(c. 1460-1529)
Primarily known as a poet and satirist of unusual technique, the flamboyant John Skelton was also a scholar and clergyman during the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII.* Born around 1460 in Yorkshire, Skelton was laureated by Oxford University and apparently received his special robe from Henry VII, whose service he entered in 1488. Skelton later became the only laureate ever created by Cambridge University. In the king's employ he wrote commemora­tive poetry and acted as tutor to Prince Henry, later Henry VIII. Memorable poems like "Manerly Margery Mylk and Ale" and the court satire Bowge of Courte probably date from this period.
Sometime after 1502 Skelton became rector of Diss. While he left his clerical duties to subordinates and returned to court in 1512, Skelton was in Diss long enough to inspire several racy stories. A typical one involves a sermon by the rector, who in angry response to complaints about his keeping a mistress, strips his illegitimate child before the congregation and argues that the perfection of the child's body absolves him from blame in fathering it. Many of the stories are no doubt apocryphal, yet they portray a character who reflects the witty forthrightness and intolerance of hypocrisy seen in Skelton's poetry.
It was also during this time that Skelton perfected a poetic style known as "Skeltonics." This method uses short, rhythmic, often-bawdy lines and empha­sizes common English words and situations. One characteristic example is The Tunning of Elinor Rumming, which describes how the title character's beer brewing prompts a rural community's unsophisticated behavior. Poems produced in this style represent some of Skelton's best-known work.
In 1512 or 1513 Skelton was named orator regius, a combination court poet and secretary, by Henry VIII. In this capacity Skelton wrote Latin epitaphs, court entertainments, and other poetry. Henry's 1513 victory over the French in the Battle of the Spurs, in which he may have accompanied the king, and the earl of Surrey's over the Scots in the same year at Flodden Field gave Skelton much to write about soon after his appointment. Skelton also wrote several dramas, of which only the political satire Magnificence survives.
Magnificence warns the king against the growing power and excess of Car­dinal Thomas Wolsey. Skelton continued to attack the cardinal in poems like Colin Clout and Why Come Ye Not to Court? A story that the poet had to seek sanctuary from Wolsey in Westminster may be true. The two apparently came to terms around 1522, as Skelton's poetry after this compliments the cardinal, and his last known work, an invective against Lutheran heretics, is dedicated to him.
While Skelton's poetry inspired no known disciples, his satiric methods iron­ically became popular among Protestant Reformers. Late-sixteenth-century po­etic theorists scorned him, but playwrights dramatized Skelton as a figure of wit. Colin Clout had come to symbolize the layperson's simple yet astute crit­icism long before Edmund Spenser's* 1595 Colin Clouts Come Home Againe. Such reactions reflect England's complicated response to a complex poet.
N. C. Carpenter, John Skelton, 1967.
Kevin Lindberg

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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  • Skelton, John — born с 1460 died June 21, 1529, London, Eng. English poet. Appointed court poet to Henry VII in 1489, Skelton became a tutor and eventually an adviser to Henry VIII. In 1498 he took holy orders. He wrote political and religious satires in an… …   Universalium

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  • Skelton,John — Skel·ton (skĕlʹtən), John. 1460? 1529. English poet and scholar noted for his satires, including Speke Parrot (1521). * * * …   Universalium

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