Sunday, 10 February 2013

Will Somers - The King's Fool

Will Somers is the best-known court jester of the fun-loving Henry VIII. The fool's road to the court began at his birth in Shropshire where he was noticed by Richard Fermor who presented him to Henry VIII in 1525. The King immediately liked Will Somers and offered him the post of court jester. The reason for why we know most about Will Somers is that his liberalities was recorded by different courtiers and has survived till today.

Engraving of the royal jester
The King was very fond of his fool and Somers showed his loyalty by remaining in the King's service till the very end of Henry's life. In later years when the King's ulcer on his leg was causing him immense pain, Will Somers was the only one who could make the King smile.

Despite the rather condescending title of "Fool", Will Somers had a good deal of integrity combined with discretion which made him perfect for his role at court. He often drew the King's attention to the extravagance of his court by small witty remarks and jokes. Court jesters had always had a special familiarity with the monarchs and the royal family and was allowed to utter things that would have sent everyone else to the scaffold.

Will Somers could even joke about Cardinal Wolsey when he was at the height of the King's favour and get away with it. But even Henry VIII has his limits with his fool and in one particular incident Henry flew into a rage and threatened to kill Somers with his own hands. So, what had the beloved fool said that would cause such a violent reaction? Sir Nicolas Carew had dared Will Somers to call Queen Anne Boleyn a "ribald" (basically a vulgar and lewd person) and the Princess Elizabeth a "bastard".

Through the records of Robert Armin, we have come to know of an episode at court where Will Somers humiliated the court juggler, Thomas:
Will interrupted a performance of Thomas' carrying milk and bread. Will then asked the King for a spoon to which the King replied that he had none while Thomas told him to use his hands. Will - being the court jester - immediately replied with the following verse:

"This bit Harry I give to thee
and this next bit must serve for me,
Both which I'll eat apace.
This bit Madam unto you,
And this bit I my self eate now,
And the rest upon thy face."

And then he threw the milk at Thomas' face and ran out - Thomas never appeared at court again. But Will Somers also used his influence to help an uncle who had become impoverished after an enclosure of common land.

Will Somers survived Henry VIII and continued his career during the reign of Mary I and partly Elizabeth I. He continued as court jester to Mary I where he was mainly used for ceremonial events but is reported to be the only man who could make Mary laugh. His last public performance was at the coronation of Elizabeth I after which he retired. He is most likely the "William Sommers"  whose death is recorded on June 5th 1560.

The man in the background (to the right) is Will Somers


  1. He called Anne ribald and Elizabeth bastard. Anne was probably the more dangerous one to offend there but as she fell from grace not long afterwards, this may well have saved him in the longrun.
    Anne was not likely to forget that jibe.
    I imagine that Elizabeth did not forget either and as he resigned after Elizabeth's coronation maybe like all showbiz people he knew when to get off the stage while his name was still good!

  2. You're probably right. From what I have read about Will, I don't think he was mentally challenged in any way. He seems like he was far too shrewd and sharp. Some say Sir Nicholas Carew put him up to it, making those comments about Anne and Elizabeth.Maybe he did, and it might even be Will felt the same way, and was trying to see how far he could go with Henry. After all, half the population of England, at least women had a low opinion of Anne. And as far as Will having a keeper, It might not be because he was a natural fool, but maybe he was having some psychial issues , due to age or some medical condition. Or who knows, maybe he had some investments from the wages Henry gave him, and needed a little help looking over what ever property he owned, since he was busy at court.Wonder if there is a decent biography of him somewhere.