The mysterious origins of April Fool's Day

Portrait of Chaucer by Thomas Hoccleve in the Regiment of Princes (1412).

Portrait of Chaucer by Thomas Hoccleve in the Regiment of Princes (1412). - Credit: Wikimedia / Wikipedia

It should perhaps be of no surprise that the true origin of April Fool’s Day is shrouded in mystery, lost to the annals of time. This is in part because there are dozens of possible beginnings, each more elaborate than the last. It’s almost a joke, a grand prank for historians to attempt to unravel, knowing that they probably never will

One possible but now disputed origin of April Fool’s Day is Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, published in 1400. In the story of The Nun’s Priests’ Tale, a proud cockerel by the name of Chauntecleer is tricked by a fox ‘Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two’, meaning 32 days since the beginning of March, which would therefore be April 1st. However, historians have found this to be a copying error (this was in the days of handwritten manuscripts, after all) as Chaucer makes a reference to the constellation of Taurus, which cannot be seen in the sky until May. 

King John of England on a Stag hunt, 1167-1216

King John of England, 1167-1216. Illuminated manuscript, De Rege Johanne, 1300-1400. MS Cott. Claud DII, folio 116, British Library. - Credit: Wikimedia / Wikipedia

The 13th-century legend of King John and the Fools of Gotham in Nottinghamshire is another potential origin for April Fool's Day. It is said that at the time, it was customary that any road that the King traversed becomes public property. Naturally, when Gotham's citizens heard that the King would be travelling through their town, they concocted a plan to dissuade the King from stepping anywhere near their town.

When the King's messengers entered Gotham, they found the most bizarre occurrences, people were trying to trap birds in roofless fences, and others were attempting to drown fish. Unsurprisingly, Gotham's townspeople were declared insane. The ruse was successful; the King decided not to claim the town. Fun fact Gotham City in the Batman comics was named after this legend.

A ticket to "The Annual Ceremony of Washing the Lions" at the Tower of London in London from 1857

A ticket to "The Annual Ceremony of Washing the Lions" at the Tower of London in London from 1857. - Credit: Wikimedia / Wikipedia

As for the pranking traditions we have presently, it is truly unknown how they came about, and like with most traditions, they must have evolved over time. However, one of the earliest known pranks was first recorded in 1698 and proved to be so popular that it was played upon unsuspecting fellows until the 19th-century. The prank was to invite people to see an annual 'washing of the lions' ceremony at the Tower of London. Of course, no such ceremony existed, and only the most foolish would turn up at the tower clutching their invitation. 

One of the greatest pranks ever played was in 1957, the iconic spaghetti tree hoax from BBC's Panorama. In a segment of the current affairs programme, footage showed farmers in Switzerland picking spaghetti from trees and declaring that the disappearance of the spaghetti weevil had lead to a bumper harvest that year. After the show aired, many viewers called the BBC asking how they could grow their own spaghetti tree.

Other fantastic pranks include Richard Branson's UFO hot air balloon in 1989 and the BBC's Flying Penguins video, which went viral in 2008.

Discover more British history and heritage:

The story of pioneering black botanist and missionary Thomas Birch Freeman

Meet the greatest and most outlandish chronicler of the Middle Ages

Whitby's connection to Bram Stoker's Dracula

Meet the Codebreaking Sisters who helped bring Victory to Europe

Comments powered by Disqus