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.

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‘Being all dead of the Plague’. Plague and petitions in Westminster c.1620-1645

We are pleased to introduce the latest post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Aaron Columbus. Aaron recently completed his PhD at Birkbeck, University of London and co-edits the blog We Hang Out a Lot in Cemeteries. Aaron’s thesis is focused on the response to plague and the poor in the suburban parishes of early modern London c. 1600-1650. Find him on Twitter @columbus_aaron .

Around ten o’clock on the evening of 30 May 1626 in Westminster, Thomas Powell, accompanied by a constable and watchman, arrived at the door of John Bonner with the pretext of asking for his landlord. Many ‘injurious wordes’ were made against Bonner and he was assaulted in his lodging. Powell, in a most ‘furious and barbarous manner’, then compelled the constable, watchman and others to take him to the local gatehouse.

Bonner gives his account of the incident in a petition to the Westminster Quarter Sessions in 1626, and states that Powell was acting on a grudge that had been conceived against him in his shop the Saturday before the incident. Bonner asked the Justices to take action against Powell and his associates, as he possessed no warrant and had wronged his ‘bodie and good name’. Bonner based this on the understanding of ‘most of the parishe’ that he had, as a ‘professor of phisicke’, willingly worked to cure ‘upon 500’ people of the plague in the 1625 epidemic.[1] Bonner’s petition suggests that the experience of plague might be used as a currency of sorts to further the cause of the petitioner, in much the same way that poverty was made explicit and given focus when seeking poor relief.

John Bonnar’s petition (1626). Courtesy of the London Metropolitan Archives, WJ/SR/NS/016/15. Copyright of LMA and not for reproduction.

The Power of Petitioning project recently published transcriptions for 424 petitions to the Westminster City Quarter Sessions on British History Online. Over 150 of the petitions are dated to the period between 1620 and 1646. These mainly concern petty crime, imprisonment, apprenticeship and poor relief. I was interested to see if plague was mentioned in any of the petitions up to the 1640s.

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Understanding Sources: Glimpses of daily life in medical case histories

Our latest Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover is by Amie Bolissian. Amie is currently in the third year of her Wellcome-funded PhD at University of Reading, researching ‘The Aged Patient in Early Modern England, c.1570-1730’. Find her on Twitter at @AuntieAmie.

One ill-fated day, sometime around the middle of the seventeenth century, ‘an old servant to a person of honour’ was bitten on the back of his hand by a monkey. The surgeon called to treat the man, ‘forbad him wine’ to reduce inflammation. But the next morning the old man complained of a sleepless night, feeling ‘faint and sick’, and that ‘his Wound was the least of his ailment’. After his patient swooned, and claimed he ‘could not live without Wine’, the surgeon finally relented, and allowed him to return to drinking ‘as he pleased’. As it turned out, this entailed a ‘Quart’ of wine every morning but, soon after, the wound healed, and the patient was cured.1

[Detail of] A medicine vendor tying up his pet monkey. Etching by T. Major after D. Teniers II.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

This story was just one of many medical case histories that Richard Wiseman, ex-civil war surgeon and personal practitioner to Charles II, included in his lengthy tome on surgery, published in 1676. He went on to explain that some heavy drinkers should never be forbidden wine and that with ‘Dunkerker’ sailors he could ‘scarce ever cure any of them without allowing them Wine’. Wiseman cited the saying ‘a Hair of the same Dog’, and admitted that his readers ‘may laugh’ at him for ‘pleading’ for these drinkers but, as he put it, ‘I hope you will consider I am a Water-drinker’.2 There is so much of historical interest to unpack in this short passage that it is hard to know where to begin. To start with: Whose monkey was it? And were monkey-inflicted wounds so common that this warranted no comment?

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‘Kill or be killed’: Gentry retinues in early modern Wales

We are pleased to introduce the latest post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Sadie Jarrett. Sadie is currently the Economic History Society Postan Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research where she works on gentry culture and society. Find her on Twitter at @pastdeeds.

Eighteen-year-old Erasmus Griffith definitely wasn’t involved in the murder of the Justice of the Peace. In fact, he was only in the farmhouse to return a shirt he’d borrowed from his acquaintance, John ap Robert ap Hywel. Thomas ap David wasn’t even supposed to be in the house; he’d been accompanying his friend John Lloyd Maylor on the road to Burton, but heavy snow forced him to take shelter at the farm. Hugh Salesbury might have been at the farm, but he left before any altercations took place. Yes, they were familiar with the gentlemen involved in the dispute, but they were not retained by any of them. It was mere coincidence that they were all at the farmhouse together and none of them swore an oath to defend it to their deaths. There may or may not have been a mastiff dog present.

