John Skelton, also known as John Shelton (c. 1463 – 21 June 1529), Tudor poet and satirist of both political and religious subjects whose reputation as an English poet of major importance was restored only in the 20th century and whose individual poetic style of short rhyming lines, based on natural speech rhythms, has been given the name of Skeltonics.
His place of birth and childhood is unknown. He was educated at the University of Cambridge and later achieved the status of “poet laureate” (a degree in rhetoric) at Oxford, Leuven (Louvain) in the Netherlands (now in Belgium), and Cambridge.
No one can deny the power, endurance, and memorable lines of the work of John Skelton; he is indisputably the first major Tudor poet, writing during the reigns of Edward IV, Richard III, and (for most of his career) Henry VII and Henry VIII. His poems are by turn lyric, passionate, vitriolic, learned, allusive, bewildering, scriptural, satiric, grotesque, and even obscene; his one extant play, Magnificence (circa 1530), makes dramatic allegory sternly didactic and pointedly political.
His poems might be royalist in tone, or they might be highly critical of government; he could write for the court and his patrons, the Howard family, yet still need political sanctuary; he could write a moving lament for a young novitiate’s loss of a pet sparrow at the same time that he was castigating his own parish curate, the archbishop of York, and the lord chancellor. While his poems seem to have circulated widely, few of them were published in his lifetime. Nor have readers in later times fared much better in penetrating his meaning and appreciating his style. After the Reformation, George Puttenham found this very Catholic poet a “rude railing rhymer,” and Ben Jonson used him as a character, but in an antimasque; by the time of Alexander Pope he was “beastly Skelton,” offensive for his attack on a village alewife in The Tunning of Elinor Rumming (circa 1521), a poem which nevertheless remained in print throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, often as the single representation of his art.
As the 16th century drew to a close Skelton was described in derogatory terms by one critic as a “rude rayling rimer”. It is incredible that he managed to publish his opinions on the clergy and the Court in the way that he did and yet, on the whole, get away with it. These were times, let us not forget, when people were imprisoned and executed for much less serious “crimes” of thought, belief or deed. He was clever though in his criticism, not pointing the finger at the whole, but only at some of the rotten parts.
In addition to his prodigious output of poetry, Skelton was also a playwright, with familiar themes of morality and attacks on the apparent riches of the Church very much to the fore.
John Skelton died in June, 1529 in Westminster at the ripe old age (for Tudor times) of 69.