Disability History Month Poster 2: Will Sommers


Disabled History can be found at the centre of Renaissance court life in the form of natural court fools, neurodiverse individuals who acted as entertainers and companions to royalty. Will Sommers (d.1560 Somer, Somers), one of the most famous fools of the Renaissance, was King’s Fool to Henry VIII. The importance of Sommers to Henry is demonstrated by his presence in the king’s private psalter which he commissioned French artist Jean Mallard to create between 1540-41. On folio 63v we see a realistic miniature that portrays the Psalm 52 passage: Dixit insipiens in corde suonon est Deus or The Fool Hath Said in His Heart, There is No God. Fool miniatures for this Psalm had traditionally not taken inspiration from real and natural court fools – this image, therefore, is a good example of the subversive nature of Henry’s psalter. Here, and throughout, Henry depicts himself as King David, comments in the margins and creates a book both signifying his faith and his power over England’s spiritual affairs. Henry’s choice to have Will portrayed here is another act of revolt against typical psalters in its depiction of a real fool. 

This was not the only image of Will produced:  the 1545 The Family of Henry VIII portrait used Will’s image for dynastic purposes. By contrast, in the psalter he is depicted, stooped back and all, mirroring the ageing king.  This image is not just artistically accomplished, but intimate as Will is inserted into Henry’s devotional practice: between ruminating over his Christianity and reading his psalms the King can see the face of his beloved fool.  This bond between King and Fool was remembered as late as 1608 when Robert Armin’s Foole Upon Fool related of Sommers,  “few men were more belou’d, then was this foole, whose merry prate kept with the King much rule” and through jokes, riddle and rhymes the king and fool would exile “sadnesse many a time”. The psalter’s depiction of the two men evokes one of these back and forth exchanges.  Will remained appreciated beyond Henry’s lifetime and through the reigns of his three children. Payments to Will’s keepers (like modern carers) continued, he participated in Edward VI’s Christmas 1551 festivities, was purchased a green silk coat by Queen Mary between 1554-1555 and attended Elizabeth’s coronation. He passed away on June 15th 1560 and was laid to rest at St. Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch. Sommer’s immortalisation in everything from the psalter to literature and portraiture would ensure his legacy as one of history’s most important court fools and neurodiverse people.

This poster is based on the research of, and was written by, Jessica Secmezsoy-Urquhart, a PhD student in the School of History.

Disability History Month runs from 22nd November to 22nd December

Further reading:

D.J. Gifford, “Iconographical Notes towards a Definition of the Medieval Fool”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes,37 (1974) 336-342.

Patrick McDonagh, Idiocy: A Cultural History (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008).

John Southworth, Fools and Jesters at the English Court (The History Press Ltd., New Ed. 2003)

James Gairdner and R H Brodie eds. Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 20 Part 2, August-December 1545, (London, 1907) 488-504. British History Online, < http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol20/no2/pp488-504

Enid Welsford, The Fool (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1935).

William Willeford, The Fool and his Sceptre (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1969).

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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