The Game of Kings

…and the King of Games


Generations of European Royalty and nobility were schooled at monasteries – which meant that Europe’s crowned heads and courtiers played tennis from childhood. Indeed, a portrait of the infant Charles IX of France shows the then two year-old Duc d’Orléans with a racket in his hand.

In 1394, Charles VI lost a game against the Governor of Dauphinè – and a 300 franc wager, also. One can’t help but conjecture that the King may not have been at the top of his game: by this time he’d already begun to exhibit signs of mental illness. Confined at the Château of Creil-sur-l’Oise during one of his bouts of psychosis, Charles would watch tennis from behind the iron bars of his apartment balcony.

Keen to outshine his rivals – and in particular, Henry VIII of England, King Francis I of France (1494-1547) built numerous palaces in the Loire valley and the Île de France; most featured a Jeu de Paume court.

Francis I’s son, Henri II (1519-1559) was considered one of the best paume-players of his age. He played daily and encouraged large audiences (contrary to the custom of handpicking participants and spectators). Contemporary observers were surprised to see the King lose a match (and a wager) of his favourite game, tiers (three against three). The Monarch, notes the Imperial Ambassador Saint-Mauris, played

“…clad in white, with white shoes also, and with a fine straw hat upon his head; when one sees him thus at his game one would scarcely realize that it is the King who is playing. They observe neither ceremony nor etiquette for him, his faults are openly discussed – and I have observed on several occasions that a disputed point has been given against him”.

The much-loved Henri IV (1553-1610) was a keen player, but Henri II was possibly the only Renaissance King who refused deference to his Royal status when on court.


Philip III (1578-1621) of Spain was no less fond of the game than his neighbours. Described, age 24, as

“of small stature, but healthy and of a good complexion; very religious, and an example of goodness and good manners. He ate well, but drank no wine; amused himself in hunting, which led him to be constantly in the country; he willingly undertook journeys; and passed the rest of his time in playing Tennis and dancing.”

It wasn’t until the reign of Henry VII (1457-1509) that tennis became popular at the English court. The King made a ‘tennis-playe’ at Kenilworth, and, in the next fifteen years, went on to construct courts at Richmond, Wycombe, Woodstock, Windsor and Westminster.

Henry wasn’t alone in enjoying tennis. Courtiers paid to play in the Royal game: in 1519, daily court hire at Richmond amounted to 2s. 6d! Contemporary tennis-playing courtiers included ‘Lords Rochford and Ros, the Dukes of Suffolk and Buckingham, Henry Courtenay, Earl of Devon, and Anthony Knyvet.’ (The Royal Palaces of Tudor England Simon Thurley 1993)

Tennis offered the opportunity to show off – and to gamble; players and spectators alike would bet on a game’s outcome. Jeu de Paume’s intricate handicapping system is also thought to be the result of gambling, since it made wagers riskier and more exciting.

On January 31, 1506, as King Henry VII looked on, the King of Castile played the Marquis of Dorset. The King of Castile used a racket; as the Marquis played bare-handed, he received fifteen every game.

For some though, gambling could get out of hand:

“Having lost 60 francs at palm play with the Duke of Bourbon and Messires William de Lyon and Guy de la Trimouille – and not having money enough to pay them – The Duke of Burgundy left his girdle as a pledge for the remainder. Shortly afterwards, the same girdle was left with the Comte D’Eu for a further 80 francs the Duke had lost at tennis“


In 1522, Henry VIII partnered the Emperor Charles V against the Prince of Orange and the Marquis of Brandenburg in eleven games during the Emperor’s state visit to London. By 1530, Henry (1491–1547) had doubled the number of courts he owned, building ‘tennis plays’ at Beaulieu, Bridewell, Calais, Greenwich, Hampton Court, St James’s and Whitehall. Described as ‘The largest palace in Christendom’ Whitehall was a veritable leisure complex, with tilt yards, cockfighting pits, a bowling alley and no fewer than five open and enclosed tennis courts!

Henry Frederick Stuart, Prince of Wales (1594 – 1612), who died aged only 18, was reputed to have been a truly gifted player.

For the year ending Michaelmas 1610, the sum of £420 was paid to John Webb, ‘Master of His Majesty’s Tennis Plays’ to cover the provision of balls, rackets and tennis lessons for the young Duke of York – later King Charles I (1600–1649). Webb performed his task well; his young charge became a lifetime tennis devotee: Charles I – and later, his son Charles II (1630–1685) – rose daily at dawn to play.

Watching Charles II at Whitehall, diarist Samuel Pepys noted that the King weighed himself before and after each game. Pepys was pragmatic about his King’s ability – and derisory about the gilded sycophants of the Royal entourage:

“but to see how the King’s play was extolled, without any cause was a loathsome sight, though sometimes he did play very well and deserved to be commended, but such open flattery is beastly”
Samuel Pepys’ Diary, January 4, 1664

Charles II’s brother, James II, (1633-1701) was also a fine player – one of his few redeeming features. A famous boyhood portrait of James II – then Duke of York – shows him standing before a crowded dedans, short-handled racket in hand. His future son-in-law William III (William of Orange, 1650–1702) insisted that flagons of wine be on hand whenever he played- a tennis tradition stoutly upheld by Leamington members to this day.

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