The Tudor Society

15 June – Tudor Court Fools

On this day in Tudor history, 15th June 1559, William Somer (Sommers), court fool to Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I, died in Shoreditch, London.

Somer managed to survive upsetting the king by calling Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth names, although the king apparently was so furious he wanted to kill him, and he died a natural death in Elizabeth I's reign.

Somer wasn't the only court fool at the time, Jane the Fool served Anne Boleyn, Catherine Parr and Mary I. Find out about Will Somer and Jane the Fool, the Tudor Court Fools, in today's talk.

Also on this day in Tudor history, 15th June 1536, Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, was bullied and threatened by members of her father's council. Find out more in last year’s video:

Also on this day in history:

  • 1519 – Date traditionally given for the birth of Henry Fitzroy, 1st Duke of Richmond and Somerset, at the priory of St Lawrence in Blackmore, Essex. Fitzroy was the illegitimate son of King Henry VIII by his mistress, Elizabeth (Bessie Blount). Henry VIII recognised Fitzroy as his son and gave him a double dukedom in June 1525, making his son the highest ranking peer in the country. Unfortunately, Fitzroy died young in July 1526.
  • 1547 – Baptism of Peter Bales, calligrapher, schoolmaster and master of micrography, at St Michael Cornhill in London. His micrographical work included a hand-written Bible which could fit into a walnut shell and a ring, which he presented to Elizabeth I, containing a collection of devotional texts. Bales also wrote the copybook “The Writing Schoolemaster”.
  • 1567 – Battle of Carberry Hill, near Edinburgh, between the Protestant nobles and the army of Mary, Queen of Scots and her husband, the Earl of Bothwell. Mary surrendered and was imprisoned. It was the end of her relationship with Bothwell.
  • 1596 – Death of Richard Fletcher, Bishop of London, at his house in Chelsea. He was buried in St Paul's. Fletcher fell out of favour with Elizabeth I and was temporarily suspended of his episcopal duties in 1595 after his marriage, which Elizabeth had warned against.


On this day in Tudor history, 15th June 1559, William Somer (Sommers), court fool to Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I, died in Shoreditch, London.

Nothing is known of Somer’s early life, but it appears that he started serving as King Henry VIII’s fool from June 1535. Just a month later, he got into trouble with the king. Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador, recorded that Henry VIII was so angry with Somer that he nearly killed him:
“He the other day nearly murdered his own fool, a simple and innocent man, because he happened to speak well in his presence of the Queen and Princess [Catherine of Aragon and Mary], and called the concubine “ribaude” [whore] and her daughter “bastard.” He has now been banished from Court, and has gone to the Grand Esquire, who has sheltered and hidden him.”

By the way, the “Grand Esquire” refers to Sir Nicholas Carew, Chief Esquire of the king.

Fortunately for Somer, he managed to work his way back into the king’s favour and he would often take part in disguisings and also performances with a choir, although it is not known what his role was in this. After Henry VIII’s death he went on to serve Edward VI and Mary I. He attended Elizabeth I at her coronation in January 1559, but seems to have retired after that. He died on 15th June and was laid to rest at St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch, London.

Historian J R Mulryne wonders if the mention in Robert Armin’s 1600 work Foole upon Foole, of Somer having a tendency to suddenly fall asleep, points to Somer having some kind of condition or illness, perhaps one that was progressive.

William Somer can be seen in the Family of Henry VIII painting which hangs at Hampton Court Palace – look at the man standing in the archway on the right. The woman shown in the archway on the left is “Jane the Fool”. Let me tell you a bit about Jane, and this is based on an article I wrote for the Anne Boleyn Files...

Jane was what John Southworth, in his book “Fools and Jesters at the English Court”, refers to as an “Innocent”. “Innocents”, or “natural fools”, were not professional entertainers, they were people with intellectual disabilities or mental illness. Very little is known about Jane; we don’t know her full name or where she came from. However, we do have records of her serving Anne Boleyn, Catherine Parr and Mary I, when she was princess and queen. From “The Queen’s reckoning”, the list of debts owed by Anne Boleyn at her death in May 1536, we know that Anne paid for “25 yds. of cadace fringe, morrey color, delivered to Skutte, her tailor, for a gown for her Grace’s woman fool, and a green satin cap for her.”

We know that Jane joined Princess Mary’s household after Anne’s death because Mary’s Privy Purse Expenses have frequent mentions of “Jane the fole” from December 1537. Payments include stabling for her horse and for hose and shoes for her in December 1537, fabric and gowns for her in 1538, shoes and clothing for her in 1542, several payments to a barber in 1543 and 1544 for Jane’s head to be shaved, needles for needlework, a payment for laundering her clothes, an “itm for Jane the foole for the tyme of hir seeknes [sickness]” in July 1543, and cloth for sheets for Jane in September 1543. John Southworth points out that the regular shaving of Jane’s head in 1543 and 1544 points to Jane having some kind of “bodily ailment” at this time, but Suzannah Lipscomb writes that fools often had shaven heads and that this may have echoed “the tonsures of the religious”, although Lipscomb is probably referring only to male fools here.

In 1544, Jane joined Catherine Parr’s household, which also included Catherine’s male fool, Thomas Browne. In October 1544, in a list of payments to Thomas Becke for items for the Privy Chamber are “3 geese for Jane Foole 16d., hempseed for the parrots 16d., cream 4d., wool 6d., mending the parrots’s perch 4d., 3 gallons of milk 12d., 2 gallons of cream 8d., borrowing of vessel occupied for the Queen at Otforde 6d., cream at Leeds 2d., and a hen for Jane Foole 6d.” and John Southworth surmises that the queen kept Jane occupied by providing her “with a little flock of poultry to look after in a corner of the Privy Garden”.
There is also mention of “two gowns and two kirtles for Jane the Queen’s fool” in a warrant to the Great Wardrobe in June 1546. Jane then disappears from the records until Mary I’s reign, so perhaps she joined Mary’s household when Henry VIII died and Edward VI became king. There are frequent mentions of Jane in Mary I’s expenses from 1553-1558 and Southworth points out that “the number of gowns and accessories ordered for Jane is greater in number than those for any other person bar the queen herself” and that she is always referred to as “Jane our fool”. It appears that Mary doted on her. The payments don’t only cover fabric and clothing, records show that Mary also rewarded two women for helping Jane with an eye ailment, one for healing her and one for housing Jane while she recovered.

It is not known what happened to Jane after Mary I’s death, but she does not appear in the records in Elizabeth I’s reign. Perhaps she joined the household of one of Mary’s former attendants, or perhaps she died soon after her mistress. We just don’t know. What we do know is that she was well looked after at court for over two decades and I hope that she ended her days being just as well looked after.

So, there you go, two court fools who were well looked after by the people they served.

You may be interested in reading about the All the King’s Fools project, which was based on the research of historian Suzannah Lipscomb, and which was a performance performed at Hampton Court Palace in 2011. A company of actors with learning difficulties, The Misfits, wrote and performed it with the help of jester and director Peet Cooper of Foolscap Productions. All the King’s Fools project -

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  1. M

    I am utterly fascinated by Will Somers!! Thanks! Michelle t

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15 June – Tudor Court Fools