15 November 2016

Odd Jobs: Clowns, Jesters, and Fools in Medieval and Tudor England

 Even in medieval times, people needed entertainment.  And court entertainers, fools, jesters, jugglers, minstrels, led a life much different from both their royal “employers” and the run of the mill populace.

Of course, to have a position as a court fool was the height of luxury.  There were also freelance entertainers, including fools, who not only provided amusement, they also might do acrobatics and play instruments.  They might be hired by taverns or brothels, by cities for participation in public pageants, or they might be part of a touring company that would travel between noble households, “singing for their supper.”  Indeed, many more were itinerant entertainers than permanent residents.

Indeed, “fol” may not have been a full-time position, as Henry III’s payments to “John the Fol,” named him also a forester and huntsman, but the court fool was a particularly privileged position, for in making fun, he could say things that other people couldn’t.  One of history’s favorite tales is of the defeat of the French fleet by the English fleet at the Battle of Sluys in 1340.  No one could summon the courage to tell the French king, Phillippe VI, the news.  Finally, the court jester told him the English sailors were cowards, because they “don't even have the guts to jump into the water like our brave French.”

This portrait of Henry VIII and his family shows "Jane the Fool" in the archway on the left and "Wil Somer" in the archway on the right, suggesting they were considered members of the family.
Of course, kings were not always so amused when a royal fool overstepped his bounds.  It was reported in a letter from the ambassador to England from the Holy Roman Empire, that Henry VIII had “nearly murdered his own fool, a simple and innocent man.”  The crime?  Speaking well of the king’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and her daughter Mary, while disparaging Anne Boleyn and her “bastard” daughter.

The Tudor and Elizabethan eras were considered a “Golden Age” of folly and most of the Tudor kings and queens record regular payments and expenses for court fools.  By this time, we begin to have more information about these people, partly because having one’s personal fool was no longer limited to royalty.  Several prominent men of the time, such as Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More also had their own fools.

It does seem as if there were two distinct types of court fools:  the “artificial” fool and the “natural” fool, but the records don’t always allow us to clearly distinguish one from the other.

Richard Tarlton
An artificial fool is what most of us think of when we think of a jester.  This is a person of sharp wit, able to say amusing things on demand.  A medieval standup comedian, if you will.  Like so many things about the world past, we don’t have detailed information so we don’t know much what was so amusing about them.  (No one kept detailed notes on the fool’s scripts.)

A “natural” fool is one that is intellectually or developmentally disabled or even mentally ill.  This person might be dressed up and laughed at, kept somewhat like a pet as a part of the family.  Certainly, this seems like unimaginable cruelty to us today.  But some of the financial records, which indicate payments to a fool’s “keeper,” suggest that they realized these men (or women) were not capable of caring for themselves.  And as members of a royal household, they were fed and clothed, not left to wander the streets alone.

Even distinguishing which fools were natural and which artificial is a challenge.  “Patch,” Cardinal Wolsey’s fool, was so honored that when Cardinal Wolsey fell from Henry VIII’s favor, he gifted the king with his fool, perhaps to be certain that the man was provided for.

The king’s records show that Patch had several “keepers,” and the fact that he could, literally, be given away suggests he might be a “natural” fool, kept like a pet for amusement, but also needing “keepers,” unable to take care of himself.

More famous, however, were the actors who took to the stage.  Richard Tarlton, said to be Queen Elizabeth’s favorite fool, was an actor, a dancer, a fencer, a musician, and a man famous for his witty banter.  He was said to have studied “natural” fools in order to enhance his stage performance.

William Kempe on right, doing a jig.
Many of our impressions of the medieval fool come from Shakespeare, who created memorable characters in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “King Lear,” and other plays.  Two prominent comic actors played many of these signature roles:  William Kempe and Robert Armin.

Kempe played such roles as Dogberry in “Much Ado About Nothing,” Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and he was famous for his “jigs,” a combination of dance and physical comedy, often performed by a troupe of dancers.

Armin succeeded Kempe as a member of the Chamberlain’s Men.  His style was less physical comedy and more comedic wit.  Hence, the roles of Feste in “Twelfth Night,” and Touchstone in “As You Like It” are considered his.  These are more acerbic, philosopher-fools, though as an actor he was not limited to these parts.

Truly by this time, there was money to be made by making people laugh.   

John Southworth’s FOOLS AND JESTERS AT THE ENGLISH COURT, Sutton Publishing, 1998, 2003, was the source of much of the information in this piece.

After many years in public relations, advertising and marketing, Blythe Gifford started writing seriously after a corporate layoff. Ten years and one layoff later, she became an overnight success when she sold her first book to the Harlequin Historical line.  Since then, she has published eleven romances set in England and on the Scottish Borders.  RUMORS AT COURT, a Royal Wedding story, will be released in May, 2017, from the Harlequin Historical line.  For more information, visit www.blythegifford.com


Author photo Jennifer Girard