John Skelton - NOTES TO THE DEATH OF THE EARL OF NORTHUMBERLAND

NOTES TO THE DEATH OF THE EARL OF NORTHUMBERLAND

1. "SKELTON THE POET LAUREATE SPEAKS IN METRE IN THIS LITTLE BOOK

"May my writing go quickly to you, my Lord Percy, who
Holds the inheritance of Northumberland
At whose nod you can replace the famous lion*
And of whose appropriate sadness for his father I sing,
But when he has read these verses, let him consider in his mind
His own uncertain fortune, surrounded as he is by treachery,
May the lion be lucky, and may he attain Nestor's years
And may I be ready to please him."
(Mervyn James)

* Alluding to his crest and supporters. See v. 109 of the poem.

2. This elegy must have been written soon after the earl's murder: see v. 162."The subject of this poem . . . is the death of Henry Percy, fourth earl of Northumberland, who fell a victim to the avarice of Henry VII. In 1489, the parliament had granted the king a subsidy for carrying on the war in Brittany. This tax was found so heavy in the North, that the whole country was in a flame. The E. of Northumberland, then lord lieutenant for Yorkshire, wrote to inform the king of the discontent, and praying an abatement. But nothing is so unrelenting as avarice: the King wrote back that not a penny should be abated. This message being delivered by the earl with too little caution, the populace rose, and, supposing him to be the promoter of their calamity, broke into his house, and murdered him, with several of his attendants, who yet are charged by Skelton with being backward in their duty on this occasion. This melancholy event happened at the earl's seat at Cocklodge, near Thirsk, in Yorkshire, April 28, 1489. See Lord Bacon, &c. If the reader does not find much poetical merit in this old poem (which yet is one of Skelton's best [?]), he will see a striking picture of the state and magnificence kept up by our ancient nobility during the feudal times. This great earl is described here as having, among his menial servants, KNIGHTS, SQUIRES, and even BARONS: see v. 32, v. 183, &c., which, however different from modern manners, was formerly not unusual with our greater Barons, whose castles had all the splendour and offices of a royal court, before the Laws against Retainers abridged and limited the number of their attendants." PERCY.

3. Of the blood royal descending nobly] "The mother of Henry, first Earl of Northumberland; was Mary daughter to Henry E. of Lancaster whose father Edmond was second son of K. Henry iii. The mother and wife of the second Earl of Northumberland were both lineal descendants of K. Edward iii. The Percys also were lineally descended from the Emperor Charlemagne and the ancient Kings of France, by his ancestor Josceline de Lovain (son of Godfrey Duke of Brabant), who took the name of Percy on marrying the heiress of that house in the reign of Hen. ii. Vid. Camdeni Britan., Edmondson, &c." PERCY.

4. carls of kind] i.e. churls by nature.

5. great estates] i.e. persons of great estate or rank

6. O young lion] The fifth Earl of Northumberland was only eleven years old at his father's death.

7. Non sapit, &c] "He does not know in what men he may hope to put his trust, for it is rare for men to keep faith"

8. Tetrastichon Skelton, &c.] "A four-line poem of the Laureate Skelton to Master Ruckshaw, most eminent professor of theology.

Take now, most celebrated doctor Ruckshaw,
These verses which fall from my pen,
And although my strains are not those of the gentle Muse,
They do however come from my pious heart

Farewell, and go happily, O most praiseworthy of men."

Rukshaw The person here addressed was perhaps "William Rowkshaw, priest," by whom a letter, dated from the Gilbertine priory of Watton in the east riding of Yorkshire, is printed among the Plumpton Correspondence, p. 82. Camd Soc. ed.

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