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Skelton's Magnyfycence

  • Leigh Winser (a1)


Six generations of students of Magnyfycence have accepted 1515-16 as the date of its composition. Largely as the result of William O. Harris's recent serious questioning of Robert Lee Ramsay's political interpretation of Magnyfycence there is sufficient cause for re-examining the date traditionally assigned the play. I shall review the reasons for the date and then propose, tentatively, that Magnyfycence was conceived, perhaps actually composed, before 1504 during Skelton's first experience at the Tudor court.

In Skelton's ‘Magnyfycence’ and the Cardinal Virtue Tradition Harris has demonstrated that Magnyfycence is probably not what Ramsay thought it was—a personal attack upon Cardinal Wolsey, his rise to power and his abuse of authority.



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1 New York, 1965, pp. 12-45.

2 Fish, Stanley Eugene, review of Skelton's ‘Magnyfycence1 and the Cardinal Virtue Tradition , by William O., Harris, MLR,LXIII (April, 1968), 456457.

3 Bevington, David M., review of Skelton's ‘Magnyfycence’ and the Cardinal Virtue Tradition , by William O., Harris, Speculum,XLI (July, 1966), 541543.

4 Editor, Magnyfycence ,EETS, ES, XCVIII (London, 1908 [for 1906]), xxi-xxiv.

5 Citations from Skelton's works, except Magnyfycence and unless otherwise specified, are to The Poetical Works of John Skelton ,ed. Rev. Alexander Dyce (2 vols.; London, 1843). I have followed modern typographical conventions.

6 Magnyfycence ,p. xxii.

7 Citations from Magnyfycence refer to the original edition printed by John Rastell, 1530. Line numbers refer to Ramsay's edition.

8 Magnyfycence ,p. XXV.

9 Drummond, Robert B., Erasmus(London, 1873), 1, 91.

10 Calendar of State Papers, Venetian ,ed., R. Brown (London, 1864), 1, no. 470.

11 Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII ,ed. J. S. Brewer et al. (London, 1862-1910), 1, no. 1307.

12 Ibid. ,1, no. 1169.

13 Hall, Edward, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families qfLancastre and Yorke. Printed for Johnson, J. et al. (London, 1809), p. 465.

14 Ibid. ,p. 491.

15 Magnyfycence ,p. xxiii.

16 Brewer, ed., Letters and Papers, ‘ Preface to the first edition,’ p. xli.

17 Pollet, Maurice, John Skelton, Contribution à l’Histoire de la Pré-Renaissance—Études Anglaiscs(Paris, 1962), p. 84.

18 Speculum Principis ,ed. F. M. Salter in Speculum (Cambridge, 1934), IX, 37.

19 The story of Louis’ favor and ‘Balluae cardinalis iniquitas’ is found in the Compendium Super Francorum Gestis of Robert Gaguin, the French humanist whom Skelton once attacked in his ‘Recule against Gaguin’ and who, grudgingly, later welcomed Skelton into Fame's dominion in Garlande qfLaurell. In the Compendium ,which was first printed in Paris in 1495, we read that ‘Balue, though of humble origins … by means of his clever gifts found his way into the confidence of Louis where he soon won great and excellent favor… . Certain of the king's personal letters, which contained secret information, Balue intercepted and gave to the Duke of Burgundy When Balue's treachery was discovered the king seized the traitor and ordered him into custody’ (translation mine). Compendium Roberti Gaguini super francorum gestis … Parisiis, Rebolt, 1511, fol. CCLXVII, Miii.

20 It is impossible to tell whether or not Fansy's reference to Louis’ liberality is uttered in an ironic spirit. Ramsay thinks not and, as mentioned above, concludes that Louis XII's three months of open house in 1514 represent a genuine largesse to which Fansy might allude. If, however, Fansy's comment is to be understood in the largely ironic spirit of the interview between him and Prince Magnyfycence, then it is possible that the largesse attributed to the unnumbered Louis is not a genuine largesse at all but the very folargesse of Fansy. The reading is plausible if what appears to be large is really small in the interview: Fansy (alias Largesse) played by a short actor, probably by a boy.

21 Ritson as quoted by Ramsay, Magnyfycence ,p . 81.

22 Ramsay, Magnyfycence ,p. xxi.

23 Troyes, Jean de, The Scandalous Chronicle,ed. Scoble, A. R. (London, 1865), pp. 379380.

24 A reading of Philip de Comines’ Memoires ,an important source of information for Louis XI, also verifies the fact of Louis’ lavish liberality. The editor of Thomas, Danett's The History of Comines(London, 1896-97), Charles Whibley, thinks that we have long misunderstood Louis. He observes that ‘the niggard, which has been a constant and ill-founded reproach,’ has been ‘constant because one historian has echoed another … and ill-founded because [Louis] was parsimonious only for himself (xxix).

