John Skelton

Literary Biography:

John Skelton was born in 1460, midway through the 15th century. Not much is known about his early life until college. Skelton attended the University of Oxford, where he was awarded the title “poet laureate” in 1488, which was basically a very high rhetorical degree (Carpenter 13). The same year, Skelton became a court’s poet under the reign of Henry VII and was often referred to as “King’s Laureate” (24). Skelton’s fame as a poet extended further in 1492 when he was laureated by the University of Louvain (16), and in 1493 when Cambridge also awarded the title laureate (13). The latter act was unprecedented – John Skelton was the first person ever to earn the title in Cambridge’s history.

Due to his educational prowess, Skelton was elected as a tutor to Prince Henry in 1494, charged with teaching the boy who would later become the infamous King Henry VIII (Nelson 73). As a tutor to the prince Skelton was expected to cover a wide range of subjects, from history and rhetoric to mathematics and music. There is the slightest possibility that he may also have tutored Arthur in several subjects before the prince’s untimely death. Scholars point to Skelton’s Speculum principis (Little Mirror), a work which presented to Henry VII after his coronation in 1502. The book, containing instructions on the proper behavior and mandatory knowledge of being a prince, was dedicated to “princes” in plural, indicating the long-labored-over work may also have been for Arthur (Nelson 64).

After Henry’s ascension to the throne, Skelton left the court to become the rector of Diss, a town in Norfolk, England. There are many dramatic tales of his time spent preaching at the town, some of them accounted by Skelton’s own hand in the Merie Tales of Skelton. Peter Green points out that Skelton was the type of person around whom legends tend to accumulate (Carpenter 24). He was a very direct man in life, both in his position at court to the king and to his churchgoers. “What shuld I flatter? What shuld I glose or paint?” (Pollet 18-19).

One such tale recounted in the collection recounts the existence of Skelton’s mistress whom he married in secret, despite the fact he was supposed to be acting as a respectable clergyman. When his superior, bishop Richard Nikke, came upon the information, he was furious. Skelton, in an attempt to assuage the man’s wrath, presented him with two capons (castrated roosters), but Nikke was rude and belligerent. From the Merie Tales: “my lorde…this capon is named Alpha, thys is the fyrst capon that I dyd euer geue to you; and this capon is named Omega, and this is the last capon that euer I wil giue you” (Nelson 108). Apparently, it was Skelton’s parishioners themselves who had complained of him to the bishop in the first place. He chastised them during his next sermon, and had his illegitimate child with his mistress brought naked before the congregation. He pointed out that it was fair, not missing any limbs, and as perfect in beauty as any other child in the town. As such, they had no right to complain to the bishop, as Skelton was blameless for begetting it (108, Carpenter 25).

Merie Tales also accounts for one more biographic aspect of Skelton’s life: his enmity and reconciliation with Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey at one point took notice of Skelton’s prolific writing talents, and asked the man to write an epitaph for his rather expensive tomb. Taken aback by the sheer price of it, Skelton rejoined that Wolsey might have ordered it built in life, but he would never see it in death (25). Their enmity continued as Skelton wrote attacks on Wolsey’s morality in poetic form, including "Speak, Parrot", "Colin Clout", and "Why Come Ye Not to Court?"

The last unleashed a rip-roar of outrage from the Cardinal, and it has never been disproven that Skelton had to seek sanctuary at Westminster to escape the man’s wrath (Carpenter 33). The driving force behind his writings at this point were to denounce the evil that he saw in Wolsey, and at the height of his career he was making full use of his voice (Nelson 185). According to Bale’s Scriptorum catalogus, Skelton died in sanctuary at Westminster, though several of his later poems were dedicated to Wolsey, and A Replication against Certain Young Scholars written at the request of the man himself.

According to some scholars, Skelton’s greatest development as a poet took place during Henry VII’s reign (Nelson 5). While still a court poet, he wrote his first recorded piece of poetry on "The Death of the Earl of Northumberland." As a court poet much of his work included elegies and laments for those dead. In his elegy to Edward IV, the speaker is the King himself, a man who enjoyed much fortune and prosperity. He speaks of his accomplishments, regrets, and offers apologies to those he’d wronged. Skelton also describes Edward as caught in a dance with Lady Fortune, the dance macabre. With this image, the first know combination of the idea of the death dance and Fortune’s fickleness, Skelton creates something new that is still seen in today’s literature (Carpenter 38-9).