These servants and labourers gave their account of the circumstances which led to the death of a JP called Robert Lloyd in a 1574 Star Chamber case.[1] It’s a rare insight into the murky business of gentry retinues in early modern Wales, collections of servants, tenants, and labourers who supported their leader in disputes with rival families.

John Salesbury’s estate at Bachymbyd, Denbighshire. Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Wales, Vol. 6, (1781) p. 58/2 [National Library of Wales].

The suit was brought to Star Chamber by Robert Lloyd’s brother and it centred on a farmhouse in Burton, Denbighshire, which belonged to a local gentleman called Ellis Powell. The previous owner of the farm, Roger Roydon, had died a few years earlier, leaving it to his four daughters. After marrying one of the daughters in 1569, Powell had claimed the property for himself. This caused friction with the husbands of his new wife’s sisters, and perhaps the sisters themselves. In the intensely claustrophobic world of the early modern Denbighshire gentry, the tension simmered between the rival factions embroiled in the dispute.  

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Understanding Sources: Six Reasons to Explore the Cause Papers

We are pleased to introduce the latest post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Hannah Reeve. It offers a new entry to our ‘Understanding Sources’ series that we began in 2016. Hannah is in her third year of her AHRC-funded PhD at Newcastle University, where she is currently researching the Hanoverian parish. Follow her on Twitter @Hannah_Reeve_.

Back in my MA days I stumbled across the Cause Papers. Fast forward five years and I still use them – almost daily – as part of my PhD thesis on the early modern parish. Misbehaving clergy? Check. Decayed and dilapidated churches? Check. Squabbles over pews? Check. Boozing during divine service? Check. Really, they have it all. In this short post, I want to share with you what makes the Cause Papers such a unique source and why almost anyone interested in early modern England should explore them.

First, however, the nitty-gritty. The Church courts functioned from the middle ages to the nineteenth century to hear cases on a whole host of matters relating to the Church, and these have survived to form the Cause Papers. Anything from cases of defamation to tithe disputes were heard, where plaintiffs (the person making the complaint) would bring their grievance to the attention of the judge and ask for the defendant (the offender) to be cited to court. Once in court, each party were to produce proof to support their version of events, and these usually took the form of witness statements. Each statement usually began (in Latin) with a personal description of the witness (such as name, where they were from, age and profession). The one below, for instance, is for twenty-seven-year-old James Smith, a York based bell-founder.[1]

Borthwick Institute for Archives, CP.H.2557, “Violation of church rights (repairs of church),” 1664-1665. Image reproduced courtesy of the Borthwick Institute for Archives.

The rest of the statement followed – usually in English – to describe the witness’s version of events. Once all the evidence had been gathered, the case would eventually move toward final sentencing, though some reconciled or admitted guilt prior to the final verdict. In some cases, a verdict of excommunication was decided, where the defendant would be expelled from the Church of England. Francis Milburne, for instance, was caught digging up the “dead bodys, and the bones and sculls of several dead men and women” in the churchyard of St Michael-Le-Belfry (York). In 1664, Milburne was presented to the courts to explain why these corpses had been “heaped against” the side of the church, causing a “filthy noysome smell” for the inhabitants of the parish and those attending divine service. In Milburne’s failure to desist in his shady undertakings, the Church courts excommunicated him in a last ditch attempt to save his soul and deter others from following in his footsteps.[2]

Despite the extensive paper-trail left behind, the Cause Papers remain an underused source. The following will therefore share six reasons why anyone with an interest in the early modern period should utilise them and hopefully draw attention to their potential for future projects.

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‘Being a great nuisance to the inhabitants’: Petitions to relocate executions and gibbets in eighteenth-century London

Our latest Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover post is by Anna Cusack. She is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London, and co-edits the blog We Hang Out a Lot in Cemeteries. Anna works on the marginal dead of early modern London, focusing specifically on suicides, executed criminals, Quakers and Jews. You can find her on Twitter at @AnnaRCusack.

