Act the fool: Famous court jesters and fools from history

A laughing fool
Image: Laughing Fool circa 1500, possibly by Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen | Wikipedia | Public domain

More recognised today as troubadours, harlequins or bards of the medieval court, in actuality the role of the fool can be followed back as far as ancient civilisations. In the history of Britain fools and court jesters have always held a special position and were often rewarded heartily for their contributions to life in the royal household. However, the image that we have in our minds of the performer singing risqué songs and tumbling across the floor in the harlequin motley and bells is a romanticised version of the truth. These fools from British history are perfect examples that sometimes history stinks.

Roland the Farter

Sadly there is a distinct lack of information surrounding the delightfully titled jester, but there are a few things that we do know. Roland was a medieval flautist who lived in 12th century England. Court jester to King Henry II, Roland was best known for one thing and one thing alone: breaking wind. While little is written about Roland, one thing that we do know is that his particular skill set was reserved for one performance a year: King Henry’s rip-roaringly riotous Christmas celebrations. Roland was recorded as culminating his foolery with"Unum saltum et siffletum et unum bumbulum": a simultaneous jump, whistle, and fart.

Considered puerile humour today, the history of fart humour is considerably richer than you might think. In fact, the oldest joke in the world (dating back to 1900 BC!) is a fart joke. The Sumerian saying 'Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.' will hardly have audiences rolling on the floor with laughter, but it does go to show that some jokes can transcend time and culture itself. Within Medieval culture, the far became the great leveller between classes. An embarrassing form of bodily embarrassment that was felt by the common folk and elite classes alike. From Chaucer to Shakespeare, fart jokes were the bawdy yet humorous equivalent of saying death comes for rich and poor alike.

Whether the height of comedy or a great leveller between the classes - Roland was so revered for his annual performance that he was gifted Hemingstone Manor along with 30 acres of land from the King on top of payment for his annual efforts. Perhaps the prime example of if you're good at something never do it for free.

Sexton, Will Somar and Jane Fool

In perhaps Henry VIII’s greatest piece of propaganda is a revelation about the perception of disability in the Tudor court. To his right sits his son, Edward, and to his left stands Jane Seymour. Further afield in the peripherals are his daughters Elizabeth and Mary, and then further still just outside the room stand a woman with a shaved head and a man with red tights and a monkey on his shoulder. But in such an intimate and idealised painting of family, who are these two additions? They’re the Royal fools Will Somar and Jane Fool.

The truth of fools in the Tudor court is a little more complicated than the typical image of what we think of as fools and jesters today. Termed ‘natural fools’, Will, Jane, and Will’s predecessor Sexton were adults with learning disabilities. Their lack of social awareness and directness of tone with the Royals was endearing (where it would likely have resulted in a charge of treason for anyone else). Believed to be closer to God and closer to truth, these ‘natural fools’ became an integral part of the Tudor court.

Jane was often showered with gifts from her mistress Anne Boleyn and was the best-dressed woman at court after the Queen and princesses. Will on the other hand is featured in the intimate position between Henry and his children in another family portrait.

But behind the portrayed revelry and affection for their ‘natural fools’ lies the truth that these were adults who would not have had an easy life outside of their unique positions in court. Sexton, Will Somar’s predecessor (also known as 'Patch') needed six tall Yeoman Guards to transport him to court (due to his distress) and had an army of carers who handled everything down to his wardrobe and groceries. Financial records even show that Will Somar’s ‘keeper’ was receiving payment for his care of Will long after the passing of Henry VIII. Proof of just how endeared and loved he was to the royal family and the rest of the court.

Sir Jeffery Hudson AKA Lord Minimus

As a child, Jeffrey was presented to the Duchess of Buckingham as a 'rarity of nature'. Titillated by his extreme smallness and perfect proportions, the Duchess invited the six-year-old to live in her household. Jeffrey made his mark on the royal court a few months later when the Duchess and her husband entertained King Charles I and his wife Queen Henrietta Maria.

As the finale of a lavish banquet, Jeffrey was presented to the queen hidden in an 18” pie. At the opportune moment, he burst out of the pie adorned in a miniature suit of armour. Queen Maria was so entertained with this display that the Duchess offered him to the queen as a whimsical gift.

Jeffrey was kept by the queen along with other 'rarities of nature' including a Wiliam Evans - a Welshman of massive proportions, two more dwarfs, and a monkey named Pug. Educated in the queen’s household, Jeffrey soon learned how to make the best of his situation using humour and revelry. He and William even had a skit where William would pull Jeffrey and a loaf of bread from his pocket and proceed to make a sandwich.

Sadly Jeffrey’s life took a turn following the outbreak of civil war in England. Fleeing to France, the queen took with her a small retinue of courtiers including Jeffrey. While in France Jeffrey made it abundantly clear that he wasn’t going to live as a pet or clown anymore and that he would no longer put up with jokes made at his expense. Of course, this warning was ignored much to the tragedy of the ill-fated jokester.

While there is no record of what offence William Crofts’ brother committed against Jeffrey, he seemingly didn’t take the challenge at all seriously and comically armed himself with a ‘large squirt’ (an early modern water gun) for the duel against Jeffrey. This attempt to embarrass Jeffrey further backfired, however. Having been educated in the Royal Household, Jeffrey had been taught to read, write, ride horses, and shoot. He shot Crofts in the forehead, killing him instantly.

This moment marked a considerable fall from grace for Jeffrey. Not only was duelling illegal in France (where he was staying at the hospitality of the French), he had killed the brother of a powerful member of the queen's retinue (William Crofts was the Queen’s master of the horse and head of her personal guard). Jeffrey was sentenced to death but escaped with exile back to England following the Queen’s interception.

Sadly, though little record details his life from this point, the story of Jeffrey continues on a downward trajectory. Captured by pirates and forced into slavery in Africa, freed and returned to England only to be imprisoned for being a Roman Catholic - Jeffrey died in relative obscurity and was buried in an unmarked Catholic paupers grave.

Written by:

Jo Rowan