As the title of Beatrice K. Otto’s engaging book, Fools are Everywhere. The Court Jester Around the World, asserts, fools are a universal phenomenon in the pre-modern world. Still, maybe it’s just my Anglophilia, but it’s always seemed to me that fools were a particularly prominent feature of the court in early modern England, and one fool in particular: Will Somers, who appears in both “official” portraits and more casual ones, both from his own time, and well after: I wonder why?
The Family of Henry VIII, with Will Somers under the right arch and his counterpart, “Jane the Foole” (sometimes alternatively referred to as “Mother Jak”, Prince Edward’s nurse), on the left, c. 1545, Hampton Court Palace; Tudor family portrait from the Duke of Buccleauch’s Collection at Boughton House, c. 1650-1680–supposedly based on an earlier painting–featuring King Henry VIII, Will Somers, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth; King Henry and Will in an illustration from Henry’s Psalter, c. 1530-45; British Library Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 63v.
The first reference to Will Somers is in 1525, as a man in his twenties, and he died about 1560. His presence at court is one of the few continuous aspects of the Tudor dynasty: he served, or entertained, King Henry VIII and all three of his children: Edward, Mary and Elizabeth for the opening years of her long reign. Clearly he and King Harry were close, literally in the pictures. This psalter image clearly has religious symbolism–Henry is a harp-playing King David, and Will the fool of Psalm 14 (the fool saith in his heart, there is no God)–but the Tudor family portraits point to a closer personal connection. Following the distinction first made by Robert Armin (an actor in Shakespeare’s company), in his Foole upon Foole (1605) and A Nest of Ninnies (1608), historians and literature scholars still seem most interested in assessing just what kind of fool Will was: “natural” or “licensed”/”artificial”: a natural fool was one with mental challenges or disabilities, an artificial fool was playing the part. There seems to be evidence for both types: in John Heywood’s Wit and Witless, Somers is among the latter while other sources refer to his wittiness. The discussion about the nature of Somers’ foolishness has lasted for centuries, and I think it makes him a rather more interesting character than his Elizabethan successors, Richard Tarlton and Will Kempe, who were obviously artificial, acting fools. Somers experiences a posthumous resurrection in the seventeenth century, which produced some charming portraits of his image and a lively biography entitled The Pleasant History of the Life and Death of Will Summers (1676): And how hee came first to be knowne at the court, and how he came up to London, and by what meanes hee got to be King Henry the eights jester. And over time, Will Somers seems to evolve into the both the wise fool and the full-fledged jester, keeping us guessing all the while.
Title page of William Sommers, engraved by R. Clamp, 1794; W.H. Ireland, Chalcographimania; or, the portrait-collector and printseller’s chronicle, with infatuations of every description. A humorous poem. In four books. With copious notes explanatory. By Satiricus Sculptor, Esq., 1814.