Flower of the Month: The Percys’ Fool in the New World?

The Percy family documents seldom provide much information about named performers, but for Thomas Wigen or Wyggen, the references suggest an eventful, perhaps harrowing life. He appears first in 1605 in a menial role, 

paid 6 s 8 d ‘for taking up foundations in the garden May the 13˹th˺’.[1] 

More interesting is a taylor’s bill of 29 September 1609, a single sheet with the heading  ‘A bill of clothes bought for Thomas Wiggen the ffoole september 29 1609’.  The endorsement reads ‘Thomasffooles bill/ for Virginia paid/ September29’.[2] So if everything happened according to plan, Thomas Wiggan the fool was with George Percy in his efforts to establish Jamestown, Virginia. The clothes sent there for Thomas were:

A Ierkin andhose of Cloth

A greene wastcoate

A payre of Knytt Stockinges

A payreof Shooes

A monmoath Capp with a band

A Shirt And two falling bandes 1 li. 17 s. 6 d. 

Records of payment for fools’ clothes are common in the REED volumes (for instance see J. J. Anderson, ed., Newcastle Upon Tyne,Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982, pp.  135-139).   This payment is the only one, however, to suggest the presence of a fool in the New World.

            No additional  evidence of Wiggen’s presence in America has been found as yet, but if the comic did make this trip, then he was  caught up in the horrors associated with the beginnings  of Jamestown,  including war, starvation, and cannibalism.   George Percy’s grim history, ‘A Trewe Relacyon’, narrates one atrocity after another committed by the settlers against each other and against the Native Americans. 

George Percy, colonial governor of Virginia, by Herbert Luther Smith (1811–70); 19th-century copy of earlier work (public domain / Wikimedia Commons)

Percy’s history does not refer to Wiggan the fool. However, it does mention ’Dawse’, a part-time entertainer who played the drum and danced to help lead the ‘Salvanges’ into an ambush:

Then S[i]r Tho[mas] Gates beinge desyreous for to be Revendged upon the Indyans att Kekowhatan did goe thither by water w[i]th a certeine number of men, and amongste the reste a Taboret (n136) w[i]th him. beinge Landed he cawsed the Taborer to play and dawnse thereby to allure the Indyans to come unto him… [3]

Musician playing pipe and tabor, detail from woodcut, Kempes Nine Daies Wonder, c. 1600; (Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons)

The ruse worked, and Native Americans in this battle were routed.  Later Dawse was the only survivor of a retaliatory ambush.[4]

John Speed’s map of America (detail), c. 1626, ‘America with those known parts in that unknowne world both people and manner of buildings discribed and inlarged by I.S. Ano 1626’.

Thomas Wiggan may have returned to England and prospered in spite of his Virginia experiences, because this name appears again in connection with James Shirley’s masque The Triumph of Peace, 1634.  In Folger Shakespeare Library Z.e. 1 (25), ‘The Manner of the progression of the Masque’, ‘Thomas Wiggan’ is listed as one of the ‘Torchbearers’ for ‘mr Drewe and mr Ham rideinge togeather’.[5]   If the name refers to same Thomas Wiggan or Wygen from the 1605 records, then this person served almost 30 years in the employ of two earls of Northumberland, and rose from remover of foundations to a participant in a masque.  The career trajectory of Thomas Wiggan might have been similar to other jesters who became actors, such as John Garrett, who became a member of the Queen’s Men.[6] 

John Speed’s map of America (detail), c. 1626, ‘America with those known parts in that unknowne world both people and manner of buildings discribed and inlarged by I.S. Ano 1626’.

If Thomas had been in Virginia, how was he affected by his experiences there?  Surely any normal person would be traumatized by the events Percy narrates.   The records do not provide this kind of information, but readers can draw their own conclusions.   


[1]Sy: U.I. 8b f [4r].   Suzanne Westfall points out that ‘often resident entertainer served in more than one occupational capacity’.  See Westfall,   ‘”An example of courtesy and liberality”: great households and performance’, pp. 204-5.

[2]Sy: U.I.14/a/3.

[3]Nicholls, ‘George Percy’s “Trewe Relacyon”: A Primary Source for the Jamestown Settlement’, p. 252. According to Nicholls, ‘the force set out on 9 July 1610’.

[4]Nicholls, p. 255.

[5]Limon p. 7.

[6]Southworth p. 119.


* This month’s Flower is very kindly provided by the REED: Percy Papers’ editor, Robert Alexander, who adds the following acknowledgement: 

This research was assisted by Records of Early English Drama-Northeast, Point Park University, and the American Philosophical Society.  Transcriptions from documents in the Archives of the Duke of Northumberland at Alnwick Castle House Archives are included by kind permission of the Duke of Northumberland. For assistance in retrieving and describing documents, this study is indebted to the Duke’s Archivist, Mr Christopher Hunwick, and to the late Dr James M. Gibson.

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