Monday, October 19, 2009

Medieval Gambling

I'm back from the annual general meeting of the American Branch of the Richard III Society, which took place in, of all places, Las Vegas. Since the Saturday banquet was a costume-optional occasion, this gave me the opportunity to strut through a casino floor wearing a medieval gown and hennin, an opportunity I will surely not have again any time soon.

My fellow Woodvillians were either too busy with their fulfilling lives elsewhere to make it or hadn't had time to practice the secret Woodvillian handshake, but nonetheless it was a fun conference.

Anyway, I gave a presentation on medieval gambling, the text of which I've included below if you're interested. I didn't pass out at the podium from stage fright, which I always consider the mark of a successful presentation.

Oh, and my gambling losses--one dollar in the airport slot machine--were most unimpressive. (Getting to the conference via Airtran--my flight Friday was delayed, causing me to miss my connecting flight and have to spend seven hours in Atlanta waiting for the next available one--was quite a gamble enough!)

Plantagenets at Play: Gambling in Medieval England

Whether you were in a tavern, a ship, a solar in a great castle, or camped in a battlefield, no matter what your station in life, there was one way you could pass the time in medieval society: by gambling.

Games of chance, of course, have an ancient history, and cubic dice appeared as far back as the seventh century B.C. [1] There were many different sorts of dice games. Among the favorites were raffle, where the winner had to throw all three dice alike or the highest pair, and hazard, which seems to have been aptly named because it had the worst reputation. It was most often played in taverns, and it attracted cheaters, who if caught could be led to the pillory and made to wear their false dice around their necks. [2]

Crooked dice were quite common: the Museum of London has some examples, including a stash of dice bearing only high numbers or only low numbers and dice that had been weighted with drops of mercury. Such dice, the museum website reports, were called “fulhams,” apparently because “the Thames-side village of Fulham was notorious as the haunt of dice-sharpers.” [3]

On a more pleasant note, when Hugh le Barber claimed in 1307 to have been miraculously cured of blindness, he noted that he could once again see to play dice as well as chess. Commissioners sent to test his story reported that he could now see the points of a dice. [4] The apprentice in Chaucer’s Cook’s Tale was an accomplished dice player:

For in the toune nas ther no prentys
That fairer koude caste a paire of dys [5]

Dice was the simplest form of gambling, but it was by no means confined to the lower classes. The future Henry IV, one of the most well traveled of English kings, lost at dice at Calais, in Prussia, and at Danzig. [6] Henry VII was an especially avid gambler, as we shall see: dice was just one of the means by which he lost money. [7] John Howard, the future Duke of Norfolk, paid five pence for a “bale [that is, a pair] of dysse.” [8]

A close relation of dicing was a game called cross and pile, named for the two sides of a coin—in other words, “heads or tails.” One of the royal practitioners of this sport was the ill-fated Edward II, who had to borrow money from his barber and his usher to play at the game. This appalled a nineteenth-century antiquarian, who wrote that such pastimes would now be considered “insufferably low.” One can only wonder what the man would have made of Las Vegas. [9]

Checkers, or queek, was another way a gambler could be parted from his money. One enterprising soul designed a checkerboard with depressed squares so that those betting that their pebbles would land in a black or a white square would lose. The board was only profitable for a short time, however: it cost its proprietor an hour in Newgate for three consecutive days. [10]

Betting on horses was a perennial favorite, with John Howard, the future Duke of Norfolk, being a notable devotee. Howard also bet on cockfighting. [11]

Medieval people, in fact, could turn almost any type of recreation into a money-losing enterprise. Henry VII lost money at tennis and archery as well as traditional games of chance, [12] and the future Henry IV proved to be as unlucky at tables as he was at dice. [13] Even chess, the most respectable of medieval pastimes, could be bet upon. [14]

Fifteenth-century England did see one new arrival on the gaming front: cards. Though cards existed in tenth-century China, European playing cards apparently derived from Egyptian models. [15] In 1371, they are first mentioned in Spain, [16] and by 1377, both Florentine and Parisian officials had enacted restrictions on playing cards. [17]

It would be several decades before cards became popular in England. Chaucer, it has often been noted, never mentions them in his works. The earliest reference I have found in England is in 1413, and it has a good Yorkist pedigree.

Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, was uncle to Richard, Duke of York, and therefore a great-uncle of Edward IV and Richard III. He had a good claim to the throne and for that reason, Henry IV and Henry V kept a close eye on him. In the period from September 1413 to April 1414, the twenty-three-year-old was traveling in the company of Henry V—and losing over 157 pounds in gaming. Mortimer’s companions must have been delighted when the young lord proposed a game of chance, because the word perdebat—“lost”—occurs with distressing frequency in his household accounts. Mortimer lost at tables, raffle and chance, a game called devant (apparently a dicing game)—and at cards. [18]

Despite Mortimer’s enthusiasm for cards, it would be decades before another mention of them occurs in English sources. That is in 1459 in the Paston letters, where Margaret Paston reports that over Christmas, a widowed acquaintance forbade the members of her household to engage in dancing, harping, luting, singing, or “loud disports,” but permitted them to play tables, chess, and cards. [19]

In 1463, Edward IV’s Parliament forbid the importation of playing cards as well as the importation of dice and tennis balls, in an effort to protect English craftsmen. [20] This, as card expert David Parlett points out, suggests that they were being produced in England, although no English cards from this period have been found.

