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John Skelton - Godfather of Rap

An Abstract ImageAmple proof that rap has been around for 500 years

John Skelton lived from the 1460s until 1529. He came after Geoffrey Chaucer and Sir Thomas Mallory. He preceded Spenser and Shakespeare. He was a young man when Mallory's "Le Mort d'Arthur" was published, and he was old when Sir Thomas More's "Utopia" came out.

Like most rap artists, John Skelton did not have a glamorous background. Nothing is known about him prior to when he began studying at Oxford University in the early 1480's. There he was awarded the title "poet laureate", which would be the equivalent of a modern day doctorate of poetry. He soon became famous for his rhetoric, his satiric flair and his translations. In 1488 he joined the court of Henry VII, and was the official royal poet for most of the next 40 years.

Skelton tutored the young Prince Henry (who went on to be Henry VIII) for 5 years. His job was to teach him the performing arts, but one wonders what else he may have taught him.

Skelton became a priest in 1498, and began to write seriously. He wrote many books on the teaching profession, which are all lost except for one entitled Speculum Principis (1501). As well he wrote The Bowge of Courte, (rewards of court) - a satire of court politics, printed in 1499 by Wynken de Worde, who also printed the first ever book of riddles. Skelton's poetry emerged just as the printing press was taking off.

Just like numerous rap artists, Skelton spent some time in prison. In 1501-1502 Skelton was involved in court disputes which led to a brief imprisonment for delinquency in a debt. He had a reputation of heavy drinking and womanising.

From 1502 he served as rector of Diss in Norfolk, staying in residence for ten years.  There he wrote Ware the Hawk, a savage satire on a priest who preferred hunting with falcons to religion; and his most famous poem - Philip Sparrow, a playful elegy about a young girl's dead pet bird.

His poetry gave us the phrases:   "I smell a rat" "By hook or by crook" and  "In spite of his teeth"

In 1509, when Henry VII died, he wrote an elegy in Latin titled A Lawde and Prayse Made for Our Souereigne Lord the Kyng. Many of his poems ran to 500 lines or more.

 It's the New Style 

Skelton had invented a new style of poetry. Typically they were rapid two or three-stressed lines with frequent alliteration and a single-rhyme pattern repeated for as long as the poet pleases. His style was later dubbed the Skeltonic meter.

As an example here's the second stanza of The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng, about an ugly old hag who ran a brewery:

Her lothely lere

Is nothynge clere,

But ugly of chere,

Droupy and drowsy,

Scurvy and lowsy;

Her face all bowsy,

Comely crynkled,

Woundersly wrynkled,

Lyke a rost pygges eare,

Brystled wyth here.

Which is not unlike how modern rap artists describe their women

Incidentally the first line of the poem is: Tell you I chill, a rapper declaration if I've ever heard one.

The common folk were often the theme of his poetry - he used more colloquial English and vulgar terms than Robert Burns.

He also wrote sweet romantic pieces, dedicated to various eligible women in Norfolk, some of which he may or may not have had affairs with. Have a look at his "mistress poems" and you can imagine how they were used as tools of seduction. They were only published after his death.

Listen to these lines from his poem To Mistress Margaret Hussey

With solace and gladness,

Much mirth and no madness,

All good and no badness;


Modern day rappers have a similar style, such as Slick Rick:

Acting like a jerk

 and on his face was a smirk

He said, "Your wife went berserk

 while you was hard at work"


From the same Skelton poem are the lines:

Erst that ye can find

So courteous, so kind,

Of merry Margaret, as midsummer flower,

Gentle as falcon or hawk of the tower.


Whereas 500 years later the Beastie Boys tell us:

We're giving you soul power

I like it sweet and sour

When it comes to rhymes and beat designs

I'm at the control tower


At this time there was another famous poet, Alexander Barclay.

Alexander Barclay was also a poet priest and later became a monk of the Benedictine Order--an order that was dissolved during his lifetime. He also wrote moralities--a disquisition on the cardinal virtues Mirror of Good Manners, for example, and the ballad Of Sapience, made up of teachings like: "Spende not on women" and "All wealth is transitory". He characterised his own work as inducing "unto vertue and goodnes,"

Barclay was seen to be medieval and Skelton was a ground-breaking modern poet. Their religious and poetic differences caused them to write a series of poems that ridiculed each other.  They were also purported to have fought physically when they met in a public house.

Barclay thought Skelton was vice-prone.  In December 1509, Barclay printed his poem Ship of Fools, and the final stanza reads:

"Holde me excusyd,

for why my wyll is gode

Men to induce unto vertue and goodnes.

I wryte no Jest ne tale of Robyn hode,

Nor sawe no sparcles ne sede of vyciousnes;

Wyse men love vertue, wylde people wantones.

It longeth nat to my science nor cunnynge

For Phylyp the Sparowe the Dirige to synge.

At this time Skelton was quite famous for his rude remarks uttered in public about other people. From one end of his career to the other, from the Manerly Margery Mylk and Ale to A Replycacion agaynst Certayne Yong Scolers Abjured of Late, the list of persons whom Skelton attacked and insulted, not exempting even the dead, is a lengthy one.

Skelton cast his reply in the form of "An Addicyon" to the Phyllyp Sparowe, in which he conjured all the demons and heroes of the pagan underworld to do battle on his behalf. The substance of Skelton's reply is summed up in the final (Latin) line of the addition, where Skelton tells his detractors "Est tamen invidia mors tibi continua" (Your ceaseless envy will be the death of you).

