Originally published in 1959, King’s Fool tells the story of Will Somers, whose quick wit attracts the attention of Henry VIII, who appoints him court jester on the spot. Stunned and pleased at his sudden advancement, Will nonetheless leaves his employer, prosperous merchant Richard Fermor, with reluctance. Not only has Fermor been a good master, but Will is in love with Fermor’s young daughter, Joanna, who of course is destined for an arranged marriage.
Will joins the king’s court while Catherine of Aragon is queen and outlives his royal master, so we see the whole of Henry VIII’s troubled marital history and growing tyranny through the sympathetic but never uncritical eyes of Will, the narrator. With a fool’s sharp eye for folly, Will is an excellent and lively guide through the royal court. This is not only Henry’s story, however, but Will’s as well. Barnes skillfully blends the homelier tale of Will’s life and loves in with that of his king’s, in the process giving us a touching picture of what becomes a genuine, enduring friendship between Henry and his fool.
In this fifty-year-old novel, devoid of gimmicks, shock value, and heavy breathing, Barnes proves that in the right hands, the tale of life at Henry VIII’s court need not be a stale one.