All the King’s Fools

The fools of the early Tudor court were likely to have been people with learning disabilities as a new project demonstrates, says Suzannah Lipscomb.

The Family of Henry VIII, by an unknown artist. Will Somer is portrayed in the archway on the right; 'Jane the Fool' is seen through the one on the left.

At Hampton Court Palace there is a beautiful painting dating from 1545 that shows Henry VIII with his long-dead, favourite wife, Jane Seymour, his son Edward and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth. There are two other figures, strikingly framed by the two archways in the wings. One is a man in red hose with cropped ginger hair, who has a monkey poised to check his head for lice. He can be identified as William Somer, the king’s fool. The bald woman on the left, whose attention has been gripped by something in the distance, is probably ‘Jane the Fool’, fool to Anne Boleyn, Princess Mary and Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and actual wife at the time. Their inclusion in this royal dynastic portrait suggests that fools had a distinct, privileged and vital role to play at the Tudor court.

The popular myth about court fools and one that some historians have perpetuated is that they were simply clowns aping foolishness for a laugh. Yet my research suggests that many – perhaps all – court fools in the early Tudor period were ‘natural fools’, or what we today would characterise as people with learning disabilities and that explains much about their prominent position.

That court fools were ‘natural fools’ needs a little explaining. In 1616 Nicholas Breton defined a natural fool as one ‘Abortive of wit, where Nature had more power than Reason’. The legal term idiota was interchangeable with ‘natural fools’, who were characterised as incapable or insensible of their actions: a visitation of a nunnery in 1535 reports the presence of one Julian Heron, 13 years old and ‘an idiot fool’; Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall writing to Thomas Cromwell in 1538 identifies ‘an innocent natural fool’ whom ‘by no means we could make to grant’ that he had spoken words of malice against the king; a statute of 1540 establishes the royal prerogative over ‘idiots and fools natural’; while even Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well mentions ‘a dumb innocent’, pregnant because she ‘could not say him nay’. These instances indicate that natural fools, people understood to have a deficiency in reason or judgement, were highly visible in society. (We know that many nobles had fools, like the Duke of Buckingham, the Marquis of Exeter, Lady Audeley and Lady Kingston.) While their terminology is dissimilar to our own, it is clear that the Tudors were trying to categorise learning disability.

Late 16th-century accounts and historians have disagreed about the disability status of some of the court’s most famous fools, especially Will Somer. He was a fool at Henry VIII’s court from June 1535, remained in the service of Edward VI and Mary I and died early in Elizabeth I’s reign. The evidence makes a case for his being a natural fool. In John Heywood’s play, Wit and Witless, which was intended for performance at court, Somer is described as ‘sot Somer’. Randle Cotgrave’s dictionary of 1611 translates the French sot as ‘ass, dunce, dullard, blockhead … also, a fool’. In 1600 Robert Armin described Somer as ‘the king’s natural jester’ (though Armin elsewhere ambiguously refers to ‘another artificial jester or fool in the court’) and Thomas Nashe in his play Summer’s Last Will and Testament (1600) gives his character ‘Summer’ the words: ‘I that have a toy in my head/I a fool by nature, and by art’. Yet, the most convincing piece of evidence that Somer was a natural fool is a warrant from 1551 approving a payment of 40 shillings to William Seyton ‘whom his Majesty hath appointed to keep William Somer’. This implies that Somer needed a keeper to care for him, much as today’s learning-disabled actors have paid carers.

Several modern commentators have doubted the accounts of clever wordplay and incisive wit attributed to the fools on account of their disabilities, but the suggestion made in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that Somer’s reputation for this ‘probably owes more to posthumous myth than to fact’ is not consistent with contemporary reports nor with the modern performance of learning-disabled actors.

