What was life like for a court jester?

From battlefield comedians to unfortunate messengers, jesters played varied roles in courts through the Middle Ages and Tudor period. Writing for History Extra, author Karen Maitland explores what life was like for these men and women…

(Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

When we imagine a medieval or Tudor feast, we might picture a jester, the wise fool, running among the guests juggling or telling bawdy jokes while minstrels strum their lutes. But in the 11th and 12th centuries, the title ‘minstrel’, meaning ‘little servant’, was the name given to a wide range of entertainers, including singers, musicians, jugglers, tumblers, magicians as well as joculators or jesters. Both men and women were employed as minstrels and there is a record of a joculatrix called Adeline owning land in Hampshire in 1086. 

In the 12th century, the title of follus or ‘fool’ began to be mentioned in documents, often when these jesters had been rewarded with land as payment for loyal service. A fool named Roland le Pettour was given 30 acres of land by King Henry II, probably when he retired, on condition that Roland returned to the royal court every year on Christmas Day to “leap, whistle and fart”.

But noblemen and even kings did not throw daily banquets and besides, listening to the same fool or joculator every night of the year would have become tedious, so medieval jesters only performed occasionally. The rest of the year, they were expected to carry out other duties in the household, such as being keeper of the hounds, or travelling to markets to buy the livestock to feed the family, their servants and their men-at-arms.


Musician and dancing fool in Paris, 14th century. (Photo by: Christophel Fine Art/UIG via Getty Images)

 

A fool’s life

Both King Edward II and Edward III had a succession of fools and called them all ‘Robert’ regardless of their real names. However, by the 13th century, some talented jesters were beginning to achieve superstar status. Those who were lucky enough to be employed by royalty were provided with their own horse and servants. Tom le Fol – Tom the Fool – performed at the marriage feast of Edward I’s daughter Elizabeth and was given a fee of 50 shillings; this was a fortune, since a skilled thatcher could expect to earn only 2½ pence a day and you could buy a goose for 1½ pence.

Of course, most fools weren’t lucky enough to come to the attention of the king. One traveller complained that no one gave him rabbit-trimmed robes or costly gifts, because he couldn’t play instruments, tell jokes and stories, juggle, dance, or fart a tune, which suggests that jesters were required to be multi-talented. 

But being selected as the personal jester of a medieval king or nobleman came with a serious health warning; jesters were often required to go to the battlefield with their masters to carry messages between the leaders of warring armies, demanding that a city surrender to a besieging army or delivering terms for the release of hostages. Unfortunately for the jesters, the enemy did sometimes ‘kill the messenger’ as an act of defiance (especially if they regarded the terms being offered as an insult) and some used a catapult or trebuchet to hurl the unfortunate messenger (or his severed head) back into his own camp as a graphic illustration of what they thought of the message.

Jesters also had a vital role to play in the battle themselves. In the early Middle Ages their job was to wage psychological warfare, boosting their army’s morale the night before with songs and stories. When the two armies took up their opposing positions in preparation for battle, the jesters would cavort up and down on foot or horseback between them, calming the nerves of their own men by making them laugh at jokes, singing bawdy or insulting songs and calling out mocking abuse to their enemies in order to hearten their own soldiers and demoralise the opposition, rather like modern football supporters before a match. Some even juggled swords or lances in front of the enemy, taunting and baiting them until those with a hottest tempers broke ranks and charged prematurely to avenge the insult and kill the fool, which would weaken their defensive position.


Engraving depicting King Henry VIII, Mary I and court jester William Sommers. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

 

Three types of ‘fool’

As the Middle Ages progressed, three types of fool evolved. The professional fool employed by a nobleman was usually very astute, educated and generally wore normal clothes, like their masters, rather than the classic fool’s costume. 

But wealthy or noble families also adopted men and women who had mental illnesses or physical deformities, keeping them almost as pets for their amusement or as an act of ‘Christian charity’. Often referred to as ‘innocent fools’ and also given titles such as ‘the Queen’s fool’ or ‘Lord X’s fool’, they were not paid, just provided with food, clothes and a place to sleep on the floor. If the noble family decided these poor fools no longer amused them, they were sometimes provided with a pension in the form of regular alms, though sadly many ended their days as beggars. 

The third class of fools were the members of the ‘Fool Societies’ particularly popular in France. These were groups of amateurs who performed at Christmas or at fairs and festivals. They were generally the ones to don the classic jester’s costume of a hood with ears and multi-coloured tunics, and tie bells to their shoes or clothes. They would dance and prance through the streets, some even carrying their infants on their backs.

By the Elizabethan period, jesters were beginning to move away from performing in houses to becoming comic actors on the stage and by the 17th century, it was becoming quite dangerous to have a royal patron, as Jeffrey Hudson was to discover. Jeffrey was a talented ‘dwarf jester’ who was encountered by Charles I when the jester jumped out from under a pie crust. Jeffrey travelled with Queen Henrietta Maria when she fled to Holland and returned with her to England to fight on horseback for the royalists during the Civil War. In spite of his size, he was skilled horseman and solider. Ever loyal to the crown, he helped to get the queen back to safety in France. However, a few months later, the brother of Lord Croft who was captain of the Queen’s guard insulted Jeffrey over his height. The dwarf challenged him to a duel and shot him dead. The queen had no choice but to banish Jeffrey. On his voyage of exile, he was captured and sold into slavery. Bizarrely on his eventual return to England (if it was the same man), he was found to have gained a foot in height and in a further twist in 1679, he was accused of conspiracy in a ‘papist plot’. He was finally released from prison in 1682 aged 63, dying shortly afterwards.


Queen Henrietta Maria and Sir Jeffrey Hudson c1633. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

 

‘Maggoty' Johnson

One of the last professional jesters was Samuel Johnson, known as ‘Maggoty’ because of his pockmarked face. Born in 1691, he danced, told jokes, acted and frolicked in most of the wealthy houses in England. His patron, the Duke of Montague, helped Maggoty to put on a play in London which Maggoty had written, casting himself in the lead role of Lord Flame. By all accounts the play was dire, but nevertheless was staged more than 30 times at the Haymarket Theatre. Maggoty believed he was an excellent singer, but usually performed with his facing away from the audience as he pulled such bizarre expressions when singing people would laugh – or at least he believed that was cause of their giggling. 

When he died at the age of 82, he was initially buried in the churchyard, though his friends had him removed as he had requested, and reburied in woods (now known as Maggoty Wood, near Gawsworth, Cheshire) in an empty tomb he had originally designed for his much-loved female servant in her favourite woodland spot. He had asked not to be left in the churchyard, because he particularly disliked a quarrelsome old woman who was buried there, and joked that on the ‘day of resurrection’ she would pick a fight over his leg bones, claiming them to be hers. 

You can still visit his tomb in Maggoty Wood today. The woods are owned by the National Trust, which has erected boards on which you can read both the original 1773 inscription on his tomb praising Mr Johnson’s many talents and telling the tale of the leg bone, together with a rather nastier inscription which was written in 1851 in rhyming couplets and begins: “If chance has brought thee here, or curious eyes / To see the spot where this poor jester lies / A thoughtless jester even in his death / Uttering his jibes beyond his latest breath.” The poem contains a stern Victorian warning to those who spend their lives playing the fool: the days of the court jester were well and truly over.

Karen Maitland is the author of The Plague Charmer (Headline Review 2016)

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