In 1721, Barbara Spencer was burnt for coining. Her execution was moved at the last minute from Smithfield to Tyburn, after a petition from Smithfield’s inhabitants against having women burnt there.[1] Barbara Spencer’s execution was still attended by a vast crowd, and the people of London did not seem too concerned with this form of execution if it was carried out on the margins of everyday life as opposed to in their neighbourhood. As the original petition for Spencer’s case is lost it is only from a simple newspaper entry that we know it existed, and other newspapers of the time reveal that this was not the only such objection.

By the eighteenth century, alongside the more common petitions of mercy that are found when studying the history of crime and execution, these types of petitions which I have termed ‘relocation petitions’ or, rather, the ‘not in my backyard’ petitions begin to appear and were often reported in the newspapers. The glimpses of the petitions that are visible in these reports show that they highlighted the sensory impact of executions, the problems of crowds, and the general nuisance that the execution would cause due to its proximity to daily life. They were not from the family nor friends of the individual facing execution and show no sympathy for the condemned. Instead, they purely defended the peace and comfort of the local community. Many were similar to the one asking to relocate Barbara Spencer’s execution, however these petitions were always case specific and not every execution held outside the main execution sites of Tyburn, Execution Dock, or, after 1783, in front of Newgate Prison, resulted in a petition for relocation. For example, on the 27 October 1779, fourteen-year-old Isabella Condon was burnt for coining at Smithfield, yet there is no evidence of a petition to relocate her execution.[2]

It was not just executions by burning that provoked relocation petitions. In July 1729, the newspapers reported that ‘Yesterday James Cluff was executed at Tyburn, for the Murder of Mary Green at the Green Lettice in Holborn. He was to have been executed over against the Door where the Murder was committed, but the Neighbours petition’d against it’.[3] The custom of hanging a felon on temporary gallows near the site of their crime, such as in Cliff’s case, had been declining since the late seventeenth century. This decline could also potentially be due to the impact the practice had on the daily lives of Londoners. Therefore, it is not too surprising that these types of petitions began to appear when they do alongside other shifts in the history of execution and the topographical changes of the metropolis.

John Rocque’s Map of London, 1746. The Green Lettice on Brownlow Street, Holborn is on the left circled in red and Smithfield is circled in orange on the right. The increasing density of the city is evident.
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‘Great fears of the Sicknesse here in the City’: Researching news in the 1665 plague during a pandemic

Our latest Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover post is by Nikki Clarke. She is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London. Nikki’s research focuses on how people gathered and assessed news in seventeenth-century England. You can find her on Twitter at @nikkiclarke1.

Reliable information takes on even greater significance in a time of pandemic, when rumour and fake news can have a serious impact on the decisions that people make for their own safety and that of their community. I have spent most of the last year researching the news sources available during the plague of 1665, and how both the authorities and citizens gathered news and judged its accuracy.[1] I have issued myself strong warnings about avoiding anachronistic comparisons with the current pandemic but there are some issues that still have a resonance today.

Londoners dealing with the outbreak of the 1665 plague would have viewed their situation through different intellectual and theological lenses from the ones we use, but they would have been asking many of the same questions and tackling many of the same decisions.  How close is the plague to my street? Should I stay in the city or l should I leave? Are the restrictions on my daily life effective in tackling the disease, or are they a huge economic burden, or both?

John Dunstall, plague broadsheet (1666). Copyright, Museum of London, object 42.39/142.

The primary official sources for news on the plague were the Bills of Mortality.  It is probably anachronistic to describe their weekly publication as the seventeenth-century equivalent of the daily Number 10 briefing. Yet watching those briefings in the spring of 2020 did help me to understand the need of Essex vicar Ralph Josselin to note in his diary almost every weekly bill from May 1665 to December 1666.

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The Life of a Lawyer, Litigant and Mediator in Elizabethan England

Our latest Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover post is by Dom Birch. Dom (they/them) is a doctoral researcher at King’s College London who has just submitted their thesis ‘Parish, Participation and Power: Legal Pluralism in Early Modern England’ for examination.

I was drawn to history-writing because I wanted tell peoples’ stories. My ethical and political commitments, as a social historian, have pushed me to look for and recount the meaningful and inconsequential histories of ordinary early modern people. The somewhat obvious consequence of this commitment has been that the people who populate my work can be frustratingly anonymous.

