The History of Playing Cards in England

When was the last time you actually sat and thought about when or how something was created, or wondered where it came from? Recently I was watching a program about the Tudors that depicted them playing cards and I thought, I wonder what the history is behind playing cards?

Playing cards originated in 9th century China during the Tang dynasty. During the same time in England, Alfred the Great was the King of Wessex and had become the dominate king in England.

From China, playing cards spread to India and Persia and then to Egypt. In the second half of the 14th century they arrived in Europe. When playing cards arrived in England is not exactly documented, however, Ian Mortimer writes in, The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England that playing cards had not yet caught on in England in the 14th century, but soon would.

There is evidence of playing cards in an Act of Parliament during the reign of King Edward IV. Found, was a statuterelating to the status of alien merchants and to the protection of the manufacturers and tradesmen in London from foreign competition. This statute included the import of playing cards. Edward the IV ruled during the middle to late 15th century.

We often see playing cards depicted in historical fiction dramas like Showtime’s, “The Tudors”. Henry VIII is often seen in this TV series as playing cards with his queens.

Today we know playing cards as a way to pass idle time, whether it be with family or by playing solitaire of your computer.

These are the Cloister Playing Cards – the only known full set of playing cards that exist.The suits are in relation to equipment of the hunt. There are dog collars, tethers, gaming nooses, and hunting horns. In red are the collars and horns (2nd and 4th rows) and in blue the tethers and nooses (1st and 3rd rows).

The Cloisters Playing Cards
The Cloisters Playing Cards (1475-80)

A closer look at the cards:

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Needham, Joseph 2004. Science & Civilisation in China’. vol 1, Cambridge University Press, pages 131/2, 328, 334

The World of Playing Cards

Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons and Command, Volume 39, Part 1 page 14


1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. While playing cards with friends last Saturday, I once again wondered when..and who is depicted on the face cards? Which King, Queen, Prince/knave or–

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