What Is Royal Tennis?
Royal, or real, tennis is the distant ancestor of lawn tennis, the game which is now played all over the world. The old game of Royal tennis was popular with the kings of both England and France in the 16th and 17th Centuries. It is mentioned in Shakespeare’s play Henry V, when the French Dauphin sent a contemptuous gift of tennis balls to the English King. A famous tennis court at Hampton Court Palace, near London, was built for Henry VIII in 1530. But the earliest known rules date from 1599, and those used today were drawn up in 1878.
The game, which can be even more strenuous than lawn tennis, is played by two or four players, with a ball made of tightly-bound cloth strips and rackets made of ash wood, about 27 inches long and weighing 15-17 ounces. The enclosed walled court is usually 96 feet long and 30 feet wide, with galleries and openings which form the scoring points. Scoring is generally similar to lawn tennis, but usually the best of 11 games is played.
Real tennis – one of several games sometimes called “the sport of kings” – is the original racquet sport from which the modern game of tennis (originally called “lawn tennis”) is derived. It is also known as court tennis in the United States, formerly royal tennis in England and Australia, and courte-paume in France (a reference to the older, racquetless game of jeu de paume, the ancestor of modern handball and racquet games; many French real tennis courts are at jeu de paume clubs).
The term real was first used by journalists in the early 20th century as a retronym to distinguish the ancient game from modern lawn tennis (even though the latter sport is often not contested on lawns these days outside the few social-club-managed estates such as Wimbledon).
Real tennis is still played on about 43 surviving courts in the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States and France. Despite a documented history of courts existing in the German states from the 17th century, the sport evidently died out there during or after the World War II reconstruction. The sport is supported and governed by various organizations around the world.
The term “tennis” is thought to derive from the French word tenez, which means “take heed” – a warning from the server to the receiver. Real tennis evolved, over three centuries, from an earlier ball game played around the 12th century in France. This had some similarities to palla, fives, pelota, or handball, in that it involved hitting a ball with a bare hand and later with a glove.
This game may have been played by monks in monastery cloisters, but the construction and appearance of courts more resemble medieval courtyards and streets than religious buildings. By the 16th century, the glove had become a racquet, the game had moved to an enclosed playing area, and the rules had stabilized. Real tennis spread across Europe, with the Papal Legate reporting in 1596 that there were 250 courts in Paris alone, near the peak of its popularity in France.
Royal interest in England began with Henry V (reigned 1413–22) but it was Henry VIII (reigned 1509–47) who made the biggest impact as a young monarch, playing the game with gusto at Hampton Court on a court he had built in 1530 and on several other courts in his palaces. His second wife Anne Boleyn was watching a game of real tennis when she was arrested and it is believed that Henry was playing tennis when news was brought to him of her execution. Queen Elizabeth I was a keen spectator of the game. During the reign of James I (1603–25), there were 14 courts in London.
In France, François I (1515–47) was an enthusiastic player and promoter of real tennis, building courts and encouraging play among both courtiers and commoners. His successor, Henry II (1547–59), was also an excellent player and continued the royal French tradition. The first known book about tennis, Trattato del Giuoco della Palla was written during his reign, in 1555, by an Italian priest, Antonio Scaino da Salo.
Two French kings died from tennis-related episodes – Louis X of a severe chill after playing and Charles VIII after striking his head on the lintel of a door leading to the court in Amboise. King Charles IX granted a constitution to the Corporation of Tennis Professionals in 1571, creating a career for the ‘maître paumiers’ and, establishing three levels of professionals – apprentice, associate, and master. The first codification of the rules of real tennis was written by a professional named Forbet and published in 1599.
The game thrived among the 17th-century nobility in France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and the Habsburg Empire, but suffered under English Puritanism, as it was heavily associated with gambling. By the Age of Napoleon, the royal families of Europe were besieged and real tennis, a court game, was largely abandoned. Real tennis played a role in the history of the French Revolution, through the Tennis Court Oath, a pledge signed by French deputies in a real tennis court, which formed a decisive early step in starting the revolution. During the 18th century and early 19th century, as real tennis declined, new racquets sports emerged in England: rackets and squash racquets.
In Victorian England, real tennis had a revival, but broad public interest later shifted to the new, much less difficult outdoor game of lawn tennis, which soon became the more popular sport, and was played by both genders (real tennis players were almost exclusively male).
Real tennis courts were built in Hobart, Australia (1875) and in the United States, starting in 1876 in Boston, and in New York in 1890, and later at athletic clubs in several other cities. Real tennis greatly influenced the game of stické, which was invented in the 19th century and combined aspects of real tennis, lawn tennis and rackets. Real tennis has the longest line of consecutive world champions of any sport in the world, dating from 1760.