Friday 26 March 2004
Surely You Jest!
Greetings gentle reader, and welcome to the Court Jester's first column. I
trust it won't be the last. Let me tell you something about the Jester, the Clown,
Buffoon, Fool, with a history that stretches back to ancient Greece, and in some places
existed well into the 19th century. Our lot was rarely a happy one either.
Never exactly considered a noble profession, jesters generally came in two categories. A
'natural' fool was born physically deformed, a dwarf or considered legally insane (in our
terms). An 'artificial' fool was somewhat deformed and had comic abilities or could do
acrobatics or contortions and make derogatory jokes. (This was funny stuff in those days).
Most were sold into the homes of the nobility by families who could not afford to care for
them, and the noble or King considered them property to be sold off or given away at will.
After the War of the Roses was settled the English Court lightened up a bit and there are
many references to the keeping of Fools in the household accounts. Elizabeth of York paid
a Keeper or attendant, one Phyp, two shillings a month to feed and clothe her William. She
also gave gifts to the fools of other nobles. Henry VII made provision in his will for
gowns for his two fools Mr. Martin and Mr. John, and old "Phyp", to wear in his
funeral procession. Henry VIII kept Mr. Martin on and also took in Sexton and Patch,
providing attendants for each of them. Patch, a 'natural' was in the household of Cardinal
Wolsey, who could have sold him for 1000 pounds, but upon Wolsey's fall from grace he just
gave Patch to King Hal. Patch was not too pleased, but he settled down after being
befriended by the Greenwich Court's resident jester, Will Somers- an artificial.
The fool may have been regarded as mere chattel but in most noble homes he was well cared
for, had a place at the family dinner table and was free to take part in the conversation.
Thomas More's fool, Henry Patterson, went to great lengths to persuade his master to take
the oath of Royal Supremacy of King Henry. More refused, and knowing his fate was sealed
handed Patterson over to the Lord Mayor of London on the condition that he would act as
Fool to every succeeding Mayor for the rest of his working life.
The vast majority of information on Will Somers is largely fictional but it seems he was
born in Shropshire and came into Henry's Court as a skinny boy with a pronounced stoop.
Henry enjoyed his prattling and his ability at improvising verse. He flattered Henry,
acted the clown and riddled Henry out of his periods of depression. Henry loved him for it
and gave him whatever he wanted. Consequently Will made plenty of enemies at court too.
Wolsey's decline was said to be due to Will's letting it be known to Henry that the
Cardinal was hoarding gold in his wine cellar. He was jealous of the other Fools, but his
acts of kindness to the locals were legion. After Henry's death he looked after the
fledgling King Edward VI, went to his funeral and then Queen Mary's coronation. He stayed
on at the court of Elizabeth I but both he and fellow fool Jane were past working, and he
died in 1560.
Even the usually frugal Elizabeth kept several entertainers and clowns in her Court,
making sure they were well dressed. They were more the theatrical types that Shakespeare
made prominent in some of his comedies. They even got some good lines.
James I was another matter altogether. From his Scottish court as James VI he brought with
him his own court jester, one Archibald Armstrong. Archy had been born somewhere in
Roxburghshire and was attached to young James' court at an early age. James was of a more
ribald nature than his Tudor cousins were, and this was a shock to the courtiers. The King
and his Fool were inseparable. Archy became a naturalized English citizen in 1612, and the
Official Court Jester-in the account books joculator domini regis.
The English court had more than a few misgivings about Archy's affinity for mischief
making and getting involved in politics. Archy tried to make trouble between James and his
son Henry. He accompanied young Prince Charles to Madrid where he was to woo the Spanish
Infanta. Archy was against the match and did his best to insult his master's host King
Philip IV's courtiers. While he was making snide dinner remarks about the Spanish Armada's
defeat he kept up a correspondence to James, assuring him that he had Philip's ear. He
then assured Philip he had James' ear. He decided he was more popular there than Philip's
own 'fewles'. By the time the prince became Charles I Archy had been granted 1000 acres of
land in Ireland, paid 2 shillings a day, given a Royal Warrant to make tobacco pipes and
the freedom of Aberdeen in 1617.
But like Will Somers before him Archy ran afoul of the clergy in his hatred of the
Archbishop of Canterbury's policies for the Scottish church. His antagonisms and plotting
finally became too much for Charles, and he had Archy's Jester's Coat torn off him and
given to one Muckle John. He was banished from court, but Archy had invested his shillings
well and retired in style to Cumberland. He had a son in 1642, married in 1646 and died in
1672. After the Restoration Charles II's favorite was a professional buffoon who had
shared his French exile. But with the coming of Puritanism and science, and the dissolving
belief that Royalty was divinity on earth, the English Court Jester faded away too.
So what of this humble Jester? Here our Royal Family, and you kind reader, may find gentle
council, an impartial commentary, that the sting of criticism is tempered by empathy and
understanding, or perhaps an entertaining story. And you may answer me back as you wish.
The Jester's email address is below and I welcome your opinions (although I may
think-surely you jest?)
For as the clown Touchstone lamented in As You Like It, "The more the pity that fools
may not speak wisely, what wise men do foolishly."
Anon til we meet again!
- The Court Jester