It takes a strong person to be able to speak truth to power. That was the unofficial job of the royal jester. William Sommers, sometimes spelled Somers, was the jester of King Henry VIII. He was known as the “King’s Fool”. Not exactly the most flattering title to modern ears, but apparently William was a good one. He was known at court for his discretion and integrity, a rare thing indeed anywhere but especially at a royal court. Using his wit and humorous asides, he was able to bring attention to extravagances and waste in the court that no one else could. In fact, it was reported that Thomas Cromwell often supplied him with situations he wanted to bring to the king’s notice. I can imagine William was a popular man around court with all of the courtiers clamoring for his ear to get their pet project project in front of the king.
One such suggestion pushed him to the edge of Henry’s notorious temper. In July 1535, Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador whose dispatches back to Spain are full of interesting details on court life, reports that one of William’s jokes had made Henry so angry he threatened to kill William himself. William had made a joke of calling Queen Anne Boleyn a “ribald” and the Princess Elizabeth a “bastard”. He took shelter from the royal ire with the Chief Esquire of the King, Sir Nicholas Carew. It has been suggested that Carew dared William to make these comments, but that is not known for sure. It is known, Carew was a strong supporter of the Seymour family and probably had a lot to do with putting a certain young Jane under the eye of the king. Hence, impugning the current Queen’s virtue could only make the innocent Jane shine brighter. This incident was only a month into William’s tenure with Henry, so we can hope that he learned to tread more lightly especially in the trickier matters of royal matrimony and the even trickier waters of court politics.
Despite this incident, Henry kept him close throughout his turbulent life, and in the later years when his leg ulcer was particularly painful William was the only one who could bring a smile to his face. William served Henry loyally until his death in January 28, 1547. He did serve both Edward and Mary, being the only man who could make the dour Mary smile. His last official appearance was at Elizabeth’s coronation in 1559.
William was such an important member of the royal court, he makes an appearance in the great family painting commissioned by Henry VIII, which is at Hampton Court Palace. The figure of under the far right archway is William.
So today, let us pause to remember a man who used his wit to shine a light on important matters as well as leavened tragedy with humor.