 75). Yet his failings overshadow the good Wolsey brought to the realm. As, for example, George Cavendish – Wolsey’s first biographer and household servant – writes in his The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey (1554-58):

           I never sawe thys realme
           in better order quyotnes & obedyence
           than it was in the tyme of his [Wolsey’s] auctoryte & Rule
           ne Justice better mynestred w[ith] indifferencye (4).

Moreover, the relationship between Skelton and Wolsey is probably misunderstood because the satire aimed at the Cardinal was part of the anti-clerical convention. According to Walker, the charges that Skelton uses are conventional as other satirists have argued the same points in the same manner of writing against the clergy for centuries (Walker “The Cardinal” 242). In addition, Walker asserts that the overall purpose of Skelton’s poems – to produce effective criticism against the forced loans in 1522 imposed by Wolsey- should not be forgotten (242-3). Evidently, the traditional taunts against the Cardinal were added to the satires to make them more appealing and convincing – they were certainly not designed to attack Wolsey personally, but are simply part of anti-clerical satire (243).

Finally, rumour has it that Skelton wrote these satires against Wolsey to secure patronage, which is exactly what occurred after the publication of Why Come Ye Nat to Courte? as Skelton’s next poem Garlande or Chapelet of Laurell (1523) was not only dedicated to Henry VIII, but curiously also to Cardinal Wolsey (Scattergood ODNB). Skelton’s later and final poems Howe the Douty Duke Of Albany (1523) and A Replycacion (c. 1527) were commissioned by Wolsey. It is impossible to say whether Skelton was silenced by Wolsey or that he had a change of heart, yet the turn of events is intriguing and it is clear that Skelton’s work influenced the reception of the Cardinal for centuries.