This is one of the areas of historical debate that a project funded by the Wellcome Trust into court fools, their treatment and historic attitudes towards disability in general will help elucidate. Following an earlier Arts Council funded production in February, through the University of East Anglia and in association with Historic Royal Palaces, the Wellcome Trust is funding a project by Foolscap Productions and The Misfits, a theatre company of learning-disabled actors. This will culminate in performances at Hampton Court Palace this autumn, directed by former European Jester of the Year, Peet Cooper. This vivid re-enactment, in Henry VIII’s palace, in the very spaces in which Tudor fools performed, should give insight into the reality of performances by learning-disabled actors both now and at the Tudor court.

A letter from Sir William Paget to Henry VIII in 1545 credits Somer with a habit for wise and quotable sayings. When Paget makes assurances to the French to advance a diplomatic matter, he quips, using one of Somer’s familiar phrases, that he has promised ‘much more than he will abide by’. In 1553, to illustrate paronomasia, a kind of pun created by altering part of a word, Thomas Wilson quotes Somer in his Art of Rhetoric:

William Somer, seeing much ado for account-making, and that the King’s Majesty of most worthy memory, Henry the eighth, wanted money such as was due unto him: As please your grace (quoth he) you have so many fraud-iters, so many conveyers, and so many deceivers to get up your money, that they get all to themselves…

Wilson notes that Somer ‘should have said auditors, surveyors and receivers’. By a clever interchange of letters Somer amused and condemned in the same breath. This impression is compounded by the multiple anecdotes of wit and humour recorded in later works, such as Summer’s Last Will and Testament, Armin’s Foole upon Foole (1600), Samuel Rowley’s When You See Me, You Know Me (1605), or the anonymous, A Pleasant History of the Life and Death of Will Summers (1676). Yet Armin, particularly, emphasises Somer’s ability to use his ‘merry prate’ and aptitude for spontaneous rhyme to enhance his master’s wellbeing:

Few men were more beloved than was this Fool,
Whose merry prate kept with the King much rule.
When he was sad, the King and he could rhyme,
Thus Will exiled sadness many a time.

Somer was not alone in being praised for his humorous banter. Similar observations were made of his predecessor Sexton, very probably the fool also known as Patch (a soubriquet meaning ‘fool’), whom Cardinal Wolsey (1473-1530) gave to Henry VIII, along with Hampton Court, in a last-ditch attempt to regain the king’s favour. John Heywood noted Sexton’s nonsensical and witty retort to a reprimand:

Master Sexton, a person of known wit,
As he at my Lord Cardinal’s board
did sit,
Greedily wrought at a goblet of wine:
Drink none (said my lord) for that sore leg of thine,
I warrant your grace (quoth Sexten)
I provide
For my leg: For I drink on t’other side.

It was this natural talent for foolish verbal dexterity that made the fools such prized entertainers.

For while the 16th-century’s treatment of disabled people is hardly exemplary, there existed a paradoxical and ambiguous attitude towards natural fools that elevated them as much as it belittled them. Natural fools had traditionally been objects of laughter, fear and derision, perceived as monstrous, sinful and unable to know God, as the Vulgate Bible‘s Psalm 52 suggested. This made natural fools susceptible to ill treatment and stigmatisation. Yet, Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly (published in 1511 and influential at the Tudor court), which derived much from the writings of St Paul, had brought another strand of thought to the fore. As ‘all men were fools before God, and the foolishness of God was wiser than men’s wisdom’ (1 Corinthians i. 25), fools could be considered holy, possessors of an essential goodness and simplicity that meant they were incapable of sin and conduits of the divine. Their folly was wiser than wisdom. This was the reason for the court fools’ authority and favour, their  rich clothing and even, possibly, their shaven heads, echoing the tonsures of the religious.

As visitors to Hampton Court Palace gather this October to watch our learning-disabled actors – our ‘natural fools’ – perform, they may find that fools still have some truths to teach us.

Suzannah Lipscomb is Lecturer in History at the University of East Anglia and author of 1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII (Lion, 2009). Her next book, A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England, will be published by Ebury in Spring 2012.