Fool: In Search of Henry VIII’s Closest Man 
by Peter K. Andersson.
Princeton, 210 pp., £22, September 2023, 978 0 691 25016 8
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Tudor writers​ made being a court fool sound like a holiday. In John Heywood’s play Witty and Witless (c.1520s), ordinary working men are said to live with great ‘payne of body’: they strain their muscles ‘plowyng’, ‘cartyng’, ‘hedgyng and dychyng’, exposed all year round to the weather. ‘Some yn wynter fryse, some yn somer fry.’ But the ‘wyttles’ (witless man), exceptional by virtue of his incapacity, escapes it all. ‘He temprately standth in howse at the tabyll,’ sheltered and protected; his greatest ‘labour’ is the burden of carrying his own fool’s bauble. In Thomas Nashe’s comedy Summer’s Last Will and Testament (1592), the fool, Will Summers, trips lightly onstage, half-dressed and unburdened by any of the things regular courtiers have to worry about: ‘without money, without garters, without girdle, without a hat-band, without points to my hose, without a knife to my dinner’. The things he is ‘without’ define his role. Fools – men and women from incongruous, humble backgrounds – were dropped into the grand settings of Whitehall or Hampton Court to see what would happen. Their ‘naturalness’, or ignorance of convention and obligation, was understood to be their gift. In Nashe’s play, Summers thanks his stars that even his parents’ beatings never persuaded him to study. ‘All this would not make me a squitter-book. It was my destiny.’

The practice of keeping a fool was widespread among the 16th-century European nobility. Kings, courtiers and popes all had fools and immortalised their favourites in formal portraits. ‘Artificial’ fools, those who weren’t intellectually disabled but made a living through performing acts of foolery, were skilled entertainers, recruited to fulfil similar functions to minstrels and tumblers. ‘Natural’ fools, hired because of a real learning disability or mental eccentricity, usually had to be discovered. Under common law, all those declared purus idiota (a quasi-medical category ruled on by a jury) belonged to the king, who could bestow them and their property on any party able to make a strong enough case to claim them. (‘Begging for a fool’, as this was known, was often financially motivated.) Fools could also be acquired circumstantially. Those who were established in the role might be transferred from one household to another, as was likely the case with one of Henry VIII’s fools, Sexton, previously the property of Cardinal Wolsey. In the mid-1530s, a new avenue of recruitment opened up. Monasteries and nunneries often took in the intellectually disabled, in line with the medieval theological view that ‘innocents’, being guileless, were closest to God. As Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners toured the country making their inspections, they kept an eye out for possible candidates. ‘I have espied one young fole at Croland which in myne opinion shal be muche mor pleasant than ever Sexton was in eny parte,’ Thomas Bedyll reported from Crowland Abbey in Lincolnshire. ‘He is not past XV yers old.’

The most famous fool of the Tudor era seems to have arrived at court ‘out of nowhere’, in Peter Andersson’s words. Will Somer, the man who inspired Nashe’s ‘Summers’, was Sexton’s successor: he was taken on sometime before June 1535, when the royal wardrobe accounts first mention a set of new clothes for him, and perhaps as early as a decade before this. The records leave open the possibility that he was a chance find. An account of a visitation to a nunnery in the 1535 State Papers makes reference to a petition from five young women, including one Frances Somer, and there is mention of a young ‘idiot fool’, possibly scheduled to ‘depart’. Another version of the story rests on an 18th-century source. This places Somer as a servant in the household of Richard Fermor, a Northamptonshire Catholic, whose property, fool included, Henry seized after finding Fermor guilty of assisting an imprisoned priest. (The coupling of Fermor and Somer remains unverified.)

In Fool: In Search of Henry VIII’s Closest Man, the first full-length biography of an individual fool, Andersson insists that almost nothing about his subject can be known for sure. We can surmise that Somer must have been a figure of some renown, at least at court, from the several extant portraits of him painted during his lifetime and the fact that he remained in place through three reigns, surviving Henry’s rages to become part of Edward’s and then Mary’s household. But for all his longevity, the records are curiously silent on most aspects of his life. We know that his work was of a different kind to that performed by minstrels and musicians, since his name is absent from lists of entertainment payments; that he was offered little or no boarding at the palaces, but was sometimes granted a horse to transport him between locations; that he had roles in the elaborate Christmas revels held during Edward’s reign; that he chiefly wore green and his hair was cropped short or shaven; that he had a sister, whom he was permitted to receive; that he died in Shoreditch in 1559, the year of Elizabeth’s coronation; and that he must have been a commoner, given the paucity of records.

