We don’t suffer fools lightly in this Magpie Tale
One of the least known but most fascinating spots in the British empire is St. Ninian’s Isle that was developed around the same time as Australia. While Australia was developed in part as a penal colony, St. Ninian was established as a retirement location for court jesters.
The quip “I am not amused” is often attributed to Queen Victoria, but its roots go back to at least the 8th century when it was a death sentence for a court jester who failed to deliver appropriate laughter. A little known chapter in the creation of the Magna Carta was that in 1214 when King John called for the beheading of court jester Elvert Ninian, he stood up to the king and said that a day would come when subjects would not be ruled by arbitrary whims of the crown. “Tis true I will die a fool, your majesty, but I will die a fool whose soul is pure which is more than I can say of ye.” His bravery and honesty would lead to other subjects coming together a year later forcing the king to sign the document that originally was called “A treatise for the providence of freemen and fools”. Though rarely referenced today, it was article 63 that “herewith no jester nor fool who fails to amuse the court shall suffer execution or punishment but shall be banished to Saint Ninian’s Isle.”
Followers of Ninian soon described themselves as ninnies, proud of the crucial role they played in society to relieve stress and bring laughter to tense situations.
With the passage of years, the role of ninnies gradual diminished in prestige but continued to be critical. In 1822, King George IV eliminated the position of court jester, rumored to have said “It seems a bit redundant now that there are members of Parliament to play to role of the fool.”
It was not until the 1890s that St. Ninian became a holiday destination, and on April Fools Day of 1893 the Festival of Fools was established and is said to be the origin of modern stand up comic.
Perhaps the most curious chapter in the history of the Festival of Fools was the popularity of Demetria Sackville-Green. Daughter of Earl Sackville-Green, she a never-married member of the Royal Feline Fanciers Society and wrote and spoke extensively on feline hygiene and care. It was by a fluke that when a speech she gave at the 1948 conference of the Society appeared in the back pages of Manchester Guardian that she began an unexpected career as one of Britain’s most beloved comics.
Flattered when the BBC radio called her to have a spot on Sunday evenings at 8 GMT, she was oblivious to the reception she would receive. In her quavering, proper soprano, she opened with, “Hello ladies and gentlemen, this evening I would like to talk to you about proper care of your pussy. I address tonight’s message to the widows and spinsters out there whom I fear often become negligent in proper care and hygiene of their pussies with the passage of years. It is a crime to let one’s pussy not receive the attention it deserves regardless of age.”
Demetria would be the keynote speaker at the Festival Fools from 1951 to 1953, and in the following years she toured Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and even the Soviet Union. She never questioned why her largest following was usually undergraduate boys who doubled over in laughter as she recited her advice on feline care. Her last but most prestigious was at Albert Hall in 1963, a month before the Beatles played on the same stage. The Queen Mother is reported to have fallen out of her chair chortling “The old biddy hasn’t a clue!”
By the 1980s the Festival of Fools came under criticism for being cruel, and primate rights groups objected to the promotion line of “Come ye to St. Ninian’s all ye cotton-headed ninnies.” This was considered an insult to the lower primate, the Cotton Head Tamarian. “The Cotton Head Tamarian has a higher IQ than the average member of Parliament,” Prince Charles was quoted as saying, and attendance to the Festival of Fools suffered until it finally was cancelled in 1992 and is now little more than an amusing memory.