On The Trail Of Jane The Fool

On The Trail Of Jane The Fool

by Denise Selleck

As a superstitious person, I would never have started this project had I realized that it was Friday the 13th when I first learned of Jane. I was on a tour of Hampton Court Palace in England when the guide happened to mention that one particular picture of Henry VTII and his family was unique because it was the only portrait of the family together. Among other idealized flicks of the brush, we were told it pictured a youthful Edward VI next to one of Henry’s queens, possibly Edward’s mother (Jane Seymour) who had died shortly after his birth and Henry’s jester, Will Sommers. In an aside, the guide mentioned that it also contained the only known picture of a female fool. At the time I thought this would make an interesting story. Four months later, I decided to embark on her trail.

We are left to imagine a bald headed woman, elegantly dressed, doing a soft-shoe shuffle

Assuming that the best place to start would be the Palace, I called up to inquire about the fool’s name and requested any information they had about her. “The guide probably made it up; they often make things up,” said the not overly-helpful person I encountered.

Slightly shaken by this information, I nevertheless persevered. On my first trip to the library I hit the jackpot. A book about pictures at the palace told me Jane’s name and a book about fools had a reference to a Miss C. C. Stope’s essay. My next trip produced the essay, 1 1/2 pages primarily devoted to Jane’s clothing. That, unfortunately, marked the end of any productive information I gathered on Jane, though I was to continue my search sporadically for another six months.

In the process, I became a reader in the British Library. This gave me access to contemporary books and documents, which I was sure were filled with information about Jane. When nearly every book I initially ordered was either lost, misplaced, destroyed by a bomb during the war, or stuck in a jammed cabinet, I became convinced that this was a clever ploy to keep me off the track by someone who, at the very moment, was putting the final touches on The Collected Works of Jane the Fool.

In time I learned that this was not the case, and I eventually looked at 288 books in that library alone.

The British Library Reading Room is a large, domed, circular room lined with books. The center contains catalogues of books and, at desks like spokes coming from the center, hundreds of people a day research a myriad of obscure topics. The room, dusty with its aging books, catalogues and readers, is virtually silent save the occasional dropped book or sneeze – something I took to doing with great regularity, making me constantly wary of a landslide of books.

The procedure at the library is to order the desired books; if you are lucky, they are delivered to your seat a short time later. Every time I saw a huge stack coming my way, my mouth would go dry, my heart begin to race. This time, I thought, there would be an entire chapter on Jane. But there never was and eventually I attributed the palpitations to the dust.

I looked through countless court records. I looked through books on fools, jesters and wits; through books on 16th century women, education and customs; and through books on Mary and Henry. I also perused just about every written item with Tudor in its title. My research taught me a lot about Tudor food (lots of meat and no fruit or veges except the odd orange); Tudor diseases (syphilis was quite popular); and about the debate over who was more wicked, Bloody Mary or Good Queen Bess (the latter takes the prize as far as I’m concerned). I began to bore family and friends with Tudor trivia. Did you know, for example, that both Mary and Elizabeth suffered from amenorrhea?

I waded through books which were two feet high and others tied together with shoestring. I got books with titles like The History of Queen Mary’s Big Belly and The Jaded Jester. Although many were modern and well indexed, most were disorganized and crumbling. Some, handwritten in Early Modern English in downward slants, were virtually impossible to read. At one point, looking for an article on Tudor art, supposedly contained in a 1954 volume of Country Life (a British magazine), a frustrated librarian, fed up with my strange requests, allowed me to accompany her to the bowels of the library to locate the correct volume. We went up and round and down and round for what seemed like miles. Finally finding the right volume, I returned to my seat where I did not learn much about Tudor art but saw a great five bedroom house on 25 acres selling for 8,000 pounds.

If the books were rare or in poor condition, the curious reader was required to visit the North Library. I was there on several occasions and once was told to sit at a special table directly in front of the librarian’s desk. My book, Choice of Valentines, seemed neither rare nor in particularly bad shape. It was only when I read the subtitle, The Merrie Ballad of Nash his Dildo, that I realized I was in possession of a book of antique porn and was placed in front of the library staff to make sure I behaved while reading it. The story of how a prostitute tried to assist her impotent customer certainly had me shaking, no doubt to the alarm of the watchful staff, but only with repressed laughter.

I decided to change course, going back to original sources. I applied to be a reader in the Manuscript Department. This was a mistake. I got scraps of paper with bits of wax seal still attached. I got scrolls six feet long, and I got everything in [between.

