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Published November 08, 2013 Updated July 29, 2023

Suicide King

The King of Hearts, holding a sword behind his head, is sometimes nicknamed the “Suicide King”. He can be seen to derive from a late medieval design showing a King wielding a battle axe.

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the king of hearts is often nicknamed the Suicide King

The Origin of the “Suicide King”

The “Suicide” King of Hearts derives from a medieval design showing a King wielding a battle axe

Many fanciful theories have been proposed regarding the origins of the court figures on our standard English playing cards. The fifteenth century cards of Pierre Marechal of Rouen, with their air of self-assurance, are the predecessors of our contemporary standard Anglo-American court cards which are now recognised world-wide. The early history of the development of different regional patterns is not always straightforward, so that as card makers migrated or copied each other, certain figures reoccur in patterns from other countries, even with different suit systems.

The King of Hearts, holding a sword behind his head, is sometimes nicknamed the “Suicide King”. He can be seen to derive from a late medieval design showing a King wielding a battle axe. All the important features can easily be recognised: the belt, the patterned cloak held by his hand and the stance showing one leg - except in the double-ended version. Sometimes cards were turned to face the other direction, but by around 1870 English cards were fixed with the suit symbol accommodated at the left-hand side to assist in fanning, or “squeezing” the cards in hand.

The 'Suicide' King of Hearts derives from a medieval design showing a King wielding a battle axe

Above: eight versions of the 'battle axe' king from various periods and locations, illustrating how the King of Hearts in modern standard playing cards derives from a late-medieval design. Top Row (left to right): 1) fifteenth century French. 2) Anglo-French, late 15th/early 16th century. 3) Spanish 16th century. 4) French 17th/18th century. Bottom Row: English cards from 17th century to late 19th century.

By around 1800 the battle axe seems to have been replaced by a sword which disappears behind the King's head. Curiously, in the double-ended version, the King of Hearts becomes the only four-handed court card.

A similar late medieval derivation can be shown for the remaining court cards in the English pack. Many of the attributes, or symbols of office, have changed or become unrecognisable over the years, but the basic features are still there. The question of whether they were facing left, right or straight forwards seems to be simply a matter of chance.

See also: Pierre Marechal of RouenEarly Anglo-French cardsPhelippe Ayet, c.1574Provence pattern17th Century Spanish cards from NavarraJoan Barbot, San Sebastian, c.1765Blanchard, c.1770


Update - the “Suicide King” today

Many new decks have fully custom court designs. However, the “Suicide King” is nearly always there.

Above: five examples of the “Suicide King” from contemporary decks, 2020s.


An interesting observation

screenshot from the Clint Eastwood film “For a Few Dollars More” (Set in 1872 and filmed in 1967 In Italy

Above is a screenshot from the Clint Eastwood film “For a Few Dollars More” (set in 1872 and filmed in 1967, mostly in Spain). The cards in the film are not consistent with 1872 period, and are merely 'modern' cards from the 1970s manufactured in Spain by Naipes Fournier. The “Suicide King” (King of hearts) with Jumbo indices is shown in play (cards in the 1870s had no indices). Thanks to Jay Holtslander for spotting this.

The Man With No Name Costume Information

The king holds his sword in his left hand, but a second left hand is also holding his coat. This idiosyncrasy is found only in Fournier's design.

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By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

Founder 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.


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