david lindsley FIET; Hon Fellow, Kingston  University

… communicating engineering

How the court jesters gained the keys of the Kingdom

Once upon a time, the ruler of a small Kingdom summoned his Lord Chamberlain to his Throne Room and said, ‘Prithee, Sir Peter, life has become a little boring around here of late. I think we need to shake things up a bit.’

Sir Peter nodded sagely, knowing that this was no idle conversational gambit: he had long sensed that he had fallen out of favour and that the King had now decided to do something about it. This was a test, and if he failed it … well, the chopping-block was waiting in the courtyard outside. ‘My Liege,’ he said nervously, feeling the cold of the axe at his neck if he didn’t come up with something, ‘It is true. We have all become too complacent. I shall consult with the courtiers and see what we can do.’

‘Nonsense, Man!’ the King barked. ‘I called you here, and I expect you to deal with the matter. No courtiers, just you. And immediately!’

The Lord Chamberlain blanched, his brain suddenly empty of ideas. He had to play for time. ‘My Liege,’ he wheedled, ‘There are so many things I could suggest, but I must take care to provide you with the best solution. Give me some time, I pray, and I shall expose my plan.’

‘Very well,’ the King replied. He was reluctant to let the Lord Chamberlain off the hook, but he knew he should at least pretend to be fair – if only to give the man a little more rope with which to hang himself. ‘Present yourself at Court at this hour tomorrow, and explain your intention.’

The Lord Chamberlain gulped. He had hoped to gain a little more time than that. But he knew his King, and he understood the penalties of displeasing him – the punishments would be many, painful and long drawn-out before the axe finally fell.

He shivered, bowed low and shuffled backwards out of the Throne Room.

That night he tossed and turned restlessly and it was many hours before he fell into an exhausted slumber. He had barely fallen asleep before he suddenly shot bolt upright in a violent movement that threw his frightened wife out of the four-poster bed.

‘What’s the matter dear?’ she asked sleepily. ‘What is wrong?’

Her husband slapped his fist into an outstretched palm. ‘Nothing’s wrong!’ he exclaimed. ‘In fact, everything’s right. I have the solution!’

After she had climbed back onto the bed they fell into a deep and peaceful sleep in each other’s arms.

The following day, at the appointed hour, Sir Peter prostrated himself at his King’s feet as custom obliged.

‘Well,’ the King growled. ‘Have you a solution?’

‘I have indeed my Liege,’ the Lord Chamberlain replied, a new-found tone of confidence in his voice. ‘It involves thy majesty’s Court Jester.’

‘What!’ the question exploded from the King. ‘Old Muckle Sinclair?’

‘Indeed, sire. No lesser man.’

‘But he’s … he’s a jester!’ the King spluttered. ‘Why him? And how on earth …?

‘Sire,’ the Lord Chamberlain said. ‘Prithee, hear me out …’

And he went on to explain.

After he had finished, the King stared at him in amazement. ‘You think that would work?’ he asked.

The Lord Chamberlain nodded and the King reluctantly let him try out the plan. (Although he had severe doubts, he felt this was a way of getting rid of the troublesome Sir Peter without the risk of being sued for wrongful dismissal.’ His legal team had advised him to give the LC a defined task against which his performance could be measured. ‘Make it well-nigh impossible, Sire,’ they had intoned, ‘and when he fails you’ve got him.’

‘Very well,’ the King growled. ‘You have six months to prove yourself.’ And with a wave of his hand he dismissed Sir Peter who performed his usual back-shuffle until he was out of sight.

* * * *

‘Phew!’ the LC thought. ‘That was close. No time to lose now. I must get to work.’

He might have been out of favour with the King, but there were many in the land who still feared him, so at his command everybody set to work.

After a few weeks had passed, he sought an audience with the King, explaining that he wanted to show His Majesty something truly remarkable.

And so, when the King and his closest courtiers assembled in the grand audience chamber, they were confronted with a medley bunch of villains, town criers, jesters, dancers and musicians who began to perform a carefully choreographed show on an elaborate and expensive stage.

First, the jesters told jokes about well-known people. They invited members of the Royal entourage onto the stage and interviewed them, ridiculing them, tripping them up with well-rehearsed tricks and mocking their achievements, until they ran from the stage in tears.

The audience shuffled in nervous embarrassment and were mightily relieved when the dancers and musicians performed on the stage as a sort of interlude before the town criers arrived to put on their act.

