15 June 1560 – Death of William Somer (Sommers), Court Fool to Henry VIII

Posted By on June 15, 2013

Will Sommers On 15th June 1560, William Somer (Sommers), former court fool to Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I died in Shoreditch, London. He was buried at St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch.

Somer served as Henry VIII’s fool from June 1535 and just a month later got into trouble with the King. In July 1535, Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador, recorded that Henry VIII was so angry with Somer that he nearly killed him:

“He the other day nearly murdered his own fool, a simple and innocent man, because he happened to speak well in his presence of the Queen and Princess [Catherine of Aragon and Mary], and called the concubine “ribaude” [whore] and her daughter “bastard.” He has now been banished from Court, and has gone to the Grand Esquire, who has sheltered and hidden him.”1

Oops! A lucky escape.

The “Grand Esquire” refers to Sir Nicholas Carew, Chief Esquire of the King. Alison Weir2 goes as far as to say that Carew dared Somer to call Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth names but that is not what Chapuys says here, he just says that Carew sheltered Somer. In 1536, the same Nicholas Carew appeared to be working against Anne Boleyn and was mentoring Jane Seymour.

Fortunately for Somer, he managed to work his way back into the King’s favour and after Henry VIII’s death he went on to serve Edward VI and Mary I. He attended Elizabeth I at her coronation in 1559 but seems to have retired after that.

Historian Suzannah Lipscomb wonders if Tudor fools were actually people with learning disabilities – see All the King’s Fools for more on this.

William Somer can be see in the Family of Henry VIII painting which hangs at Hampton Court Palace – look at the man standing in the right hand archway. The woman shown in the left hand archway is “Jane the Fool”, fool to Anne Boleyn, Princess Mary and Catherine Parr.

Family of Henry VIII

Detail of Will Somer

Detail of William Somer

Notes and Sources

  1. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 1: 1534-1535, Note 184
  2. Weir, Alison. Henry VIII: King and Court, p365

35 thoughts on “15 June 1560 – Death of William Somer (Sommers), Court Fool to Henry VIII”

  1. miladyblue says:

    I thought fools were immune to royal temper, since they were in the envious position of speaking their minds, hence the reason they were known as “fools.”

    1. Claire says:

      I think he went a little too far this time though!

      1. Nancy Summers says:

        It was not Will Somers who made this comment either, but I am sure he said things to others, he never cared for Anne Boelyn, there is a lot of mistakes on his life and others from way back then. Jester Will is my eleven times great grandfather he looks so much like my dad and his brother Carl it is uncanny. Read the Kings Fool although some of it is fiction it was written using my Great Grandfathers Diary.

        1. Sheila Miller says:

          Does anyone have any idea how old William was, or when he was born? Who was his wife?

        2. Martin Sommers says:

          If Will is your ancestor then I’m not sure how you know this as there is no evidence I’m aware of that he either married or had children?

  2. Sonetka says:

    July of 1535, was it? I can imagine that everyone’s feelings were running a bit high just then.

    I found Lipscomb’s article very interesting, though of course information is so scanty on these people that there’s still a lot of guesswork involved. It would make a weird sort of sense, though — having someone at court who was “simple” and had an implicit license to talk back could possibly have been seen as a symbolic check to the king’s ego (and that of other courtiers). Rather like how at Christmas everything got turned upside down for a bit and boy bishops got to boss their elders around.

    1. Claire says:

      Yes, very similar to the Lord of Misrule.

  3. Sam says:

    Great article. Is the painting at Hampton Court the original?

    1. Claire says:

      Yes, it dates to c.1545.

  4. mummerswan says:

    Claire, pease give us some more information on both depictions you have posted. What is symbolic? Will Somer certainly seems to have some importance to the King to merit being included in the family painting. I seem to have given you another chore but you are our “go to ” girl. Thanks.

    1. Linda Saether says:

      I found it interesting that Elizabeth is wearing a pendant that looks mysteriously like an A.

