All the King’s Fools: rediscovering learning disability at Hampton Court Palace
By Suzannah Lipscomb
In the Tudor court, fools played an important role in raising the royal spirits. Some were ‘artificial fools’ – self-fashioned jesters mimicking folly – but some were genuine ‘natural fools’, people who today we might describe as having learning difficulties. These natural fools were introduced to the modern public in 2011 in a groundbreaking piece of theatre at Hampton Court, by a cast of actors who themselves had learning difficulties.
A Wellcome Trust People Award supported an investigation of the historical treatment of disability and its relevance for modern biomedical issues through the role of ‘natural fools’ at King Henry VIII’s court. The project was an ambitious collaboration between academia, heritage and arts groups under the umbrella of the Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) public engagement programme. Everyone worked together to produce new insights into how people actually lived with disability in the past.
Academics from the University of East Anglia and Oxford Brookes University worked in tandem with staff at HRP on the production side. New research informed Hampton Court Palace’s in-house team of historical interpreters (from the company Past Pleasures). They were joined by director Peet Cooper, a professional jester and producer Dan Danson of Foolscap Productions. The project featured the pivotal role of the court fools, performed by The Misfits, a Bristol-based company of actors with learning difficulties.
The daily performances were based on an original idea by Peet. He had previously been commissioned by HRP to play Will Somer, Henry VIII’s fool, at Hampton Court, and had started to explore Somer’s life. He discovered that historian John Southworth thought Somer was a ‘natural fool’ or ‘an innocent’ – Tudor terms used to categorise learning difficulty. Peet became convinced that fools should be played by people with learning difficulties, and resolved to find out more about the reality of a natural fool’s life at court.
Peet approached HRP, and it was agreed that, as Research Curator at Hampton Court Palace at the time, I would research Southworth’s view. Peet, meanwhile, started working with The Misfits and, over the next couple of years, the actors compiled questions that framed my historical research. I met them regularly to discuss my findings. This was an important dialogue that enabled us to share perspectives: neglected historical accounts of how people with learning disabilities were treated in the past, and what the actors said it was like for them today.
A particular highlight of this research phase was our visit to the British Library, kindly hosted by curator Dr Andrea Clarke, to see fools depicted in illuminated medieval manuscripts. We also drew on the expertise of Professor Tom Betteridge and Dr Elizabeth Hurren, who alerted us to the importance of the natural fools playing medical roles at the Tudor court. Music was medicine and mirth was good for the human spirit, so the fools were called on to provide a holistic form of healthcare for Henry VIII, a monarch often afflicted by a troubled mind. The actors were at the centre of this creative process, devising their performances on the basis of the historical research and their own experiences.
My research suggested that Will Somer was indeed a ‘natural’: in 1551, a payment of 40s. was made to William Seyton, “whom his Majesty hath appointed to keep Will. Somer”. Other court fools similarly did not receive direct wages and instead needed keepers for their physical supervision and care. Yet, far from being marginal figures at court, they were centrally important – so much so that they were included in a dynastic portrait of Henry and his family c.1545.
They were especially prized for their witty wordplay and candour. A natural fool was said to tell God’s honest truth, an attribute that Henry valued at a time when the court was rife with political intrigue. For contemporaries, there seems to have been a very real sense that fools embodied a Biblical truth; as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:25, “All men are fools before God and the foolishness of God is wiser than men’s wisdom.” And Erasmus observed: “For truth has a genuine power to please if it manages not to give offence, but this is something the gods have granted only to fools.”
Above all, fools were those to whom Henry would turn when he was depressed or ill. Tudor physicians, such as Andrew Boorde, recommended “mirth” as “one of the chiefest things of Physick”. Mirth meant laughter, amusement, good company and lively conversation. A contemporary chronicle noted that Will Somer had “admission to the King [at all times], especially when sick and melancholy”, suggesting that Henry relied on Somer in his lowest moments. Another account confirms: “When he [Henry] was sad, the King and he could rhyme,/Thus Will exiled sadness many a time.” That laughter is the best medicine is a human experience that we share with those who witnessed the healing skills of the natural fools at Hampton Court.
In 2010, my appointment at the University of East Anglia created an opportunity to apply for funding from the Arts Council and the Wellcome Trust to stage a piece of site-specific theatre at Hampton Court Palace. This would open up the fascinating history on fools that we had discovered to the general public. As a result of the Trust grant, and after a full onsite trial in February, the actors performed to the visiting public for four days in October 2011 in the prestigious historic confines of Hampton Court. Somers was not portrayed directly, but aspects of his character and of the role of the fool were shared between members of the cast.
Hampton Court was owned and largely built by Henry, and was favoured by him for entertainment and pleasure. It was immensely powerful to have our actors performing the role of natural fools, in the actual public spaces that the original fools of the King’s court performed in over 500 years ago. The result was a groundbreaking piece of edgy and thought-provoking theatre that rightly put people with disabilities back at the centre of public heritage spaces. A major achievement of the project was that it was one of the first times that a group of actors with learning difficulties had presented their work at a heritage site of national importance in Britain. It was rewarding for everyone involved, and especially empowering for the actors with learning difficulties to give voice to natural fools with authenticity and integrity.
Some 6226 people visited Hampton Court during the performances in October and at least 2000 of them attended the daily performances. Evaluations revealed that the audience found the performances entertaining, historically credible and challenging. Both adults and children were overwhelmingly positive: they were impressed by the high standard of acting among The Misfits, whose performances touched many, as well as drawing laughter and applause through broad humour and slapstick comedy. Roughly half the adult audience said they felt challenged and provoked by what they had seen; most said they had learned something new from the performances about historical and present-day attitudes to learning difficulties.
The actors also spent two highly successful days in education workshops with Key Stage 2 pupils and pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties, inspiring the children and teachers alike. Among the KS2 groups, the children eagerly joined in the performances and asked the actors pertinent questions about people with learning difficulties in Tudor times. In the sessions with pupils with learning difficulties, their teachers were visibly moved by the bonds that the actors formed with the pupils.
The project went on to create important legacies. Extensive PR work meant that the project featured, for instance, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, whose estimated audience of 6 million heard actors with learning difficulties speaking about their lives as disabled people in modern society. Footage of the performances remains available on the project’s website and the aim is to go on raising awareness of the history of disability and biomedicine among a much wider audience.
In short, All the King’s Fools was a great success: it has even won the Museum Association’s Museum + Heritage Award for Excellence in the Educational category. The project shows that it is possible to create new types of conversation about sensitive biomedical issues and human dignity among the public at large.
Dr Suzannah Lipscomb was Project Leader for All the King’s Fools. She is Senior Lecturer and Convenor at the New College for the Humanities and Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia. She was a Research Curator at Hampton Court Palace and continues to do extensive consultancy work with Historic Royal Palaces to promote the public engagement of history, as well as being an author and broadcaster.
See also actor Penny Lepisz’s personal account of being part of All the King’s Fools, and Theatrical Director Peet Cooper’s website.