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An Enemy of Pen and Ink

A new biography examines Henry VIII’s now-forgotten fool, the most famous non-royal English layman of his age after the two Thomases, More and Cromwell.

Will Sommers, King Henry VIII's court jester, died 1560

Fool: In Search of Henry VIII’s Closest Man, by Peter K. Andersson, Princeton UP, 224 pages

Once upon a time in a certain country, a poor man lived in the palace of the king. The poor man had no beard; his hair was closely cropped, and he had no bed of his own but slept rather with the royal dogs. He could neither read nor write and called himself “an enemy of pen and ink.” He was given no wages, but the king gave him many hundreds of colored buttons, which were the treasure of his heart. Once a gentleman asked the poor man why a spaniel lifts its leg while making water. “For manners’ sake,” answered the poor man, “and lest he should bepiss his stockings.”

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This reply is among the only sayings that can be reliably attributed to Will Somer, the enigmatic fool of Henry VIII. We know almost nothing about Somer, save what has come down to us in the form of the potted reminiscences taken down in the generations after his death. Yet toward the close of the 16th century, when Thomas Nashe made him the narrator of Summer’s Last Will and Testament, he took it for granted that audiences would recognize Somer, arguably the most famous non-royal English layman of his age after the two Thomases, More and Cromwell, and unlike either of these men he kept his head to the end. (He appears to have been appointed a “keeper” during the reign of Edward VI, though whether this was a mere servant or a guardian of sorts is unclear.) Somer would remain an important figure in the English imagination, both on the stage and in print. A wildly unreliable biography of Somer would go through multiple printings over the course of the 17th century, and he features heavily in Foole upon Foole (1608), Robert Armin’s history of such comic luminaries as “this fat Foole Iemy [who] was stung with nettles.” His purported exchanges with Henry make for amusing reading even today:

Now tell me, sayes Will, if you can, what it is, that being borne without life, head, nose, lip or eye, and yet runnes terribly roaring through ye world till it dies? This is a wonder, qd. the King, & no question, & I know it not. Why, quoth Will, it is a fart.

In Henry VIII (1613), that hauntingly equivocal meditation on its wicked subject, Shakespeare’s prologue begins with the announcement that 

Only they

That come to hear a merry, bawdy play,

A noise of targets, or to see a fellow

In a long motley coat guarded with yellow,

Will be deceived

which seems to suggest that theater-goers were sufficiently interested in Somers to be disappointed by his absence.

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Modern Tudor historians and their readers have generally been less interested in Somer and his legacy. This has been equally true of Whigs in the Geoffrey Elton mould and of the revisionist school which has rightly been in the ascendant since Jack Scarisbrick’s marvelous biography of Henry VIII. This is perhaps unsurprising. For those interested in thorny questions about canon law and the emergence of the modern English state the jibes of Somer—which, as my earlier quotation suggests, tend to concern themselves with urination and kindred subjects—can be of very little interest. This is even more true of the vast number of readers who are insatiably curious about whether Jane Seymour really had a cesarean section (as Scarisbrick oddly asserts, perhaps in deference to the tradition of the ballads, and better-informed modern female historians such as Antonia Fraser deny).

Peter K. Andersson’s biography of Somer is necessarily a speculative affair.  Not a single extant piece of writing by his subject survives, which is unsurprising since he was almost certainly illiterate. In comparison with Somer, the lives of other early modern Englishmen such as the famously enigmatic playwright John Marston are scrupulously well documented. In his introduction, Andersson quotes Natalie Zemon Davis, the biographer of Leo Africanus, in order to insist that he is seeking “not proofs, but historical possibilities.”

These he certainly finds. By analyzing the handful of genuine surviving records—largely account books, such as an entry from 1535 recording the making of “a doublette of wursteede, lyned with canvas and cotton” and “a coote and cappe of grene clothe, fringed with red cruel, and lyned with fryse”—Andersson is able to provide us with a tentative portrait of “William Som’ar, oure foole.” A sufferer from insomnia with an unexplained mania for buttons, given to strange fits of anger (during which he would punch the person nearest to him rather than the specific object of his wrath), Somer seems to have possessed a Yogi Berra-like ability to spin malapropisms into golden English phrases (one tradition records his mockery of the king’s “frauditors, conveyors and deceivers”). The care he seems to have been afforded long after Henry’s death is one of the few points upon which both Edward VI and Queen Mary appear not to have been divided. As Cranmer and Ridley readied themselves for the stake in 1554, the wardrobe accounts inform us that Somer was the recipient of “thre dosen of grene buttons”; three years later, in April 1557, as the queen struggled with what may have been a phantom pregnancy, he is given “tenne dossen of buttons of diverse collours” and later, in September and October respectively, “nyne dossen” and “one grosse.”

For Anderrson the principal question is whether Somer was what his contemporaries regarded alternately as an “artificial” or a “natural” fool —which is to say, whether he was a professional comedian of sorts or simply a disabled person whose intellectual impairment was an apparent subject of mirth at court. He argues, convincingly, I think in favor of the latter, that Somer was what we would now call a mentally retarded man. Is it really possible that men such as Thomas Cranmer witnessed such cruel exploitation were at best indifferent to it, and perhaps even entertained? The question gives us pause, even after we have acknowledged that there were probably far worse places for men such as Will Somer in Tudor England, as indeed there are now. Another equally interesting question is what we ourselves should make of his surviving jests, such as they are. While Andersson attempts to separate the experience of real fools—both “natural” and otherwise—from the early modern stage tradition of jesting sages that has fascinated Yeats and so many others since, it is not entirely clear that the two should be regarded as distinct. Many of Somer’s surviving quips, even those about flatulence and dog piss, have an unmistakable air of wisdom—and I daresay even a hint of otherworldly sanctity—about them, as if Norm Macdonald were playing the role of Tom o’Bedlam.

Andersson’s book is, alas, somewhat poorly written. His sentences rarely rise above the level of an unpublished dissertation (“In this chapter, I will examine the depiction of Somer in these four works in order to see what about him was so appealing to this age”), and the presence of countless anarthrous noun modifiers in these pages is regrettable, if typical of contemporary academic prose. Still, the obvious compassion that animates his interest in Somer—and all of history’s fools, natural or otherwise—is evident throughout. Charity shall cover the multitude of literary sins.

Anderrsson’s book is not one that will appeal to the legions of readers who wish to know more about Anne Boleyn’s clothing or to mourn the disappearance of English monasticism. But it is a welcome, if slight, contribution both to the history of Henry VIII’s reign and to the emerging genre of speculative micro-biography. Next up—how about a short life of Cardinal Wolsey’s concubine?

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