Jane the Fool

Posted By on April 1, 2014

Detail from The Family of Henry VIII portrait showing Jane the Fool

Detail from The Family of Henry VIII portrait showing Jane the Fool

As it’s April Fools’ Day today, I thought I’d take a look at Jane the Fool, the woman who was court fool to Queen Anne Boleyn, Queen Mary I (when she was princess and queen) and Queen Catherine Parr.

Jane was what John Southworth, in his book “Fools and Jesters at the English Court”, refers to as an “Innocent”.1 “Innocents”, or “natural fools”, were not professional entertainers, they were people with intellectual disabilities or mental illness. Very little is known about Jane; we don’t know her full name or where she came from. However, we do have records of her serving Anne, Mary and Catherine. From “The Queen’s reckoning”, the list of debts owed by Anne Boleyn at her death in May 1536, we know that Anne paid for “25 yds. of cadace fringe, morrey color, delivered to Skutte, her tailor, for a gown for her Grace’s woman fool, and a green satin cap for her.”2

We know that Jane joined Princess Mary’s household after Anne’s death because Mary’s Privy Purse Expenses have frequent mentions of “Jane the fole” from December 1537. Payments include stabling for her horse and for hose and shoes for her in December 1537, fabric and gowns for her in 1538, shoes and clothing for her in 1542, several payments to a barber in 1543 and 1544 for Jane’s head to be shaved, needles for needlework, a payment for laundering her clothes, an “itm for Jane the foole for the tyme of hir seeknes [sickness]” in July 1543, and cloth for sheets for Jane in September 1543.3 John Southworth points out that the regular shaving of Jane’s head in 1543 and 1544 points to Jane having some kind of “bodily ailment” at this time, but Suzannah Lipscomb writes that fools often had shaven heads and that this may have echoed “the tonsures of the religious”, although Lipscomb is probably referring only to male fools here.4

In 1544, Jane joined Catherine Parr’s household, which also included Catherine’s male fool, Thomas Browne. In October 1544, in a list of payments to Thomas Becke for items for the Privy Chamber are “3 geese for Jane Foole 16d., hempseed for the parrots 16d., cream 4d., wool 6d., mending the parrots’s perch 4d., 3 gallons of milk 12d., 2 gallons of cream 8d., borrowing of vessel occupied for the Queen at Otforde 6d., cream at Leeds 2d., and a hen for Jane Foole 6d.”5 and John Southworth surmises that the Queen kept Jane occupied by providing her “with a little flock of poultry to look after in a corner of the Privy Garden”. There is also mention of “two gowns and two kirtles for Jane the Queen’s fool” in a warrant to the Great Wardrobe in June 1546.6 Jane then disappears from the records until Mary I’s reign, so perhaps she joined Mary’s household when Henry VIII died and Edward VI became King. There are frequent mentions of Jane in Mary I’s expenses from 1553-1558 and Southworth points out that “the number of gowns and accessories ordered for Jane is greater in number than those for any other person bar the queen herself” and that she is always referred to as “Jane our fool”. It appears that Mary doted on her. The payments don’t only cover fabric and clothing, records show that Mary also rewarded two women for helping Jane with an eye ailment, one for healing her and one for housing Jane while she recovered.

It is not known what happened to Jane after Mary I’s death, but she does not appear in the records in Elizabeth I’s reign. Perhaps she joined the household of one of Mary’s former attendants, or perhaps she died soon after her mistress. We just don’t know. What we do know is that she was well looked after at court for over two decades and I hope that she ended her days being just as well looked after.

You can read about Will Somers, Jane’s male counterpart, in my article “Death of William Somer, Court Fool to Henry VIII”.

Family of Henry VIII portrait

The Family of Henry VIII – Jane is in the arch on the left and Will Somers, Henry VIII’s fool, is in the arch on the right.

On this day in history, 1st April…

  • 1536 – Eustace Chapuys wrote a very long and detailed letter to his master, Emperor Charles V, in which he mentioned an incident concerning King Henry VIII and his alleged new flame, Jane Seymour – click here for more on this.

Notes and Sources

  1. Fools and Jesters at the English Court, John Southworth, Chapter 12 – Jane: A Female Innocent
  2. LP x, p383
  3. Privy purse expenses of the Princess Mary, daughter of King Henry the Eighth, afterwards Queen Mary
    with a memoir of the princess, and notes by Frederick Madden (1831)
  4. All the King’s Fools, Suzannah Lipscomb, History Today Volume: 61 Issue: 8 2011 – you can read this at HistoryToday.com
  5. LP xix Part 2, p406
  6. LP xx1 Part 1, p567

5 thoughts on “Jane the Fool”

  1. Mary the Quene says:

    Question: Were graves of non-notables more likely than not to be marked during this period? Or were graves commonly given a gravestone marked with occupant + years?

  2. Sonetka says:

    The head-shaving is interesting but may not have any symbolic meaning — I’d guess that if Jane was moderately mentally retarded in some way, she might have had difficulty caring for her hair or not wanted others to care for it, which would be a real problem if there were lice. Under those circumstances, shaving her head might have been the easiest way of keeping her hair under control or keeping lice at bay.

  3. Tudor Rose says:

    Interesting! Shows how far the actual style goes back! 🙂

  4. Pat says:

    I am most interested in the mention of the tailor Skutte…My maiden name was Skutt and that is an unusual name in any English history I have ever read…Is there any other information about this tailor…It would not surprise me that if possibly the e could have been dropped when a Skutt came to America…We are told of it being of Dutch ancestry…We know that our family came to the U.S. in the early 1700’s before the revolution….thank you if you have any information about the tailor…

  5. Dawn 1st says:

    Yes I am so glad she was very well cared for and looked after, and hope it continued afterwards too, if she was a lady with mental impairment her life could have been so, so different for her in those days.

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