The Bowge of Court, 1499
Phyllyp Sparowe, c. 1508
Ware the Hawk, c. 1508
The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng, 1508
Speke, Parrot, 1521
Collyn Clout, 1522
Why Come Ye Nat to Courte, 1522
The Garlande of Laurell, 1523
Pithy, Pleasaunt, and Profitable Workes of Maister Skelton, Poete Laureate, 1568
The Complete Poems of John Skelton, Laureate, 1931 (Philip Henderson, editor)
Magnyfycence, pb. 1516
Speculum Principis, 1501 (also known as A Mirror for Princes)
John Skelton was born about 1460. The facts about his early life are few. He seems to have attended Cambridge University when quite young, but there is no record of his receiving a degree. When the noted printer William Caxton spoke of him in 1490, Skelton had already established his position as writer and scholar. He was “laureated” by the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Louvain; the precise nature of this honor is still being debated.
He won royal favor for his accomplishment and was made tutor to Prince Henry, later King Henry VIII, about 1496. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1498. During this period Skelton struck up an acquaintance with the visiting Dutch scholar Erasmus, who later honored Skelton by calling him “England’s Homer.” His observations on the life around him inspired his satire on royal hangers-on, The Bowge of Court.
The death of Arthur, prince of Wales, in 1502 brought an abrupt end to Skelton’s career as tutor. While his gifts were considered suitable for the education of a future archbishop of Canterbury, they were apparently not what Henry VII thought fitting for the heir to the throne. Skelton was made rector of Diss in Norfolk, presumably as a reward for his services, and he lived there for several years, performing the duties of parish priest. It is reasonably conjectured that many of his poems were composed during this period, though during his life he was more known for his polemical and sometimes heated debates.
After Henry VIII’s accession to the throne in 1509, Skelton sent him several gifts, hoping to remind him of their past association and thereby win his patronage. His efforts were eventually successful, and in 1512 he returned to Westminster as orator regius. As court poet he commemorated notable events in both Latin and English verse, writing elegies for Henry VII and his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, who had been Skelton’s patron when he was tutor to Prince Henry, and celebrating the English victory over James IV of Scotland at Flodden.
Skelton soon exceeded his responsibility as orator regius by attacking Cardinal Wolsey, who was rapidly becoming the most powerful man in England. Skelton’s play Magnyfycence uses the traditional form of the Tudor interlude, the contest between figures representing virtues and vices for the possession of a hero, to attack the influence of the cardinal on the young king. It was perhaps fortunate for the poet that he was then residing on the grounds of Westminster Abbey and therefore in sanctuary, for he faced sure arrest for his satire. Some accord between the two men was apparently reached about 1522, for Skelton felt free to spend Christmas at the home of the countess of Surrey in York that year. He dedicated The Garlande of Laurell to Wolsey in 1523, and yet even then he would not spare Wolsey from his criticisms, for in the previous year he had written “Speke, Parot,” and in 1522 he wrote “Why Come Ye Not to Court?”–both poems attacking the cardinal for many abuses.
As Skelton’s quasi-allegorical morality play indicates his advocacy of traditional values, so does his position during the so-named grammarian’s war that divided scholars and Latin pedagogues in 1519 and 1520. Skelton’s debates, apparently acrimonious, with those in favor of a progressive educational agenda is a clear manifestation of his medieval heritage. Thus Skelton is truly a transitional figure, philosophically aligned with the doctrines of conservatism but increasingly embattled by the dawning of Renaissance humanism. Skelton lived and wrote in Westminster for the last years of his life and died there on June 21, 1529.