      1. Claire says:

        It is definitely an A, do you remember we saw it in the painting at Hampton Court Palace on the tour?

  5. Anyanka says:

    It’s certanly strange to have 2 portraits of Sommer when we don’t have portraits of many other members of the court.

  6. Rowan says:

    Did Anne have a fool she started calling Mary, as Hilary Mantel has it in Bring Up the Bodies?

    … she pulls at her mistress’s skirts. ‘Get away, Mary,’ Anne says. She laughs at his expression. ‘Did you not know I have rebaptised my fool … (p 108)

  7. BanditQueen says:

    Will Somers seems to have pushed his luck and got away with most things, save calling Anne Boleyn names. He seems to have acted as a part of Henry’s conscience or thinking at time as well. Henry was closseted with his fool after the death of Queen Jane or so the legend goes, and he seems to have had the King’s ear and to have whispered into it. I think that fools were also used as spies on other courtiers and other courts. I believe that they were useful tools as well as there to entertain.

    Mary had a fool called Jane who she was very fond of and regarded as a friend. They had many skills and it was sure that they were used in secret ways as well as agents for their masters.

  8. Ann says:

    A memorial tablet was set up at St. Leonard Shoreditch: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=12234

  9. Tamara says:

    My interest in Anne Boleyn began in 1973 after listening to Rick Wakeman’s “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” album. Rick Wakeman was a former member of the rock band ‘Yes’.
    In my early twenties, after devouring any and all information on Anne at my local library, my Doctor suggested a Tudor historical fiction. The Author is Margaret George, and her book is a titled, “The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Sommers”. Her writing is excellent, and even though her historical novels are fiction, I find her writing more authentic than some non-fiction authors. Her website is http://www.margaretgeorge.com Enjoy!

    1. Rebecca says:

      I have also read this book by Margaret George and thoroughly enjoyed it!

    2. Tracey Cook says:

      I also loved this book. Everyone should give it read.

  10. Banditqueen says:

    Why on earth would Susanna Lipscomb think that all fools had learning disabilities? I dare say some probably did and this was appropriate employment, but without evidence how can someone who says they are a historian speculate that they all had learning disabilities? Many were actually used as political sounding boards and there is evidence that they were trusted with secrets. Will Somner did well for apart from this lucky escape he served well and Henry spent time in mourning and seclusion with only Somners for company after the death of Jane Seymour.

    1. The Hen says:

      Why on earth not, when those no evidence to disprove Susanna Lipscomb either? I don’t know about you, but my child has a ‘learning ‘disability’, and they, like every other person I’ve known with the same condition, are natural comedians and profound thinkers. Frequently stating what often is the obvious, that most ‘normal’ people either wouldn’t know how to express or too fearful of resultant opinion of them. I think Susanna Lipscomb is spot on. And, I would ask you to examine your own bad attitudes towards the learning disabled, as you presume that none are capable of giving good advice (sounding board as you put it) or capable of keeping a secret. How bigoted of you.

      1. Banditqueen says:

        Hen, I don’t know where I have said anything about people with learning disabilities. I do not have a bad attitude and have worked with people with learning disabilities as well as people with mental health problems. I am the last person to be prejudiced or bigoted towards them and there is nothing in my response which says anything of the sort which your comments make out. I merely pointed out that there is no evidence that all jesters and fools had learning disabilities, which there isn’t, nor is there evidence to the contrary. If you read my post in full, instead of jumping to your own conclusions, I actually state that a number did and it was for their wit that they were employed. I also state that they were used for political comments and because they were trustworthy. I am aware that Susanna Lipscomb has researched this subject and admire her as a historian, but here she is speculating. I am looking forward to her forthcoming work on the subject of Disability in Tudor England and the evidence that she brings to greater understanding on this subject. For your information my doctorate was on the Historic Social and Economic Costs of Disability with a special section on the misconceptions still prevalent in society of those with learning disabilities and how they have been exploited and treated over the last 200 years. I worked for several years in this field and as a historian I believe in evidence based research, not sweeping, unsubstantiated generalisations. While I appreciate you are merely defending people you know, I don’t believe your conclusions about me are correct.

