Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Royal Fool

From author Judith Arnopp:
William Somer first emerges in 1535 when an order appears for new clothes for ‘William Somer, oure foole.’  Henry’s ‘olde foole’ Patch/Sexton had grown too old and it was Will who was chosen to take his place.

His initial requirements included a fool’s livery; ‘a dubblette of wursteed, lined with canvas and coton …a coote and a cappe of grene clothe, fringed with red crule, and lined with fryse …a dublette of fustian, lyned with cotton and canvas …a coote of grene clothe, with a hood of the same, fringed with white crule lyned with fryse and bokerham.

It seems that throughout his service Somer was maintained by the Privy purse for although there is a surviving record from Cromwell in January 1538 of a ‘velvet purse for W. Somer’, there is no mention of anything to fill it, his expenses being met by the court. 

In this fine new apparel Will Somer’s duty was to entertain and distract the king from his worldly care, and he seems to have done so admirably. His favour with Henry raised him so high that he appears in several portraits, commissioned by the king himself. The most famous being the family portrait by an unknown artist which is now housed in the Royal Collection. (See top of page)

It depicts Henry, at his most virile and vigorous best, and Queen Jane (who had already been dead for over a decade). On the king’s right is their son Edward (whose birth caused his mother’s death in 1537). Completing the Tudor idyll are the princesses, Mary and Elizabeth, both girls bastardised and legitimised so many times, they can have had no real idea as to their royal standing .  

The entire royal family are assembled in a fantasy gathering, a made up truth to please the king, and what makes this especially poignant is that, a little behind the royal sitters, the painting also shows Will Somer, dressed in his ‘clothe coote,’ and his velvet purse is hanging from his belt. His pet monkey obligingly picks lice from the fool’s hair.

Framed in the opposite archway is a likeness of a girl, believed to be of Jane, the innocent fool of Princess Mary, whom it is believed she took into her household after the death of Anne Boleyn. The presence of the royal fools in this very personal portrayal of Henry’s family can only point to their importance. (Read more.)

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