All the King’s Fools: Research

Our Wellcome Trust funded project ‘All the King’s Fools’ begins tomorrow! The actors are in the dress rehearsal as I write.

There’s going to be a feature on the project on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme tomorrow morning (Thursday 6 October), so do listen out for that.

I’ve already written in History Today about some of the research I’ve done that underpins this project, but thought it might be helpful to give you a short summary of the research findings here (I also plan to produce a scholarly article, exploring this research in more depth, before long).

We’ll be exploring the research issues tomorrow in an academic symposium at Hampton Court Palace on All the King’s Fools: speakers include Christopher Goodey, Dr Elizabeth Hurren, Prof. Thomas Betteridge and me.

And on Friday, we’re running a heritage showcase day for heritage professionals. It’s all go!

You can find pictures and follow our progress at

Above all, do come down to Hampton Court this Thursday 6 to Sunday 10 October 2011 to catch these groundbreaking and thought-provoking performances in action! Buy your tickets here.

Research summary

All the King’s Fools explores an under-research part of the history of disability: that of the natural fool.

Court fools were of two sorts: the natural fool and the artificial fool. An artificial fool, a term that seems to have been synonymous with ‘jester’ was one who mimicked the ‘foolishness’ of the other. A natural fool, who was also described as an ‘innocent’, seems to have been a person with learning difficulties (although it is always hard to understand the categorizations of the past and they can’t necessarily be transferred unproblematically onto the present). The evidence from visits to monasteries, letters, and statutes suggest that these natural fools were widely present in society, highly visible, and understood to be distinct from those with mental illnesses such as insanity.

Will Somer was one of most famous fools of Henry VIII’s court, and continued on as a fool through the reigns of Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. There is contemporary evidence to suggest that he was a ‘natural’, including John Heywood’s play Wit and Witless and, chiefly, a payment in 1551 of 40s. to William Seyton ‘whom his Majesty hath appointed to keep Will. Somer’. This suggests that Somer did not receive direct wages, and instead, had a carer. This is also true of other court fools, like Sexton (also known as Patch). Sexton was not paid directly, but three men were given money to buy his food and do his laundry, whilst the king provided clothing for him. ‘Thomas the Jester’, by contrast, did receive direct payments of 20s. on two occasions.

There are several indications that fools were very important at Henry VIII’s court. The first is their inclusion in a dynastic portrait of his family from 1545. The second is that they were not dressed in the multi-coloured motley of medieval fools, but were attired in rich fabrics. Above all, they were also the ones to whom Henry would turn when he was melancholy or sick.

Tudor medicine is famed for the use of bleeding and amputation, but was actually very holistic, and also paid attention to a patient’s diet, behaviour and mental state. The Tudors believed that the body consisted of four humours: choler (yellow bile), phlegm, black bile and blood, which needed to be kept in balance. One of the ways to achieve this was to ensure the presence of mirth in a person’s life. The physician Andrew Boorde, in his 1542 First Book of Knowledge, stated that:

mirth is one of the chiefest things of Physick.

Mirth meant laughter, but also amusement, good company, lively conversation, music making, and being merry with one another. This is where the fools could be so important.

A contemporary chronicle notes that Will Somer had ‘admission to the King [at all times], especially when sick and melancholy’, suggesting that Henry VIII relied on Somer in his lowest moments. This is confirmed in a later book by Robert Armin, who wrote:

Few men were more beloved than was this Fool

Whose merry prate kept with the King much rule.

When he was sad, the King and he could rhyme,

Thus Will exiled sadness many a time.

Another essential component of mirth was honesty. Fools were thought to be uniquely equipped to speak the truth, because their innocence gave them a special relationship to God. The Bible, in 1 Corinthians i.25, appeared to suggest that God spoke through their foolishness:

All men are fools before God and the foolishness of God is wiser than men’s wisdom.

The humanist Erasmus had popularized this idea with his 1509 work The Praise of Folly. When most around the king were yes-men, Henry could rely on Will Somer and other fools to speak honestly. We have evidence of him being able to change Henry VIII’s mind.

These special qualities of fools – their ability to bring mirth and their relationship to truth – explains their privileged, hallowed status that brought them both favour and authority at the court of Henry VIII.

I would like to acknowledge and thank Dr Elizabeth Hurren and Prof. Tom Betteridge of Oxford Brookes University, and Lauren Johnson of Past Pleasures at Historic Royal Palaces,  for their research help and contributions.