court-cards

As I was researching for my recent blog post on the relationship of Elizabeth and her uncle King Richard III, I came across a very interesting trivia about her being the Queen of Hearts on the playing card.

According to some sources, playing cards were invented during Henry VII’s reign and the portrait of his Queen, Elizabeth of York has appeared eight times on every pack of cards for nearly 500 years. (Another rumour has it that the Queen of Hearts represents Anne Boleyn, the second wife to Henry VIII).

I’m a big Tudor fanatic, and to know I have a piece of heritage from the Tudor era right in my living room is enough to get me all jittery with excitement. The head dress under the Queen of Hearts’ crown does look like it belongs to the early Tudor period, does it not?

So here it is, a short history of the English playing cards:

Playing cards first entered Europe in the late 14th century, and different countries employed a variety of suits such as swords, batons and coins.  The four suits used by today (spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds) have originated in about 1480 in France which were the cards England adopted. The first evidence of playing cards in England is from the mid 15th century in an Act of Parliament.

French card makers in the 16th century started to attribute mythological or biblical names to the court cards such as David for King of Spades, and Judith for Queen of Hearts. Despite the English adopting the designs from Rouen in France, there is no evidence naming English court cards after any certain personalities.

The unfortunate truth is, it is nearly impossible to see what the original English court cards would have looked like.  During the passage of time, the designs were copied with a number of errors. If there were any symbols or oddities attributed to the court cards, they became distorted and lost its meaning and significance. To make this worse, the total number of English cards surviving before 1590 does not exceed a dozen, due to paper’s easily perishable nature as well as destruction of thousands of playing cards in the 17th century under the Puritan regime.

As disappointing as it is to know that the Queen of Hearts is actually a nobody, there are court accounts during the reign of Henry VII referring to Elizabeth’s debt at playing cards. I guess this would be as close as cards get to a piece of Tudor history.

For more in-depth history on playing cards, try http://www.wopc.co.uk.

Advertisements