On A Fool’s Errand: Writing A Biography of Will Somer

In this guest post Dr Peter K. Andersson reflects on the challenges of trying to write a biography of Henry VIII’s court fool, Will Somer. Dr Andersson is based at Örebro University in Sweden and works on the history of fools and clowns from the early modern to the modern age. His previous research has looked at Victorian streetlife and popular culture from below.

It’s strange to think that among the people who were closest to King Henry VIII was a man who, by all accounts, was a humble commoner and possibly intellectually disabled. In the early modern period, there was virtually only one way in which a person of low birth from a poor background could become close to a monarch and spend as much time with him or her as their family members. Naturally, it was possible for a commoner to enter the royal household as a servant, but I think it’s safe to say that there was only one occupation that transgressed the social hierarchy in such an extreme way. I am, of course, referring to the position of court fool.

There were many hundreds of court fools and jesters from the Middle Ages until well into the eighteenth century, and most of them enjoyed a status not far from that of a stable boy or scullery maid, or, at the other end of the spectrum, a hired entertainer living at best close to the court, but only seeing the king when called for to entertain. One of the most famous fools in all of history, however, appears to have lived as close to the monarch as possible, and he did so for an unusually long time.

Henry VIII and Will Somer, from Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, BF.1985.6

To posterity, his name is often known as Will Summers, or Sommers, but this spelling only really emerges after his death. To his contemporaries, he was Will, or William Somer – sometimes with an -s added. During the sixteenth century, he grew to become one of the most legendary comics of the age, and after his death turned into a recurring folk hero, cropping up in ballads, jestbooks and pamphlets – not to mention plays, most famously by Thomas Nashe and Samuel Rowley. When Shakespeare omitted him from his play about Henry VIII, he had to include a prologue that explained to the audience that they would not be seeing the beloved fool, so as not to force anyone to sit through it waiting for him to come on.

This rich afterlife is problematic, however, for anyone who – like myself – has taken it upon them to write his biography. Scraping away the many layers of myth surrounding a figure like Somer is almost as foolhardy a task as writing a biography about the real Robin Hood or King Arthur. But not quite. We can, after all, be fairly certain that Will Somer existed and that he was, for about twenty years, Henry VIII’s fool. His name appears in numerous documents from the royal household, including, perhaps most famously, several payments for extravagant clothing made for him. He is first mentioned in the accounts of the Keeper of the Great Wardrobe in 1535, and then surfaces now and then in bills for tailors and barbers in the following decades, until he is listed as present at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. He dies the following year, 1560, and is buried at St Leonard’s in Shoreditch. By then he has been an active court fool to both Edward VI and Mary Tudor, presumably earning the reputation that lived on after his death.

But it is the same with such a prominent man as Will Somer as with any early modern peasant. Even though he lived at the centre of power, witnessed by all the illustrious figures of the age, we barely know anything about him as a person. Anyone who wishes to delve into the wardrobe accounts and write a monograph about how fools were dressed can have a field day, but to those who take an interest in the mental and private life of the early modern fool, there is very little to go on. Perhaps this is why there has never been – to my knowledge – any modern biography written about an early modern fool.[1] There have been many fascinating and well-researched histories of the fool, from Enid Welsford’s classic The Fool: His Social and Literary History (1935) to Beatrice Otto’s Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World (2001), but almost all of them are based on posthumous anecdotes and literary depictions. In his very informative and revealing book Fools and Jesters at the English Court (1998), John Southworth provided much new information on fools unearthed mainly from court accounts which tells us a lot about their clothing, their appearances and so on. But the records also frustratingly seldom tell us even the basest facts about the individuals who were employed as fools. To this day, it has never really been settled, for instance, whether Will Somer, court fool to the most famous king of England, was a natural fool or an artificial fool.

Natural and artificial fool was, as you may know, the distinction made at the time between those who were engaged based on their intellectual or physical disability, and those who were engaged as skilled entertainers or shrewd comics. Lately it has been more or less established, however, that even the artificial fools often feigned natural folly, and that natural fools were more sought after and cherished. The hierarchy between the royalty and nobility at court and the “idiots” employed as fools was often a basis for the culture of folly to begin with. Fools were there to mirror the men and women of status.[2]

After his death, Will Somer was increasingly portrayed as a clever artificial fool. Several sayings attributed to him were seen as signs of this, and he became the protagonist of a popular “jest biography”, first printed in 1637, that depicts him as a trickster and truthteller. The Shakespearean theatrical clown Robert Armin, in his influential collective biography Foole upon Foole (1600) also posits him as a smart-aleck, albeit slightly more vaguely. But more recently, historians, including John Southworth and J. R. Mulryne in his ODNB entry on Somer, concludes that he was a natural, particularly referring to the payment made to a man who was his “keeper”, not to mention the lack of records of wages to Somer himself.

Is there more to learn about Somer that might deepen our picture of him? Are there unexplored sources that would allow us to write about more than his clothes? There are, and by laying a very fragmented jigsaw puzzle can we begin to acquire a fuller picture of the man, but this picture is ambiguous to the very end. Prominent men like Nicholas Wotton and Thomas Cromwell called him friend but invoked his name with an undertone of irony or pity. Theologians and rhetoricians used his sayings to illustrate repartee and mockery, but also foolishness and stupidity. He appears frequently in court records, but never as a member of the royal household or a live-in servant. There are contemporary references to him that suggest he had some form of mental variation, and there are references that suggest he didn’t. What Somer perhaps above all can teach us is to be wary of applying dichotomies and categories too blindly on individuals. Will Somer definitely makes these categories irrelevant, and he might give us the opportunity of going beyond such dichotomies and paint a more complex picture. With some more diligent work, the pieces of the puzzle might come together to show us that rare early modern thing – an individual.


References

[1] Anyone who can correct me on this is very welcome to do so. I would love to read it! (And yes, I have read Tito Saffioti’s ‘E il signor duca ne rise di buona maniera’. Vita privata di un buffone di corte nella Urbino del Cinquecento, La Vita Felice 1997.)

[2] Cf especially Irina Metzler, Fools and Idiots? Intellectual Disability in the Middle Ages (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2016).

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