Jesters, Welshmen and Cole-Eting Felows…

Today I whisk you back to the Merrie Courts of Olde Greenwich, a time when they knew how to have fun. Henry VIII, especially, had a veritable Blackadder-worthy list of entertainments, from a ‘Walshman that maketh rymes’ and a chap who ‘joculed before the king,’ ‘popyngais’ and ‘one that tumbled before the king’ to ‘a felow eting of coles,’ which, yickky as it might be, probably didn’t divert the king for very long…

Of course, the Christmas season didn’t start until midnight on the 24th – and Christmas day itself was very solemn – it was the twelve days afterwards that brought the fun and games – and it wasn’t until Twelfth Night when the presents were handed out. By the time Epiphany Eve came round everyone was ready for a bit of a kneesup.

Henry loved a comely dancing wench. He often had them at his feasts and rewarded them handsomely. One ‘young damoysell that daunceth’ got £30 for her efforts. Another litelle mayden’ who clearly wasn’t quite so agile only received £12 – but compare that with the poor old Welsh poet or the bloke that ate the coal, who got just 6s 8d each for their (probably literal) pains.

Among the racket made by all the sackbutts, bagpipes, organs, trumpets, tabors, harps, lutes – name the instrument, Henry had it – the most famous of all his entertainments has to have been the fools.

There were two different kinds. The ‘natural fool’ was either physically deformed (and therefore assumed to be mentally deficient too) mentally handicapped or otherwise ‘insane.’ They were usually sold off by their families, who couldn’t afford the extra mouths to feed, and were bought and sold among posh people as chattels. Dwarfs were particularly popular as palace pets, but some ‘giants’ were also allowed, and they were dressed up, primped and preened like the human equivalent of lap-dogs.

The ‘artificial fool’ wasn’t ‘mad’ (though they often looked a bit odd.) Their USP was acrobatics or clowning around, comedy routines or joke telling – more the sort of thing we think of when conjuring a medieval jester in our minds. Both varieties were indulged to make the kind of rude remarks that no one else at court would be allowed to do.

There are lots of records of fools at Greenwich (I’m talking medieval here, though I can think of a few prize clowns nowadays…) Sexton, Dick, and ‘Dego, the Spanish Fole’ all passed through the town. Patch, a natural fool, had belonged to Cardinal Wolsey but the cardinal gave him to Henry as a gift after his fall from favour. I suspect Patch himself wasn’t best pleased at being carted about like that, but at least he would have had enough to eat – fools always enjoyed a prominent place at their masters’ tables…

Greenwich’s most famous Tudor fool was Will Somers, the king’s favourite jester. Despite his pronounced stoop, which he played up to make people laugh even more, Somers was an artificial fool (he’s in the picture below, trying to think of something clever to say about the king’s harp playing) and he took an active part in the politics of the day as well as capering about, dancing, improvising rhymes, telling gags, making terrible puns and having riddle-contests with the king – which he didn’t always let Henry win.

Somers was, apparently, the only guy who could cheer up the old king when his gouty leg hurt but his jokes sometimes put other people’s feet right in it, – like the time he got Cardinal Wolsey into trouble by making a joke about the cardinal’s ‘unnecessary’ extravagance. He had a bit of a cruel streak too. He upstaged other jesters, making them look bad, if he thought they might be making people laugh too much – but on the other hand, I understand he had an almost Robin-Hood like generosity, which made him a local hero. Not that I can find any evidence of this, save allusions to it in my rather romantic mate, the Rev LeStrange’s, book.

The one fool for whom I’ve tried really hard to find a link to Greenwich and singularly failed is Sir Jeffrey Hudson, AKA Lord Minimus, Queen Henrietta Maria’s proportionate dwarf, who had an incredible life – not least because he was always fed up with being only known for his height.

He found himself joining up in the army, wandering round Europe, and duelling, for which he was dismissed from court. He was captured by Barberry pirates, became a slave and ended up as labourer for 25 years. But in all this, and despite Henrietta Maria being a resident of Greenwich, I can’t see that he ever even visited the town – he would have been in his ‘wandering’ years when she was here.

But, as the jesters of old would have said, hey, nonny. We have plenty of our own fools. And remember – they’re not just for Christmas…


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