In 1523 he added more still, ending with:

Of Phillip Sparow the lamentable fate,

The dolefull desteny, and the carefull chaunce,

Dyvysed by Skelton after the funerall rate;

Yet sum there be therewith that take grevaunce

And grudge therat with frownyng countenaunce;

But what of that? Hard it is to please all men;

Who list amende it, let hym set to his penne.

 Barclay returned insults in a work entitled Contra Skeltonum, which is not known to survive.

Although Skelton was a poet laureate, there were many other poets who described themselves the same way. Barclay made of fun of these self-declared poet laureates in two more poems, although he was probably aiming at Skelton. He used lines such as:

No name I chalenge of Poete laureate.

Whose wrytynge uttreth theyr lyvynge bestyall.

Another thing yet is greatly more damnable:

Of rascolde poetes yet is a shameful rable,

Which voyde of wisedome presumeth to indite

Though they have scantly the cunning of a snite;

 They laude their verses, they boast, they vaunt and jet,

Though all their cunning be scantly worth a pet.

 LL Vs Canibus - Rappers battle on the mic 

Today in hip hop there has been an on going battle between veteran rapper LL Cool J and newcomer Canibus. Lyrics have been exchanged between the two rappers for months. For example, the feud can be sensed in the songs "4,3,2,1" written by Cool J and the song "Second Round Knockout" written by Canibus.

All up there have been four songs used in this battle, and it's easy to see that the rivalry is similar.


I'm the illest nigga alive, watch me prove it,

I snatch your crown with your head still attatched to it.

 LL Cool J

The symbol on my arm is off limits to challengers,

You hold the rusty swords I swing the Excalibur,

How dare you step up in my dimension?

Your little ass should be somewhere crying on detention.

Watch your mouth, better yet hold your tongue,

I'ma do this shit for free this time, this one's for fun,

Blow you to pieces, leave you covered in feces,

With one thesis, LL Cool J is hard.


It's about who strikes the hardest, not who strike first,

That's why I laugh when I hear that wack ass verse!

That shit was the worst rhyme I ever heard in my life,

Cause the greatest rapper of all time died on March Ninth.

LL Cool J

In other words, it's gonna be like that,

You young boys is mice, I'm being the cat.

Evolutionary, revolutionary, and legendary,

I got a climax waiting for each and every cherry.

LL Cool J

Young slacker, save that demo for Jack the Rapper

You gargoyle, slash Olive Oyl, pussy cat all wrapped up in aluminum foil

Ready to boil

 Eninem Vs Everlast 


Early 1999, Everlast claims Eminem ignored him in a hotel lobby; Eminem says Everlast snubbed him when they appeared together on a popular LA hip-hop radio show


Everlast cameos on the Dilated Peoples' track "Ear Drums Pop", threatening to murder Eminem:

"I'll buck a .380 on ones that act shady"

questions Em's masculinity:

"Let's take it back to the house/Slide off your blouse/Lift up your skirt/And expose your panties

and even refers to Eminem's five-year-old daughter, Hallie Jade:

"Cock my hammer, spit a comet like Halley"


Eminem releases a B-side "I Remember", on which he mocks Everlast's heart problems:

"I just wish the cardiac would've murdered you"

and his music:

"You went and took your style and switched the shit/Now you sound ridiculous"

and calls him:

"Miss Everlast"
"a homosexual white rappin' Irish"
"a fuckin' punk pussy, fuckin' little bitch, fuckin' cunt"


Everlast replies on "Whitey's revenge":

" Won't that bitch Slim Shady please act up, get smacked up, get your eyes blacked up"

"Now I heard you might be the MC that's gay"

"If you go to prison, while you're doin' your bid/I'll look in on your lady and do things for your kid"


Eminem records an unreleased song "Quitter", saying;

"If you talk about my little girl in a song again I'm-a kill you"

and chants: "Kill Whitey"

Skelton seems to have been suspended in 1511 for having a concubine or wife. This was no surprise, considering all the romantic verses that the supposedly celibate priest had been writing.

In 1512 Skelton returned to court, and assumed the title 'Orator regius', King's Orator.

Henry the 8th was regularly at war with other countries, and Skelton was becoming a medieval spin-doctor, using poetry to inform the masses of his pro-England views. Most notably he wrote The Ballad of a Scottish King. It was turned out anonymously, in hundreds of copies only days after King James of Scotland had been defeated. This suggests that his poetry was considered a good way of circulating the latest news and eliciting support for the king and his policies.

 The first two lines of the poem go:

Kynge Jamy, Jomy your joye is all go.

Ye summoned our kynge. Why dyde ye so?

He also wrote poems about the defeat of the French. Today we have acts like Public Enemy who also use rhymes to deliver political ideas.

Skelton wrote many translations of ancient historians. He also wrote comedies, interludes, and morality plays - though only one play remains, the political satire Magnificence (1516).

He moved to a house in the Sanctuary of Westminster in 1518 and shortly thereafter began his attacks on Cardinal Wolsey, including Speak, Parrot (1521?), Colin Clout (1521-22), and Why Come Ye Not to Court? (1522). Wolsey had him imprisoned for a time and when he released him, Skelton wrote the apologetic and autobiographical poem The Garland of Laurel (1523).

Skelton died at Westminster on 21 June 1529, the day that Catherine of Aragon pleaded before King Henry VIII.

The Skeltonic meter is very similar to the rap styles of today. He went to prison twice and was a rampant womaniser. And if you add how he used his lyrics to put forward political views, and that he had verbal battles with rival poets I believe he was genuinely the medieval godfather of rap.