The History of Disabled People
The history of people with disabilities since 1050.
This section describes how 'natural fools' - people with learning disabilities - were well cared for at the Tudor court and valued for their directness and humour, gaining a unique position in elite and royal society.
"As please your Grace", said William Somer, the King's fool to Henry VIII, "you have so many frauditers, so many conveyers and so many deceivers to get up your money, that they get all to themselves."
He should have said "auditors, surveyors and receivers". With this joke, Will Somer was telling his monarch that he was being defrauded and exploited by those around him. Somer was free to voice such uncomfortable truths to Henry because he was his fool, and the King loved his humorous banter. Few others in the Tudor court would have dared to say such things.
Will Somer was well paid, well fed and well clothed in return for his work in Henry's court, but he did not lead the same life as other courtiers. In 1551, some years after Henry's death, a payment of 40 shillings was made to William Seyton, 'whom his Majesty hath appointed to keep William Somer'.
Somer needed a 'keeper', someone to look after and care for him, because people knew he could not care for himself. He was, in the language of the period, a 'natural fool' - a person we would recognise today as having a learning disability.
Henry's previous fool Sexton, known by the nickname Patch (meaning 'fool'), was also considered a 'natural' who needed help and support in his life. When Cardinal Thomas Wolsey gave Hampton Court Palace, now in Greater London, to Henry VIII, he also 'gave' him Sexton. Allegations of treason were being made against Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor, and he was desperately trying to win back Henry's favour.
We know that it took six tall yeomen to transport the clearly distressed Sexton to the court. A succession of 'keepers' or carers were paid to look after him and given money for his needs - his food, laundry, shoes and 'posset ale'. He didn't even have to buy his own clothes.
However, as with the other 'natural fools' in Henry's court, Sexton did not wear the harlequin's motley and cap with bells familiar to us from images of court jesters at the time. He wore high quality cloth and silk doublets and coats, the clothes of a favoured retainer (servant).
Another prominent 'natural fool' of the 16th century was 'Jane the Fool'. She seems to have been employed as the 'woman fool' by Anne Boleyn, Henry's second queen; by Princess Mary, his daughter, and from 1544 by Katherine Parr, his sixth and last queen.
Court records show that Jane was richly clothed at the court's expense, and that there were eight payments of four pence a time for 'shaving of Jane [the] fool's head'.
Paintings from this time show the prominent position that 'natural fools' held in the royal family. A painting from 1545 shows Henry VIII with his 'ideal family' - his long-dead favourite wife Jane Seymour, his son Edward and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth. Will Somer and Jane the Fool appear on either side, flanking the family. Another intimate family portrait shows Somer between Henry and his three children.
These fascinating glimpses of 'natural fools' at the Tudor court show people with learning disabilities playing significant roles in the lives of the Tudor elite.
Their perceived lack of guile, their directness and their humour were valued as assets and woven into the fabric of court life. Believed to be closer to God and closer to the truth than other people, the 'natural fools' occupied a unique and valued position.
This section is based on the research of the historian Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, senior lecturer and convenor for history at the New College of the Humanities, London, which she has kindly permitted Historic England to use.
The research was commissioned by Historic Royal Palaces to support a live interpretation event devised and performed by contemporary performers with learning difficulties from the Misfits Theatre Company in Bristol. It was conceived and directed by English Heritage National Jester Peet Cooper of Foolscap Productions.
Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.
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