In some portraits of Henry VIII there appears another, striking figure—a gaunt and morose-looking man with a shaved head and, in one case, a monkey on his shoulder. This is William or “Will” Somer, the king’s fool, a celebrated wit who reportedly could raise Henry’s spirits and spent many hours with him, often alone. Was Somer an “artificial fool,” a cunning comic who could speak freely in front of the king, or a “natural fool,” someone with intellectual disabilities, like many other members of the profession? And what role did he play in the tumultuous and violent Tudor era? Fool is the first biography of Somer—and perhaps the first of a Renaissance fool.
After his death, Somer disappeared behind his legend, and historians struggled to separate myth from reality. Unearthing as many facts as possible, Peter K. Andersson pieces together the fullest picture yet of an enigmatic and unusual man with a very strange job. Somer’s story provides new insights into how fools lived and what exactly they did for a living, how monarchs and courtiers related to commoners and people with disabilities, and whether aspects of the Renaissance fool live on in the modern comedian. But most of all, we learn how a commoner without property or education managed to become the court’s chief mascot and a continuous presence at the center of Tudor power from the 1530s to the reign of Elizabeth I.
Looking beyond stereotypes of the man in motley, Fool reveals a little-known world, surprising and disturbing, when comedy was something crueler and more unpleasant than we like to think.
Peter K. Andersson is senior lecturer in history at Örebro University in Sweden. He is the author of Streetlife in Late Victorian London and Silent History.