Thursday, 6 June 2013

Clowning Around – The Portraits of Will Sommers


“Be a clown, be a clown, all the world loves a clown…”

(Cole Porter, 1948)

 Well, maybe not. Clowns give me the willies, conjuring up images of the notorious John Wayne Gacy as Pogo, and the love-to-hate Ronald McDonald flogging Happy Meals and McNuggets.

 Before the term coulrophobia was coined (yes, it’s a real word, look it up), clowns were universally popular. In antiquity, they – as comic actors – were a staple of Greek and Roman theater, and since the medieval era, were employed as jesters for the amusement of royal courts. A fool held a privileged position. He (or even she) had license to speak as others could not. Where criticism of a royal master or of royal policy might have cost a nobleman his head, when up offered by a jester, was generally taken with good humor.

 At the court of Henry VIII, the office of fool was held by one William, or Will as he was more commonly known, Sommers.  For over twenty years, while queens and ministers came and went, Sommers was able to retain the affections of his erratic master. Their only falling out was an incident in 1535, when Sommers (unless it was predecessor 'Patch the Fool'), in making light of the unpopularity of the King’s second marriage, ridiculed Anne Boleyn as ‘ribald’, and her child Elizabeth as a ‘bastard’. This time, Henry was not amused. Sommers was forced into hiding in fear for his life, it was said, until the King’s anger cooled. Received back at court, Sommers wisely refrained from such divisive remarks, and remained in royal favor till the end of Henry’s reign. As a testament to the King’s affection for him, Sommers was depicted with Henry in two very personal works of art.

 The first, probably a royal commission, was a panel of the King and his family.  Painted in Henry VIII’s old age, he is shown seated in an ornate chamber, with his son Prince Edward at his knee. With them is the boy’s mother, the late Jane Seymour. Katharine Parr, Henry’s current wife, had no place in the picture, having still not provided England with an ‘heir and spare’ Duke of York. Supporting the triumvirate of King, Queen, and Prince were the Princesses or rather ‘Ladies’ Mary and Elizabeth (they were still legally illegitimate thanks to their father’s marital misadventures). Through the arched doorways, two servants can be seen. On the right is Will Sommers with a monkey on his shoulder, and on the left, a woman. Taken in context, she is probably ‘Jane the Fool’, a female jester mentioned in Princess Mary’s household accounts.


The Family of Henry VIII, by an Unknown Artist. Royal Collection.

 The second work is a psalter, also from the last years of Henry VIII. Here, the King plays a harp with Sommers in attendance. The instrument is an allusion to Henry as King David. Henry’s identification with the Biblical monarch can also be seen in a miniature showing him as the penitential David kneeling before the Lord. In the psalter, was Henry as David, again lamenting his sins, this time setting them to music? That Sommers was the sole listener, said much about the intimacy of their relationship. 


Henry VIII with William Sommers, from the Psalter of Henry VIII, by Jean Mallard. British Library.


 
Henry VIII as King David, from the Psalter of Henry VIII, by Jean Mallard. British Library.

 

 The high regard in which Sommers was held continued after his master’s death. He went on to serve the new King, Edward VI, appearing in many courtly entertainments. Sommers was less active in the next reign, but he does appear in an interesting portrait of Queen Mary I pictured with the late Henry VIII.

Henry VIII and Mary I with William Sommers by an Unknown Artist. Collection of Earl Spencer, Althorp.


 The portrait was almost certainly dynastic than sentimental. Personally, Mary had a difficult relationship with her father (wouldn’t you if you were forced to accept that his marriage to your mother was ‘incestuous’ and you yourself a bastard?), and spiritually, his break with the Roman Catholic Church was abhorrent to her.  Nonetheless, they have been shown together. But here, there is no reference to Henry as a detested schismatic; he is in full Holbeinesque magnificence as King of England. With Mary by his side, the notion that she was indeed legitimate - and rightfully Queen - is reinforced. Sommers’ presence continues the tradition of how cherished he was by the former King.

After his death in around 1560, Sommers’ reputation was well sustained in the long reign of Elizabeth I. In a recently discovered portrait, reminiscent of the one of Mary I and Henry VIII, Sommers again appears with the royal family. This time, Edward VI and the new young Queen, Elizabeth I, have been included.


Henry VIII and His Family with William Sommers, by an Unknown Artist. Collection of the Duke of Buccleuch, Boughton House, Northamptonshire.

