court fool



  • In medieval and Tudor times, a member of the royal householdgiven special licence both to amuse the monarch and to tell the truth,however unflattering. Certainly he was never simply a clown; his otherroles included mascot, whipping boy, counsellor, poet, leader of revels,pet, and clairvoyant.

    Famous court fools in England included Edward IV's John Scogan,Henry III's Ralph Simnel (who appears in Robert Greene's play FrierBacon and Frier Bungay), Henry VIII's Will Somers ("hisplainness mixed with a kind of facetiousness, and tartness with pleasantness,made him very acceptable into the companies of all men"), andElizabeth I's Richard Tarlton. According to tradition, Rahere,the founder of St Bartholomew's Hospital in London, was Henry I'sfool. Some wealthy noblemen also kept a household fool. Sir ThomasMore's fool, Henry Paterson, used to challenge his master's stanceon papal supremacy after supper. Paterson appears in Holbein's famousportrait of the chancellor.

    Shakespeare's interest in fools can be dated from 1599, whenthe comedian Robert Armin joined the Chamberlain's Men as a replacementfor Will Kempe. Armin was an expert on court fools and had a fundof stories about them, later collected in Foole Upon Foole(1605) and The Nest of Ninnies (1609). It was Armin who createdthe roles of Touchstone in As You Like It (1599), Feste inTwelfth Night (1601 - 02), and the Fool in King Lear(1605). In the latter the Fool is a full participant in the tragicevents, rather than a source of light relief.

    The fool lost his central role at court in the 17th century;thereafter his place was sometimes taken by bands of rollicking grotesques,such as those who followed Marie Antoinette. The last court fool inEngland was Charles I's Muckle John. As late as 1728 Swift wrote anepitaph on Dickie Pierce, the Earl of Suffolk's fool, who is buriedin Berkeley Churchyard, Gloucestershire. see also fool.