‘Hear ye! Hear ye!’ the criers cried, before reeling off a litany of events in and around the Kingdom – petty squabbles, theft and murder, the odd battle or two between rival knights and so on.

The audience gasped in horror at these tales and applauded wildly as the criers finished crying and left the stage.

Then travellers appeared, recounting tales of their journeys to far-distant lands and the wondrous sights, sounds, foods and strange ways they had encountered there.

The audience gasped in horror at these tales and applauded wildly as the criers finished crying and left the stage.

Then another bunch of jokers appeared, decrying several prominent citizens and their charitable (and some not-so-charitable) acts.

The King saw that the courtiers were very amused and entertained by all of this (although he felt a tad uncomfortable about some of the things that had been said, because they pilloried some of his friends and favourite institutions). So he clapped and threw a grudging glance at the LC.

Afterwards, when the crowds had dispersed, the King summoned the LC to the quiet isolation of his privy chamber.

‘That was pretty impressive,’ the King said grudgingly. ‘But I have no doubt that it cost a pretty Ducat or two, and I also have little doubt that you will be billing the Exchequer for a tidy sum. Pray, is this a one-night stand? If not, how am I to afford all of this one a regular basis?’

‘Sire!’ Sir Peter said as he bowed in his obsequious way. ‘I have considered that. ‘Tis not your Majesty who will pay the account. No, it is thine loyal subjects.’

‘They will?’ the King expostulated. To his mind his subjects were a rebellious lot who had bitterly opposed all tithes and taxes that he had wanted to impose.

‘Aye, Sire,’ Sir Peter whined. ‘For they will see that they will receive bountiful benefits from such services. They will be entertained, educated and informed. Your Majesty will be able to issue commands through such gatherings, so that thy subjects will be made aware of them when they are most receptive. And we will spread these performances far and wide across your Realm. It will raise your Majesty in their esteem, because they will see you as a good, thoughtful and considerate ruler.’

The King, duly reassured, finally nodded his consent and Sir Peter felt a mighty weight lifted from his shoulders (not to mention the touch of cold steel at his neck). He was so relieved, in fact, that he almost forgot to bow and walk backwards out of the King’s presence. But he stopped in time and thereby saved him from losing all he had fought for, including his head.

As his Lord Chancellor exited, the worrying thoughts crossed the King ‘s mind, Later, much later, when it was far too late to undo the damage, he would remember the brief flickers of concern he had seen on the faces of some of his court whenever a jester had poured scorn on the activities of one or other of the courtiers.

The scorn had been subtle: later, when the jesters’ confidence and power had expanded tenfold, it would become overt and deadly. Nobody would be safe from attack. Even high-ranking members of the King’s Privy Council were enticed into one-sided public debates against practised and clever jesters who whipped up the excitement of their audiences and played on their prejudices to wrong-foot their hapless victims. No matter how earnest their victims were, how knowledgeable and wise, the jesters were crafty and very practised in the art of satire. With no knowledge or experience of their own in their victims fields of endeavour, they attacked and tore down all defences to cheers from the baying mobs who gathered around the stages.

Before long these events had grown massively in scale, and had spread across the entire land. And as they grew and spread they became steadily more impudent, iconoclastic and influential. Nobody was safe from the clever jesters’ cutting wit: every institution was pilloried and vilified in front of cheering crowds. Most of the people gathered to see and hear the performances were far too uneducated to see the truth: they swallowed what they heard and cheered wildly, until it became impossible to hear the weak voices of reasonable protest.

Meanwhile, the jugglers, wrestlers, jousters, dancers, singers and musicians entertained the peasants. Together with the wily jesters they began to think that they were omnipotent and that they should receive magnificent payments for their performances. Soon these people were eating the best food and living in magnificent lodges that rivalled the King’s own palaces.

And throughout these times the hard-working peasants received pennies for their efforts as they laboured day and night in the fields. Their meagre earnings were reduced by tithes and taxes, and when they ventured to gain some light relief from the gloom and drudgery of their impoverished lives they flocked to the lavish, glittering entertainments that Sir Peter had initiated. The entry fees were high, but the peasants had been indoctrinated to believe that the prices were worth paying and so they didn’t complain too much.

* * * *

And that, my friends, is how our present media, entertainment and sports industries were born.

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