Disabled History in 80 Objects: 5. William Sommers, court fool in Henry VIII’s private psalter.
Created in 1540, by Jean Mallard who was an émigré from Francis I of France’s Court, Henry VIII’s Psalter was a luxurious but private treasure of the king. For Psalm 52 which is about the fool who states there is no God, Henry playfully has himself featured as an ageing King David alongside his beloved “King’s Fool” William Sommers. This type of depiction for psalm 52 had become more common as natural court fools did.
Both men appear startlingly human and fragile in this miniature. Nothing like the bombast imagery Henry projected elsewhere. Henry choose to have Will portrayed in various other artworks but here in this secret book the relationship of king and fool is most immediate.
Like at other Renaissance courts, Henry’s was highly ritualistic with the natural fool(someone neurodiverse) part of the same structured regime as the king, his symbolic opposite yet also his confidant. Growing interdependence at court societies, which Norbert Elias discusses, needed oppositional figures to the hierarchy of courtiers bound by etiquette who could release tension. Only disabled natural fools could do this role as unlike nobility and courtiers they were not near in power to the ruler and so the controlling actions which Norah Dunbar and Judee Burgoon note were not needed with them. The fool’s rank-less state and foolishness made them non-threatening and allowed them to utilise believed talents like comedy, truth-telling, magic and clairvoyance in an intimidate relationship with their ruler.
Erasmus tells us a fool, “truth telling and even open insults” could make royalty happy due to their “truth” having the “genuine power to please” in a court where others had to flatter. The relationship was close, but the position of these disabled figures was still utterly dependent on being a favourite of their ruler. In some ways it could meld domination over the fool with affection creating a relationship akin to that of owner and pet, as Yi-Fu Tuan posits.
This type of relationship existed between the Tyrant Henry and Will. Sommers could keep “with the king much rule”, as Robert Armin noted of his comedy. His truth-telling is reported by Thomas Wilson in 1560. Will supposedly told Henry once that he had no money as “so many frauditors, so many conveighers and so many deceivers” had taken it.
He was important and so had keepers who filled a quasi-carer role in looking after his wellbeing and self. William lived into Edward VI and Mary I’s reign with a William Seyton paid money for William’s keep in 1551. Throughout the chaos of the Tudor age, Sommers made his rulers see themselves clearly and for that they loved him. Its not wonder that Henry choose to have his image included alongside is own in this most personal of belongings during his final years.
Psalter (‘The Psalter of Henry VIII’) Royal MS 2 A XVI : c 1540-1541
John Southworth, Fools and Jesters at the English Court (Stroud: Sutton, 1998) , p. 71-74
Andrew Brown and Graeme Small, Court and Civic Society In The Burgundian Low Countries C.1420-1530 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), p. 30
Enid Welsford, The Fool, (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1935), p. 193-194
Norbert Elias, The Court Society, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Stephen Mennell (Dublin: University College Dublin Press,2006), pp. 3-4, 39,47,98-99,113
Norah Dunbar and Judee Burgoon, “Perceptions of Power and interactional Dominance in Interpersonal Relationships”, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 22, 2 (2005), pp. 207-233, pp. 207-210
Desiderius Erasmus Praise Of Folly, trans. Betty Radice (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), p. 119
Yi-Fu, Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pete (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), p. 1,160
Robert Armin, Fools and Jesters, (UK: Elibron Classics, 2007), p. 41