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A Nest Of Ninnies: Will Somers And Other Fools (Part 1)

September 14, 2014

Henry VIII and his children employed an impressive number of entertainers during their lives, and some of the longest-lasting of these entertainers were their fools. John Doran, writing in The History Of Court Fools (1858) summarizes the fool’s place:

About the middle of the sixteenth century, the favour which official jesters enjoyed at Court and in noble houses – far beyond that granted to more worthy men, – excited the disapprobation of many observant commentators. There was no then no better way of amusing an aristocratic company on a dull evening, in a dreary castle, than by having the fool into the hall, and allowing him full license to attack old and young, married and single, lovers and enemies … And if the fool pleased everybody, – on the other hand, it was necessary that everybody should please the fool, at least if he had business that he wished should prosper with the fool’s master. Access to the latter was chiefly to be had through Sir Knave, a word from whom was often most effective in bringing about conclusions. The fool often sat near his patron at table when philosophers stood humbly in the background, and courtiers laughed servilely at the jokes, good or bad, made by “Cap-and-bells” at their expense. (48-49)

Doran may have been exaggerating somewhat, but fools who did well for themselves could enjoy astonishing, if somewhat uneven privileges — Will Somers, by far the best-known and most written-about of Henry VIII’s jesters, was allowed to call him “Harry”, managed to retain his head and even his job after calling Anne Boleyn and her daughter “ribaude” and “bastard”, and was outfitted in the sort of clothing minor nobility might have been hard-pressed to pay for. Beatrice Otto, in Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around The World (2001), cites an example of Queen Mary’s spending both on Somers himself and Jane Fool, her woman jester — Somers received, among other things, a gown of “grene figured Vellat with sixtene white hare skynnes and fourtie and six white lamb skynnes” while Jane Fool also had a gown of the same “Vellat with sixe white hare skynnes” as well as a standing order for a round dozen of shoes (p. 67). Somers also appears with his pet monkey in the famous Hampton Court Mural of Henry VIII’s family, and Jane Fool may be the female figure on the left (I’ve seen her identified by that name, but other sources say the woman is “Mother Jak”, so don’t quote me on that one). On the other hand, it’s unlikely that many members of the aristocracy ended their workdays the way Robert Armin describes in his biography of Somers in A Nest Of Ninnies (1608) — “and so Will laid him downe among the spaniels to sleepe.”

What sort of entertainment did fools provide? This depended both on whom they worked for, and what they were. In Beatrice Otto’s book, she provides a useful index of every fool mentioned along with notes on distinguishing characteristics such as dwarfism, and whether or not the fool was “natural” (mentally delayed or mentally retarded, someone whose presence served both as entertainment and a reminder not to get above oneself) or “artificial” — a person of normal intelligence who might specialize in wordplay, physical tricks, aping “naturalness” or perhaps all three. It’s a measure of how distant we are from the sixteenth-century mentality that the jury is still out on whether Henry’s most famous fool was “natural” or not. Doran and Otto describe him as being an “artificial” fool, but Suzannah Lipscomb thinks that Somers may have been “natural” or at least what we would now call learning-disabled (though, confusingly, she also cites a 1545 letter written by Sir William Paget which “credits Somer with a habit for wise and quotable sayings”.) All of these writers draw heavily on Robert Armin’s 1608 account of Somers, which, although it’s full of lively and valuable material, was written almost fifty years after Somers’s death, by which time he seems to have achieved a considerable posthumous reputation. Armin begins his account with a much-quoted verse description of Somers:

Will Sommers born in Shropshire, as some say,
Was brought to Greenwich on a holy day,
Presented to the king; which foole disdain’d
To shake him by the hand, or else asham’d ….
Leane he was, hollow eyde, as all report,
And stoop he did, too; yet in all the court
Few men were more belou’d then was this foole,
Whose merry prate kept with the king much rule.
When he was sad, the king and he would rime:
Thus Will exiled sadness many a time.
I could describe him as I did the rest,
But in my mind I doe not think it best:
My reason this; how ere I doe descry him,
So many knew him that I may belye him;
Therefore, to please all people, one by one,
I hold it best to let that paines alone:
Onely this much — hee was the poor mans friend,
And helpt the widdow often in the end.
The king would euer grant what he would craue,
For well he knew Will no exacting knave.

(A Nest Of Ninnies, 41)

Armin goes on to tell a number of stories about Somers enlisting the king to help a poor woman’s son “deceive the hang-man” and to end the enclosure of “the heathe where [he] was borne, called by the name of Tirrels Frith: now a gentleman of that name takes it all in, and makes people beleeue it is all his, for it took the name from him; so that, Harry, the poore pine, and their cattle are all undone without thy help.” Somers wants him to get the Bishop of Hereford to lean on Tirrel to “commaund him to set the Frith at liberty againe, who is now imprisoned by his means. And how shall I be rich by that? sayes the king. The poore will pray for thee, sayes Will; and thou shalt bee rich in heauen, for on earth thou art rich already.” (44) Though even in this account, Somers didn’t restrict himself to the role of comic philanthropist — while Armin either didn’t know or tactfully omitted that unfortunate incident with the “ribaude” and “bastard”, he did include a few earthier moments, including an incident in which Somers threw a bowl of milk in the face of a rival “artificial” fool and jokes on themes which still have the power to delight contemporary nine-year-olds:

At last out comes William with his wit, as the foole of the play does, with an anticke looke to please the beholders. Harry, sayes he, what is it, that the lesser it is, the more it is to be feared? The king mused at it; but, to grace the jest better, he answered, he knew not. Will answered, it was a little bridge ouer a deep river; at which hee smyled.

