History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

What was Real Tennis?

The game of real tennis, also called 'royal tennis', is a forerunner of the modern game. Which Tudors played the sport?

Tudors play real tennis, a precursor to the modern game of tennis
Published: June 30, 2022 at 12:05 pm
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

The first ‘real tennis’ court at Hampton Court was built by Cardinal Wolsey between 1526-29. Today’s court, which still boasts one of Wolsey’s original walls, is one of around 50 still in use around the world, which is why the sport, the forerunner of the modern game, is closely associated with the Tudor period.


Henry VIII was a keen sportsman in his youth and loved playing tennis. He proved such a smash that in 1519, the Venetian ambassador had commented: “It was the prettiest thing in the world to see him play.”

What was real tennis?

Real tennis, also called royal tennis, was based on a game in 12th-century France where players used their hands to bat the ball around. Over the years, the racquets were added, the rules were developed, and the reasons why the scoring of points went 15, 30, 45 (later changed to 40) were lost.

The game was played on indoor courts with high walls – that the ball could be hit off, as in squash – sloping roofs, viewing galleries, lots of lines on the floor marking where the ball can land, and, of course, a net across the middle.

Only the wealthy could gain access to such sophisticated playing areas. The rules generally shares a lot with modern tennis. Points win games, games win sets (the first to six, usually, but sometimes nine) and sets win matches.


This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed


Sponsored content