In several 16th-century portraits of Henry VIII, with or without his family, he is attended by a strange-looking man. Sometimes the man is at the edge of the painting, but in more than one case he is right next to the King. The face is always recognisable: sallow, big-boned, with slightly sunken eyes, a straight, bulbous-tipped nose, and a distinctive receding hairline. The expression is tight-lipped, sometimes frowning, but generally stony.
His dress is usually demure (though one much later engraving does put him in strange, luxurious clothing), and uninformed viewers would struggle to guess the nature of his occupation. A Jeeves-like valet, perhaps? The only visual clue is that in one painting, the least characteristic one, he has a pet monkey perched on his shoulder. “Keeper of the Royal Monkeys” was not in fact a job at the Tudor court, but it would be as good a guess as any.
In fact this was Henry’s court fool, Will Somer or Summer, who became a famous figure in his own right, the subject of stories and publications long after his death in 1559. Robert Armin, the talented clown-actor who pioneered the roles of Shakespeare’s fools – Touchstone, Feste and the fool in King Lear – published an account of him in 1600; and a few years earlier Thomas Nashe, the brilliant writer whose verbal fireworks made him the James Joyce of Elizabethan literature, presented “Will Summer” as the pivotal figure of his only play.
For such a well-known character, located at the heart of the royal court, you might think that we would possess a mass of evidence from administrative records, memoirs, diplomatic reports, and so on – all the materials for a detailed biography, complete with a large repertoire of comic stories, clownish actions and funny repartée. But we don’t. That is, in itself, an intriguing fact, raising various questions about the person described rather ambitiously in the subtitle here as “Henry VIII’s Closest Man”.
As a biography, this book, by a Swedish academic who has previously written a general history of comedians, is a classic exercise in making bricks without straw. Indeed, much of Peter Andersson’s mental energy here has gone into sifting through the tiny heap of apparent straw, inspecting it closely and throwing most of it away. Therein lies – and this is no back-handed compliment – the real interest of the book.