What is next William? Says the king … Now, tell me, saies Will, if you can, what it is that, being borne without life, head, lippe, or eye, yet doth runne roaring through the world till it dye. This is a wonder, quoth the king, and no question; I know it not. Why, quoth Will, it is a fart. At this the king laught hartely, and was exceeding merry, and bids Will aske any reasinable thing, and he would graunt it. (45)

Another fool, not as well-known as Somers but still relevant to the interests of Tudor novelists, was Patch, who originally belonged to Cardinal Wolsey. Whether or not Patch was his real name is uncertain — I’ve seen some writers say that his real name was “Master Williams”, some say it was Saxton, and others split the difference and say that Patch was a sort of “cant-name” (in Doran’s phrasing) for both of them. Unlike Somers, Patch appears to have been a “natural” — at least, Doran and Otto both classify him as such. Whoever — and whatever — Patch may have been, George Cavendish’s account of the moment in which he left Wolsey will leave most readers sympathizing with him. Cardinal Wolsey, anxious to regain favour with the king, had been so grateful for Henry Norris’s message from said king that he gave Norris his own piece of the True Cross in thanks. (We can only wonder whether Norris still had it seven years later, when his own luck ran out). As Norris turned to leave, Wolsey called him back to receive another gift.

“I am sorry,” quoth he, “that I have no condign token to send to the king. But if ye would at this my request present the king with this poor Fool, I trust his highness would accept him well, for surely for a nobleman’s pleasure he is worth a thousand pounds.” So Master Norris took the Fool with him; with whom my lord was fain to send six of [his] tall yeomen, to conduct and convey the Fool to the court; for the poor Fool took on and fired so in such a rage when he saw that he must needs depart from my lord. Yet notwithstanding they conveyed him with Master Norris to the court, where the king received him most gladly. (191)

Doran relates an anecdote which, if true (he doesn’t give its provenance and I have no idea where it came from) would indicate that Patch reconciled with his new situation quickly enough.

[H]e besought the King to grant him a warrant authorizing him to exact an egg from every husband who had serious reasons to be dissatisfied with the conduct of his wife. The King thought it a fair joke, and the warrant being drawn up in sportiveness, he signed the document in full gaiety of spirit. The ink was scarcely dry when the jester, bowing with mock gravity, demanded the first egg from the King. “Your Grace,” said he, “belongs to the class of husbands on whom I am entitled to take levy.” The joke was not very well relished, and the warrant was cancelled. (Doran, 132)

Somers and Patch have both found their place in fiction, albeit not a large one in either case. Other fools find occasional mentions — Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, and numerous noblemen also kept fools, and occasionally one of them will flit into a novel as an uncomfortable reminder of the diversions of the past. However, there is one real fool who has never, so far as I know, graced the pages of a Boleyn novel. This is Jane Fool, who was mentioned earlier as serving alongside Will Somers. Unlike Somers, who had a contemporary reputation for wit which survived to spawn at least three plays and several biographical sketches within a century of his death, Jane Fool left nothing behind but a possible portrait in the Hampton Court mural and some items in account books which attested to her existence. Claire Ridgeway has written a concise sketch of her life — she lived at court for at least twenty years and served (among others) Anne Boleyn, Catherine Parr, and Queen Mary Tudor.

From “The Queen’s reckoning”, the list of debts owed by Anne Boleyn at her death in May 1536, we know that Anne paid for “25 yds. of cadace fringe, morrey color, delivered to Skutte, her tailor, for a gown for her Grace’s woman fool, and a green satin cap for her.”

Two decades later, Jane was receiving the previously-mentioned green velvet dress with six white hare skins from Queen Mary — perhaps green suited her. But while we know that she received clothes, chickens, dairy, and the occasional mysterious head-shaving, as far as I can tell, not one word that she said has been preserved — assuming, of course, that she could speak. Because while there may be ambiguity about the others, everyone who has mentioned Jane Fool agrees that she was most likely a “natural”. This may account for her unpopularity as a fictional character; writers have given Anne several female fools as companions over the years, but none of them could plausibly be described as “naturals” and all of them are as lively talkers as Somers was supposed to have been. In my next post, I’ll discuss some of them, along with Somers’s own portrayals and a few others. For now, I’m off to sleep, though without spaniels.

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From → Essays

2 Comments
  1. Great post! I love reading about fools, but the historical record is so thin on some of them, even the famous ones. I’d never even heard of Jane Fool.

    • sonetka permalink

      It’s not so surprising when you consider that even among Henry VIII’s wives, only two of them have known birth dates and solid information about their early childhood — and those are the two who were highest-born. The fact that Jane Fool’s existence is even noted now is something of a triumph for her — sure, fools don’t have much information recorded on their lives, but how many lowborn, mentally-delayed people from that era have so much as their names written down anywhere?

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