Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sommers, William

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SOMMERS, WILLIAM (d. 1560), Henry VIII's fool, is said to have been a native of Shropshire, and at one time a servant in the household of Richard Fermor [q. v.] of Easton Neston, Northamptonshire. Brought by his master to the court at Greenwich, ‘on a holy day,’ about 1525, the king is reported to have noticed favourably his witty sallies and to have installed him at once in the royal household as the court fool. The king's wardrobe accounts record payments in his behalf for doublets of worsted and fustian lined with canvas and cotton, coats and caps of green cloth fringed with red or white crape, and lined with frieze or buckram (cf. Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, 1539, pt. ii. pp. 77, 333). In 1539 a velvet purse was given him (ib.)

According to tradition, Sommers was soon on very familiar terms with the king. He puzzled him with foolish riddles, and amused him by playing practical jokes on Cardinal Wolsey, who ‘could never abide him.’ Sommers seems to have mingled with his clownish witticisms some shrewd comments on current abuses. Thomas Wilson, in his ‘Art of Rhetoric’ (1553), relates that Will, noticing the difficulty the king experienced in getting money from the treasury for his own use, warned his master of the corrupt practices of the auditors, surveyors, and receivers of the exchequer. ‘You have so many frauditors (he said), so many conveiers, and so many deceivers to get your money that they get al to themselves.’

At the same time Sommers was credited with a kindly temper. ‘He was,’ wrote Robert Armin in his ‘Nest of Ninnies’ (1608), ‘a poor man's friend.’ His uncle is said to have visited him at Greenwich, and to have complained of the recent enclosure by a Shropshire landlord named Tirrell of a common called The Frith. Sommers is reported to have brought the grievance to the notice of the king, who directed the common to be reopened, and appointed Sommer's uncle bailiff at 20l. a year. Another story is to the effect that after Sommers's former master, Richard Fermor, had been deprived of his property on being prosecuted in 1540 for infringing the statute of præmunire, Sommers begged mercy for his old master when the king lay on his deathbed, with the result that Fermor's estate was ultimately restored to him (cf. Archæologia, vol. xviii.) During Edward VI's reign he seems to have retired from court (Lit. Remains of Edward VI, pp. xliv–v, lxxii). One William Somers, who has been identified with the jester, was buried in the church of St. Leonard, Shoreditch, 15 June 1560 (Collier, Bibliographical Cat. ii. 531).

Armin, on the evidence of eye-witnesses, described the fool as lean and hollow-eyed, with stooping shoulders. He was clearly of very short stature. There is an apparently authentic portrait of him in a group of Henry VIII and his family, ascribed to the school of Holbein, now at Hampton Court. Sommers stands in a doorway on the right, with a monkey at his back. A curious painting of a man's full face, grinning through a lattice window, also at Hampton Court, has been wrongly identified with Sommers, and attributed to Holbein. It was probably painted in the seventeenth century. It was engraved as a portrait of Sommers by R. Clamp. A portrait of Henry VIII in company with Sommers is in Henry VIII's psalter, now among the royal manuscripts at the British Museum; it was engraved as a frontispiece to Ellis's ‘Original Letters’ (1st ser. vol. i.). There is a rare print by Francis Delaram [q. v.]

Sommers's fame long survived his death. In the ‘Pleasant Comedie called Summers last Will and Testament’ by Thomas Nash, written in 1593 and published in 1600, Sommers figures as a loquacious and shrewd-witted Chorus. In the chronicle play by Samuel Rowley [q. v.] called ‘When you see me, you know me’ (1605), Sommers jests familiarly with Henry VIII and Queen Catherine. Samuel Rowlands [q. v.], in a description of Sommers in his ‘Good Newes and Bad Newes’ (1622), gives him much the same character as Rowley. In 1623 ‘Will Sommer’ is named on the title-page as one of four supposititious authors of a pretended ‘New and Merrie Prognostication’ (reprinted by J. O. Halliwell). ‘A Pleasant Historie of the Life and Death of William Sommers,’ containing much that is apocryphal, was popular in the seventeenth century. The earliest copy known (one exemplar is in the Bodleian Library) is dated 1676, and has some illustrations. It was reprinted in 1794 (Brit. Mus.).

[Authorities cited, especially A Pleasant Historie of Sommers, 1676; Armin's Nest of Ninnies, 1608 (Shakespeare Soc. 1842), pp. 41–9, 63–5; Doran's Hist. of Court Fools (1858), pp. 134–44; Ernest Law's Cat. of Pictures at Hampton Court, pp. 113, 225.]

S. L.