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 still-room 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? Very much as anyone over the age of about sixty nowadays did in youth – board games – some of which we still play to similar rules, and some which have been adapted over time.
Chess & Tables
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. The rules, however, underwent a significant change in the mid-to-late fifteenth century, when the queen, from having been a weak piece, became the most dominant figure on the board. The romantic amongst us might date the change to the emergence of powerful mediaeval women rulers, such as Isabella of Castile or Anne of Beaujeu.
Chess-playing was an essential social skill for the upper classes. In the inventory taken of the goods of Katharine of Aragon, after she had been banished from court, were two ivory chess-boards with men, a set of red and ivory chess men, and a further box of ivory chessmen. These were all commandeered by the King. Katherine Parr, Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I are also all known to have played chess. It was so much a part of court-life that Henry VIII’s accounts show payment 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, it was enjoyed by Chaucer’s Pilgrims in the fourteenth century, and continued in popularity. Again in Katharine 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’ playing of cards, tables or dice was forbidden, although ‘moderate’ play of chess, tables and cards was allowed.
Chess and tables were not however, just games for the upper 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
These prohibitions bring up 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, was that, instead of keeping up the regular archery practice that had been a feature of mediaeval 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. The frequency with which the records mention breaches of the rules suggest that the government made little headway.
In particular, there were ordinances against gambling amongst soldiers and sailors – many of the rules laid down for these groups include such prohibitions, such as this one for the garrison at Berwick 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 one of the dozens of dice games as played in the sixteenth 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.
A more complex variant was called hazard. It was for two players, and needed three dice. The four lowest and four highest numbers that can be rolled with three dice (3,4,5,6,15,16,17,18) are the hazard numbers. After rolling a die to pick the first player, the two players make their bets, then the first aims to roll a hazard number. If he does, he wins, if not, the second player rolls. Again, if a hazared number comes up, then the player wins. If neither win, the second round is an attempt to either roll the number made by the player in the first round, or a hazard number. The game continues until a player has won. Additional hazard numbers arise if both players roll the same value in one round.
If the game were played in complete silence, it was known as mumchance. Presumably, any squeak of excitement led to the other player winning!
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 die 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.’
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 lost. The Duke of Buckingham lost over £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 about £20 a year). Henry VIII frequently played, 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 £23 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, in the years 1529 – 1532, Henry lost £3,243 5s 10d gambling.
For the betrothal of his daughter, Mary, in 1518, as part of the festivities, large bowls of money and dice were placed on the tables for the 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, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, played dice with the Earl of Bothwell, who was probably 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. 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 be seen in a giant, outside, version at Burghley House in Lincolnshire today) 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, a circular board was used, with eight positions equidistant around the rim, and one in the centre.The players took turns to place a man on the board, aiming to get three in a row or 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 seventeen men, with the central piece being the fox. The object of the game was to move the geese around theboard to trap the fox.
Cards were perennially popular at all levels of society. The cards themselves were a bit longer and narrower than today, with blank backs and were often imported from France. It has been said that Queen 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 which involves taking tricks. Primero was played all over Europe in a number of variants, usually with forty 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.
'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, and the game became a symbol of the bitter dispute between Henry VIII and Katharine of Aragon over the annulment of their marriage. There is a story that Katharine 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!
This article was first published on the BBC History Extra website in January 2016.
Bibliography & Sources
British History Online
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Cavendish, George, Life of Cardinal Wolsey (George Routledge & Sons, 1890)
‘Chess History - Ancient Chess - How to Play - Xiangqi - Shogi - Shatranj’
http://ancientchess.com/page/01.htm [accessed 20 November 2015]
Nicolas, Nicholas Harris, Privy Purse Expenses of Elizabeth of York: Wardrobe Accounts of Edward the Fourth: Wardrobe Accounts of Edward the Fourth (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1972)
Nicolas, Nicholas Harris, Privy Purse Expenses of King Henry VIII: From November 1529 - December 1532 (London: William Pickering, 1877)
Strutt, Joseph, The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, ed. by William Hone (United States: Kessinger Publishing, 2007)