Middle Ages: Shakespeare and the Game of Tennis


By Carol SymesUniversity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

In his history play, Henry V, Shakespeare includes a brief episode that focuses on the game of tennis as played by the medieval English kings. This episode is not a mere fiction invented by Shakespeare for dramatic effect. In Holinshed’s Chronicles, a massive digest of English history that was the main source for this and other history plays, we read that the future Charles VII had antagonized Henry by sending him a gift of “Paris balls”.

vintage picture of tennis rackets
Tennis was a royal sport during medieval times and soon found its favor with the masses, too. (Image: Darren Baker/Shutterstock)

Tennis in Henry V

Shakespeare’s King Henry V decides to mount a chancy military expedition catalyzed by an enemy’s challenge to a game of tennis. In the play’s opening scene, Henry is in consultation with the barons and leading bishops of his realm; the latter are trying to convince him to resume the wars in France, while the former either urge him to refrain or to fight the rebellious Scots closer to home.

Henry then calls in the ambassador sent from the Dauphin, the heir apparent to the French throne and Henry’s own cousin. The ambassador delivers his master’s message:

Your highness, lately sending into France,
Did claim some certain dukedoms, in the right
Of your great predecessor, King Edward the Third.
In answer of which claim, the prince our master
Says that you savor too much of your youth,
And bids you be advised there’s nought in France
That can be with a nimble galliard won;
You cannot revel into dukedoms there.
He therefore sends you, meeter for your spirit,
This tun of treasure; and, in lieu of this,
Desires you let the dukedoms that you claim
Hear no more of you.

This insolent speech alludes to Henry’s misspent teenage years, when he had roved and reveled in the streets of London, frequenting its taverns and gaming tables with his band of disreputable buddies.

Henry V’s Knowledge of the Game

Tight-lipped at this insult, Henry asks his uncle, the Earl of Exeter, to open the Dauphin’s treasure chest and tell him what it contains. Exeter replies, “Tennis balls, my liege.”

Henry responds:

We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us;
His present and your pains we thank you for:
When we have match’d our rackets to these balls,
We will, in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.
Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler
That all the courts of France will be disturb’d
With chases.

Seizing on the language of the Dauphin’s proposed game, Henry shows off his knowledge of its rules and strategies; how he will dazzle onlookers with his racket work and eventually “strike [the French king’s] crown into the hazard”, sending it out of bounds. He will, moreover, take all the courts of France—tennis courts and princely courts—by storm, aiming his shots so skillfully that the no opponent will be able to return those “chases”. 

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval LegacyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

History of Tennis

The game called réal, “real” or “royal” tennis, was indeed invented in 12th century France, then a tiny kingdom centered on Paris. Originally, it had been a type of handball, a jeu de paume, and continued to be played by striking the ball with the palm of the hand, in many locales, for centuries. This was a very convenient and inexpensive pastime; all you needed was a ball and an opponent, or a wall.

But, in Paris, players began to use special paddles, or rackets, in order to hit the ball harder and with greater accuracy. The word tennis may derive from the warning “Tenez!” meaning “Look out!” or “Heads up!” that signaled a service at the beginning of a match. The terminology of tennis today still contains traces of its medieval French origins, thus love is l’œuf—“the egg, zero”.

Emergence of Tennis Courts

illustration of old tennis elements
Tennis was initially played with hands. Rackets were discovered and used much later to make for more precision and accuracy. (Image: Xygo_bg/Shutterstock)

Tennis games could be played outdoors, on a lawn or in a cloistered or enclosed space. But medieval French aristocrats, and those who wished to emulate them, began to construct specially equipped courts with galleries for spectators to sit comfortably. It is estimated that there were hundreds of such courts, in Paris alone, by the 16th century.

When Henry VIII of England took over Cardinal Wolsey’s grand palace of Hampton Court in 1530, he remodeled it to include a tennis court and establish himself as a keen player and rival to his French counterparts. Anne Boleyn was reportedly watching a game of tennis when she was arrested on May 2 in 1536.

Regal Roots of the Game

Tennis was thus the original “sport of kings”, long before yachting and horse racing. One allusion to its royal associations comes from a famous early English Christmas comedy known as The Second Shepherds’ Play. In the play, a trio of pastoral bumpkins are tricked by Mak the sheep stealer and his wife, Gyll, who hide the shepherds’ prized lamb in a cradle and pretend it is their newborn child.

The shepherds eventually discover their mistake, but their simple kindness toward the baby sheep is rewarded by the revelation of a real baby, Jesus, to whom they offer the only poor gifts they have: a bird, a bunch of cherries, and a tennis ball. The shepherd’s speech, as he presents it to the Christ Child, is achingly sweet and tender:

Hayll derlyng dere: full of godhede
I pray the be nere: when that I haue nede
Hayll swete is thy chere: my hart wold blede
To se the sytt here: in so poore wede
With no pennys
Hayll put furth thy dall

I bryng the bot a ball
Haue and play thee with all—

And go to the tenys.

Each of the homely objects presented is also richly symbolic. The bird is the Holy Spirit; the cherries represent the Virgin Birth, and reference a popular medieval Christmas carol about Mary’s discovery of her divine pregnancy; and the tennis ball is a fitting tribute to the King of Heaven.

Common Questions about Tennis as a Medieval Game

Q: When was the game of tennis invented?

The game called réal, “real” or “royal” tennis, was invented in 12th century France. Originally, it had been a type of handball, a jeu de paume, and it continued to be played by striking the ball with the palm of the hand, in many locales, for centuries.

Q: Who started constructing tennis courts?

The medieval French aristocrats, and those who wished to emulate them, began to construct specially equipped tennis courts with galleries for spectators to sit comfortably.

Q: Which of Shakespeare’s plays refers to a game of tennis?

Shakespeare’s history play, Henry V includes a brief episode that focuses on the game of tennis as played by medieval English kings.

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