In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

Let the bird of paradise speak loud from his cage


I want to recite to camera a long poem, originally by John Skelton. And I want to do so from the top of the Tyndale Monument, a tall tower on a hill near Bristol.  William Tyndale and Skelton both lived in the reign of Henry VIIIth but they have more than that in common.

The poem I want to read is called “Speak, Parrot.” My version of it can be found in a recent post on this blog – “Where one is, the other must be.” Skelton’s Parrot was a bird of paradise, truth-teller, caged ambassador of the soul. And he defied Cardinal Wolsey, whom Skelton saw as tyrannical, an enemy of righteousness and the true order of things.

William Tyndale also challenged the authorities of his time. In those days the Church only allowed the Bible to be read or heard in its Latin version.  But Tyndale insisted on translating the New Testament into English, the language of all the people, not just the educated few.

Skelton was born around 1463 and died in 1529. Tyndale was born around 1494 and died in 1536. Whereas Tyndale was executed for his translation work, Skelton lived a full span of life for that time. But both put themselves at ultimate risk in the cause of truth and truth-telling, as they saw it.

They were alive in an England of tumultuous transition, as it raced from medieval to Renaissance in aspect after aspect – in language, in culture and in the management and relationship of church and state. Government was authoritarian, with absolute power still centred on the King’s court.

Skelton was tutor to Prince Henry, the future king, and towards the end of his life acted as a writer and controversialist on behalf of Cardinal Wolsey. But before that time he mounted a furious and risky campaign against Wolsey, in poem after poem. It is said that he wrote these attacks from a place of endangered sanctuary in Westminster ; for Wolsey, head both of the state and the church in England in his prime, was busy doing away with the medieval laws of sanctuary even whilst Skelton was still relying on them for his safety. Skelton was essentially a traditionalist and he saw Wolsey as voracious and dangerous, a threat to stability and God’s order. But the poet was also part of the innovation and flux of that time so that, along with poems in the traditional medieval verse forms associated with court and castle, he also wrote effervescent experimental poetry based on contemporary street talk, a kind of Rap.

Like Skelton, Tyndale spoke a large number of languages. But Tyndale was the more radical and austere of the two. He was associated with Lutheranism and was a great writer of English prose and insisted on translating the New Testament from Greek into English, and later began translating the Old Testament from Hebrew. Tyndale is recorded as saying to a doctor of divinity, who was arguing for the need to follow Papal knowledge and interpretations of the Bible and of Right and Wrong : “If God spares me… I will cause the boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Bible than thou doest”.

Tyndale fled to Europe to escape the authorities, and carried on his translating work from there. But eventually he was betrayed to officials of the Holy Roman Empire, under King Charles Vth. He was first imprisoned and then executed – a terrible death in which he was strangled and burnt at the stake.

Only a few years later, the English sovereign state severed its ties with Roman Catholicism and, a short while after that, the King James Bible was published in English. That English was mostly Tyndale’s, though it was not until Victorian times that his contribution was recognised and appreciated. Then a truly impressive monument to him was built on a hill near Bristol, a tall and simple tower.

It is now suggested that Tyndale is one of the fathers of modern English and his rhythms and phrases, their simplicity and grandeur, have run through the minds and experience of many generations.

“Speak, Parrot” was the greatest of several long poems that Skelton wrote, attacking the all-powerful Wolsey. Those poems were written in various styles, “Speak, Parrot” being the most formal. While the poem includes some furious personal invective, it is essentially a plea for right-living and truth-telling, in a Society under threat. “I pray you, let Parrot have liberty to speak.” The parrot is the poet, custodian and interpreter of heart and soul. His cage both restricts and protects him.

I have been looking for a suitable background and context for a recital of my version of the Skelton poem, which ends up attacking wrong-doers and abusers of power more contemporary than Wolsey – Murdoch et al as enemies of free speech, right action and real democracy, and Cameron et al, as creatures and worshippers of the false word, the mere sell, the mere Me and Mine – persecuting the poor, neglecting the young, undermining community. It was earlier suggested that I do the reading in a church, in recognition of the sanctuary which Skelton needed, in order to speak out. But the top of Tyndale’s Monument is surrounded by iron bars, to stop people from falling (or leaping). And it gives wonderful views from between the bars. The Parrot would love it for his cage and platform.

Tyndale died in flames, in the cause and as a consequence of his work. I am unlikely to die that way and my work is not, of course, on the same scale, but my subject is serious and so is this poem by Skelton. While it is paradoxical that had Skelton been alive when Tyndale died, he would have probably supported his execution, I think his poem belongs in Tyndale’s tower.

For more detail, see:

Rogan Wolf, December 2014