Wellcome History

I’ve told you much about our innovative project working with actors with learning difficulties at Hampton Court Palace (see here), but here’s a little more: the Wellcome Trust – which funded the performances through a People Award – has featured an article I wrote about the project in the latest issue of Wellcome History magazine. Also don’t miss the piece by Penny Lepisz, one of the actors who performed as a ‘King’s fool’ (though the picture next to her doesn’t show her leading the troops but actor Maude Winkler Reid). You can also learn from Lucy Worsley about the other ways that Historic Royal Palaces has worked with the Wellcome Trust.

We Won a Museums & Heritage Award!

Category : Blog, Fools, Hampton Court Palace, Wellcome Trust · No Comments May 22nd, 2012

To my absolute delight, All the King’s Fools – our innovative project at Hampton Court Palace with actors with learning disabilities playing the parts of natural fools at Henry VIII’s court – has won a Museums + Heritage Award for Excellence! Imagine a BAFTA for the heritage industry and you’ve got some sense of how amazing this is.

The project (which I’ve featured many times on this blog) was a wonderful collaboration between The Misfits Theatre Company, Historic Royal Palaces, Foolscap Productions, academics from the University of East Anglia and Oxford Brookes University and historical interpreters Past Pleasures. It was developed with help from the Arts Council England, and supported by a Wellcome Trust People’s Award.

If you missed it and would like to know more, there’s a brilliant dedicated website with film footage of the events. Well worth a watch.


Museums & Heritage Awards shortlist!

Category : Blog, Fools, Hampton Court Palace · No Comments Mar 26th, 2012


‘All the King’s Fools’, the groundbreaking performances by actors with learning difficulties at Hampton Court Palace in 2011, to recreate the natural fools of Henry VIII’s court, has been shortlisted as an educational initiative by the Museums Association’s Museums + Heritage Awards for Excellence 2012:


The other exciting news is that films of the performances are now available to watch on the project website, www.allthekingsfools.co.uk. Do have a look!


Today programme: All the King’s Fools

Category : Blog, Fools, Hampton Court Palace, Wellcome Trust · No Comments Oct 6th, 2011

All the King’s Fools featured on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning.

Reporter Tom Bateman put together a lovely feature on our work, on Henry VIII’s disability therapy which features on their website.

You will also be able listen again to the clip later today.

You can find out more about the performances, which run from today until Sunday, at Hampton Court Palace, in the post below. The project is supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award.


All the King’s Fools: Research

Category : Blog, Fools, Hampton Court Palace, Wellcome Trust · No Comments Oct 5th, 2011

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 www.allthekingsfools.co.uk.

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.

All the king’s fools

Many Tudor court fools had real learning difficulties. In advance of our Wellcome Trust funded performance project at Hampton Court Palace in October (6th-9th, do come!) with learning disabled actors, read my summary of my research in this month’s History Today:


Tyrants and Heroines

Category : Blog, Hampton Court Palace, Talks · No Comments May 26th, 2011

I gave two talks in May to rather splendid audiences. One, to the Panorama of History weekend crew, posed the controversial question of whether Anne Boleyn was a heroine or a villain, and the other, to the ardent and lively Molesey Local History Society at Hampton Court Palace, considered ‘Henry VIII: The Making of a Tyrant’. Here’s me with Jenny Wood, who very ably organised the latter, at Hampton Court.

Natural fools at Hampton Court

I’ve just finished an article for History Today to come out in their October issue, which looks at the evidence that court fools were ‘natural fools’ or what we’d describe as people with learning disabilities. It was fascinating doing the research on this. The article sets out the historical case for our Wellcome Trust funded project, which will culminate in performances at Hampton Court Palace in October 2011.

The Wellcome Trust fund All the King’s Fools!

I was the historical advisor on All the King’s Fools, a disability arts history performance at Hampton Court Palace on 24-27 February 2011. Brian Logan from The Guardian interviewed me and wrote a feature about it.  It was funded by The Arts Council, and was the pilot for a future project and performance funded by The Wellcome Trust that will be staged at Hampton Court in July 2011.