Many of the stories of the 1632 Universe relate to the flow of ideas—technological and social—from the up-timers to the down-timers. But the flow can be in the other direction, too. My story "The Chase" (Ring of Fire 2) relates how the up-timers learn about the ancient form of tennis—Royal Tennis—from Thomas Hobbes and William Cavendish.


In the Renaissance, tennis was truly the Game of Kings. Its royal proponents included Henry IV and Louis XIII of France, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, and Henry VIII, Charles I and Charles II of England. Charles I (reigned 1625-49) was willing to rise at five or six in the morning in order to get in a set of tennis.

But the royals weren't the only fans. There were tennis courts associated with several universities and academies. English yeomen were rebuked for swinging rackets instead of practicing their archery. In 1451, the Bishop of Exeter threatened to excommunicate the canons and their secular confederates who played tennis in the churchyard of Saint Mary's. In 1558, British hatters and joiners were observed playing tennis for a stake of one crown.

In 1590, King Henry IV played tennis against the bakers of Nantes. They won, and refused his request for a rematch. The next day, the king announced that the price of bread in Nantes would be one and half pennies to the loaf. The bakers promptly apologized. (Aberdare, 37)


The game the up-timers call tennis was known, until recently, as lawn tennis. While the Wimbledon tournament is still played on a grass court, most modern outdoor tennis courts now use other surfaces: red clay, green clay, or cement. Moreover, the modern game can be played indoors. Given that the old name is now a misnomer, and the original form of tennis is now somewhat obscure, it is not surprising that "lawn tennis" is now known simply as "tennis."

This forced the remaining proponents of the older game to come up with a distinctive name for it. It is called "real tennis" (U.K.), "court tennis" (America), "royal tennis" (Australia) and jeu de paume (France). I will follow William's example and use the term "royal tennis" here.

Since lawn tennis was invented in 1873, any reference to "tennis" before that year is actually to the older game.

Tennis Geography

France was the heartland of seventeenth-century royal tennis. Even small towns could have a court. In Orleans, there were sixty. The estimates of the number of tennis courts in Paris, circa 1600, range from 250 to 1,800; Sir Robert Dallington was sure that there were two tennis courts for every church. (Aberdare, 38; Squires, 12). Some form of tennis was also played in Italy, England, Scotland, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the Holy Roman Empire.

As of 1632, there were tennis courts in several towns of the Holy Roman Empire, including Vienna (two-1526, 1552), Salzburg (1620s?), Augsburg (1548), Frankfurt, Nurnberg, Halle, Heidelberg (two-built 1548, 1618), Munich, Kassel, Tubingen (1592?), Ingoldstadt (1593/4), Strasbourg (two-first in 1603), Ziegenhain, Basle, Marburg, Darmstadt, Butzbach, Giessen, Lubeck, Jever, Cologne (1595), Oldenburg, Buckeburg and Prague (1568). The last court was used by Wallenstein in 1604.

The first Swedish court was built at the behest of Eric XIV (1560-8). I don't know its fate, but another royal court was built in 1627, for Gustavus Adolphus.

Hobbes and Tennis

Thomas Hobbes played tennis even when he was in his seventies. John Aubrey said that this occurred "twice or thrice a year," while Samuel de Sorbiere has the elderly Hobbes on the court "once a week." Both men knew him personally.

Presumably, Hobbes learned the game when he was at Oxford (Magdalen Hall). There were at least four courts on the university grounds.

The poet George Wither was a fellow Magdalen student, and in 1604, "he found more delight in 'practice at the tennis-ball' than in practice at 'old Scotus, Seton, and new Keckerman.'" (Littell's The Living Age, 174, July-Sept. 1890). In 1628, a Fellow of Merton wrote that the marks of the seniority of a university man were "the bare velvet of his gown and his proficiency in tennis, where when he can once play a set, he is a freshman no more." (17C tennis, 46)

After receiving his B.A. in 1608, Hobbes "associated" at Cambridge — possibly because his first pupil and companion, William's father, was attending that university. At Cambridge, he would have had ample opportunity to feed a tennis addiction; there were at least eleven courts at that school. (Aberdare, 46).

I have not found any indication of whether the historical William Cavendish played the game. However, in the story, he attends a French academy, and would certainly have had tennis lessons there.

The Court

Tennis was first played outdoors. In France, once indoor courts were built, the game played outside was called longue paume (the long game), and the indoor version courte paume (the short game)(Squires 10).

The outdoor game was initially associated with monasteries, and most (but by no means all) authorities believe that the game was invented by monks.

A standard feature of monastery architecture is the cloister, a square or rectangular courtyard flanked on each side by a "penthouse," a gallery with a sloped roof. In the monastery, the galleries were animal stalls, or colonnaded walks, but in the dedicated tennis court, they provided space for spectators. Some openings became winning openings, while others, if targeted, led to a special proceeding (the "chase").

When the game was played in the cloisters, you needed either lots of players on each side, or an out-of-bounds line. Even with the line, you had to run after the ball a lot.

This ad hoc court posed other problems. Antonio Scaino (1555) soberly considers what to do if one of the shots touches a passing cart, and is then returned. His judgment is that if the ball bounced up, or was still rolling, as a result of the original impetus, then it remained in play. However, if the ball had come to a stop, and was then "scooped up," then the ball was dead at wherever the cart had been when the ball came to rest (61). I wonder what John McEnroe would have made of that call.

Noblemen sent their children to study in the monastery, and the kids took the game home with them and, as adults, built courts designed for tennis. Initially, these looked like half-built cloisters, with penthouses on three sides.

The customized courts replaced the out-of-bound line with a wall (now called the "main wall"), reducing the time wasted hunting for errant balls. But it was still possible to hit the ball so it sailed right over the penthouse, and that was inconvenient. The solution was to surround the penthouses with high walls.

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