Rayling and Scoffery: Henrician Portrayals of Cardinal Wolsey
The earliest literary images of Cardinal Wolsey are difficult to date with a satisfying degree of specificity, but almost certainly begin appearing in 1514-1515, as Wolsey rose from a royal almonership to a bishopric and subsequently to the Chancellorship and the Archbishopric of York. Though Wolsey’s increasing centrality in the Court must have been widely discussed for several years prior to his rapid accumulations of high offices, it is only in this period that we begin to see the emergence of literary texts which figure Wolsey. When discussing early Henrician literary images of Cardinal Wolsey in any context, the works of John Skelton must figure prominently. When the field of study is restricted to poetic texts, Skelton is not merely prominent, but is indeed dominant. His poetry contains images that both Skelton and his audiences adapted to fit the changing political landscape in Tudor England; these images proved to be so particularly fitting with the public considerations of Wolsey that Skelton’s images became the predominant representations of the Cardinal for the entirety of the sixteenth century. Skelton’s portrayals of Wolsey (or the subsequent adoption and application of those images by readers) thrived despite Skelton’s fluctuating reputation. George Puttenham included Skelton in his list of significant English poets, but condemned Skelton as a “sharpe Satirist, but with more rayling and scoffery than became a Poet Lawreat”.20 Despite this rather dismissive stance, it is clear that Skelton’s works enjoyed some popularity during his lifetime and after the poet’s death in 1529. While the general trend in the publishing of his texts across the sixteenth century tended towards decline, there was at least enough market interest to maintain a moderate level of general public awareness about Skelton. Particularly in the mid-1550s a number of prominent printers—including John Day, Wynkyn de Worde, John Rastell, William Rastell, and Richard Pynson—published new editions of Skelton’s works which helped to sustain Skelton’s influence on mid- to late-Tudor literature. This modest popularity helped to diffuse images in Skelton’s works throughout the public consciousness: these images—which Skelton himself may or may not consciously have attached to Wolsey—came to represent the Cardinal.
Though Skelton’s reputation was rather mixed by the end of the sixteenth century partially as a result of critics like Puttenham, it is clear that he was considered a significant poet throughout the Tudor period. Skelton’s popularity can be traced through more subtle or obscure references as well as the sustained interest in publishing Skelton’s works.21 John Bale’s 1557-1559 Catalogus (Scriptorum illustrium maioris britanniae catalogus) mentions Skelton in the august company of writers like Gower, Lydgate, Tyndale, and More, but it was Thomas Marshe’s edition of 1568 (titled Pithy, Pleasaunt and Profitable Workes) that first attempted to make available a substantial portion of Skelton’s works.22 Marshe’s edition became the standard edition of Skelton until Alexander Dyce’s significantly expanded 1843 edition, which included a large number of works that had previously only circulated in limited fashion (either in manuscript or in smaller printed collections). The production of Marshe’s edition (along with the numerous smaller editions printed throughout the mid- and late-Tudor period) indicates an interest in Skelton’s poetry continuing for decades after the poet’s death: a public awareness that maintained itself throughout the length of the Tudor period and well into the Jacobean period. This reasonably moderate level of public interest is further supported by the numerous posthumous printings and re-issuings of various individual poems or small collections, most notably the first print editions of Magnyfycence (John Rastell, c.1530) and Collyn Clout (Thomas Godfray, 1531); Certayne Bokes, Richard Lant’s c.1545 collection of several poems including Speke, Parott; and numerous editions of texts like Why Come Ye Nat To Courte?, Philip Sparrow, and Collyn Clout.23 In addition to the continued interest in Skelton’s works themselves, there was a mid-century spate of imitators and admirers of Skelton and of the Skeltonic, most notably Luke Shepherd’s Skeltonic satires of the 1540s.24 The 1561 publishing of the anonymous interlude Godly Queen Hester is also notable in that the interlude has often been supposed to have been written by Skelton himself, as we will see below.25 Jane Griffiths has admirably traced Skelton’s influence, both obvious and subtle, on a variety of mid- and late sixteenth-century texts.26 In particular, Griffiths highlights the influence of the Skeltonic on religious protest poetry, with imitations and allusions to Skelton’s poetry extending as late as the anonymously authored A Skeltonicall Salutation (1589), an anti-Catholic text celebrating the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and beyond to Arthur Dent’s Plaine Man’s Pathway to Heaven (1601).