Skelton is “that incomparable light and ornament of English letters.” - Desiderius Erasmus, poet and scholar

John Holloway has pointed out that Skelton's humanist learning, rhetorical strategies, hyperbolic wit, angry invective, and liturgical references make his work difficult to follow, thus making it more popular among scholars than lay audiences.


John Skelton created the meter we know as Skeltonic. It consists of two or three beats per line with a variation in the syllables of those lines. The lines are rhymed successively for as long as the writer can keep on going. Characteristically, his poems have many lines of varying length though most are shorter than standard, and they tend to become very long.

This scheme is prominent in Skelton’s "Phillip Sparrow", an elegy upon the death of Jane Scrope’s pet bird at the paws of the family cat. Arguably one of Skelton’s most famous poems, it spans many pages and near the end departs from its original intent of Jane’s somewhat humorous and overblown mourning of her sparrow as the speaker shifts into Skelton himself as Jane becomes a figure standing for English literature and English itself as a product of Latin and Greek (Braden 3). Jane frequently uses pieces of Latin from Bible verses, and in one instance the Greek phrase “Kyrie eleison,” meaning “Lord have mercy” which was already incorporated into the Christian tradition at the time (15).

Many readings do not bother to reach beyond the biographical context of the Sparrow poem, in which Jane asks Skelton to write an elegy and he does so in a way that conveys his affection for her. While most scholars will admit to elements of satire and parody, refusing to look at them beyond the biographical scope is detrimental to a deeper analysis (McGuiness 216). According to C.S. Lewis, "Phillip Sparrow" was “perfection in light poetry,” but the fact that Jane’s grief so closely follows the structure of a medieval lament suggests otherwise. While a reader may smile at the importance the girl places on the bird, a medieval lament is meant to understand the reasons behind the death and move toward a rational acceptance of the loss. The overblown nature of the lament posed for a sparrow can be seen as a parody of the Catholic Church at the time, which Skelton saw as too far removed from the pure and simple religion on which the church was originally founded (218).

Skelton’s "Speak, Parrot" is another important poem focusing on an avian pet of some fair lady. Rather than a humorous elegy, this poem acts as part social commentary, part satire, part poetic attack. The parrot in the poem acts as a medieval tape recorder, repeating phrases it wasn’t supposed to hear. He moves from one role to another, evoking the expectations of the reader then disappointing them. The parrot is skilled at taking on traditional poetic guises including the master linguist, satirist, fool, and green lover, darting away from them at the last moment. Skelton uses the parrot as a means to play with these literary conventions and in doing so ridicules them (Fish 138). The most interesting bit of the poem comes in the eighth stanza, where the parrot is condemning immoderation: “But reason and wyt wantyth theyr provyncyall/ When wylfullness is vicar generall.” This is certainly an allusion to Wolsey, a direct attack on the typical Catholic extravagance in which Wolsey lived that Skelton saw as evil (141).


1. Braden, Gordon. Sixteenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology. Blackwell Publishing:
Malden, MA. 2005.
2. Carpenter, Nan Cooke. John Skelton. Twayne Publishers, Inc.: New York. 1965.
3. Fish, Stanley. John Skelton’s Poetry. Yale University Press: London. 1965.
4. Nelson, William. John Skelton, Laureate. Russell & Russell, Inc.: New York. 1964.
5. McGuiness, Ilona M. “John Skelton's Phyllyp Sparowe As Satire: A Revaluation.” JSTOR. The Sixteenth Century Journal. Vol. 22, No. 2 (Summer, 1991), pp. 215-231. Web. <
6. "Skelton, John - Introduction." Literary Criticism (1400-1800). Ed. Thomas J. Schoenberg. Vol.
7. Gale Cengage, 2002. 2006. 3 Apr, 2011
8. Pollet, Maurice. John Skelton: Poet of Tudor England. Bucknell University Press: Lewisburg.
9. Image:

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