        Will Somers was appreciated for his wit and intelligence, he was a close confidante of the King and even after his unfortunate brush with death, or rather the threats of an angry and outraged King Henry, he had a successful career, serving the King since 1525 until Henry’s death in 1547 and subsequent monarchs. His wit and cleverness was praised in the Art of Rhetoric. He was provided with a Keeper to help manage his financial affairs in 1551 and cared for until his own death in 1560.

        Just because someone challenges the statement of another historian and questions the evidence, it doesn’t make them bigoted or biased. Engagement in debate is to be encouraged, that is what is so great about this site, but as you know nothing about me, please refrain from making accusations which are very clearly not true.

  11. HollyDolly says:

    There may have been some who had disabilities or natural fools,but from what little i’ve seen of Will Somner i doubt it. Some were quite clever and even perthasp trusted with various missions of one sort or another. I’m curious how Will and Jane came to the attention of the royal family.That would be interesting.

    1. The Hen says:

      People with learning disabilities are intelligent. Far more emotionally intelligent than most so called academic people I know. Please don’t make sweeping statements about people with Learning disabilities, it’s insulting, inaccurate and disablist.

      1. Martin Sommers says:

        This is a pathetic set of postings and not the place for falling out about current views on disability. Pointless anyway as there is absolutely no evidence (important word that) that Will Somers had or didn’t have any learning disability. Historians should stick with facts and not speculation.

        1. The Hen says:

          Pathetic in your opinion Martin Sommers, not mine. What you classify as ‘current views’, are in actual fact, current discriminations. And, why shouldn’t I seek to defend the likes of my child from those on social media, in the same way that any racist, homophobic, misogynistic are challenged. As regards historical facts, from what I’ve read of Susannah Lipscombe’s findings, it has been proven that Will Somers had a paid carer to look after him and also that he was considered a ‘natural fool’, which by definition in those times, indicated a congenital condition, as opposed to acquired. It seems to me perhaps, from your own interest in contacting the other contributor, who believes he is one of her ancestors, that you may be reluctant to accept that somebody with the same surname as yourself, could possibly have had a learning disability. It may come as a surprise to millions of people in our day and age, that people with Learning Disabilities, did, have always and still do have sexual relations and in lots of instances, have children.

        2. J SU says:

          As someone whose area of research is disabled court fools I can say that there are signs we can look for that point to figures being disabled. Particularly the presence of keepers who were people akin to a mix between modern carers and servants for natural fools. They would handle the immediate finances and care for fools, and in the views of those like Irina Metzler and John Southworth, if these keepers persisted in caring for the fool into retirement or after the king’s death then it was an even bigger sign they really needed help due to their disability. Will Sommers in my opinion was neurodiverse(terms like learning or intellectual disability just don’t work for the fluid views of the Renaissance). He was just what John Southworth calls a wise innocent. Someone neurodiverse but with less needs and more talents than others had. There was an understanding in the Renaissance that some fools were artificial(acted it out) and others were natural. Erasmus, More and others talk of it. There are plenty of facts backing up the presence of neurodiverse court fools and this area of history is finally getting recognition. Disabled people like myself have always existed.

    2. Banditqueen says:

      HollyDolly, first I am shocked at the posting by the person below, who appears to just be here to argue for the sake of it. I have returned to this post as part of further research. It would appear that Will Somer was brought to Court by a courtier, Richard Fermour and Henry found his humorous wit to be entertaining and offered him the post of fool. He was well rewarded and well respected. One source refers to him having a stoop and it has been recently speculated that he developed scoliosis post adolescence. He may or may not have had learning difficulties, it isn’t made clear and indeed a number of jesters did, but we can’t say that they all did, not without more evidence, so you are right to question this. Dr Lipscomb has produced new evidence in a forthcoming publication, out next year. She does, however, describe him and others as natural fools, indicating that they had learning disabilities, but this doesn’t prove all jesters had. One piece of information which may help is that in 1551 he was appointed a Keeper to control his financial situation and care for him.

