Until the the overthrow of Charles I, the tradition of not only court jesters, but also in
the households of prominent noblemen was a common feature, even if the name jester didn´t appear until mid-16th century, among earlier names we would find fol (fool), disour, and bourder The Royal Shakespeare Company has described them as follows:
In ancient times, courts employed fools and by the Middle Ages the jester was a familiar figure. In Renaissance times, aristocratic households in Britain employed licensed fools or jesters, who sometimes dressed as other servants were dressed, but generally wore a motley (of mixed colours or materials) coat, hood with ass’s ears or a red-flannel coxcomb and bells. Regarded as pets or mascots, they served not simply to amuse but to criticize their master or mistress and their guests. Queen Elizabeth is said to have rebuked one of her fools for being insufficiently severe with her. Excessive behaviour, however, could lead to a fool being whipped, as Lear threatens to whip his fool.
There is no wonder that Royal Shakespeare Company has had reason to explore the fool, as they are recurring in several of Shakespeare´s plays. In Twelfth Night, it is stated that the jester is the one who is wise enough to play the fool.
The fools of Elizabeth, or at least one of the, is someone who is the reason for this entire post and I will return to him, but first I want to look at the jester, or the fool, as a cultural phenomenon. Apart from criticizing the king or queen, and –maybe one can say – serving as a kind of conscience for the monarch, the jester also of course provided entertainment such as storytelling, joggling, magic and acrobatics. It could also be the jester who delivered bad news to his or her monarch when no one else dared, something which was maybe facilitated by the ability to play the “fool” and maybe thereby taking the “edge” of the bad tidings.
The jester, of fool, that I hinted at earlier, is of course Will Somers, who was with every Tudor monarch from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, if even only up until the coronation of Elizabeth.
Will Somers was born in Shropshire and had somehow ended up in Calais where he apparently dazzled the merchant Richard Fermour with his humour, because Fermour introduced Will to Henry VIII at Greenwich as early as 1525, and he would not only stay with the king throughout his reign but as I mentioned earlier, server all of his three children, even if retiring after the coronation of Elizabeth.
It seems a genuine friendship grew between the king and fool, maybe fueled by the fact that unlike the nobles, Will Somers never seem to have tried to capitalise on his friendship with the king, something which no doubt was something of a new experience for the king. Even so, the friendship wasn´t entirely without friction, around 10 years after Will Somers had entered the court Sir Nicholas Carew dared him to call queen Anne a ribald and young princess Elizabeth a bastard, something that sent the king into such a flying rage that he threatened to kill the Somers with his own bare hands.
The poor jester had to hide at Carew´s home in Beddington until the king´s anger had abated. Even so, it was around this time the king really started having physical ailments, something which would only grow worse over the years until the time of his death, and while Will Somers obviously could be at the receiving end of Henry´s anger, it is said that he was the only one who could lift the kings spirit when the pain from his ulcers kept him confined to his chamber or made it difficult for him to be in a benign mood.
Towards the end of the king´s life, Will Somers would be one of less than a handful of people to whom Henry VIII shared his most inner thoughts.
When Henry died, one can say that Will Somers was part of the inheritance left to Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, but he had lost his prominent position in relation to the reigning monarch, while it is noted that he made Edward laugh, he was in large parts reduced to a sidekick of Mary´s own Jane the Fool. His last recorded performance was at the coronation of Elizabeth I.
He is believed to be the Will Somers whose death is recorded on June 15th 1560 in the parish of St. Leonard´s, Shoreditch.
Fools and jesters at the English Court – John Soutworth
Notes of the Fool – Royal Shakespeare Company
Jester – Encyclopaedia Britannica
King & Court – Alison Weir
The Six Wives of Henry VIII – Alison Weir
It is said that the man in the background of the painting of Henry´s family is believed be Will Somers