Somer was a man many people had heard of but few could have met, since his fooling took place in the private spaces of the court. Rumour filled the gaps, supplying the basis of the mythology that grew up around him. From the 1590s, he was a key character in the Elizabethan and Jacobean vogue for nostalgic representations of the early Tudor period. In Foole upon Foole (1600), a collection of stories about well-known fools compiled by the stage clown Robert Armin, Somer is biddable and universally beloved – admired at court for his willingness to intercede with the king on behalf of the common people (he ‘wisht the king to doe good deeds great store,/Which causde the court to love him more and more’) and cherished by Henry as the only man capable of getting him out of fits of ‘extreme melancholy’, with fart jokes if necessary. Samuel Rowley’s history play When You See Me, You Know Me (1605) has Somer sparring with Wolsey and getting the last word in rhyming contests (‘Hees too hard for me still,’ the cardinal complains); there is also an unlikely scene in which Somer and his ‘cousen Patch’ (Sexton, while still the cardinal’s fool) dramatically unveil Wolsey’s treachery to the king, in the form of gold hoarded in wine barrels. ‘The World was in love with this merry foole,’ Armin wrote. ‘Shee longed to heare his friscoes [capers] moralised, and his gambals set downe.’ In the eyes of the public, a few good Somer-related ‘friscoes’ and ‘gambals’ beat accurate chronology any day.

Andersson argues that modern histories of fool culture are ‘haunted’ by material of this kind. Some reproduce anecdotes about Somer that circulated decades after his death. Sandra Billington’s A Social History of the Fool (1984) quotes from Enid Welsford’s The Fool: His Social and Literary History (1935), which in turn quotes verbatim from a 1637 jestbook ‘biography’ of Somer, to the effect that after one of Somer’s verbal attacks, ‘the cardinal bit his lip.’ This was a nice embellishment of the jestbook author’s, a century after Wolsey’s death. Humanist versions of the fool in Erasmus and Shakespeare complicate the picture. Somer was probably very unlike Feste, or Touchstone, or Lear’s Fool, but the notion of a ‘wise fool’ – one sufficiently outside ordinary thinking to be able to call worldly ‘wisdom’ foolish – colours our perception. ‘Those wits that think they have thee [wit] do very oft prove fools,’ Feste says in Twelfth Night. ‘I that am sure I lack thee may pass for a wise man.’ Erasmus and King Lear give us the conceit of the fool’s ability – unique among courtiers – to speak truth to power without fear. ‘Kings do hate the truth,’ Erasmus observes in The Praise of Folly (1511). ‘But my fools … have a marvellous faculty of giving pleasure not only when they speak the truth but even when they utter open reproaches.’ Such fools tell the truth even when they would rather not. ‘Prithee, nuncle, keep a schoolmaster that can teach thy fool to lie. I would fain learn to lie,’ Lear’s Fool says as Goneril and Regan tighten the net, half-wishing he might shut his mouth like other people.

Just how little this ‘all-licensed’ foolery, in Goneril’s phrase, had to do with the reality of the court fool’s experience, and that of Henry VIII’s fools in particular, is plain from an episode of July 1535. In a ciphered postscript to one of his letters, the imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys described the king’s reaction to an ill-judged moment of candour on the part of his fool (likely Somer, since he was at court by this point):

He the other day nearly murdered his own fool, a simple and innocent man, because he happened to speak well in his presence of the queen and princess, and called the concubine [Anne Boleyn] ‘ribaude’ and her daughter ‘bastard’. He has now been banished from court.

‘Naturals’ were desirable, in theory, because they offered authenticity in a court world structured by dissimulation. But those who hired them didn’t have to like it. Somer’s position exposed him to punishment rather than protected him. A deposition from 1532 notes that he (or his predecessor) ‘was by divers of the king’s servants so handled that he was compelled to fall from his horse back’.

The alternative to the humanist view – that fools were like kept animals, to be coddled and baited – is ugly. Those with intellectual or physical disabilities would often have come in for abuse in their own communities, but in the court environment difference was heightened and clashes more likely. ‘Who cumth by the sott [fool], who cumth he by,/That vexyth hym not somewey usewally?’ Heywood asks in Witty and Witless.

Some beate hym, some bob hymn,
Some joll hym, some job hym,
Some tugg hym by the heres,
Some lugg hym by the eares,
Some spet at hym, some spurne hym,
Not even mayster Somer the Kyngs gracys foole
But tastythe some tyme some nyps of new schoole.

There are indications that the ‘nyps’ Somer received roused his own violent temper. In Toxophilus (1545), the scholar Roger Ascham refers to the fool’s reputation for lashing out indiscriminately when hurt: ‘[He] smiteth him that standeth alwayes before his face, be he never so worshipfull a man, and never greatly lokes for him whiche lurkes behinde … that hurte him in dede.’ Later, less trustworthy accounts mention his ‘chollericke’ nature and habitual ‘suddennesse’ of temper, and a violent incident involving a rival fool and a basin of milk. (‘I must eat my creame some way.’) Taken together, they point to what Andersson calls ‘the difficulty of keeping … uneducated, to say nothing of disabled, commoners at court’: the basic confusions and conflicts that a strained social arrangement would have given rise to, masked, in traditional accounts, by the idea of the ‘wise fool’, with his elusiveness and cunning.