      Jane, who served Queen Mary, apparently was brought into the Court by Anne Boleyn and served her as Queen, before moving into the household of Princess Mary, for whom rich clothes and records appear in 1544. She was a close companion and confidante of the Queen and highly prized.

  12. Martin Sommers says:

    Is Nancy Summers (who commented in 2015) still monitoring this site? If so could she make it known as I am interested in her descendancy from Will Sommers?

  13. Martin Sommers says:

    I would be delighted and very proud if Will Somers, with or without learning disabilities, was my ancestor, it is a handed down family story from the 18th century that he was. I have been trying to evidence this for over 35 years without success. Until very recently I taught children with severe learning difficulties – you teach me nothing and are unnecessarily insulting and you need to seriously consider your aggressive approach to websites such as this. Sadly your attitude is sufficient to discourage me from using it, I thought it was for people with genuine historical interests not those on a crusade. At least I use my real name not some anonymous pseudonym to hide behind.

    1. The Hen says:

      Well Martin Sommers, the sentiment is mutual, ‘you teach me nothing’ either. As regards your statement that I am ‘unnecessarily insulting’, I suggest you examine your original inflammatory comment, which itself, was insulting by terming my previous comment to another commentator (and other commentators comments I’m guessing by your inference), as ‘pathetic’. I suggest that if you don’t like getting it back, don’t give it out. I certainly don’t need to be told by you, what I can or can’t say on ANY website thank you. I am not aggressive, just defensive of any discriminatory remarks about people with Learning Disabilities. At no point have I used abusive language. Your use of the phrase with ‘severe learning difficulties’ when describing students you have taught, just serves to speaks volumes to me about your low opinion of people with disabilities. I can’t imagine you ever describing somebody as having severe learning abilities for example, to describe somebody who is extremely academic. I am a parent, not a teacher and there is a vast difference in our experiences of understanding people with Learning Disabilities. I detest the phrase disability, because in my experience, people with them, are infinitely more able than the rest of society in areas that really matter, like lateral thinking, honesty, hope, happiness, empathy, appreciation and kindness and compassion. Not to mention their innumerable talents. I imagine that in your role as a Teacher, you got to spend a few hours a day with your students, in exchange for a wage and without emotional family ties, to your students, which by default, affords you to be dispassionate about people with LDs rights, as clearly you are. I as a parent, spend my life with my child and get to the see the discrimination, the derogatory dialogue, the human rights breaches, general low opinion and the eugenics drive to wipe the likes of my child off the face of the earth nearly every single day. So, if I’m ‘on a crusade’, forgive me, but it’s absolutely necessary to be, from where I’m standing. As regards your accusation that I am hiding, sorry to disappoint you, but it is not the case. This is a public domain, and as such female contributors like myself, are encouraged by those in authority in this day and age to protect ourselves by not using our real identities, from online misogynistic abuse, which is often hurled at us, purely for making our voices heard. Either that, or before you know it, some random male is looking you up elsewhere on social media and posting you graphic imagery of themselves on the messaging facilities on those platforms, which has in the past happened to me. It is for that reason alone that I use a pseudonym. You, as a male (I’m guessing) should think yourself lucky that you never have consider such a move.

      1. Banditqueen says:

        Hen, don’t worry, you can rest assured nobody will be the least bit interested in looking up a crusader like you. But, please, take your crusade back to Facebook or Twitter where it belongs, and allow the rest of us to have a discussion about the history we love without your obstreperous outburst.

        By the way, just because you have had a hard time and obviously love your child, wanting to protect their rights, it doesn’t give you the right to make ridiculous accusations against people who don’t use the specific language you would prefer or speak of people from the LD community in a historical setting and question the evidence from one historian, calling people misogynistic, aggressive, having a low opinion of others, bigots, etc; because they don’t fit your ideas. It is my experience people who get on their high horse as your you in your last comment, usually need to examine themselves, removing the plank from their own eyes, so they can take the splinter out of anothers. Have a nice life.

