Everyday Life

The Game of Kings: Anyone for (Medieval) Tennis?

As tennis gets underway every summer here in Britain, I thought it a good time to delve into the history behind the tennis fever which captivates the world for several weeks each summer.

It sees the mingling of the general public with elite sportspeople, to celebrity, to royalty all coming together to celebrate and participate in a sport which is this year seeing its 136th Championship.

Not quite old enough to be considered medieval you may think, but what were the origins of modern-day lawn tennis and has it always captured this much public attention?

The short answer is yes. Real tennis, as it is now known in the UK (to distinguish it from modern day lawn tennis), goes by different names depending on where you are from.

To all it is known as the Game of Kings, to those in the US it is known as Court Tennis; in Australia, Royal Tennis and in France Jeu de Paume (hand ball). It is this last incantation which captures our focus.


Jeu de Paume is believed to have been played by French monks in the 1100s. Others believe it originated even earlier in 5th century Tuscany where villagers would play up and down the streets hitting a ball with their bare hands (or gloved hands as time went on).

The game developed an aristocratic following when it was brought home by wealthy young men who had been educated within monasteries.

A game of ‘medieval tennis’ takes place whilst others go about their business.

By the late 1200s the game had grown in popularity. There were private courts being built and French tennis ball making had become an official profession.

In the late 1300s the Parisian chief magistrate had to pass an edict banning Jeu de Paume on weekdays. Apparently too many people were shirking work in favour of the game.

Eventually, it evolved to be played with paddle like rackets before small tennis style rackets were introduced. The use of rackets signals a change in the name of the sport.

It was known in France as Courte Paume indicating that it was played on an official court – a hall with specially angled walls.

The racket game was fast paced, highly skilled and involved the use of strategy.

Hitting the ball on specific parts of the wall could change its trajectory and baffle your opponent. The etymology of the name for tennis in English is sometimes disputed but it seems to originate from the Old French, Tenez (imperative of tenir – to hold or receive). This word was called out upon serving to your opponent.

In the 19th century this version of tennis was given the name ‘Real Tennis’. This was to distinguish it from its successor, Lawn Tennis, the game popularly played today.

The Game of Kings

We have become used to seeing members of the Royal family attend high profile sporting events and tennis is no exception. Wimbledon, for example, is equipped with its own royal box.

The Royal Box at Wimbledon Centre Court. London.

However, even in its infancy tennis has always attracted a strong royal following. In 1355, the French King, John II brought the practice of Jeu de Paume gambling to the fore. It is said he had to procure lengths of Belgian fabric to pay off a tennis gambling debt. But being in debt was not the worst fate that awaited royal enthusiasts.

The love of the sport occasionally led to some unfortunate royals paying with more than money or cloth! Let us take a look at some historic royal fans who met rather untimely ends.

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At 26 years of age King Louis X was a regular player but it was during one intense game in the summer of 1316 that the French King became excessively dehydrated. Pausing for some refreshment, Louis reportedly downed a full urn of chilled wine and then died!

The actual cause of death can only be guessed upon but certainly the excessive exertion followed by the swift consumption of a large volume of alcohol cannot have helped!

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In fact, his death without issue and the failure of his brothers to produce any legitimate male heirs led to a change in the line of succession which ultimately prompted the Hundred Years War!

A Dangerous Game

Louis X was not the only king in history to suffer death by tennis! The next fatality struck in 1437. By this time the sport had reached the shores of Britain where in Scotland, King James I sat upon the throne. James was not the fittest of men.

In fact his figure was one of “excessive corpulence”.  He was said to favour the game as it kept him in shape. However, he kept losing tennis balls down a particular drain. His solution, order the drain to be sealed.

Louis X
Louis X of France. Death by tennis. Sort off.

This turned out to be a poor decision. Three days later, King James found himself under threat when a group of assassins broke into his quarters.