They all had one thing in common: they were in hieroglyphics, at least as far as I was concerned. I could not tell top from bottom or even if it was in English or Latin. It became very embarrassing. I found myself spending about 20 minutes pretending I knew what I was doing, occasionally jotting things onto a pad to look authentic. Meanwhile, I surreptitiously examined my neighbors. Every one of them seemed intent on reading, magnifying glass in one hand, furiously copying things with the other, ruler and extra pencils lined up at the ready. I longed to go over and see what they were doing. Was it too much to hope that they, too, were just pretending?

I did manage to make out the copies of Mary’s will which said “herewith Mary listed several legacies to her women and other servants amounting to 3,400 pounds.” I got very excited when I saw this. If I could find the original will, I thought, I could learn something concrete about Jane. I contacted libraries, the Public Record Office, the archives at Windsor. No one had a clue as to where the will was.

Surely you cannot lose track of the will of the first Queen of England? Or can you? Apparently it disappeared for some 250 years only to resurface in the early 1800s when the Reverend George Harbin copied it out for a Mr. Hale. Other copies of the will are based on this. I tracked down one of Mr. Hale’s descendants who kindly responded to my rather hysterical letter. He had no recollection of ever seeing the will but told me that a few years earlier many family papers were tossed out and the will may have been among them.

However, not all my searches were fruitless. Going on the odd chance that Jane was Will’s wife, I decided to look up his death record, hoping it would mention his spouse. Miss Stopes had kindly given the date and place of his burial in her essay. Relieved to see that this information was on microfilm rather than yet another undecipherable document, I nearly broke the machine trying to load it. After some assistance from my neighbor, I was dismayed to find that they had simply filmed the original undecipherable document. Fortunately, however, there was a magnifying device on the machine and after a short time I found listed among the other deceased of 1560 the entry I was looking for: “William Sommers was buried the 16th day of June.” I already knew that.

There was no mention of his loving wife dancing on his grave or anything, but there was one unusual thing about the entry. Next to it was a picture of something. My husband logically suggested that it was a jester’s cap. Frankly it looked more like a dove or a mangled hand to me.

I returned to Hampton Court on the 30th of March when my parents were in town. The next day I was awakened with the news that the Palace had burnt down. Was it Jane’s wrath, I wondered? Surely, I felt, she could have had better timing. If it had burned on April Fool’s Day it would have made for a better story. Anyway, guess which was one of the most badly damaged pictures? Someone was surely trying to tell me something.

Only slightly shaken, I went along to the Genealogical Library run by the Mormons. Staffed by and filled with eager Americans tracing their roots, I was told by the woman who greeted me that I would need three things to find the person I was looking for: a surname, a place and date of birth, death, etc. Naught out of three isn’t bad.

About this time, my health began to deteriorate, probably due to the dust I was wallowing in. But when I began to notice a significant loss of sight in my left eye and my hair thinning, I began to fear I was assuming Jane’s persona. The more logical explanation of eye strain from too much reading, and thinning hair from all the tugging, never occurred to me.

Since I did not know the cause of Jane’s demise, and fearing for my life, I thought I’d better stop the search before it was too late. But not before one last trip to the library. Another mistake. In her essay, Stopes points out that the name Beden the Fool had been twice mentioned in the accounts and suggested that this “obvious proper name was the patronymic of Jane.” In all my months of searching in books and records, in lists and manuscripts, I had spent hours looking up this “obvious proper” name to no avail. For some reason on this final foray on Jane’s trail, I looked up Beden in the Oxford English Dictionary. A Middle-English word, it has several meanings including “so as to include the whole quantity or number”, “straightaway or forthwith”, and was also used as an “expletive without force”. Any of these meanings might apply to the entry. Beden could be a proper name as Stopes suggested, but I don’t know and frankly I don’t want to know. My search for Jane is over.

I said that I couldn’t find out anything about Jane’s antics as a fool. Maybe I was wrong. Surely she deliberately made her life into a mystery so that some fool over 400 years later would spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find out about her.


For centuries the privileged amused themselves with dwarfs, the deformed, the disabled and the dimwitted to ridicule and to laugh at. As demeaning as this sounds, this “job” often provided food and shelter for the poor and starving. Eventually the post of household fool became highly coveted, and many employed in this way were actually “artificial” fools, fully in control of their wits but “wise enough to play the fool.”