    2. Banditqueen says:

      Hi Martin, I am sorry you feel put of by this troll who thankfully isn’t a regular contributor to the site. This is an excellent site and Claire works hard to put properly researched articles together. Debate is one thing, but as you say, insulting people just for questioning a historian on their evidence is ridiculous. This Hen person obviously has a problem and hopefully won’t return. I hope you find the information you are looking for on your ancestors. This site has many resources and Claire has links to various sites which can help. It might be useful to drop her a line on her email under the contact sections.

  14. Banditqueen says:

    Will Somers came to Court around 1525,_being brought by a courtier who presented him to the King, who found his wit and charm and charismatic humour to be such that he offered him the position of Fool or Jester. In Court records we know his clothing was provided and he was a favourite companion of King Henry. He was known to offer advice and to make humorous comments on the state of the royal household in order to bring to the King’s attention that he was being deceived by those around him and fraud committed. Henry had the household reorganized as a result. He was often in Henry’s company and normally free with his enthusiasm and entertainment, he showed he was intelligent and his wit was very natural. It was suggested by Susanna Lipscomb that Will Somers was a natural fool, meaning he had learning difficulties, but this could also mean his wit was natural. She also suggested that all fools were people with learning disabilities but this is speculation. While a number of people with learning disabilities were natural fools and elevated to this trustworthy position, not all were, as has been shown in recent papers awaiting publication. A major work is due for publication on Disability in Tudor England next year. The position of the fool may have been to entertain but they also acted as the eyes and ears of their masters or mistress, held a position of trust and were encouraged because of their lack of deceit and were seen as being close to God. Despite the unfortunate incident in which Will Somers is recorded as referring to Anne as a whore and Elizabeth as illegitimate, he remained in favour with the King all of his life. He sought refuge in the house of a favourite courtier, Sir Nicholas Carew, but was pardoned and returned to the royal household. Will was also the only person who the King would allow to be with him when he withdrew into mourning for his beloved wife, Jane Seymour, for several months at the end of 1537 and he can be seen portrayed in several official portraits. He is seen along with Jane the Fool in the garden in the famous Allegory of the Succession, which shows King Henry with Jane Seymour, Prince Edward and Mary and Elizabeth. He is shown in a portrait with Mary and her father and another with Henry and all three of his children. This shows that he and other fools were almost part of the family. His wit and intelligence is praised in the Art of Rhetoric and Henry made special provisions for his care after his death.

    In 1551 records show that a Keeper was provided for him to manage his financial affairs as it was well known that he needed care. He was also given fine clothing and an allowance, which was used on his behalf. It has been suggested that this proved he had learning disabilities and could not manage his own affairs. While this is possible, there are a number of other reasons for appointment of a Keeper. He may have been ill or physically disabled, his condition may have worsened, he may have lived in semi retirement, he wasn’t a young man at this time and if he did indeed suffer from scoliosis which has also been referred to, his physical condition may have become too much for him. Another explanation is an early form of dementia as we know it, although learning disabilities cannot be ruled out. Finally, a Keeper could also be allocated by the King to ensure he was provided for.

    Will Somers continued, according to records to be in the service of Mary I and during the first two years of Queen Elizabeth I. He died on 25th July 1560. A female fool called Jane came into the service of the crown, to the household of Princess Mary and in 1544, the service of Katherine Parr and remained in the service of Mary Tudor as Queen, her close companion and confidante. Will was trusted by the King and shows that jesters were people who expressed political opinions in a humorous way and satire to criticise events and people in the household in which they served. They have been a valuable asset in both noble and royal households for centuries.

    1. Banditqueen says:

      Correction, that should be died 15th June, 1560. He was buried in Saint Leonard Church in Shoreditch.

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