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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

Previous Court Jester columns can be found in the archive

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This page was last updated on: Tuesday, 26-Apr-2005 15:39:01 CEST