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

Christmases of Scotland Past- Part 1: Yule in Renaissance Scotland

Looking at their wedding photo you wouldn’t be able to guess that my paternal grandparents, my nana and gaga, had been married on the so-called “most wonderful time of year”, Christmas Day. The reason? Until 1958, celebrating Christmas in Scotland just wasn’t a big thing. Hogmanay was the true winter holiday north of the border. The history of Christmas in Scotland is eventful and if we turn back time to consider its nature under the Stewarts in the fifteenth and sixteenth-century Renaissance court, we can glimpse a lot we recognise as “Xmas’ related today but also a lot of traditions that would disappear under the Scottish Church and Kirk from the 1560s onwards.

So how did the Stewart royal court celebrate Christmas, or as they called it, Yule? One of the first traditions to kick off the twelve days of Christmas was the bringing in of the Yule Log, or “Yule Stok” in Scots. While ours today are festive desserts, the Renaissance form was a literal large block of wood which was ceremonially brought in on Christmas Eve and meant to keep burning until the holidays ended on Twelfth Night (January 5th). A source of light and heat at the darkest point of winter, the Yule Log likely came from Germanic Pagan midwinter rituals but stayed relevant in the Christian Scotland of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The 25th itself would see the entire court attend chapel then the King or Queen would reward certain servants in the Great Hall of whatever residence the celebrations were occurring in. For instance, the Christmas 1491 saw James IV reward heralds for their service on “Yule Day” while in James V’s reign middling servants with ties to entertainment, like his fools called John Mackerie and John Lowis or his viol players, received red and yellow royal coloured livery as yule gifts, as happened in 1539. Charity occurred with 1497, for instance, seeing “Pur folk begyndand at Yule” given alms by King James IV. A variety of entertainments existed and continued from Yule day until the 12th day of Christmas, Twelfth Night in the first week of January. James was a lover of card games with payments for Yule 1497 also going towards “the cartis with other lordis” and to enable the “King playit at the cartis”. Performances and disguisings were common yule games. James IV in 1491 rewarded mummers who “dansyt” for him, gave £2 14s to three men of his chapel who had sang a “ballat” for him on January 2nd 1492 and in 1506 had one of his court fools, John Bute, entertain the assembled court via a performance in doctor costume.

Two figures presided over special Yule merriment in addition to this. The carnivalesque figures of the Scottish Abbot of Unreason and the King and Queen of Bean. They embodied the same “ritualised rebellion” as the Feast of Fools and May Day and presided over the transitional period between Christmas and the New Year. For a brief period, the hierarchy of the court turned upside down with “temporary misrule and tolerated folly” normal. Those appointed the Abbot of Unreason could be servants to members of nobility with a fine the only way to get out of the role. Alexander Kers, a cook, for instance, played the Abbot in 1501. The mischief they could evoke is demonstrated by the compensation paid out by James IV to a “Gilbert Brade” for the “spilling [spoiling]” of his home!

Meanwhile, on Twelfth Night (January 5th or 6th), a figure called the King or Queen of Bean was found by sharing the Twelfth Night Cake. Whoever found a bean or pea becoming Mock-King and Mock-Queen of Bean. For the final day of Christmas celebrations, they ruled a topsy-turvy version of the Scottish court and presided over fun and games. Various instances of the role survive in different accounts. In 1492, James IV had “Pryngill, King of Bene” given 36 shillings for his performance and in 1496 gave “Johnne Goldsmith” £5. This role lasted into Mary Queen of Scots’ reign as one of her companions the four Marys, Lady Mary Flemming, was made “Queene of thee Beene” one Yule holiday.

This half-familiar, half-alien, Yule and Christmastide holiday soon disappeared, however, as part 2 will discuss on Christmas Eve…


Sarah Carpenter, “Plays and Playcoats: A Courtly Interlude Tradition in Scotland?”, Comparative Drama, 46, 4 (2012), pp. 475-496, p.485

Thomas Dickson ed., Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, Volume 1 1473-1498 (Edinburgh: H.M GRH, 1877), p.ccxxx-ccxlii,184, 270, 374

Keely Fisher, “The Crying of Ane Playe: Robin Hood and Maying in Sixteenth-Century Scotland”, Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, 12 (1999), pp.19-58, p.22

Robert Henryson, The Poems and Fables of Robert Henryson, ed. David Laing (Edinburgh: William Paterson, MDCCCLXV), p.46

Marc Jacobs, “King for a Day: Games of Inversion, Representation, and Appropriation” In Mystifying the Monarch: Studies on Discourse, Power, and History, eds. Jeroen Deploige and Gita Deneckere, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), pp.117–138, p. 117-118

James Balfour Paul, ed., Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, Volume 3 1505-1507 (Edinburgh: H.M GRH, 1901), p.127, 307-308

James Balfour Paul, ed., Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, Volume 7 1538-1541 (Edinburgh: H.M GRH, 1907), p.271-272,274

John Pinkerton, Ancient Scottish Poems, Volume 2 (London: C.Dilly and William Creech, 1786),p.431

William Willeford, The Fool and his Sceptre (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1969), p.155-156

“Twelfth Night Traditions: A Cake, A Bean, And A King – Smithsonian Libraries / Unbound”, Blog.Library.Si.Edu, 2019 <https://blog.library.si.edu/…/twelfth-night-traditions-a-…/…> [Accessed 22 December 2019].