Court dwarf

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Some of the first dwarfs to have their histories recorded were sometimes employed as court dwarfs. They were owned and traded amongst people of the court, and delivered as gifts to fellow kings and queens.[1]

Visual effect[edit]

Court dwarfs enjoyed specific placement right next to the king or queen in a royal court during public appearances and ceremonies, because they were so small, the king appeared much larger and visually enhanced his powerful position.[2] Other than court jesters who were professional entertainers and clowns, court dwarfs were also used as "natural fools" to create amusement due to their unusual bodies. This would compliment the European aristocracy's desire for anything grotesque and extraordinary. Their appearance also created allusions of mythology and magic like kobolds and wights.[3]


Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome[edit]

Stele hieroglyph depicting the court dwarf Hed, who died with his master (RMO Rijkmuseum at Leiden abydos, found in the tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh Den, 2850 BCE, 1d)

From the earliest historic times dwarfs attracted attention, and there was much competition on the part of kings and the wealthy to obtain dwarves as attendants.[4] Ancient Egypt saw dwarfs as being people with significant sacred associations, so owning a dwarf gave a person high social stature.[1]

The Romans practised artificial dwarfing[citation needed], and the Latin nanus or pumilo were terms alternatively used to describe the natural and unnatural dwarf. Julia, the niece of Augustus, had a dwarf named Coropas 2 feet 4 inches (0.71 m) high, and a freed-maid Andromeda who measured the same.[4]


Si Maqian, an ancient Chinese historian, wrote of court dwarfs. He wrote about You Zan, a court dwarf under the "First Emperor of Qin" who reigned from 259 to 210 B.C.E. In one passage he described You taking pity on guards standing in the rain outside a banquet. It is said that the emperor overheard You's conversation with them and ordered a changing of the guards so that they could rest inside.[5]

Dwarfs were not always treated well by their masters in China. Confucius's hagiographers, long after Confucius himself was dead, claimed that he ordered the execution of numerous court dwarfs after defeating one of them in a debate. Court dwarfs might have been sexually exploited in ancient China. Martin Monestier claims that the Emperor Hsuan-Tsung constructed a "Resting Place for Desirable Monsters." Dwarfs were included among the "monsters." Emperor Wu Di, who reigned during the Western Han Dynasty, imported numerous dwarfs to acts as slaves and jesters. Yang Cheng, a provincial governor, intervened to help them. He told the emperor that little people were his subjects rather than slaves and should be treated as such. Wu Di was moved and released the dwarves. Yang Cheng was deified and worshipped by some of their families. Yang Cheng's image was worshipped for centuries. The practice of keeping court dwarfs persisted as well. [5]

Chinese emperors were able to import dwarfs via the Silk Road. This practice persisted at least until the Tang Dynasty.[5]

Modern era in Europe[edit]

As the courts of Europe were constantly competing not only in politics but also in terms of representation, the rulers and nobles tried to command as many dwarfs as possible. Natalya Alexeyevna of Russia, a sister of Tsar Peter the Great, was recorded to have 93 court dwarfs while the Spanish royal court housed 70 dwarfs in the time from 1563 to 1700. People with dwarfism were recruited from all over Europe and were used as a popular gift to other rulers.[3]

While jesters were often only temporarily present at a specific court, dwarves usually had a permanment function and were registered in the personnel rolls as "court dwarf", "personal dwarf" or "chamber dwarf". This enabled them to play an important role in ceremonial culture and gave them close access to the ruler. This close relationship led to multiple roles beyond the foolish task as a natural clown. Court dwarves served as a substitute for children or even diplomats. At the end of their career, these privileged dwarves would usually receive a pension and other benefits. A favourite dwarf of Peter the Great received a state funeral including miniature horses and a "small priest".[3]


Richebourg (1756–1846), was only 23 inches (0.58 m) high. He began life as a servant in the Orleans family. In later years he was their pensioner. He is said to have been put to strange use in the French Revolution—passing in and out of Paris as an infant in a nurse’s arms, but with despatches, dangerous to carry, in Richebourg’s baby-wrappings. He died in Paris in 1846, at the age of 90.[6]

Great Britain[edit]

