The World of Playing Cards Logo

History of Court Cards

The court cards in English packs of playing cards derive from models produced by Pierre Marechal in Rouen around 1565. A pack of such cards is preserved in the museum at Rouen.

The History of the Court Cards

How did the extraordinary designs of the court cards evolve, full of semi-circles and meaningless diagonal shapes? Are the pictures based upon any historical personalities? Has this question ever crossed your mind while playing cards amongst friends?
The story is different in different countries...

Behold four Kings in majesty rever'd,
With hoary whiskers and a forky beard;
And four fair Queens whose hands sustain a flower,
Th' expressive emblem of their softer power;
Four Knaves in garbs succinct, a trusty band,
Caps on their heads, and halberts in their hand;
And party-colour'd troops, a shining train,
Drawn froth to combat on the velvet plain.

Rape of the Lock, Canto III.


Pierre Marechal, Rouen, c.1567

Above: cards by Pierre Marechal of Rouen, c.1567 which are the ancestors of the English or Anglo-American pattern.

Charles the Bald from Charles psalter at St. Denis c.850-869

The court cards in English packs of playing cards derive from models produced by Pierre Marechal in Rouen around 1565. All four kings in the Rouen pack wear a crown over a flat cap, and long fur-lined cloaks opening to reveal stockinged legs. Likewise, the Queens and Jacks are undoubtedly the ancestors of the English pack. During the passage of centuries, and even though master-copies may have existed in the workshops, a number of gross errors have been made by copyists and wood-cutters, so that hands, symbols of office and other attributes have become corrupted or lost their meaning.

The introduction of double-ended courts in the middle of the 19th century made the problem even worse. Playing card manufacturers usually try to preserve some kind of 'traditional' feel, but due to the constrained size of a playing card, as well as economy, many compressions and distortions have been introduced into the figures.

Names on French Court Cards

Towards the close of the 16th century French playing card manufacturers began naming their court cards after worthy heroes in the epics of mediæval history, as narrated in chronicles, romances and legends of the day. These names were never imitated by English cardmakers. To begin with the practice was a bit arbitrary, but by the 17th century a definite set of names had become established  more →

French cards spread around Europe and sometimes carried the names on their court cards with them. See Ken Lodge's blog

Right: Manuscript images like this were copied time and time again to depict kings or emperors through the centuries. Charlemagne's companions had a private joke amongst themselves in which they pretended to be heroes from classical antiquity: Horace, Homer, Julius, King David… This example shows Charles the Bald, who was king of France from 840 and emperor from 875, sitting on his jewel-studded throne. The formalised portrait also shows similarities to 16th century French court cards which were named after ancient heroes such as 'Charles', 'Alexandre', etc. [Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, ms.lat. 1152, fol.3v]

In this context, we may observe that the 15th century humanist scholars of the Renaissance, in seeking the original classical texts and sources, wrongly convinced themselves that Carolingian manuscripts represented original Roman manuscripts. Thus, they began imitating Carolingian minuscule script, which in turn was adopted by the early printers as 'Roman' type. Likewise, Carolingian drawings and illuminations (9th century) were also mistaken for original, classical Roman sources: Charlemagne, Caesar, David and Alexander were all 'from ancient times'.


King David French courts made in Paris, c.1760

Far left: King David in pennance, from a book of hours made in Paris about 1445 [J. Paul Getty Museum, MS.Ludwig XI.6, fol.100r].  Left: French court cards, with names of Charles and David, printed in Paris about 1760 [British Museum]. King David's harp can be seen at the lower left of the card.

A similar idea seems to have been adopted by French card-makers in the 16th century who gave epic, heroic, pagan or biblical names to the court cards, such as ‘Rolant’, ‘Charles’ or ‘Caesar’. However, there is no evidence that the same idea was taken up by any English playing card manufacturer, even though English playing cards can be traced back to 16th century French ones. Thus we may safely say that the standard English or Anglo-American court cards do not partake of any mythological or historical derivation, and they have never been named after heroes of antiquity or historical personalities, as confirmed by the origin of the pack - except, perhaps, for 'Black Maria' the Queen of Spades.


