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Court Jesters: Clowns of the Past

Updated on August 7, 2020
Court Jester
Court Jester
Queen Henrietta and  Jester Jeffrey Hudson
Queen Henrietta and Jester Jeffrey Hudson

The 'Truth tellers' Also Known as Jesters

We tend to think of court jesters as silly, bell-adorned clowns. Truthfully though many were highly intelligent and savvy entertainers, often they were seen as little men fighting for oppression using humor as a diffuser. Different titles were used for them, such as' little servant' or minstrels. A significant number were dwarfs or had some disability, such as a hunchback. They were skilled entertainers, singers, jugglers, tumblers, or magicians all in the name of 'fool.'

Even before court jesters, history tells us the ancient Egyptians and the Romans had jesters. In Rome, they were called balatrones and were paid, performers.

It wasn't all fun for a court jester, either. Banquets weren't held every day, so the court had other duties for them. Sometimes, they were responsible for taking care of the castle's animals or procuring and stocking the food shelves. More importantly, they would accompany their master onto the battlefield and act as a courier between the armies. This could be a dangerous, life-threatening job. If, when delivering a message to the other side and they didn't like the word, they would use the catapult to send his body back! And if they didn't like the news, they sent back only his head. Pretty drastic.

At the same time, the jester had to keep the morale of his master's army by songs, stories, and music. That would seem difficult to do with war facing them.

While at court, they were allowed the power to mock those in court from the nobles to the King or Queen. They a crucial role and were respected members of the court and privy to the secrets. They were able to influence the whims and even politics when no one else could without repercussions.

Most jesters were not paid but were provided with a place to sleep, food, and clothing. After they lost the favor of the court, most wound up as beggars and destitute. Very few were fortunate to receive any help from their patrons. One lucky enough was jester Roland de Pattoi for King Henry II, who deeded him 30 acres of land with his promise to perform every Christmas.

Eventually, by the Elizabethian period, jesters were replaced by actors on stage, and it became dangerous politically to have a royal patron at that time.

Notable Court Jesters


Jeffrey was a very talented dwarf jester and delighted King Charles I when he 'popped' out of a pie crust, surprising the king and delighted Queen Henrietta. The Queen took Jeffrey as her jester. He traveled with her when she traveled to Holland. They returned to England together, and Jeffrey even fought in England's Civil War. As it happened, the brother of Lord Croft, who was captain of the Queen's guard, insulted Jeffrey about his height. Croft challenged him to a duel where Jeffrey shot him dead. The Queen had no choice but to banish him from the court. He was on his trip to exile when he was captured and sold into slavery. After his escape and return to England, somehow, he grew a foot taller. He was accused of conspiracy and sent to prison in 1679. Released in 1682, aged 63, he died soon after, a pauper.

SAMUEL JOHNSON, aka "MAGGOTY" Born 1691. He got his nickname because of his pock-marked face. Johnson danced, told stories, jokes acted and frolicked for many wealthy families in England. His patron was the Duke of Montague. Johnson wrote a play, and he was the lead actor. The play was a hit and acted over thirty times at the Haymarket Theatre. He died age 82 and is buried in Maggoty Woods near Cheshire, England. Of interest is that Guiseppe Verdi wrote an opera, the famous Rigoletto based on the Duke and the daughter of Rigoletto, the jester of the Duke.

TRIBOULET, 1479-1536, jester to two French kings, Louis XI, and Francis I.

Triboulet was both condemned and saved by his quick wit. His wit was his lifesaver. He somehow got in trouble a lot. One day a nobleman was upset at being the butt of a joke and threatened to kill the jester. Triboulet ran to the king to tell him, and the king replied, "don't worry, if he hangs you, I'll have him beheaded in 15 minutes." Then Triboulet replied, "well, would it be possible to behead him 15 minutes before?"

On another occasion, Triboulet slapped the king on his behind. The king was so enraged he threatened to execute him. Then slowly calming down, the king said to him, "I will forgive you if you can think of an apology better than the deed." Triboulet thought for a few seconds and answered, "I'm so sorry your majesty that I didn't recognize you. I mistook you for the Queen."

The king then said that because Triboulet had so many years of service, you may choose how yo die." Triboulet answered, "good sir, I choose to die of old age." The king found this so hilarious he banished Triboulet from the court.

BORRA, jester for Martin the Humane, King of Argon, and Sicily. King Martin actually died from the laughter of his jester. It seems the king ate so much at a banquet, including a fill goose, that his indigestion sent him to bed. He sent for his jester, Borra. When Borra came to the king and was asked where he had been, the jester said he was in the vineyards when he saw a deer hanging by his tail from a tree. It seems someone had to punish the deer for stealing figs." The king laughed so hard he couldn't stop laughing for over three hours. The king then fell out of his bed and died.

King Charles and Jeffrey Hudson
King Charles and Jeffrey Hudson
Jester Durie 1614
Jester Durie 1614

Plays, Theatre, Films, Video, and Jesters

Some of the ways jesters were depicted in plays, theatre, video, and films:

Shakespeare had jesters in several of his plays. Notably, King Lear, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

In Writing and Film: Clopin, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Giacomo, The Court Jester, and in Pippet Master Films.

Jesters are found in Marvel Comics and DX Comics.

In Video Games: Dragon Quest, Blazing Dragons, and Klonoa.

Verdi Opera, Rigoletto
Verdi Opera, Rigoletto
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

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