25 Davies, Katherine, ‘Late XVth Century French Historiography,’ Doctoral Dissertation (Edinburgh, 1954), p. 129.

26 Old Englishf est Books ,ed. William C. Hazlitt, 1, pp. 34-3 5. The tale appears in Berthelet's edition of Mery Tales and Quicke Answers (1535), a collection of stories from Poggio, Brandt, and others. See Paul M., Zall ‘Introduction,’ A hundred merry tales, and other English jestbooks of the 15th and 16th centuries(Lincoln, 1963).

27 Bridge, John S., Oxford History of France(Oxford, 1921), 1, 19.

28 Magnyfycence ,p. xxi.

29 Helen, Stearns Sale, ‘The Date of Skelton's Bowge of Courte’ MLN, LII (December,1937). 572574.

30 The Bibliotheca Historica Translated by Skelton ,eds. F. M. Salter and H. L. R. Edwards, EETS, CCXXXIII (London, 1956), 1, 353-354.

31 Nelson, William, John Skelton, Laureate(New York, 1939), p. 246.

32 Warton's account of The Nigramansir is found in Dyce, 1, xcix-c.

33 Edwards, H. L. R., Skelton: The Life and Times of an Early Tudor Poet(London, 1949), p. 42.

34 Chronicle ,p. 425.

35 Ibid. ,p. 428.

36 ‘Lambert, Sax. as some think, Faire Lambe.’ See William, Camden, Remains Concerning Brittaine,4th impression (London, 1629), p. 65.

37 Both major pretenders to the English throne, Simnel and Warbeck, sought aid and found it from the Irish ('Mackemurre’).

38 ‘A Skelton Reference c. 1510,’ N&Q,VII (June, 1960), 210-211. In the Great Chronicle of London ,eds. A. H. Thomas and J. D. Thornley (London, 1938), pp. 352-365, Kinsman finds a vigorous ballad that attacks one John Baptist de Grimaldis or ‘Grumbald,’ a merchant of Genoa, alias of London, ‘the most crewell&subtyllest wrecch’ of all Dudley's and Empson's assistants.

39 Hall describes the Empson and Dudley of 1504 as ‘two persons [who] contended, whiche of theim by mooste bryngyng in might most please and satisfye his mastres desyre and appetide.’ Chronicle ,p. 499.

40 Magnyjycence ,p. xxi.

41 Harris observes that Skelton developed a'stereotyped abusive vocabulary’ and that he bandied identical terms around with monotonous repetition throughout his career. See Cardinal Virtue Tradition ,p.

42 Magnyfycence ,I. 408.

43 See Kinsman, Robert S., ‘Skelton's “Uppon a Deedman's Heed“: New Light on the Origin of the Skeltonic,’ SP x (April, 1953) 101109. Kinsman dates ‘Uppon a Deedman's Heed’ ca. 1498 and finds it to be the earliest example of a Skeltonic.

44 In his review of Skelton's Magnyfycence and the Cardinal Virtue Tradition, Speculum XLI (July, 1966), 541-543, D. M. Bevington justly asks for toleration of the possibility of topicality in Magnyfycence ,but he does not question the 1515-16 date. Bevington finds the play to bespeak a ‘crisis of the hour'—the ‘crisis’ being the stake of England's future under a 'young king’ caught between conservative advisors and a new group of opportunists in 1515-16.1 wonder if such an hour of'crisis’ did not strike frequently throughout the reigns of both Henry VII and Henry VIII during the young Tudor dynasty. That Magnyfycence is topical seems to need little defense, for, as G. R. Elton notes, ‘the key to the problem [of successful government by the first Tudors] was the personal action of the king and the ministers and agents who, surrounding him, formed the royal household.’ See England Under the Tudors (London, 1963), p. 11. But that Prince Magnyfycence is the young, crowned Henry VIII is not altogether clear from Skelton's play. Like most young protagonists of morality drama, the prince ages in the play. Perhaps he is ‘England.'

Bevington also rightly asks for toleration of the idea that Wolsey may be attacked in Magnyfycence ,even if Ramsay's point by point identification of details in the play with facts from Wolsey's career is no longer tenable. If the play was composed after Henry VIII ascended the throne, it is probable, of course, that allusions to any counterfeit heirs, talebearers, upstarts, tax collectors, or traitors from Henry VII's reign would be made to warn Henry VIII and other Englishmen against political folly of the past. Skelton does lay charges of ambition, talebearing, and even traitorousness at Wolsey's feet in Why Come ye Nat to Courte and Colin Clout. Their particular application to Wolsey in Magnyfycence , however, must remain only conjectural. If Skelton's play was a relatively late product, then perhaps ‘cursydly cowchyd’ (1. 1277) in the names ‘Symkyn Tytyuell’ and ‘Pers Pykthanke’ mentioned by Foly (1. 1268) is an allusion to a particular worldly churchman at court, ‘Symkyn… Pers,’ or the little Simon Peter of England, Wolsey, whose ambition was to be the Pope of Rome.

45 Erasmus, Cf., The Education of a Christian Prince,ed. Lester K., Born (Columbia, 1936), p. 141: ‘There is no better time to shape and improve a prince than when he does not yet realize himself a prince.'

Skelton's Magnyfycence

  • Leigh Winser (a1)


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