Queen of Diamonds. Mme de Maintenon kept this card in her journal. It had been taken from a pack with which she was playing a game of piquet at the time when her opponent, King Louis XIV proposed a clandestine marriage.


miniature English court cards from an engraved set titled 'Mathematical Instruments', c.1700 mid-sixteenth century Anglo-French cards

The source of the costumes on the English court cards having been shown, the illustration below (left) shows a formalised initial-letter portrait of James I, king of England (1603-1625) on an illuminated Letters Patent. The king is depicted in full-length, in ermine-lined crimson robes of state, and we might be tempted to see a connection to English playing cards. However, we must be content to know that, apart from the Queens' head gear, which is Tudor, the rest of the costume is late mediæval in style as seen in the pack by Pierre Marechal of Rouen.


King James I, 1603-1625 King of Clubs, c.1725 King of Spades, c.1790

Far left: an initial-letter portrait of James I, King of England (1603-1625) on an illuminated Letters Patent.   (Click image to zoom)

Second images: King of Clubs, c.1725 and King of Spades from a standard English pack manufactured by Hunt in c.1790. The King of Clubs holds an imperial orb and a sword, and wears full-length ermine-lined robes, in much the same way as the formal miniature of King James I.

King of Clubs. Pope wrote “That long behind he trails his pompous robes. And, of all the monarchs only grasps the globe”. The title “King of Clubs” was bestowed by Johnson on the Literary Club.


Below: standardised double-ended English court cards from the Victorian era, 1870s. In the double-ended versions, although more convenient and often charming, many original or historical features of the designs are lost.


cards by Bancks Brothers c1870

Other Parts of the World

The histories of Spanish-suited, Italian-suited, German and Swiss-suited cards are different.

avatar

By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

View Articles

Curator and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996. He is a former committee member of the IPCS and was graphics editor of The Playing-Card journal for many years. He has lived at various times in Chile, England and Wales and is currently living in Extremadura, Spain. Simon's first limited edition pack of playing cards was a replica of a seventeenth century traditional English pack, which he produced from woodblocks and stencils.


Leave a Reply

Recommended

1980 Pentacards

Pentacards

A five-suited set of playing cards published by Fleet and Case Games Ltd., Rainham, Kent, UK, c.1980.

1960 Vivacidol

Vivacidol

Advertising pack for Vivacidol pharmaceutical product, France, c.1960s.

1960 Souvenir Views of Scotland Playing Cards

Souvenir Views of Scotland Playing Cards

52 selected views of Scotland by De La Rue (Waddingtons) for GlenAlan Ltd, Glasgow, Scotland, c.1960s.

1979 Tennis de Table 52e Championnats de France

Tennis de Table 52e Championnats de France

Table tennis players in action published by La Ducale, an imprint of Grimaud, France, 1979.

1911 The Jovial Cards

The Jovial Cards

Publicity items for a group of entertainers, Southend-on-Sea, Essex, UK, 1911.

1930 Waddington’s “Silkette” Playing Cards

Waddington’s “Silkette” Playing Cards

Cards made by John Waddington Ltd. for the Madras Club, Chennai (formerly Madras), India, c.1930.

2002 Highland Hospice

Highland Hospice

54 different personalities from the city of Inverness published by the Highland Hospice.

2017 Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme covers from 1956 to 2016 published by Winning Moves UK Ltd.

2010 Cape Wrath

Cape Wrath

Images from the Ministry of Defence Cape Wrath Training Centre, Sutherland, Scotland. Published 2010.

Jeu de Tarot Pocket Fantasy/Science-Fiction

Jeu de Tarot Pocket Fantasy/Science-Fiction

Tarot game pack with fantasy sci-fi artwork on the trumps published by Pocket SF, France.

2014 Vesalius Anatomy Card Game

Vesalius Anatomy Card Game

Celebrating the work of Andreas Vesalius in the quincentenary year of his birth.

Jeu de 54 cartes

Jeu de 54 cartes

Jeu de 54 cartes, completely anonymous, designed to resemble locally produced French packs.