The nobility employed fools for their entertainment and treated them on a par with regal pets – as very precious possessions of the Court. In England, fools and jesters were the only ones who could come into the royal presence unannounced. Under the guise of stupidity, fools were often insolent to their masters; they were rewarded for their disrespectful behavior, behavior that their saner cousins might have been executed for.

Traditionally, fools and jesters were assumed to be male, clad in cap and bells with mismatched stockings, but it was not solely a male occupation. Female fools were found in homes and courts throughout the world. French royalty, especially, had female jesters to amuse them. In England a female jester was listed in the Domesday Book, and Anne Boleyn is reported to have had one.

Queen Mary I also had a female fool, known to us only as Jane, The Queen’s Fool. Her existence is known mostly from The Privy Purse Expenses of Princess Mary, edited by Sir Frederick Madden in 1831 and from an essay written by C. C. Stopes in 1905 based on Madden’s information. She is also thought to be pictured in the portrait of Henry the Eighth and His Family, which hung in Hampton Court Palace until it was damaged during a fire in 1986.

The portrait depicts various members of the Tudor family: one of his queens (experts aren’t sure which one) and his children, Mary, Edward (VI) and Elizabeth (I). In the flanks of the picture are Henry’s jester, Will Sommers, and a woman described in various accounts – none of them contemporary – as Sommer’s wife, a waiting woman, a functionary and Mary’s fool. The latter is thought to be the case, and since Mary had only one recorded fool – Jane – the picture is almost definitely of her.

In the portrait Jane is dressed well but not as grandly as the other three women. She wears a high-necked dress with puffed shoulders, tight sleeves, and a straight skirt with an outer garment over it. Although she doesn’t look particularly jolly, there is a hint of a smile on her face. She is looking over her shoulder, away from the family, at a winged dragon perched behind her.

The records show that Jane was entirely supported by Mary until the end of the Queen’s life. She was as well clothed as the other ladies of the court and, in fact, had a greater number of garments given to her than they did. She dressed in damask gowns and fur, and in kirtles (an outer petticoat) of red silk or white satin fringed with silver and lined with linen and cotton.

But Jane wasn’t your typical court lady. She had her head shaved as often as twice a month. While this was normal practice for male fools, it would certainly have set her apart from the other women at court. On her bald head she wore a strange tight-fitting cap. And she wore shoes. Lots and lots of shoes. In one year she was first granted 12 pairs, six months later 12 more and six months later yet 12 more, some of them made of leather.

Mary paid for the laundering of Jane’s clothes, for needles – presumably for needlework – and for her shoes. She even paid for Jane’s horse, its food and its keeper, a man named Hogman. On two recorded occasions Jane fell ill. In 1543 she was paid for “the tyme of her seekness” for some unknown ailment. Then in 1556 she had some kind of eye injury and was sent away to be cared for in a private home. Mary handsomely compensated Mrs. Ager, the woman who cured Jane.

Mary even covered the cost of Jane’s love life. Every Valentine’s Day, single young men put their names in a box to be drawn by an unmarried woman. These women were then obligated to give their “valentine” a gift. In 1555, Jane gave her valentine, Mr. Harte, three yards of black satin; the next year Mr. Barnes got the same thing. Both gifts were paid for by Mary.

We can learn from the accounts what Jane wore and some of the things she did to amuse herself, but what did she do to amuse others? Unfortunately no accounts of her antics have so far been discovered. However, a look at Queen Mary and at Jane’s contemporary (male) jokesters might give us some idea of what she may or may not have done.

The Queen’s day was divided between reading scriptures and studying classical literature, history, the sciences, philosophy and foreign languages – she was fluent in at least four. She wrote compositions and did needlework. She played the harpsichord and the lute and loved to dance. While historians tell us she hated idleness and vice, she played dice and her accounts show she spent vast sums on gambling losses.

Plagued with ill health throughout her life, Mary may have turned to laughter as a cure on the advice of her mother, Katherine of Aragon. A letter written by Katherine about her daughter said that a “little comfort and mirth should undoubtedly be half a health unto her. I have proved the like by experience being diseased of the same infirmary and know how much good it may do.”

Besides Jane, Mary had Lucrecia the Tumbler to amuse her. When Henry VIII died, she took Will Sommers into her care and dressed him better than Henry had. John Heywood, a famous wit of the time, was often by her side and amused her on her deathbed.

