THE editors of The Renaissance in England identify the putative voice of John Skelton's “Philip Sparrow” as follows: “one Jane Scroop, a pupil of the Black Nuns (or Benedictines) at Carrow in Norfolk.” C. S. Lewis, in a qualified but more helpful manner, differentiates between the real Jane Scrope and Skelton's poetic creation: “The lady who is lamenting her bird may not really have been a child… . But it is as a child she is imagined in the poem—a little girl to whom the bird's death is a tragedy.” Stanley Fish accounts for the poetically imagined Jane, while giving primacy to the real Jane. In “Philip Sparrow,” he argues, Skelton creates “a comparative study of innocence and experience, built around the contrasting reactions of its two personae to a single event, the death of the title figure.” Fish then points to the central importance of Jane, “the poem's real inspiration, the girl herself.” But who was this “lady” or this “girl,” as she is variously called, the female figure that holds a central place in a minor masterpiece by the most idiosyncratic of English poets? Who was Jane Scrope?
Getting a fix on the historical figure of Jane Scrope, might, I thought, lead me to a better understanding of Skelton's poetic methods, and this might yet prove true. But in the meantime, I have been drawn into a creative enterprise of another sort. For in this effort to identify Jane Scrope, I have found myself gathering far-flung bits of information, putting together puzzle pieces to create a picture that includes not only Jane Scrope, but her seven (possibly eight) sisters as well. These sisters reveal a remarkable variety in the lives of women, even those as close as sisters. Jane herself, the wife of minor gentry, could number among her sisters two countesses, one nun, and a highly trusted lady in waiting at the courts of the two Henrys.
There have been brief forays into the lives of the Scrope sisters. Studies that situate the place of women in early modern book culture cite the importance of Jane's sisters as well as her cousins.