John Skelton was probably born in Yorkshire and was educated at Cambridge, graduating with MA in 1484 and achieving the status of poet laureate for the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Leuven. He was appointed first court poet to Henry VII in 1488 and through the patronage of the king’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, he acted as tutor for several years to the young Prince Henry who later became Henry VIII. In 1498 he was ordained sub-deacon, deacon and priest. In that same year he wrote The Bowge of Court, a satire on the disheartening experience of life at court.
In 1504 he was appointed as rector of Diss on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, a living in the gift of Lady Margaret, which he held nominally until his death. It is said that whilst in Diss he had secretly married a woman who lived in his home. In 1505 he wrote the satirical poems The Boke of Phyllyp Sparrow and Ware the Hawke, satirical assaults on rival priests. He made a lot of enemies with his writings, earning the hatred of Dominican friars and clashing with the Bishop of Norwich, Richard Nix.
In 1512, he returned to court, whilst retaining his living in Diss, having been given the title of Orator Regius (the King’s Poet). In 1513 he wrote A Ballad of the Scottsysshe Kynge, an attack on the King’s enemies after Flodden and in 1515 he wrote a morality play, Magnyfycence, a thinly veiled allegory on the sycophancy of King Henry VIII’s court. He later made a vitriolic attack on Cardinal Wolsey, his former patron, in his poems Speke Parrot (1521), Collyn Clout (1522), and Why Come ye Nat to Court. He later wisely made his peace with Wolsey, realising how powerful he had become, and devoted his final years to writing poems with lyrical and allegorical themes.
Skelton was the first major Tudor poet. He was an erudite Latin scholar who translated Cicero and whose poems are lyrical, passionate, learned, satirical, often vitriolic, and sometimes grotesque and obscene. Erasmus described him “the one light and glory of British letters”. His poetry has been largely forgotten since his death in 1529 but is being increasingly recognised for its merit today.