For centuries, the kings and queens of Britain enjoyed hosting vast banquets and making merry with plenty of booze and food. These frequent events at the royal castles and palaces also needed entertainers. Step forward the court’s chief entertainer - the jester.
Jesters, or fools, didn’t just tell jokes – they also did acrobatic tricks, sang songs, did impressions, mocked the guests (including the king or queen) and told stories.
From the Middle Ages to the 17th century, official jesters at the royal courts of England and Scotland donned their colourful costumes and delighted the watching monarch and their guests. Here we look at a selection of eight of the most famous royal fools from 650 years of British history.
1. Hitard - Court of Edmund Ironside
King of England for just seven months in 1016, Edmund Ironside is still fondly regarded as one of the great early rulers of the land. When he got the occasional rest from fighting the Danes, Edmund liked a bit of comic relief at his court, employing a royal jester named Hitard.
It is not known what gags Hitard told Edmund to make his iron sides split, but this official fool must have impressed the king, as Edmund gave him the lordship of Walworth (now in south London) as a reward for his service.
After Edmund died, Hitard gifted the manor of Walworth to Canterbury Cathedral, and then he proceeded to Rome where he lived out his final days.
2. Roland the Farter - Court of Henry II
Today, trumping in public will likely cause people to move away from you clutching their noses. But 800 years ago, you could build a career from it – and a royal one at that.
Roland the Farter served as a royal jester to the court of Henry II in the 12th century. Musical and comical flatulating formed a key part of Roland’s act, and this obviously impressed the king, who granted the entertainer a 30-acre manor in Suffolk for making him howl.
Every Christmas Roland was required to perform a skit for Henry which was called, in Latin, ‘Unum saltum et siffletum et unum bumbulum’ (‘one jump and whistle and one fart’), in which Roland would make the gathered gentry guffaw with his guffing, though presumably his act didn’t stink!
3. Nichola - Court of Mary, Queen of Scots
Mary, Queen of Scots, the father of James VI of Scotland and I of England, was Queen of Scotland from 1542 to 1567 before her cousin, Elizabeth I of England, had her locked up and beheaded in 1587.
Elizabeth cut her head off, but who made Mary laugh her head off? The leading court jester of Mary’s was a Frenchwoman named Nichola, or Nicolle. This Gallic gagster was also known as ‘La Jardinière’ (‘The Gardener’).
Mary was known to have a keen sense of humour and there were several other fools working at her court in the 1560s, but Nichola is referred to by some historians as ‘The Queen’s Fool’. Nichola was clearly a busy entertainer at Mary’s court, as contemporary royal accounts detail the range of colourful outfits bought for the comedienne.
At some point after Mary’s imprisonment and forced abdication in 1567, Nichola returned to her native France.
4. Will Sommers - Courts of Henry VIII, Mary I, and Elizabeth I
One of the most famous of all jesters from British history is surely William Sommers, the king’s fool of Henry VIII. Born in Shropshire, he likely began working for the royal household in 1525.
Court jesters were famous in history for occupying a unique place in the royal household, having informal freedom to jeer and jibe and to sidestep the usual court etiquette. And Sommers was no different, but sometimes he went too far. Sommers once told how Henry, unhappy at some of his banter, smacked him so hard that it knocked him ‘through three chambers’, and down ‘four pair of stairs’. Here he found himself in a cellar, where he fell over five barrels of ale and stayed there getting drunk while recuperating.
Sommers was clearly an important figure in Henry’s court. There are several contemporary paintings of Henry and his family which are believed to include the jester.
Sommers continued in royal service after Henry’s death and was known as a reliable provider of much-needed mirth to Mary I. Sommers then served briefly under Elizabeth, dying not long after her coronation.
5. Lucretia the Tumbler - Court of Mary I
Mary I, Queen of England from 1553 to 1558, wasn’t known as Bloody Mary for nothing. She ruled with an iron fist and had hundreds of ‘heretics’ burned at the stake. But she liked a giggle, too.
Mary had more than one court jester, including the long-serving Lucretia, who was recorded in 1536 as a ‘personage appointed to attend on Lady Mary’, then a 20-year-old princess.
Lucretia was what was known as a saltatrix, a female performer who not only employed jokes and wordplay but also dance, acrobatics, and contortion. She is recorded in official documents of the time as Lucretia the Tumbler.
Royal accounts show that Lucretia and another royal jester called Jane Foole were often bought matching outfits, suggesting they sometimes performed as a double act.
Queen Mary died in 1558, but it is uncertain how long Lucretia worked at court after this.
6. John Pace - Court of Elizabeth I
Born in about 1523, Tudor court jester John Pace was educated at Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, and cut his comic teeth in the service of the Duke of Norfolk. Pace’s career as a court fool surprised many of his contemporaries, as it was considered beneath a ‘man of learning’.
Pace may have been employed as a jester in the court of Henry VIII, but this is not certain. He is most famous for working as a court fool to Elizabeth I, providing laughter to Liz for many years.
He was known for being extremely dry and was termed the ‘bitter fool’ by contemporaries. Pace delivered one barb when Elizabeth tried to pre-empt his harsh humour by saying, ‘Come on, Pace, now we shall hear of our faults,’ to which Pace retorted that he did not want to ‘talk of that that all the town talks of’. Ouch!
Punster Pace died in about 1592.
7. Archibald Armstrong - Courts of James VI of Scotland and I of England, and Charles I
Archibald Armstrong was a former sheep rustler who served as a court jester to James I of England and VI of Scotland from around 1606, and, after James’s death in 1625, to Charles I until around 1637.
In 1623, James’s joker got into hot water by roasting his hosts on a trip to the Spanish royal court, poking fun at the young Infanta Maria Anna. The powerful Duke of Buckingham, who was with him, threatened to have Armstrong executed.
Charles I awarded Armstrong a 1,000-acre estate in Ireland, so clearly Archie made Chuck chuckle. In 1637, he teased William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, one too many times, and Armstrong was ordered ‘to have his coat pulled over his head’ and then be sacked as a royal jester.
Armstrong published a lengthy joke book in 1630, one of which goes – careful not to laugh too hard – as follows: ‘A man was asked why his hair was completely grey but his beard was not. The man said that it was because the hair on his head was older by at least 20 years.’
8. Tom Killigrew - Court of Charles II
In Samuel Pepys’s diary entry for 13th February 1668, he mentions the well-known playwright Tom Killigrew, who was a popular figure at the court of Charles II. Pepys says that at that time Killigrew was paid to wear the ‘cap and bells, under the title of the King's Fool or jester, and may with privilege revile or jeer anybody, the greatest person, without offence, by the privilege of his place’.
Killigrew sometimes pranked the king by appearing before him in disguise. On one occasion the wit came dressed as a pilgrim and said to Charles that he would go to hell and find Oliver Cromwell, to ask him to come back and save England from the present king, who was often busy with other business.
Later monarchs did employ the odd comic entertainer, but the age of the royal fool was over even by Killigrew’s time. Thomas Shadwell remarked in 1680 that, ‘It is out of fashion now, for great men to keep fools'.