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Page last updated at 06:39 GMT, Thursday, 6 October 2011 07:39 UK
Henry VIII's 'disability therapy'

Actors Penny Lepisz (L), Maude Winkler Reid (R), whose characters tried to make the King laugh.JPG
By royal appointment: Actors Penny Lepisz and Maude Winkler Reid

By Tom Bateman
Today programme

As a new play opens exploring the relationship between Henry VIII and his court jesters, researchers look at how so-called "fools" to the king were actually people with learning disabilities.

When it comes to the roll call of great tyrants in history, the English monarchy still manages to hold a few honourable places.

Henry VIII can lay claim to a leading position.

The second monarch of the house of Tudor is said by some to have suffered a personality change after a jousting accident at the age of 44.

The cast of All the King's Fools
All in jest: The cast of All the King's Fools

So if his campaigns of political execution and ransacking monasteries weren't enough, there were now his growing tendencies towards morbid binge-eating and brutal mood swings to terrify his courtiers.

"For the last decade or so of Henry's life, he's really under trauma," says Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, lecturer in early modern history at the University of East Anglia.

"He has this terrible year in 1536 where he has an accident, where he executes his wife Anne Boleyn... because he thinks she's guilty of adultery.

"His only son at that time - his illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy - has died. There's been a huge rebellion."

Fool's paradise

Amid the uprising, personal grief and physical pain, it seems Henry had a routine prescription for the psychological pressure of tyranny.

Dr Lipscomb walks among the Tudor red brick buildings of base court as the late return of summer bathes Hampton Court Palace in sunshine.

This was Henry's "palace of pleasure", according to the historian, where he would come for feasting and hunting.

Here the king could find respite in being entertained by his "fools", following a Tudor belief that good health could be derived from mirth.

Hampton Court Palace
Henry VIII's pleasure palace at Hampton Court Palace

"A natural fool might well equate to somebody with learning difficulties or learning disabilities today," says Dr Lipscomb.

The role of a fool - often described at the time as an "innocent" - was not only to entertain the king but to bring him truth.

The fools were thought to be conduits to the divine - able to channel the word of God to the monarch - and Henry's favourite was Will Somer, who enjoyed such status that the king is said to have requested him at his deathbed.

"The astonishing thing is that somebody like that could get a position at court and be esteemed when they have come from nowhere," says Dr Lipscomb.

It was, perhaps, deeply ironic that the tyrant king may have been more prepared to listen to his "fool" than to the multitude of paranoid careerists that surrounded him at court.

Living history

The relationship between Henry and his fools is the focus of a play from a Bristol based company of actors with learning difficulties.

It's hard to tell which of the jokes are scripted and which are being delivered for the first time amid the brilliantly farcical mood at their sunlight rehearsal space.

In one scene, a felt-crown wearing Henry VIII sits on his throne watching a parade of fools racing towards him as their cries of "God save the King!" morph into the lines "God save the king of the monkeys!" and "God save the king of the cabbages!"

One of the actors, Maude Winkler Reid, plays a "very naughty mistress" in the show and says it's vital to the production that the cast is made up of actors with learning disabilities.

"I think it's very important to show what we all can do so that people in the world don't think we're stupid," she explains.

Dr Suzannah Lipscomb
Dr Suzannah Lipscomb

"People think I'm stupid sometimes and it's not nice. It happens when people call me names on the street."

It's an experience that makes her feel "sad and angry", she says.

"I feel the world doesn't understand me."

The production began life when director Peet Cooper was asked to play Will Somer at Hampton Court Palace.

Seeing historical research that Somer was a performer with learning difficulties, Mr Cooper says he realised the role shouldn't be for him and went about finding a company of actors with learning difficulties.

Some audience members can feel "uncomfortable" about the show, admits Mr Cooper, but he says the "ownership" of the production has been with the actors at every stage.

Back at Hampton Court Palace historian Suzannah Lipscomb suggests one point of the play is to highlight changing responses to disability.

While she says fools would have faced mockery in Tudor society, in many cases they had their words written down "because they are thought to have some wisdom in them".

"It did accord them with a significance and a status that they might not otherwise have gained," she explains.

"It's not that they're being confined and pushed to one side.

"It shows how visible and present they were in society."

All the King's Fools is at Hampton Court Palace from 6 to 9 October.

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