John Skelton was quite an interesting figure in the world of Renaissance literature. Skelton received the title of "Poet Laureate" from two universities; tutored Prince Henry (until the death of Prince Arthur); served Henry VIII's court; was simultaneously ordained subdeacon, deacon, and priest of the Abbey of St. Mary Grace; retired to become the rector of the parish church in Diss, Norfolk; and then returned to court before his death in 1529. Skelton was not a mild mannered courtier poet who prattled about lost love, instead he wrote provoking satires about the Church, Cardinal Wolsey, and the treacherous court of Henry VIII.
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey
Skelton's political views are not known for sure and his death came before the Reformation really took off in England. The English Protestant were not sure where how to take Skelton and his work. Skelton's satires of the Church's, specifically Wolsey's, corruption seemed to have him siding with the Protestants; yet Skelton himself embodied many of the characteristics that he so often spoke of in his poems. Skelton become known as a practical joker and "seemed nostalgically to recall the innocence and 'merriment' of pre-Reformation England (Greenblatt, 2012, p 565)." Skelton was known to shock the crowds with his antics. At one point, Skelton actually took the pulpit holding his naked illegitimate child.
Skelton's writing was just as meek as his manners and at one point his biting satire towards Wolsey won him a prison cell, although officially it was for unpaid debts. After his release, Wolsey actually hired Skelton to work for him! Skelton's work became popular not only for the content, but also for his use of styles. Skelton structured his verses with an irregular metre, its verses having two or three stresses that were arranged in a falling or rising rhythm. His satirical protest were considered to be wittingly unconventional and designedly provocative with its use of alliteration, parallelism, and multiple rhymes. His unique style sparked a form of poetry, "skeltonics", that marked his contribution to Renaissance Literature.
Queen Catherine and Anne Boleyn from Showtime's "The Tudors"
Skelton set a shining example for satirical literary works during the end of the fifteenth century. While his early writing was conventional, towards the end of the fifteenth century his works were quite satirical in their description of court life. Skelton’s works pushed the limits of the time and his “unusually powerful expression to the anxiety of living in the dangerous, viciously competitive precincts of royal power” (Greenblat, 2012, 564) is notable in The Bowge of Court. The Bowge of Court begins as a dream with Drede (dread) as the protagonist on a ship with seven antagonist who tempt him through out the poem. The antagonist are Favell (flattery); palsied Suspicion; Harvey Hafter (a rogue); ashen-faced Disdain; Riot, Dissimulation; and Deceit. Each antagonist befriend and ultimately betray Drede. Throughout the betrayals Drede’s anxiety grows into a fear that he cannot escape, until finally he “thoughte to lepe, and even with that woke (Skelton, 1499, 531)." Upon waking, he immediately wrote Drede’s story. The poem is much like court life, fraught with false friends who are apt to betray. Henry VIII’s life also took much the same route as Drede’s journey, by the end of his life he trusted almost no person in his court or family. Henry died filled with fear and paranoia after a life filled with false friends and betrayals.
While The Bowge of Court takes a harsh look at the Tudor Court, while in Mannerly Margery Milk and Ale Skelton turns his wit to the Church clerics. The poem is meant to be a lyrical dialogue among three voices, two clerics and "Mannerly Margery". At first, Mannerly Margery Milk and Ale seems to be a satire about the "wanton clerks"; however while the clerics do turn violent in their pursuit, Margery is anything but "mannerly". The lines bring to life the almost unspoken understanding that although clerics of the Church took vows and could not marry, they were all but celibate. Many men of the cloth, to include Skelton himself, had common law wives and many bastard children. The lines of the poem speak to the hardships that this "wives" could face in society. While Skelton is openly mocking the Church's practices, he himself is openly had a common law wife with multiple children.
Skelton used his poetry much like the the band Green Day use their songs to express opinions of politics. Green Day created their album American Idiot as an anti-war album. Many of the songs, such as Holiday, are in protest of President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Green Day sings, “Sieg Heil to the president Gasman, Bombs away is your punishment, Pulverize the Eiffel towers, Who criticize your government (Greenday, 2005, 23-26).” They are expressing their opinion that the United States government, following Bush, will destroy any nation or person who “criticizes” the government. According to Green Day, it was a dangerous time to act against the American president or government and Iraq was punished by being invaded. The invasion began by bombing the country. Much like Skelton, Green Day used their music to express an unpopular opinion during the time that their album was released. Green Day used their album American Idiot to push the limits of what was acceptable social standards.
The writings of John Skelton shaped the English Renaissance. Hundreds of years after his work was published or produced we still strive to recreate the drama and intrigue of the Renaissance time period, while scholars still argue over his political views. We are still enamored with the lust, intrigue, passion, and betrayal; which is evident in our productions. We still try to understand the drama that surrounded this unique political and artistic movement with shows such as The Tudors (pictured above). The Renaissance period’s pieces forced people out of their comfort zone and forced them to take a look at their surrounding; and all while containing a beauty that entertained the court. In our society of outspoken views and competing opinions we are still borrowing the ideas created during the Renaissance and competing like the courtesans, as evident in our music and television programs