Wandering around a Tudor house or garden on a sunny day is a delightful experience. We can imagine the lady of the house in her velvets and French hood picking flowers and herbs, or the maid turning those herbs into cooking ingredients or medicine. Visiting during the day, we seldom think of what the evenings must have been like – long hours, with no entertainment other than what the household could provide. How did they while away the evenings? The answer is board games – some of which we still play to similar rules today, and some that have been adapted over time.
The most enduring game of all is chess, which has been played in western Europe since the early Middle Ages – witness the beautiful Lewis Chessmen (chess pieces of walrus ivory, found on Lewis in 1831, but likely made in Norway in around AD 1150–1200). The rules of chess, however, underwent a significant change in the mid-to-late 15th century when the queen, originally a weak piece, became the most dominant figure on the board. The romantic among us might date the change to the emergence of powerful female rulers, such as Isabella I of Castile or Anne of Beaujeu, regent of France from 1483-91.
Chess-playing was an essential social skill for the upper classes in the Tudor period. The inventory of goods belonging to Catherine of Aragon, taken after she had been banished from court in 1531, revealed two ivory chess-boards with pieces; a set of red and ivory chess men; and a further box of ivory chessmen. These were all commandeered by Henry VIII.
‘Playing Chess’, engraved by T Fry, 16th century. (Private Collection/Bridgeman Images)
Katherine Parr, Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I are also known to have played chess. The game was so much a part of court life that Henry VIII’s accounts show a payment made to a cook for creating two chessboards and men of sugar, decorated with gold, for a banquet.
Another game recognisable today was tables, now known as backgammon. Together with chess, tables was enjoyed by Chaucer’s pilgrims (in The Canterbury Tales) in the 14th century, and again in Catherine of Aragon’s inventory a ‘pair of tables’ of pearl (with the counters missing) was listed. In the rules for the gentlemen of Henry VIII’s privy chamber, ‘immoderate and continual’ playing of cards, tables or dice was forbidden, although ‘moderate’ play of chess, tables and cards was allowed. In Henry VIII: King and Court (2001), Alison Weir states that “in 1541 Henry himself forbade anyone with an income of less than £20 (£6,000) ‘play any game for money’, making it clear that he preferred them to practise archery”.
Chess and tables were also popular among the lower classes – indenture records for the reign of Henry VI show that apprentices were forbidden from ‘frequent(ing) the tavern or play(ing) at dice or chess…’
Gambling on dice
We turn now to the most popular Tudor game of all – gambling on dice. The government waged a constant war on it, trying to licence taverns and preventing less reputable inns from allowing gaming to take place. The heart of the authorities’ concern throughout the period from around 1512 to the end of Elizabeth’s reign in 1603 was that, instead of keeping up the regular archery practice that had been a feature of medieval life, the lower orders were ‘creep(ing) into bowling alleys, and ordinary dicing houses’.
In 1542, a comprehensive act was passed against popular games. No artisan, husbandman (a small farmer lower in status than a yeoman), labourer, fisherman, waterman or servingman was permitted to play tennis, bowls, quoits, dice, skittles or other ‘unlawful’ games, except at Christmas. Shove ha’penny, too, was banned [a game played with metal discs on a slate or mahogany board]. The frequency with which the records mention breaches of the rules suggest that the government’s efforts were largely in vain.
In particular, ordinances were issued against gambling among soldiers and sailors: for example, this one for the garrison at Berwick issued in 1560:
“No soldier to use dice or cards for money except within the twenty days of Christmas, or else at any of the gates of the town, or within the watch-houses, market-place, or Tolbooth, under pain of three days imprisonment, and the stakes to be forfeited to the Queen’s bridge at Berwick.”
The rules of dozens of dice games played in the 16th century were not dissimilar to those of the modern card-game pontoon. A game was called a ‘main’. The players laid their stake in the pool, then rolled two or three dice as many times as they chose, totting up the score and aiming to be as close as possible to 31. If the player exceeded 31, he or she was out of the round. The winner, taking the pool, was the player closest to, but not exceeding, 31.
