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Guest article by Stephanie Stohrer
The earliest references to what we know as court jesters, or fools, date back to the 5th dynasty of Egypt, whose Pharaohs employed Pygmies as dancers and buffoons. For centuries, royalty and nobility have hired comic entertainers whose perceived madness or imbecility (whether real or pretended, as I will explain shortly) provided amusement to their superiors.
The two different types of fools that have been chronicled over the years were the “natural” or “innocent” fool, who would have had mental or even physical disabilities and were not necessarily in control of their faculties, and the “merry” fool, who were entertainers of sound mental health, but pretended to seem impaired for the entertainment of others. The innocent fool was defined in 1616 by Nicholas Breton as one “abortive of wit, where Nature had more power than Reason”, and was believed to be, to some extent, closer to God – and therefore highly valued by nobility. Although they were employed for entertainment purposes, they were treated as precious possessions of the court.
Fools throughout history were almost entirely male, yet the star of our story today was a somewhat elusive FEMALE fool, simply known as “Jane”.
Jane’s birth and early years have never been recorded, so all we really know of her life were fragments of time between the years 1535 and 1558. Her existence is only known to us by way of accounts mentioned by Anne Boleyn in the last year or so of her life, through the Privy Purse Expenses of Princess Mary, and certain purchasing records of Queen Catherine Parr. She is also widely accepted as a background figure in a famous painting of Henry VIII and his family.
During the reign of Anne Boleyn in December of 1535, a green satin cap and 25 yards of purple/red fringe used for trimming a dress were purchased for “her Grace’s woman fool”, which presumably referred to Jane. Although Jane doesn’t seem to have been particularly important to Boleyn, when she was beheaded in 1536, her household was dispersed, and Jane likely went into the care of the Princess Mary. This is where she was loved and cared for, for the next twenty or so years.
Princess Mary treated Jane with fondness and affection, despite still making her shave her head every few weeks, as the male fools had to do (she actually developed a skin infection on her scalp in March of 1543, probably from the constant head shaving) . She provided her with an expensive wardrobe, lessons on the virginals and the lute, and interestingly, an unusually extensive shoe collection. It is also mentioned in several sources that Jane’s tenure overlapped with Lucretia the Tumbler’s, and that they were given identical clothing. In 1542 it is said that a “payre of shoes for Jane and another for Lucrece” were purchased, followed by a set of smocks for both as well. It is suggested that Lucretia, although a trained entertainer (more of the “merry” kind of fool I discussed earlier) versus Jane a natural fool, was her close companion who potentially even acted as her “keeper”.
Another of Jane’s contemporaries was Will Sommers, the fool to Henry VIII. Some say that he may have had a romantic relationship with Jane, or that the two were even married, but that is highly unlikely.
Moving on to 1543, when Henry VIII married Catherine Parr and both Elizabeth and Mary were restored to the line of succession, Parr was compassionate enough to bring Mary’s beloved fool into her own care. The new queen allowed Jane to care for a small flock of chickens in the privy garden for her entertainment and to allow her a sense of responsibility.
Shortly thereafter, what would become an extremely famous portrait was painted of Henry’s family. This painting, The Family of Henry VIII, was completed in 1544/45 and can currently be found in Hampton Court Palace. Although this work of art could have an entire segment dedicated to it alone, I will have try to stick to the topic at hand. There are many theories surrounding why it was done the way it was, mainly because the queen featured beside the main focal point (Henry, of course) was Jane Seymour, (the wife who had been dead for nearly a decade) and not his current consort, Catherine Parr. Henry and Jane Seymour’s son Edward is found at the other side of Henry, intimating that this threesome would have been the “holy trinity” of the family. Then, positioned on the outer sides of the trio are Elizabeth and Mary, also potentially implying that although they had been formally reintroduced into the succession, they were still considered outside of the true family unit. But I digress (the theories behind this painting really are interesting and I would strongly suggest you look into the hypotheses about why each object and person are positioned the way they are)! What I find noteworthy for the sake of this particular segment are the people painted on the far outer edges of the portrait. To the right, is Will Sommers, Henry’s fool, with a monkey on his back, picking his head for lice… and to the left, none other than our JANE! She seems to be looking away at something out of sight of the painting, and is wearing a tight-fitting cap, likely covering her recently shorn head, and her “uniform”, which was an expensive outfit cut in the Dutch style rather than the more fashionable French style, to show a lower rank than royals or nobles. Her gown consisted of a kirtle (the outer gown) with an upstanding collar, parted in the front to reveal a pleated underskirt, or forepart. The fact that Jane and Will were both added to this painting implies significant status within the royal family.
As we approach 1546, records with mention of Jane cease to exist. We do not know what happened to her after Henry passed in 1547, as all documentation referencing her employment or whereabouts is simply not found.
However, again in 1553 a new batch of orders for the newly crowned Queen Mary I were purchased. We can see that she bought fine gowns and petticoats for Jane, made from such fabrics as lace, silks and satin – quality items that generally would have only been worn by the queen’s ladies and nobles (but, as I mentioned earlier, the distinguishing feature would have been that unlike the Queen’s contemporaries, Jane’s dresses would be cut in a passe Dutch style).
Jane’s job as Mary’s fool would have included telling stories, jokes, singing songs and playing music. Yet we also know that the Queen had a fondness for her after all the years they had already spent together, so Jane (by this time now being referred to no longer as “The Fool”, but more affectionately “Our Fool”) was also known to go riding with the Queen and even gamble with her.
Jane and Will Sommers were further elevated in their standings under Queen Mary, and given special lodgings and matching outfits for their performances. Jane was also included in the Saint Valentine’s Day lottery every year until 1558. This meant that every year, men of the court drew ladies’ names to find out their dancing partners. Once chosen, the women had to buy gifts for their Valentines, a task which was done by the queen each year on behalf of Jane. In fact, she was entirely supported by Queen Mary until the end of Mary’s life. She was well clothed (even better than most ladies at court), she paid for the laundering of all of her garments, bought all her needlework so Jane could practice sewing, and any other daily costs of living were all supplied by Mary. In late 1555, Jane experienced some sort of illness or infection involving one of her eyes, which required treatment. As usual, Queen Mary stepped in and not only paid for the physician’s care, but also for an around-the-clock caregiver to attend Jane. Gifts were continuously sent during the time of her healing, as she remained under careful care “in a dwelling at Burye”.
Mary maintained her relationship with Jane right up until her death, with records showing that even in her last year of life, the queen was still ordering new clothes for her fool.
Unfortunately, once Mary passed and Elizabeth I was crowned, there was once again no mention of Jane anywhere. It is unknown if she too died, or simply was not accepted into the household of Mary’s younger sister. Will Sommers is recorded as having been at Elizabeth’s coronation, yet already by that time Jane seems to have vanished.
Even with the extremely close relationship that Mary and Jane had for over 20 years, no surname, birth date or death date was ever recorded for her. Accounts of “Beden the Fool” during Mary’s reign are sometimes suggested as having been Jane, with Beden potentially having been her surname, but most sources believe that that was an entirely different person altogether.
Surname or no, Jane, Our Fool was clearly held in high regard by each Queen who employed her. The exceptional care they took of this innocent girl was not necessarily common for the time, which is why even today, we still want to know about the fool in the Dutch dress in Henry VIII’s family portrait.
- Fools & Jesters at the English Court
- A Biographical Encyclopedia of Early Modern English women