The 'Natural' Fools of Henry VIII's Court: Far more than Jesters

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When people think of courtly jesters, often what comes to mind are grinning performers with bells on their hats, quipping and gamboling for the rulers of the realm. But in Henry VIII's court, the newer 'natural' fools held a different and very special place in court.

So what is a 'Natural Fool?'

Not a 'Natural Fool' at all...
A 'skilled fool' or 'jester' was a regular member of the royal courts from at least medieval times, typically a bold performer and/or actor who was shrewd enough to gauge the royal family's sense of humor without causing danger to themselves, and providing levity in the back-biting, claustrophobic and stressful environment of the courts . Often these performers were comedic and goofy, but they could also act as magicians, jugglers and more. The 'Natural Fool' however, which seems to have been adopted more commonly around the time of Henry VIII, was an altogether different figure of the court. This individual was an 'innocent' - a person with a particular disability (usually a learning disability) that was retained as a figure of levity and, at times, the source of many a humbling statement that none other would dare utter to those in power.

Why take on a 'Natural Fool'?

The 'Natural Fool' served as a figure of comic relief in many ways that the traditional jesters
William Sommers
did, but they also served a more Christian purpose. Due to their learning difficulties the king and his court appreciated what they saw as a natural frankness and innocence which would in turn encourage the royals to humility. While it is impossible to say how far these individuals were aware of the full spectrum of their words, there are examples where especially shrewd and cutting commentaries could be directed to the king as no one else dared to say. 

William Sommers, for example, was a 'Natural Fool' who was valued by the king and granted access to the monarch at all times, especially towards the later pained years of Henry VIII's life. In 1553 Thomas Wilson quoted William as commenting to Henry:

"As please your have so many fraud-iters, so many conveyers, and so many deceivers to get up your money, that they get all to themselves."

Wilson explains that William meant to say 'auditors, surveyors and receivers' and in this characteristic slip he criticised the king's organisation as no other would, amusing him while making him think starkly on the position of his accountants. Whether William genuinely confused his words or whether he chose them carefully is lost to history, unfortunately. The royals nevertheless viewed him and his kind as naturally closer to God, as if God himself spoke through them due to their 'innocence', and so it's likely that his words struck a very real chord.

Were 'Natural Fools' Exploited?

From the 'All the Kings Fools' production
While to modern sensibilities the position of 'Natural Fool' is at best tone-deaf and insensitive and at worst exploitative, there is evidence that the position was very valued and that the 'Natural Fools' were themselves very well respected and afforded a status that was high above that of their neurotypical peers.

On the one hand we cannot escape the dehumanising elements of the position of 'Natural Fool'. These people were placed in a position of being a source of amusement for the court and it is certainly a patronising role that is likely to have paid little attention to the person's own rights as an individual. Looking at William 'Patch' Sexton, who predated William Somer as the court 'Natural Fool', he was treated largely as one treats property. Cardinal Wolsey, out of favour with the king, gave Hampton Court palace to the king and Sexton was included in the gift. Unsettlingly, it is recorded that it took six tall yeomen to transport him into court when he was clearly distressed. whatever his problems on that day he was going, like it or not.
Yet one can argue that this isn't so out of keeping with the general hierarchy of the time, where lower serving classes were used for the benefit and amusement of the ruling classes, with little true autonomy of their own. 

One thing that can be said for the 'Natural Fools' is that they occupied a higher status than their 'skilled fool' counterparts, and certainly a far higher status than other contemporaries with learning difficulties could ever hope to enjoy. In many ways they were very much a treasured part of the royal family itself.The idealised picture 'the family of Henry VIII' was painted in 1545, showing the king (healthier than he was), his son and heir, the long dead Jane Seymour (the king's favourite wife and mother to Edward VI) and his two daughters (who had been recently restored to the succession). Also, flanking the royals, is Jane the fool and William Somer - the two 'Natural Fools'. Their inclusion is a significant display of their value within the royal household as, it's worth noting, the current living Queen Katherine Parr was not even included in this portrait.

Jane Fool on the left with William Sommers and his monkey on the right.

Evidence of the 'Natural Fools'' esteemed position is evidenced by far more than just an interpretation of a painting. Jane the fool seems to have been especially treasured and largely passed about the tudor family, moving between Mary Tudor and Queen Katherine Parr. Katherine, with genuine warmth, seems to have noted that Jane was not properly occupied, and court records show that she ordered in several geese and a hen for her to look after and care for, which were subsequently trotted around the court. None of the natural fools ever had to wear traditional jester's clothing, and instead wore the rich clothing that matched in value and dignity to the queen's ladies - the wives and daughters of nobility. Jane, for example, had more clothes in greater numbers ordered for her than anyone else but the queen herself (though admittedly cut in the Dutch style rather than the more fashionable French.)  While under Lady Mary's care, Jane was also included in the annual St Valentines Day Lottery, which seems to indicate how the members of the court afforded her considerable equality. Here lots were drawn by all male courtiers for who among the ladies of the court should be their partners for dancing. a Mr Hete and a Mr Barnes were both rewarded in black satin for acting as 'Jane our fool's valentyne'. It is clear that Mary at least was actively caring and generous to her and Jane was well cared for in any illness.

All in all, the position of 'natural fools' shows a fascinating insight into the day-to-day running of the royal family, as well as how some of the disabled were given an opportunity to rise above their usual lot in life to perform valuable service in the courts. They were far more than simple jesters.

- All the King's Fools
-Suzannah lipscomb All the King's Fools
- The Anne Boleyn Files - Jane the Fool
- Fools and jesters of the English court by John Southworth (Ch 11 -
- Historic England - the king's fools: disability in the Tudor court
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