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Playing cards have been with us since the 14th century, when they first entered popular culture. Over the centuries packs of cards, in all shapes and sizes, have been used for games, gambling, education, conjuring, advertising, fortune telling, political messages or the portrayal of national or ethnic identity. All over the world, whatever language is spoken, their significance is universal. Their popularity is also due to the imaginative artwork and graphic design which is sometimes overlooked, and the “then & now” of how things have changed.

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.

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

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By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

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Curator and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996.

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