The first book to discuss tennis, Antonio Scaino da Salo’s Tratto del Givoco della Palla (Venice, 1555) offers direction on how to conduct oneself on the tennis court – a reflection of the Renaissance preoccupation with the ideals of deportment. Correct form and courtly manners were considered at least as important as the physical act of playing the game.
In Tudor England, poor on-court conduct would be dealt with severely – at least, if it occurred within the precincts of a Royal Palace. In 1541, Sir Edmund Knyvet* of Norfolk was arraigned before the Officers of the Green Cloth for striking ‘whilst within the Tennis Court of The King’s House’. Thomas Clere, servant to Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Found guilty, he was sentenced to lose his right hand and forfeit all his lands and goods. Petitioning the King, Sir Edmund requested that he might instead lose his left hand, so that he might still do the King good service with his right. Smart move: the King pardoned him.
‘You gentlemen who desire to strive with another at tennis must play for the recreation of the body and the delectation of the mind, and must not indulge in swearing or in blasphemy against the name of God’
(A second edition, Hulpeau’s Le Jeu Royale de la Paume (1632) featured exactly the same material – with the addition of an introductory “Epistre à Monsieur Morin”. Although the descriptions of tennis in the game books that appeared over the next two centuries were all based on Forbet, they’re often erroneously attributed to Hulpeau.)
Such admonitions weren’t always heeded, of course! In his diary entry for April 4, 1668, Samuel Pepys observes,
‘…my Lord of Pembroke says he hath heard the Quaker at the tennis-court swear to himself when he loses.’
In one simple sentence, Webster alludes to the importance of tennis at Court, of the vast sums casually lost and won, and of the importance of correct form and decorum:
‘…what’s that Cardinal? I mean his temper? They say he’s a brave fellow, will play his five thousand crowns at tennis, dance, court ladies – and one that hath fought single combats.’ – Delio asks Antonio about the Cardinal: Act I, Scene II, The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster, 1612
Sir Edmund Knyvet famously had a long-running feud with Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Oxford’s mistress, Anne Vavasour – one of the Queen’s Maids of Honour – was Knyvet’s niece; Vavasour bore Oxford a son – whereupon the errant Earl abandoned her and set off to travel overseas. He was intercepted though – the Royal Household and the Court was thoroughly unimpressed with his attempt to abscond.
March 1582 saw a skirmish between Oxford and Knyvet on London’s streets: Oxford was wounded and his servant killed; reports conflict as to whether Kynvet was also injured. There was further affray between Knyvet’s and Oxford’s men on 18 June – and again 6 days later, where it was reported that Knyvet had ‘slain a man of the Earl of Oxford’s in fight’
On 19 January 1585 Anne Vavasour’s brother Thomas sent Oxford a written challenge – which appears to have been ignored. Another of Oxford’s men was slain that month, and in March, Lord Burghley wrote to Sir Christopher Hatton about the death of one of Knyvet’s men, thanking Hatton for his efforts “to bring some good end to these troublesome matters betwixt my Lord Oxford and Mr Thomas Knyvet”.
Thomas Knyvet, 1st Baron Knyvet is noted for his role in foiling the Gunpowder Plot. On the evening of 26 October 1605, Lord Monteagle – a Catholic – received an anonymous letter warning him to stay away from the opening ceremony of Parliament “retyre youre self into yowre contee whence yow maye expect the event in safti for … they shall receyve a terrible blowe this parleament” King James was shown the letter and Knyvet and others commenced searches of the cellars underneath Parliament on the King’s orders: they arrested Guy Fawkes as he left the cellar shortly after midnight on 5 November.
In 1582, Lord Knyvet was granted a lease for a property – Knyvet House – by Queen Elizabeth I. A large timber and brick building with an L-shaped garden, it was the first domestic residence on the site of 10 Downing Street. His lifetime lease was extended in 1604 to extend to his heirs and the house later passed to his niece, Elizabeth Hampden – an aunt of Oliver Cromwell. George Downing developed the site of what by this time was known as Hampden House when the lease expired in 1682.