2005 Team GB

Team GB

Great Britains’s Olympic gold medallists from 1964 to 2004 published by the British Olympic Association.

2015 David Kindersley Centenary

David Kindersley Centenary

Celebration of the work of David Kindersley, stone letter-carver and typeface designer. Published by the Cardozo Kindersley Workshop, Cambridge, UK, 2015.

1880 Dutch costume playing cards from an unknown maker

Dutch costume playing cards from an unknown maker

Another pack of Dutch costume playing cards c.1880.

1850 Alphonse Arnoult Spanish-suited pack

Alphonse Arnoult Spanish-suited pack

Luxurious Spanish-suited pack made by Alphonse Arnoult, Paris, France, c.1850.

2003 Official England Rugby Playing Cards

Official England Rugby Playing Cards

Pack celebrating the rugby world champions of 2003. Produced by MMcardz.

2000 Martinique

Martinique

Original designs from the French overseas department of Martinique by local artist Martine Porry.

2016 Cartes Illustrées

Cartes Illustrées

Standard French designs adapted for children. Made by France Cartes for La Grande Récré, c.2016.

Beaujolais je t’aime …

Beaujolais je t’aime …

Pack promoting Beaujolais wine published by Editions du Nuton, France.

2000 Ergomia

Ergomia

Complete re-design of traditional pack into what the publishers considered to be ergonomically efficient.

1860 Dutch costume playing cards

Dutch costume playing cards

Dutch costume playing cards made for the Dutch market in the second half of the 19th century.

1705 Royal Cards Reign of Queen Anne

Royal Cards Reign of Queen Anne

“Royal Cards Reign of Queen Anne” cover historical events, both honourable and treacherous, during the period 1702 to 1704.

Hall & Son

Hall & Son

Hall & Son

1850 Fortune-Telling Cards

Fortune-Telling Cards

Comic Fortune-Telling Cards published by Reynolds & Sons, c.1850.

1850 Comic Question & Answer cards

Comic Question & Answer cards

Comic Question & Answer cards by Josh. Reynolds & Sons, circa 1850.

72: The Ace of Spades

72: The Ace of Spades

In standard English packs the Ace of Spades is associated with decorative designs. This is a historical survey of why this should be.

1824 Myriorama

Myriorama

Myriorama of Italian scenery, 1824.

Dubois

Dubois

Dubois card makers from Liège in the Walloon Region of Belgium.

1870 Transformation Cards for Christmas

Transformation Cards for Christmas

Hand-drawn Transformation cards, c.1870.

PLAYING CARDS: A Secret History

PLAYING CARDS: A Secret History

PLAYING CARDS: A Secret History

A. Camoin & Cie

A. Camoin & Cie

This deck was inherited from ancestors, it has has a family history surrounding it. Details of the lives of previous owners make it all so fascinating.

Bone Playing Cards

Bone Playing Cards

My late mother found these miniature cards in a skip around 50 years ago.

Sergeant-Major

Sergeant-Major

Sergeant-Major card game devised by W.G.Smith

Rex Pitts (1940-2021)

Rex Pitts (1940-2021)

We are deeply saddened by news of the passing of Anthony Rex Pitts (1940-2021).

History of Playing Cards explained in 5 Minutes

History of Playing Cards explained in 5 Minutes

Video by Art of Impossible. In this video you will get a short overview of the most important historical facts about playing cards and their history.

Pepys Games

Pepys Games

The Story of Pepys Games by Rex Pitts

J. W. Spear and Sons

J. W. Spear and Sons

Jacob Wolfe Spear founded his company manufacturing fancy goods in 1879 near Nuremberg in Bavaria, Germany

Chad Valley Co. Ltd

Chad Valley Co. Ltd

Chad Valley Co. Ltd (incorporating Johnson Brothers (Harborne) Ltd, the long-established UK brand bought by Woolworths in 1988 and now sold at Argos.

Multum in Parvo Co., Ltd

Multum in Parvo Co., Ltd

Multum in Parvo published a range of indoor games during the period from 1884-1927.