Monday, September 16, 2013

The Fool and his King

by Judith Arnopp

Q: When is a fool, not a fool?
A: When he is a fool.

It doesn’t matter how far back you research into history, if there is a monarch, then his fool will not be far away.  In one form or another, be it tumbler, juggler, trickster, jester or clown, every recorded culture had them, but, thanks to Shakespeare and other writers of the period, it is the motley fool of the English medieval kings that remain uppermost in our minds. But these fools were not simply to amuse the monarch, they had other, more subtle duties and their importance shouldn’t be underestimated. As the 16th century author Erasmus pointed out:

'We have all seen how an appropriate and well-timed joke can sometimes influence even grim tyrants. . . . The most violent tyrants put up with their clowns and fools, though these often made them the butt of open insults.’ (Desiderius Erasmus, In Praise of Folly)

Throughout history there are fools. Dwarves, of course, and warrior fools, Norman buffoons, minstrel fools and innocents but it is the Tudor fool, Will Somer, whose influence and companionship to Henry VIII is so well documented, upon whom I wish to concentrate on today.

Somer was not the only fool at court but he seems to have been the favourite. His predecessor, Sexton (also known as Patch) was famous for his nonsensical wit, but the thing that set Somer apart from the others, was the love of the king. He had the ability to turn Henry’s mind, when it needed turning the most. 

The most famous quip afforded to Somer is by Thomas Wilson who quotes him in his ‘Art of Rhetoric’ as follows.

‘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…’

The pun on ‘auditors, surveyors and receivers’ is both a joke and a truth, and there are other similar witticism recorded to Somer in other works of the period.  For example: 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). 

John Southworth, author of ‘Fools and Jesters at the English Court’ says that these documents do not offer much in the way of history but they all highlight Somer’s use of his ‘merry prate’ and spontaneous rhymes to improve his master’s state of mind.

Other reports suggest he was less a wit than a ‘natural fool’ (today we would refer to this as having
learning difficulties) and I could go into a lengthy discussion about this, but I want to concentrate on Will’s relationship with Henry VIII.

William Somer first emerges in 1535 when an order appears for new clothes for ‘William Somer, oure foole.’  Henry’s ‘olde foole’ Patch/Sexton had grown too old and it was Will who was chosen to take his place.

His initial requirements included a fool’s livery; ‘a dubblette of wursteed, lined with canvas and coton …a coote and a cappe of grene clothe, fringed with red crule, and lined with fryse …a dublette of fustian, lyned with cotton and canvas …a coote of grene clothe, with a hood of the same, fringed with white crule lyned with fryse and bokerham.

It seems that throughout his service Somer was maintained by the Privy purse for although there is a surviving record from Cromwell in January 1538 of a ‘velvet purse for W. Somer’, there is no mention of anything to fill it, his expenses being met by the court. 

In this fine new apparel Will Somer’s duty was to entertain and distract the king from his worldly care, and he seems to have done so admirably. His favour with Henry raised him so high that he appears in several portraits, commissioned by the king himself. The most famous being the family portrait by an unknown artist which is now housed in the Royal Collection. (See top of page)

It depicts Henry, at his most virile and vigorous best, and Queen Jane (who had already been dead for over a decade). On the king’s right is their son Edward (whose birth caused his mother’s death in 1537). Completing the Tudor idyll are the princesses, Mary and Elizabeth, both girls bastardised and legitimised so many times, they can have had no real idea as to their royal standing .  

The entire royal family are assembled in a fantasy gathering, a made up truth to please the king, and what makes this especially poignant is that, a little behind the royal sitters, the painting also shows Will Somer, dressed in his ‘clothe coote,’ and his velvet purse is hanging from his belt. His pet monkey obligingly picks lice from the fool’s hair.

Framed in the opposite archway is a likeness of a girl, believed to be of Jane, the innocent fool of Princess Mary, whom it is believed she took into her household after the death of Anne Boleyn. The presence of the royal fools in this very personal portrayal of Henry’s family can only point to their importance.

Another glimpse we have of Will Somer is in a psalter commissioned by Henry (circa 1540.) This time the king is drawn as an old man, in the character of King David, playing a Welsh harp, and Will is pictured with his back to the king. Again, he is dressed in the 'grene cloth cote' recognisable from the descriptions in the privy purse accounts.

Since most of Henry’s old friends had, by this point, been executed, exiled or (more rarely) died of natural causes, there must have been few left that he could safely trust or confide in. This makes the image of the lonely old king and his trusty fool a hauntingly unhappy one. I can almost be moved to pity him.

Records suggest that, as the reign progressed, only Will was able to take Henry’s mind from the incessant pain of his ulcerated leg, the cares of state and his growing ill-health and depression. Right until the end of the king’s life, wherever Henry went, Will went too; from palace to palace, his every need was catered and provided for.  At Christmas 1545, just a year before the King’s death, when a batch of sixteen horses were ferried across the Thames on a trip to Hampton Court, there were three mounts to carry the massively obese king,  and one for his fool, ‘Wyllyam Somer.’

After Henry’s death in 1547, Somer went on to serve at the court of Edward VI and Mary I, but he died early in the reign of Elizabeth. He is buried at St Leonard’s in Shoreditch, his name marked on a stone to commemorate players and musicians of the period who are buried in the church.

Further reading: John Southworth: Fools and Jesters at the English Court, ISBN: 0-7509-3477-8

Photographs from Wikimedia commons.


Judith Arnopp writes historical fiction. She is currently working on a novel about Anne Boleyn.
More information is on her webpage:

The Winchester Goose

The Forest Dwellers

The Song of Heledd



  1. What a fabulous post. How far back does Fools and Jesters in the English Court go?

  2. Hi Carol McGrath, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Fools and Jesters in the English Court touches on ancient times, more detail through the Norman period and onwards to the late 17th century. It is a very entertaining read.


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