Dice, which were made of bone, ivory or silver, could also be played on a board marked with diagonal lines, and the location of the dice when it fell affected the scoring. The problem of weighted or false dice gave rise to many legal indictments, such as this one from February 1556:
“Edward Wylgres…fishemonger enticed… Thomas Pratt gentleman into playing unlawful and prohibited games… Wylgres having with him in his left hand false dice that at every fall of the dice came forth at his pleasure; and that by secretly removing the true dice and play with these false dice, Edward Wylgres despoiled and defrauded Thomas Pratt of … four shillings and four pence.”
Dice-maker’s workshop, 16th century. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
By 1604, it was even thought necessary to deal with false dice by the introduction of a statute preventing their manufacture or sale.
For the upper echelons of society there were no restrictions on dice, and fortunes could be made, and lost. The Duke of Buckingham lost more than £76 to the Duke of Suffolk and others on a single occasion (in a time when a gentleman not at court could live comfortably on around £20 a year). Henry VIII frequently played dice games, and there are regular appearances in his accounts of sums he had in hand for dicing – £45 to play with the Duke of Norfolk and others at Christmas 1529, and an entry for £22, 10s for payment to the sergeant of the (wine) cellar for money the king lost. It is not clear whether he was playing with the sergeant, or whether the money was to be distributed to courtiers who had won.
In total, between the years 1529 and 1532, Henry lost £3,243 5s 10d gambling. As part of the festivities celebrating the betrothal of his daughter, Mary, in 1518, large bowls of money and dice were placed on the tables for guests to play. Mary, like her father, grew up to be a frequent and unlucky gambler. There are numerous references in her accounts to losses at cards and bowls.
On the last night of his life, Lord Darnley, second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, played dice with the Earl of Bothwell, who is thought by many to have been the man who had organised the gunpowder being laid under Darnley’s house even as they rolled their ivory cubes.
A game that could be played with or without gambling was ‘goose’. It is reminiscent of snakes and ladders in that the players (unlimited in number) had to advance around a spiral of 63 squares, in accordance with the roll of the dice. Some 13 of the squares were ‘goose’ squares, enabling the player to move on the same number of squares as he had rolled to arrive at the goose. Seven others require moves back or forward, or missing turns – such as The Tavern (miss 2 turns); The Maze (go back to Square 30); or The Grave – back to the beginning. To win, the player had to land on the 63 square with an exact roll. Players wagered by putting in a stake in at the start, which the winner would collect.
Another popular board game (which can today be seen in a giant, outside, version at Burghley House in Lincolnshire) was nine-men’s-morris (or merrels). This is a more complex version of three-men’s morris, which is what we now call noughts and crosses, the objective being to place three of your men in a row on a board.
In the nine-men’s variant of the game a square board was used, with eight positions equidistant around the edge, and one in the centre. The players took turns to place a man on the board, aiming to get three in a row (a ‘mill’). If a mill were achieved, the player could take one of his opponent’s men off the board. The game finished when one player was down to two men.
Fox and geese was not dissimilar to merrels, but was played with 15, 17 or 18 people, with the central piece being the fox. The object of the game was to move the geese around the board to trap the fox.
Cards were perennially popular at all levels of Tudor society. Often imported from France, the cards themselves were longer and narrower than today, with blank backs. It has been said that Elizabeth of York is the model for the queen of hearts in the pack. Popular games were imperial, primero, and Pope Joan.
Imperial is rather like picquet – a game for two players that involves taking tricks. Primero was played all over Europe in a number of variants, usually with 40 cards. It is similar to poker in that the aim is to achieve groups of cards – four of a kind, etc. The primero hand was one of each suit. Players drew and discarded in different ways, and bet both at the start and during the game.
‘Henry VIII and His Wives’ (oil on canvas), William Maw Egley (1826-1916). (© Dahesh Museum of Art, New York, USA/Bridgeman Images)
Pope Joan was all the rage at the English court in the late 1520s, as the cards and combinations of them were named king, queen, jack, pope, game, matrimony and intrigue. The game became a symbol of the bitter dispute between Henry VIII and Catharine of Aragon over the annulment of their marriage. There is a story that Catherine of Aragon was playing the game with her rival, Anne Boleyn, and seeing Anne winning the hand, said:“Lady Anne, you have the good fortune to always stop at a king. But you are not like the others, you will have all, or none.”
It could be said that both ladies gambled and lost!
Melita Thomas is the editor of Tudor Times, a website about daily life in the period.