A more substantial reference is found in Edmund Spenser’s 1579 Shepheardes Calendar, which takes its narrator Colin Clout directly from Skelton’s Collyn Clout. Spenser’s pastoral visions are themselves enormously significant satires, touching on several themes which would have evoked sympathy in Skelton’s own Collyn Clout:
Some gan to gape for greedie governaunce,
And match them selfe with mighty potentates,
Lovers of Lordship and troublers of states:
...Tho under colour of shepheards, somewhile
There crept in Wolves, ful of fraude and guile,
That often devoured their owne sheepe,
And often the shepheards, that did hem keepe.27
This excerpt uses pastoral images to connect corrupt priests with wolves that devour both sheep and shepherds; indeed, Shakespeare himself has the Duke of Buckingham reference this same proverbial image when speaking about Wolsey in Henry VIII:
This holy fox,
Or wolf, or both—for he is equal rav’nous
As he is subtle, and as prone to mischief,
As able to perform’t. (1.1.158-61)
Nearly a full century after Skelton’s death, Ben Jonson used the Skeltonic in three masques dating from the early 1620s.28 It is clear then that while Skelton may not have enjoyed an overwhelmingly popular posthumous reputation, his texts and stylistic elements were readily adopted by diverse authors in the century following his death.
Though Skelton had a traceable influence on other authors on a variety of subjects, one of the key aspects of his legacy was imagery of Cardinal Wolsey, which was mostly—but not exclusively—negative. In this chapter we will consider Skelton’s Wolsey characterizations broadly organized into three categories: the early satires (those written prior to 1520), the established anti-Wolsey satires, and the pro-Wolsey poems. Following these three sections, I will discuss the anonymous interlude Godly Queene Hester (c.1529), a secular morality play with many connections to Skelton (and, in particular, to Skelton’s Magnyfycence). By analyzing these poems in this chronological fashion, I hope to demonstrate that Skelton’s images reveal three equally important elements of these early Henrician texts: first, that Skelton intentionally engaged closely with contemporary politics and the public, though his intentions appear inconsistent. Second, Skelton’s Wolsey poetry and poetic features evolved over the period 1515-1529, which largely indicates the growing anti-Wolsey trend which would become dominant by Wolsey’s death in 1530. Third, Skelton’s anti-Wolsey texts left a poetic legacy which is perhaps best exemplified by Godly Queene Hester, a play which both demonstrates that legacy and reveals new elements of Skelton’s works in retrospect.
Most of Skelton’s Wolsey images are taken from his anti-Wolsey satires (or supposed anti-Wolsey satires). These poems were produced towards the end of the poet’s career: Against Venemous Tongues (c.1516), Magnyfycence (c.1516), Speke, Parott (c.1521), Collyn Clout (1522), and Why Come Ye Nat to Courte? (1522). These texts represent a gradual move towards open criticism of the Cardinal; or, at the very least, were viewed as criticism of Wolsey in hindsight after the death of both poet and Cardinal, as we will see below. However, it must be recalled that not all of Skelton’s poetry was anti-Wolsey satire. Setting aside the substantial poetic material that is simply unrelated to Wolsey, we must also consider Skelton’s texts that were authorized or patronized by Wolsey towards the end of the poet’s life. The change from antagonistic satire to (apparently) generous praise is sudden; only a few months after writing Why Come Ye Nat to Courte?,Skelton dedicated his self-laudatory The Garlande of Laurell to Wolsey, with high praise for the Cardinal. This reversal has fuelled much speculation about Skelton’s quest for patronage, his religious beliefs, and his personal relationship with Wolsey; as a result, most Skelton scholarship has focused on this period of Skelton’s life to the detriment of study of his earlier works. After this abrupt change, Skelton’s works remained positive about the Cardinal until the poet’s death; to demonstrate this, we will discuss elements from The Garland of Laurell (1523), The Douty Duke of Albany (1523), and A Replycacion (1528). With so little extant textual evidence, it is difficult to say with any certainty exactly why Skelton changed his poetic attitude, so this section will consider how these late poems reflect on Skelton’s earlier, more neglected works. Thus the corpus of Skelton’s poetry manages to encompass both strident insults and obsequious praise of and relating to Wolsey.