Professor Alec Ryrie from our Department of Theology and Religion explores a new book written by Swedish historian Peter Andersson on the life of court fool Will Somers during the reign of Henry VIII.
Header image: Portrait of Henry VIII and family featuring jester Will Sommers on the right, and likely another jester Jane Fool on the left, circa 1545, via wikimedia commons
Henry VIII is notorious for his willingness to lop off the heads of anyone who crossed him, including a string of former friends and intimates –even two of his wives. So you might think that, to keep your head on your shoulders at his court, you would need to have your wits about you and to watch your tongue.
And yet, one figure who sailed on apparently effortlessly through Henry’s bloody later years and the equally violent reigns of his successors was Will Somers, the court fool.
Somers died peacefully under Queen Elizabeth I after a long and successful career at the Tudor court. It is this survivor’s tale that the Swedish historian Peter Andersson set out to tell in Fool: In Search of Henry VIII’s Closest Man.
In writing a book about Somers, Andersson faces two pretty serious problems. One, we know almost nothing about Somers. We have a series of off-hand mentions, hackneyed anecdotes and accountants’ notes, none of which add up to much.
Secondly, what we do know is that his purpose was to make people laugh – but Tudor comedy has, to put it kindly, not aged well. The punchline to a number of the jokes remembered here is that a man pisses in his pants. As Andersson says rather apologetically, “you had to be there” – but perhaps you’re glad you weren’t.
Conjuring up a 200-page book out of what little there is on Somers is a tall order, and at times the performance sags. Andersson does invoke quite a lot of historical and literary scholarship to interpret Somers’ world – and while it is learned it is about as entertaining as a Tudor joke-book. He has to cast his net pretty wide, searching not only for solid facts, of which there are precious few, but for “things that ring true”, an alarmingly capacious category.
Still, he’s on to something. The court fool was, as he shows us, a weird category of being. Quite distinct from the clown, who sets out to make people laugh and is in on the joke, the point of the fool was that he stumbles into comedy by mistake. Anyone who wants to know about this oddly central figure in Tudor life will find Andersson’s book worthwhile.
Like many court fools, Somers had a reputation for being hot-tempered, sometimes lashing out at the wrong person when tormented. He also, more unusually, had a reputation for falling asleep at inopportune moments. Neither of those things would be tolerated for a moment in a normal courtier, which is presumably the point. He was an anti-courtier, his misbehaviour indulged like a pet’s. Indeed, there is a story that says he slept with the king’s spaniels. He was, the account books tell us, only an intermittent presence at court, since presumably little foolery goes a long way.
Somers was, the portraits tell us, beardless like a boy, with his hair close-cropped like a madman. Sadly, he wouldn’t have worn the cockscomb headdress with bells that we imagine, but expensive and distinctive clothes were made for him, to mark him out visually from the normal humans at court.
Somers mostly wore green and his clothes were apparently covered in brightly coloured silk buttons, which were bought for him by the hundred. As that suggests, he wasn’t there chiefly for his witty banter, but to be looked at, laughed at and mocked.
And, it seems, kicked and punched. This was not sophisticated comedy. One of the later sources has Somers say that the king “gave me such a box on the ear, that struck me clean through three chambers, down four pair of stairs, fell over five barrels, into the bottom of the cellar”. This is Looney Tunes stuff.
As Ian Holm’s Napoleon says in Terry Gilliam’s film Time Bandits: comedy is about “little things hitting each other”. No wonder Henry VIII’s court musician and playwright John Heywood had sour grapes about his own commissions drying up while the court still guffawed at this sort of thing. It would be like Shakespeare being sacked and replaced with a troupe of dwarf-wrestlers.
But what made Somers so memorable was that courtiers could never quite make up their minds about him. Was he, they repeatedly asked, truly a “natural fool”, or was he an “artificial fool”? Was the joke on him, or on them? Although Andersson’s book is heavy going at times, this central puzzle animates it and keeps the reader guessing to the end.
Take Somers’ most famous witticism. One day when the king was lamenting his poverty, Somers told him it was because he employed so many “frauditors, conveyors and deceivers”. Was that play on the words “auditors, surveyors and receivers” something that someone had taught him, like teaching a parrot to swear? Or was he sharper than he let on?
In the end, Andersson doesn’t buy it. He reckons Somers really was a “natural fool”, “saying what came into his mind, now and then inadvertently stumbling upon a humorous phrasing or unwittingly saying something that could be imbued with comedy”. I’m not so sure. If those who knew him couldn’t make up their mind what he was, it seems foolhardy for us to make a judgement.
By far the best-attested saying of Somers’, for which we have three independent witnesses, is that he would abide by nothing that he had said: warning us, in effect, not to believe a word from him. It’s worth remembering as you read this book. Is the joke on him, or on us?
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