cover image Fool: In Search of Henry VIII’s Closest Man

Fool: In Search of Henry VIII’s Closest Man

Peter K. Andersson. Princeton Univ, $27.95 (232p) ISBN 978-0-691-25016-8

Andersson (Silent History) profiles in this diligent study 16th-century court jester William Somer, Henry VIII’s favored “fool.” Prone to “sleepiness” and possessing a penchant for unexpected quips, Somer eventually became a “mascot” of the court. Analyzing court records, letters, and other contemporaneous sources, Andersson suggests that Somer’s “physical” comedy filled a niche in “the baiting environment of the court at its most frivolous and rowdy.” Unable to fend for himself in verbal sparring matches, Somer would make a show of “giving in to pointless hitting or shaking tantrums.” In a thorough discussion of whether Somer was, in the parlance of the time, a “natural” fool (with a cognitive disability) or an “artificial” fool, Andersson contends that the truth lies somewhere in between, writing that Somer’s “distinguishing characteristic is an inclination to make gaffes, to speak too quickly, the tongue that runs away while the wit comes halting after.” Andersson uncovers details that reveal how intimate and elevated Somer’s position was at court, including his appearance in multiple Tudor family portraits and the surprisingly large button orders listed in his wardrobe accounts (paid for by the crown), which may indicate he often lost them, collected them, or pulled them off his garments in his fits of rage. The result is an illuminating look into Somer’s role as a source of broad humor and stress relief in a tumultuous court ruled by a mercurial king. (Sept.)