The records I use—Church Court depositions—are full of gaps and individuals’ rarely turn up repeatedly. The longer depositions, and the fuller characters, stand out in my mind: Agnes Swales, from Osmotherly, who boasted about sleeping with three men in one night and told her neighbour that she hoped her future husband would be a `good doer’ in the bedroom; Joyce Griffiths who suffered from some kind of serious mental illness and was shunned by her neighbours on account of her `madd’ behaviour; and Emmanuel Trotter a vicar from Northumberland whose parishioners attempted to stop him collecting tithes using force, and pitchforks.

The Lawyer’s Office, Pieter de Bloot, 1628. Rijksmuseum, SK-A-660 (Public Domain).

My deponents’ lives can be slippery but it is even harder to know the motivations of the court officials—the notaries and lawyers who shaped the documents I read as a historian. How much of the legalese is theirs? And what did they do when they weren’t listening to other early moderns describing their sex lives and tithe disputes?

The lawyers of the church court were men of some stature, but they too have left little information about themselves. They would have been trained in Canon or Roman law and would, in London, have populated the Doctors Commons and the area around St Paul’s. I have been unable to find specifics about their lives; except for Walter Horsell, a proctor and notary who worked in London in the late sixteenth century.

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Teaching as an early modernist to non-historians: a brief reflection

The next post in our Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover is by Christophe Schellekens (@Christophe_Fir). Christophe is a lecturer in Economic and Social History at Utrecht University, NL.

What can students of politics, philosophy, economics or modern history learn from studying the early modern period? I have had to confront that question directly thanks to my current position as a non-permanent lecturer mostly teaching students on the BSc in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at Utrecht University.

As a specialist in the sixteenth century, I contribute to the introductory module on early modern history. However most of my teaching is not situated in the BA or MA programs in history, but in the BSc PPE, which in Utrecht also has history as a fourth pillar discipline. I very much enjoy teaching in that program, as it challenges me on various fronts to become more self-conscious as a historian. In this short post, I would like to reflect on my experience of teaching as an early modernist in PPE, and in particular on which insights early modern history may bring to students working at the intersection of those four disciplines.

The students of the PPE program have rarely enrolled in that degree with a specific interest in the history of the period between 1500 and 1800. Quite a few have expressed their fascination for the period to me, but they are not studying to become specialists of the period. Instead, their encounters with historians like me come through team-taught modules such as ‘Major Debates in Global Economic History’ as well as ‘The Role of Corporations in Society’. What insights from early modern history can and should I then bring to the classroom?

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A ‘slanderous & scandalous’ petition: the Dyers’ Company and a burdensome petitioning campaign in early Jacobean England

Our latest post in our Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover is from Ellen Paterson. Ellen is a DPhil candidate and Clarendon scholar at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, researching anti-monopoly petitioning activity in late Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Find her on twitter at @elpatersonPhD.

In July 1605, the London Company of Dyers not only upset the Privy Council through their writing and attempted presentation of a ‘slanderous & scandalous’ petition, but also the King himself who was ‘much offended’ by their appearance before him at court.[1] Whilst petitioning was an accepted and common practice in the early modern period, the petitioning of the Dyers’ Company in this instance generated a degree of concern amongst the Council, who promptly ordered Thomas Sackville, the Earl of Dorset, to investigate their petitioning activity.

The Dyers had petitioned the King and Council to express their discontent with a new patent of monopoly granted for the product of logwood. This was a type of dyeing wood which had been introduced into England in the sixteenth century, which produced black, grey, and red dyes. The use of it was prohibited as it was thought to produce defective colours, but licences were sometimes issued allowing limited imports of the commodity, as part of the Crown’s larger reliance on patents and grants as a much-needed source of revenue. In August 1604, a group of courtiers led by Sir Arthur Aston had been given such a grant, allowing them to import logwood and to make a new dyeing mixture from it. This was a cause of vexation to the Dyers’ Company; not only did they complain in their petition that this dyeing mixture was sold at an ‘intollerable’ price, but they also alleged that it was unfit for use and consequently ‘unprofitable to the comon Welthe.’[2]

Painting of a Logwood/Sappan tree. Credit: Ming herbal (painting): Sappan tree, Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Painting of a Logwood/Sappan tree. Credit: Ming herbal (painting): Sappan tree, Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

In many ways this case was not unique. Groups of artisans and traders often came together to protest against grants and monopolies which were seen as infringing on their trades and livelihoods. However, the response of the Council and the investigation that the Dyers’ petition provoked is certainly interesting. Why was this particular petitioning episode worthy of investigation?

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