By Nicole Persun
Jane Foole was a 16th century jester—and perhaps the only female jester ever depicted. You can find her under the left archway in the 1545 painting The Family of Henry VIII (artist unknown). Having served Anne Boleyn, Princess Mary, and Catherine Parr, she had a privileged role in the court.
Her inclusion in the painting suggests prestige, though historians have debated the true role of Tudor court fools. A common myth is that fools were essentially glorified clowns looking for a laugh, but some research suggests that fools were actually people with learning disabilities. Paintings such as this one are useful for historians wanting to get a better glimpse into the reality of court performances.
A foolish mystery
Little is known about Jane the Fool. Beyond the painting, she’s only referenced in one other instance: within the Privy Purse Expenses of Princess Mary. It is from this source that we know Jane’s generous treatment during her life in court. She was dressed in the most fashionable clothing and shoes, she was given gifts, and she even received paid sick days.
However, despite this kind treatment, like male jesters, she was expected to shave her head twice per month. While Jane the Fool wore the latest fashions, she still would have likely stood out compared to the noble women around her. Historians are uncertain what happened to Jane Foole after Mary’s death in 1558.
Tricks of the trade
Unfortunately, we don’t know much about Jane Foole’s performances, either. Historians guess that Jane performed similarly as other fools, following common tricks of the trade: insulting the nobility, doing practical jokes, feigning stupidity, making up stories, and more. The inclusion of fools in the Tudor courts is an ongoing point of fascination for historians of the period.