Hearing their approach, he made his escape by climbing into the sewer system. However, he had forgotten that he had ordered the self-same pipe system to be sealed off. Trapped, poor King James was seized and murdered.

Another royal death occurred in 1498. Back in France, a 27-year-old King Charles VIII was on his way to watch a game of courte paume when in his excitement he hit his head so hard on a door lintel that it killed him!

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As the game began to reach its peak across the narrow sea in Britain, the spate of royal tennis-linked deaths was to continue.

Tennis in Tudor Times

This old version of tennis was at its height in Britain during the Tudor period.

An English guide on the sport written in 1553 states, ‘this game has been created for a good purpose, namely, to keep our bodies healthy, to make our young men stronger and more robust, chasing idleness, virtue’s mortal enemy, far from them and thus making them of a stronger more excellent nature’.

Henry VIII
Henry VIII was a fan of tennis though he didn’t die playing it. He did however have his wife beheaded whilst he played the game!

Henry VIII himself was a prolific tennis player in his youth.  He would have played on courts like the one built by Cardinal Wolsey at Hampton Court in the 1520s. He certainly commissioned many more indoor courts during his reign.

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In fact, in 1537, Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn was said to be watching a game of tennis when she received orders to present herself to the Privy council. Little did she know that she was about to receive news of her impending execution.

Upon her arrest she lamented that she had not placed a bet on the game as she would have surely won!

Whilst his condemned wife was led to the execution block, Henry VIII was said to be on the court himself, playing a leisurely game of tennis at Hampton Court Palace.

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If you want to see what a ‘real tennis’ court looks like or even watch a game, the existing one still stands and is still played on. Though largely rebuilt by Charles I in 1625 it still boasts one of Cardinal Wolsey’s original walls.

Let the Girl’s Play!

Anne Boleyn may have gambled on a game of tennis or two, but did she play herself? Did any women play ‘real tennis’?

As is often the case with the history of medieval women, precious little is recorded but one woman’s name simply had to go down in history.

That lady was Margot of Hainault. Margot arrived on the medieval Parisian tennis scene in 1427 and made a name for herself by swiftly dispatching some of the strongest male players of the day.

Medieval Tennis
Early medieval tennis being played in a French street.

A surviving French journal of the time describes her skills, “She played forehand and backhand very powerfully, and very skilfully, as a man would play.”

The writer continues, “There were few whom she could not better on court, and they were the very best.”

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We then make a huge leap forward in time before we see a new female player worthy of note. She is none other than grand daughter of Lord Byron, Lady Judith Wentworth of Crabbet Park. Lady Wentworth is chiefly remembered for two things: breeding exceptional Arabian racehorses and being a champion real tennis player! She, like the nobility that came before her, also built a real tennis court on her own estate.

Whatever happened to Real Tennis?

Real tennis saw a decline in popularity as its descendant lawn tennis came into being. The advent of lawn tennis is largely credited to Major Charles Wingfield who applied for a patent for his garden tennis kit, including equipment and rules, in 1874.

Early racquets and balls. The royal connection is never far away.

The lawns of Wimbledon saw their first tournament take place not long after in 1877 where the winner, Spencer Gore won the men’s singles and with it, prize money of 12 guineas.
The US Open saw its first game in 1881, the French Open in 1891 and the Australian Open in 1905.

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The game has evolved significantly from its original form. In the Paris of today, where courte paume was once so popular, there now exist only 3 courts.

In England, there is a greater following, perhaps owing to the sport’s continued popularity among royalty and the preservation of many courts.

There are 27 surviving real tennis courts in Britain today and many of these are still played on by their dedicated membership. In the US there are 10 and 6 exist in Australia.

Despite it being a very niche sport, today there exist amateur, professional and worldwide competitions.

Crucially, it is no longer just a game for kings, though there are still some dedicated players among the British royal ranks, so whatever your gender or age, if you are a lover of both history and sport then this might be the game for you!