Mary might have liked a little fun, but it must have been quite innocuous since she was rather innocent. She once overheard her Lord Chamberlain jokingly call one of her ladies-in-waiting a whore. Thinking this was an endearment, Mary later used it when talking to this woman. Shocked and embarrassed, the lady had to explain to the Queen what it meant. Needless to say, Mary did not use that particular nickname again.

Fools at this time, however, were not known for their discretion. While they sometimes acted as critics, perhaps even giving constructive advice to their employers, they mostly sang bawdy ballads and recited rude sonnets. They loved to make jokes and riddles about all manner of unsavory things, favorites being about excrement and farting (some things just don’t change). They leapt over tables and tripped people up. They made faces. Practical jokes went over big. Scaring someone by hiding behind them and saying “boo” was always a hit.

Rhyming contests where fools tried to out-insult their employers and their employer’s friends were popular. Will Sommers had such a bout with Cardinal Wolsey, a two-time candidate for pope. The Cardinal started with, “a rod in school, a whip for a fool is always in season.” Sommers retorted, “a halter and a rope for him that would be pope against all right and reason.” Although this was terribly insulting – and anyone else would probably have lost his life for it – this is one of Sommers’s tamer compositions; most of his rhymes wouldn’t get past today’s censors.

Some historians have suggested that Jane was Sommer’s wife. I hope not for her sake. There is a story that he saw his wife watching their pet cat chase her tail round and round. He killed the cat so his wife “wouldn’t learn anything from it.” He also spent many nights in the wine cellar.

Still, by all accounts Will was terribly popular and known for his kindness – to humans if not to animals. On a first name basis with Henry VIII and his many queens, the King’s council used Will to put the king in a good mood so they could ask for things. Will is also said to have bullied his boss into helping many people out. (Though apparently not the queens!)

Of all Henry’s followers, Will is one of the very few about whom we have information. He is the subject of several plays and stories and a few portraits, not to mention nearly two columns in the British Dictionary of National Biography. For all this, he is said to have slept outdoors with the spaniels. (Who knows where his wife slept?) When Mary died in 1558, he drifted into Shoreditch which was a hangout for players and fools, where he stayed until his death in 1560.

Much is also known about John Heywood, wit, court musician and dramatist. He merits six columns in the National Biography and many of his works were published. His hatred of Will is well documented. (He felt that he did more work at Court than the fool did.) Upon Mary’s death, the Catholic Heywood fled to France, because he feared religious oppression or death under the new queen, Elizabeth.

So what might Jane have done? She told stories and made jokes, presumably clean ones, or maybe they just went over the Queen’s head! It’s likely she gossiped, rode horses, sang, played music and gambled with the Queen. She might have danced, which may explain the excess of shoes. It’s possible she was literate, given that Mary spent so much time reading and writing. She may have read to the Queen or played games with her. If she was also Catholic, Jane might have known Latin. Perhaps they had a laugh while conjugating verbs.

But we are left with more questions than answers. Did she have a surname other than Fool? Where did she come from? Was she married? Did she sleep with the dogs too? Was she at Mary’s deathbed with Heywood and did she flee with him or drift like Will?

Isn’t it sad that all this speculation is necessary about Jane The Fool when so much is recorded about Sommers and Heywood? She doesn’t merit any space in the National Biography. Perhaps Jane and other such women led uninteresting lives. Or that men, long the guardians of our past, have conveniently not recorded the “unimportant” details of life – such as women.

A good example of this can be seen in Queen Mary’s will. In one section she listed all her women and servants by name and stated how much she left to each. The will has since been copied – by men – and in each case they omitted this part. The original will has disappeared and with it hopes of learning Jane’s surname, if she had one, and the information that name might make possible. Historians did manage, bless them, to mention a few bequests to male members of the staff.

Many of Mary’s letters and other documents are still extant. Nowhere outside of the accounts, however, is there a mention of Jane. Of course it is possible the Queen never wrote about her fool. But, since Jane was Mary’s trusted companion for at least 20 years, you would think that she would have mentioned her somewhere, at least once. I can only think that historians have discarded or lost such items over the years, thinking them insignificant.

As a result, we have suffered the loss of information about a woman who led a life different from that of maids and monarchs. We are left to imagine a bald-headed woman, elegantly dressed, doing a soft-shoe shuffle. This image elicits a smile but not the stomach-aching chuckles to which we are entitled.

Denise Selleck is a freelance writer from San Francisco, CA.