IfSomer and his fellows were ‘just’ fools, not shadow political advisers, trusted confidantes or licensed truth-tellers, what remains? Ideology only tells us so much. At court, the way ‘naturals’ were treated would have had little to do with the back and forth of contemporary theological debates over whether folly implied closeness to or alienation from God. Andersson’s approach is to scour account books, inventories and anecdotes for traces that have the stench of reality to them. There are the itemised receipts dating from the time of Edward’s coronation that tell us the palace paid to have Somer’s feet washed: did he prefer to go about barefoot when he could, and had he refused to wash his feet himself? There is his sleepiness, perhaps a form of narcolepsy, noted by Heywood and Armin in different contexts. Somer ‘standthe … all day yn slomber’, Heywood says, he is like a mill horse in his ability and desire to sleep anywhere; once, Armin recounts, he fell asleep on a stile in the middle of Greenwich Park and slumbered so soundly that a bystander ‘fetcht him a cushion and a rope’ to ‘bind him’ safely in place (a story so bizarre it’s hard to imagine it being made up).

Then there is the strange fact that in the wardrobe accounts of Mary’s reign Somer was issued, along with his suits of clothes, loose buttons in huge numbers: ‘tenne dosen of silke buttons’, ‘thirteen dosen and a haulf of round silke buttons of sundrie collours’, ‘one grosse of buttons with stalkes’ – quantities not attributable to the kinds of outfits he wore. Could it have been a game of some kind, an obsession, a means of asserting his identity? It ‘brings us into the realm of his personal qualities’, Andersson writes; but beyond that he is unwilling to go. Several of his readings come up short just at the moment they start to become suggestive, opting for the safe ground of declared uncertainty rather than risking reproducing old assumptions. What the hundreds of buttons ‘chiefly demonstrate’, he concludes, ‘is the frustration inherent in trying to tease out information about Somer and his role through these types of administrative records’.

Andersson’s cautiousness is useful when it comes to the matter of what may have been going on inside the fool’s head. No monarch or nobleman, however astute, could have been certain that the ‘natural’ fool he kept was really so: anyone smart enough to see the advantages of a protected life at court would have been smart enough to imitate symptoms of idiocy. In the anonymous play Misogonus (c.1571), there is a fool character, Cacurgus, who pretends to be simple-minded in his master’s presence, talking mostly unintelligible nonsense about buttocks, then drops the act once he is alone with the audience. Somer, or a version of him, is the model for what this entails: ‘Now will I go play Will Summer again/And seem as very a goose as I was before.’ The interesting question is whether playing ‘Will Summer’ means to play the natural fool or play at someone playing the natural fool. Somer’s recorded jests have an ambiguous quality to them: they are funny, but you can’t tell whether he is in on the joke, or has stumbled on a double meaning by chance. Andersson gives the example of an anecdote in Thomas Wilson’s logic primer The Rule of Reason (1553), in which Somer is said to have praised ‘a Bishoppe of his acquaintance’ for his ‘goodlie base voice’, then added that this bishop ‘made at one time (quoth he) as base a sermone, as he never hearde the like in all his life before’. Bishop-bashing was a time-honoured pastime, but there is an edge to Somer’s ‘joke’ that comes from the ambiguity of its intent.

That you could never be sure what he was thinking made him unsettling and useful in equal measure. Polemicists were quick to see Somer’s blankness and fill it in: religious writers on both sides invoked alleged ‘sayings’ of his in support of their causes, claiming authority on the basis that this was a man who was unable to lie. (A 1582 history of Catholic martyrs asserts that at the moment an imprisoned Franciscan, Thomas Belchiam, starved to death in Newgate in 1537, Somer was found running about the court crying: ‘The simplicity of one mendicant breaks the pride of the king.’) Character traits that seem distinctive may be simply a reflection of the court environment. Somer’s sleepiness, Andersson suggests, is perhaps a little convenient, given contemporary views on sluggishness, or mental lethargy, and their connection to folly; Somer’s slothfulness may have been positively encouraged by Henry and the court as comical, the kind of behaviour that marked a fool as a fool. It probably made for a nicer life.

You can see something of the ambivalence that attached to Somer in his portraits. A 1550s Posthumous Portrait of Henry VIII with Queen Mary and Will Somers the Jester shows him looming behind the king, tall and gaunt, half in shadow, the sideways glance he gives the viewer in contrast with Henry’s frank, direct stare. In The Family of Henry VIII (c.1545), from the Holbein school, he is positioned in an archway to the right of the central group, on the threshold, half in and half out of the family; his left hand is extended in a gesture, as though he is deep in conversation with someone we can’t see, or perhaps with himself. Framed in the opposite arch, on the far left of the picture, is a female figure, probably Jane Foole, Princess Mary’s ‘natural’ fool: she is shown on the point of movement, looking up to the sky as if she has seen something interesting. Neither figure is composed, neither looks as though they know what it means to be in a formal portrait. Clearly they are of another make to the ramrod-straight, pale-faced members of the royal family in the middle, but not in a way that you can easily put down to social or intellectual difference. They look as if they might have come, like the costumed train of revellers Somer was part of one Christmas, straight ‘oute of the mone’.

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