 Some thirty years later, the image of Sommers was revived in another dynastic work, a Protestant propaganda piece commonly titled An Allegory of the Tudor Succession: The Family of Henry VIII. Based on an earlier picture (attributed to Lucas de Heere) showing Elizabeth as the bringer of peace and prosperity, and her sister Mary and her husband Philip of Spain as the authors of war and strife, the painting has been updated showing Elizabeth as she was in the later years of her rule. 

An Allegory of the Tudor Succession: The Family of Henry VIII, by an Unknown Artist. The Yale Center for British Art.


An Allegory of the Tudor Succession: The Family of Henry VIII, attributed to Lucas de Heere. Sudeley Castle.

An Allegory of the Tudor Succession: The Family of Henry VIII, by an Unknown Artist. The Yale Center for British Art (detail).


But there has been a further revision. At the far left of the picture is Will Sommers. Positioned at the perimeter of the throne room, and visible only from his chest up, he is barely noticeable at first glance. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for the artist to have positioned Sommers next to his master Henry VIII? That the royal fool was put instead next to the god Mars – at the heels of Mary and Philip - is significant. War as personified by Mars was folly, as was Mary’s match with Spain. The King and Queen were blamed for the persecution of their Protestant subjects, and for the loss of Calais, England’s last possession upon the Continent. It was left to Elizabeth, accompanied by Minerva2 (representing Peace) and the personification of Plenty (or the goddess Ceres herself), to restore religious and political stability.

 Mary was long dead when the allegory was painted, but it must have been considered impudent still to openly criticize her. After all, Mary, despite her unpopularity, had been God’s anointed, and Elizabeth's sister. Hence, the symbolic image of Sommers had to suffice. Even the earlier version of the allegory was careful not to condemn Mary outright. The verses (around the edges of the painting) simply described her as ‘a zealous daughter in her kind.’ As to her shortcomings, nothing else needed to be said, as ‘what else the world doth know.’1

By the closing of Elizabeth’s reign, Sommers achieved the 16th century equivalent of pop culture status; remarkable considering that his life and career were spent within the confines of the Tudor court. Still, Sommers’ fame extended beyond the palace walls, and he was embraced by the masses. He appeared in plays, and was even the lead character of one entitled Pleesant Comedie called Summers last Will and Testament (by Thomas Nashe, and first performed in 1592).

William Sommers, by Francis Deleram. The British Museum.

 As a tribute to his continuing popularity, Sommers was even depicted in a mass produced print (the 16th/17th century version of a pin-up) in the reign of James I. Engraved by Francis Deleram, ‘Kinge Heneryes jester’ is shown standing full body against a background of stilt walkers, tumblers, and children at their games. Upon his livery gown are the initials of his master, Henry Rex, and in his hand is a horn. At the bottom are verses with which Sommers introduces himself.

We leave the final say to him:


What though thou thinkst me clad in strange attire
Know I am suited to my own desire
And yet the characters described upon me
May show thee, that a King bestowed them on me


This horn I have, betokens Summers’ game
Which sportive time will bid thee read my name
All with my nature well agreeing too
As both the name, and time, and habit do.

 

 
NOTES

1 A later reworking of the image, an engraving by William Rogers and dedicated to the Archbishop of Canterbury (John Whitgift), was not afraid of openly criticizing Mary however. While Somers is not shown, the verses below vilified the former Queen who ‘with foreign blood she matched and put down truth, which England’s glory suddenly decayed, who brought in war and discord by that deed, which did in commonwealth great sorrow breed.’  

2 The figure can be identified as Minerva/Athena by her aegis (breast plate) bearing a miniaturized head of Medusa.



REFERENCES

All the King's Fools, by Suzannah Lipscomb, in History Today, vol. 61, issue: 8, 2011.

Dictionary of National Biography, edited by Sidney Lee, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1898.

Documents Relating to the Revels at Court in the time of Edward VI and Queen Mary, by Albert Feuillerat, Vaduz (Liechtenstein), reprint 1963.

Dynasties: Paintings in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630, edited by Karen Hearn, Tate Publishing, London, 1995. 

Privy Purse Expenses of the Princess Mary, edited by Frederick Madden, William Pickering, London. 1914.

Will Sommers’ Suit: Illustration of Early Modern Performance, by John H. Astington, University of Toronto, Canada, published in Popular Entertainment Studies, Vol. 2, Issue 1, pp. 69-78, 2011.

No comments:

Post a Comment