Thin horse

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In this week’s blog, journalist and author Eugene Byrne shares a historical joke about one of England’s most famous court jesters, King James I and a religious controversy in 17th-century England, and investigates the story behind the humour.

The joke

King James I was complaining that one of his favourite horses was too lean. He swore upon his soul that he could see no reason why it should not be as fat as any other horse in the land. It was well-fed, well-kept, and he did not ride it hard.

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Archy Armstrong, the king’s fool, who was standing by, said he would tell his majesty how to raise the animal’s flesh, and that very speedily. “I pray thee, fool, how?” inquired the king.

“Make him a bishop,” answered Archy. “And if he is not soon as fat as fat can be, ride me!”

The story

Archibald ‘Archy’ Armstrong (?-1672) was one of the more famous of England’s royal court jesters, chiefly on account of two popular books of jests ascribed to him published in the later 1600s. How many of them really were Archy’s we don’t know.

This story, though, does go to the heart of one of the great religious controversies of 17th century England – and even more so in Scotland. This was about how the Church should be governed, and to many on the puritanical side of the argument, bishops were a hangover from Catholicism, and part of a corrupt and needless hierarchy.

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Armstrong was a close favourite of James I, and then of Charles I, and so was flattered and courted by those seeking royal favour. By all accounts he became more and more arrogant and insolent. His downfall came as a result of his antipathy to William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury. On one occasion, following grace at a meal, he said: “Great praise be given to God and little laud (i.e. praise) to the devil.” He was dismissed from the king’s service after taunting Laud about Scottish resistance to the king’s religious policies. By then he had amassed a sizeable fortune as a result of various royal gifts, and appears to have lived out the rest of his life in comfort.