Death in Tennis

Louis X (‘Louis the Quarreller’) of France (1289 – 1316) was the first to construct indoor tennis courts in the modern style – a feature which was to spread to Royal palaces all over Europe. On June 1316, following a particularly exhausting game at Vincennes, Val-de-Marne, Louis drank a large quantity of cooled wine and subsequently died of either pneumonia or pleurisy – although there was also some suspicion of poisoning. This said, two Spanish Monarchs are also alleged to have died after taking large draughts of cold water after a hard game of tennis: Henry I, King of Castile, in 1217, and Philip I (The Fair), in 1506.

In 1498, after striking his head on the lintel above the doorway of poorly-maintained court, France’s Charles VIII (‘Charles the Affable’, 1470 – 1498) fell into a coma. He was dead within hours.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (Montaigne), one of the most influential writers of Renaissance France, recounts the death of his brother, Arnaud:

bq. ‘playing at tennis, [he] received a blow with a ball, that hit him a little above the right eare, without appearance of any contusion, bruse, or hurt, and never sitting or resting upon it, died within six houres after of an Apoplexie’
(Essais I.20, ‘To philosophise is to learn how to die’, trans. Florio)

On February 21 1437, a band of assassins led by Sir Robert Graham gained access to Perth’s ‘Friars Preacher’s Monastery’, intent on killing James I of Scotland (1394 – 1437). A page, George Straton, attempted to fend them off on the staircase to the Royal Chamber, but was overcome and killed. The noise alerted the King; the Queen and several Ladies-in-Waiting were in the Royal Bedchamber – imagine their dismay when, on moving to bar the door, they found the bolts had already been removed. The windows were barred: things weren’t looking good!

Seizing a poker from the fireplace, James prised up a floorboard and lowered himself into “thordure of the privay” – the cesspit beneath the lavatory. The King reasoned that he would be able to escape via the main drain, which ran beneath the Tennis court. At some point – it can’t have taken long – he will have realised that it had been sealed off only three days earlier, on his orders, to prevent the loss of tennis balls through ‘that fowle hole’.

Crouching silently – and doubtless struggling to inhale that ghastly stench, he waited while his assailants searched the room, then charged on to look elsewhere. Once they’d left, he called to the Ladies, imploring them to lower down some bedsheets and help pull him out. Lady-in-Waiting Elizabeth Douglas slipped and fell into the hole with him. The noise and commotion alerted the assailants, who raced back to the Bedchamber. James put up a good fight, but he was always going to lose. English chronicler John Shirley writes that contemporary reports ‘by true persons that saw him dead, that he had sixteen deadly wounds in his breast, withouten many and other in diverse places of his body.’

In 1460, young John Stanley, grandson of Sir John Stanley, Lord of Elford Manor, Staffordshire, died after being struck on the temple by a tennis ball. His tomb at St Peter’s Church, Elford, features his effigy in stone: a ball in his left hand, the right pointing to his head. An inscription reads

“Ubi dolor, ibi digitus”
(I’m pointing to where it hurts)

On May 2, 1536, Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn had spent part of the morning watching tennis at the Whitehall court:

‘Her champion won, and she was regretting not having placed a bet on him, when a messenger arrived with a summons, demanding she present herself before the Privy Council’

Having orchestrated the Queen’s demise, on May 19, the King himself enjoyed a game of tennis while his wife was executed. He hadn’t organised a coffin, let alone a funeral: Anne was buried in an old arrow chest, in an unmarked grave, in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula.

The death of Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1751 was said to have been the result of an internal infection arising from being hit in the stomach by a ball. Accounts differ as to whether it was a cricket or a tennis ball, though Horace Walpole blames tennis. A contemporary epigram suggests his loss may not have been universally lamented:

Here lies Fred,
Who was alive and is dead;
Had it been his Father,
I had much rather;
Had it been his brother;
Still better than another;
Had it been his sister
No-one would have missed her;
Had it been the whole generation
Still better for the Nation;
But since ‘tis only Fred
Who was alive and is dead
There’s no more to be said

In May 1927, American Millionaire Payne Whitney fell ill during a game of tennis at ‘Greentree’, his Gold Coast Mansion at Manhasset, Long Island; twenty-five minutes later, he was dead. Doctors cited the cause of death indigestion as acute indigestion.

Payne Whitney’s estate was the largest recorded up to that time: roughly $180,000,000. It produced the largest death tax ever recorded – $20,000,000! In 1924, Whitney had paid the third highest income tax bill in the country – a sum exceeded only by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Henry Ford. He left $60,000,000 to charities, institutions and organizations.



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