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Court Jesters in Medieval England

28th Apr, 2022

Court jesters in medieval England had the important role of entertaining the court and keeping the royals happy. While they are remembered in modern times as jokers who wore funny hats, their role was not always filled with laughs.  

The Job of Jesters

Court jesters lifted the mood at court with entertainment. This included magic tricks, acrobatics, storytelling, songs and telling jokes. How often they performed would vary depending on the mood of the royals. If you want to read more about a royal who spent a lot of time at Oxford Castle, read our blog about Empress Matilda

They sometimes used their performance to share news – even bad news – with the King. Some jesters even had considerable influence over the King. Jesters often wore colourful costumes, including the famous three-pointed hat. This became known as the “Fool’s hat”.

Their pay depended on how successful they were. If they made the King happy, then they would be paid a good amount. They had no set salary. They also had their own living quarters. This meant the role offered a safe place of permanent residency and financial security that jesters outside of court did not typically experience. Court jesters could use these privileges to help family members.  

Henry VIII and his family. Features:  'Mother Jak', Lady Mary, Prince Edward, Henry VIII, Jane Seymour(posthumous), Lady Elizabeth and Will Somers. There is another female figure on the left.
Portrait of Henry VIII and family featuring jester Will Sommers on the right, and likely another jester Jane Fool on the left, circa 1545, via wikimedia commons

However, there were huge risks to the job.

The Dangers of being a Court Jester in Medieval England

There was a dangerous side to the role of court jester. There was always the chance the King could be offended by a joke. James VI of Scotland reportedly fired a jester for insulting too many influential people.

Having to deliver messages in their performance also came with risks. Jesters often faced the fury of the King after delivering bad news.

Their important role meant that they were often required to travel with the court to battles because they could boost morale. However, this also meant that they were expected to line up with the army opposite the enemy. They would be expected to entertain, usually by mocking the other side and risking attack. They were even sometimes expected to take messages to the enemy camp.  

End of Tradition

The tradition of court jesters in medieval England came to an end with Charles II. After the restoration where he succeeded to the English throne after the Civil Wars, he did not reinstate the role. However, the King did greatly support the theatre and arts. Other noble families did still employ jesters.

Jesters continued to appear in popular culture, with fools appearing in plays by the famous William Shakespeare. Shakespearean fools were typically peasants who used their wits to top people of higher social status. This was similar to the real jesters from history, though with exaggerated characteristics.

Jesters can still be seen in the 21st century at medieval-themed fairs and re-enactments. They often were the famous “fools hat” and colourful costumes.

Do you think you have what it takes to be a Jester? Then book your tickets now for our Medieval Fool School here. You will even get to make your own Fools Hat!

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