British tradition has its earliest dwarf mentioned in the old ballad which begins "In Arthur’s court Tom Thumb did live";[6] and on this evidence the prototype of the modern Tom Thumb is alleged to have lived at the court of King Edgar. Of authentic English dwarfs, the first appears to be John Jarvis 2 feet (0.61 m), who was a page to Queen Mary I. Her brother King Edward VI had his dwarf called Xit.[6]

The first English dwarf of whom there is anything like an authentic history is Jeffery Hudson (1619–1682). He was the son of a butcher at Oakham, Rutland, who kept and baited bulls for George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. Neither of Jeffery’s parents was undersized, yet at nine years he measured scarcely 18 inches (0.46 m) though he was gracefully proportioned. At a dinner given by the Duke to Charles I and his queen he was brought in to table in a pie out of which he stepped, and was at once adopted by Queen Henrietta Maria. The little fellow followed the fortunes of the court in the English Civil War, and is said to have been a captain of horse, earning the nickname of "strenuous Jeffery" for his activity.[6]

He fought two duels—one with a turkey-cock[clarification needed], a battle recorded by Davenant, and a second with Mr Crofts, who came to the meeting with a squirt[clarification needed], but who in the more serious encounter which ensued was shot dead by little Hudson, who fired from horseback, the saddle putting him on a level with his antagonist. Twice was Jeffery made prisoner—once by the Dunkirkers as he was returning from France, whether he had been on homely business for the Queen; the second time was when he fell into the hands of Turkish pirates. His sufferings during this latter captivity made him, he declared, grow, and in his thirtieth year, having been of the same height since he was nine, he steadily increased until he was 3 feet 9 inches (1.14 m). At the Restoration, he returned to England, where he lived on a pension granted him by the Duke of Buckingham. He was later accused of participation in the Popish Plot and was imprisoned in the Gate House. He was released and shortly after died at the age of 63.[6]

Contemporary with Hudson were the two other dwarfs of Henrietta Maria, Richard Gibson and his wife Anne. They were married by the Queen’s wish; and the two together measured only 7 feet 2 inches (2.18 m) They had nine children, five of whom, who lived, were of ordinary stature. Edmund Waller celebrated the nuptials, Evelyn designated the husband as the "compendium of a man",[6] and Lely painted them hand in hand. Gibson was miniature painter to Charles I, and drawing-master to the daughters of James II, Queens Mary II and Anne, when they were children. Gibson was from Cumberland and began his career as a page, first in a "gentle", next in the royal family, died in 1690, in his seventy-fifth year, and is buried in St Paul’s, Covent Garden. The last court dwarf in England was Coppernin, a lively little imp in the service of the princess (Augusta) of Wales, the mother of George III. The last dwarf retainer in a gentleman’s family was the one kept by Mr Beckford, the author of Vathek and builder of Fonthill. He was rather too big to be flung from one guest to another, as used to be the custom at dinners in earlier days when a dwarf was a "necessity" for every noble family.[6]


Stanislas of Poland owned Nicolas Ferry ("Bébé"), who measured 2 feet 9 inches (0.84 m). He was one of three dwarf children of peasant parents in the Vosges. He died in his 23rd year (1764).[6]


Portrait of Nicolas Ferry (1741–1764), known as Bébé, was the court dwarf of King Stanislas of Poland.

Of European court dwarfs, the most famous were those of Philip IV of Spain, the hunchbacks whose features have been painted by Diego Velazquez.[6]


The Polish princess Catherine Jagiellon (1526-1583), married to the Swedish John III, duke of Finland and later king of Sweden, had a close confidante in Dorothea Ostrelska, a dwarf woman. Dosieczka, as she was known, was one of the only members of Catherine's entourage that she kept with her while imprisoned by king Eric XIV of Sweden as a result of her husband, the king's brother, rebelling against the crown.


  1. ^ a b Adelson 2005, p. 4
  2. ^ Ikengainc staff 2013.
  3. ^ a b c Talkenberger, Heike (2018). "Spaßmacher, Liebling, Diplomat". Damals (in German). No. 11. pp. 66–71.
  4. ^ a b Chisholm 1911, p. 739.
  5. ^ a b c Adelson, Betty M. (2005). The Lives of Dwarfs. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0813535484.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Chisholm 1911, p. 740.

Further reading[edit]

  • Adelson, B. (2005). The Lives of Dwarfs. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0-8135-3548-4.
  • Ikengainc staff (1 May 2013). "Court Dwarf". Ikengainc. Retrieved 8 February 2013.