The following year, Edward IV secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, and at least one of the king’s new extended family members was a card player. In November 1464, when at Reading with the king, John Howard lent Eliza Scales, Anthony Woodville’s wife, eight shillings and four pence to play at cards. [21]

The early English cards did not bear the suits of spades, hearts, clubs, and diamonds that they do today; those suits made their first appearance on French cards in around 1470 and are accordingly referred to as the French suits. Parlett suggests that the early English cards bore what are known as Latin suitmarks: swords, clubs, cups, and coins. [22]

Though Parlett states that no English cards dating before 1590 have been found, [23] some earlier packs from other countries are extant. One of the most striking is a set from the Netherlands known as the Hunting Pack, which dates from about 1470 to 1480. The four suits in the 52-card pack consist of hunting accessories: bundles of cord, dog collars, double nooses, and hunting horns. Each suit has a king, queen, and jester and 10 numbered cards. The entire set can be seen in the Cloisters in New York. Its website indicates that other than Tarot cards, this is the only complete set of illuminated playing cards to survive from the fifteenth century. [24] One wonders if Margaret of York or her brothers might have seen this set!

Gambling, of course, is a social concern now, and was in medieval times as well. Most anti-gambling legislation in medieval England was aimed at ordinary people. During Richard I’s crusade of 1190, for instance, anyone below the degree of knight was prohibited from gambling. Knights and clergy, on the other hand, could play as long as they did not lose more than twenty shillings in a single day. If they did pass the twenty-shilling limit, they had to cough up one hundred shillings. Not surprisingly, Richard the Lionhearted and Philip of France were exempt. [25]

Edward IV’s first Parliament in 1461 was not only bad news for Lancastrians, but for card players. (Lancastrian card players must have been in particularly bleak spirits that year.) As part of a general crackdown on lawlessness, Parliament directed, “And also that no lord or other person of lower estate, condition or degree, whatever he may be, shall allow any dicing or playing at cards within his house, or wherever else he may prevent it, by any of his servants or others outside the twelve days of Christmas; and if any presume to do the contrary at any time, that he shall expel them from his house and service.” [26]

Again and again, medieval English kings forbade commoners from engaging in various pastimes, including football and dicing, ostensibly because it distracted them from practicing the archery skills they needed to defend their country. This must have been a losing proposition, since successive Parliaments kept passing such legislation. Edward IV himself had a second go at an anti-gaming law in 1478. The act, entitled “Closh” (a bowling game that Elizabeth Woodville’s ladies were spotted playing in 1472), conquers up a world straight out of the film Reefer Madness:

To the king our liege lord; the commons assembled in this present parliament pray, that where according to the laws of this land no person should play any unlawful games such as dice, quoits, football and similar games, but that every strong and able bodied person should practise archery because the defence of this land relies heavily on archers; contrary to which laws the said games and several newly invented games called closh, kayles, half-bowl, hand-in and hand-out, and checker-board are played daily in various parts of this land, both by persons of good repute and those of lesser estate, not virtuously-disposed, who fear neither to offend God by not attending divine service on holy days, nor to break the laws of this land, to their own impoverishment, and by their wicked incitement and encouragement they induce others to play such games so that they are completely stripped of their possessions and impoverished, setting a pernicious example to many of your lieges, if such unprofitable games are allowed to continue for long, because by such means many different murders, robberies and other most heinous felonies are frequently committed and perpetrated in various parts of this land, to the very great disquiet and trouble of many of your well-disposed lieges, and the unbearable loss of their goods: which players have daily been supported and favoured in their said misbehaviour by the officers and occupiers of various messuages, tenements, gardens and other places in which they play and pursue their said wicked and disgraceful games. [27]

Henry VII passed legislation in the same spirit. In 1495, his parliament decreed that “no apprentice, agricultural worker, labourer or employee in a craft shall play at the tables from 10 January next except for food and drink only, or at tennis, closh, dice, cards, bowls or any other illegal game in any way other than at Christmas, and at Christmas to play only in the dwelling house of his master or where the master of any of the said servants is present, upon pain of public imprisonment in the stocks for one day.” [28] Household ordinances also restricted gambling: in 1468, the servants of George, Duke of Clarence, were subject to dismissal if they played games for money, except during the twelve days of Christmas. [29]

Whereas commoners were the target of such legislation, kings and their offspring could gamble to their heart’s content, if they were so inclined. In 1377, mummers entertaining the future Richard II at Kennington played dice with the young prince for a ball of gold, a cup of gold, and a gold ring. Young Richard won each object, because the dice “were subtly made so that when the Prince threw he would win.” [30]

On the whole, however, in gaming, the House of Lancaster seems to be ahead of the House of York. Henry IV as Earl of Derby, we have seen, was quite fond of games. I have found nothing to indicate whether Henry V had a taste for gaming, but as young Edmund Mortimer suffered so many gambling losses while in that king’s company, it must have been common in his household. Despite his drearily pious reputation, Henry VI is known to have lost sums at gaming. [31]

Edward IV seems to have been fond of a board game called fox and geese, though whether he played it for stakes is not recorded. [32] He ordered “two foxes and fourty-six hounds of silver over-gilt to form two sets of merelles.” [33] Fox and geese (or in Edward IV’s case, fox and hounds?) was essentially a hunting game in which the fox captured the geese. [34] (Others who enjoyed the game were the monks of what became Gloucester Cathedral; a board was found cut into the benches there. [35])

Sadly, I have found no indication of whether Richard III was a gambler—unless, of course, one counts his fatal charge at Bosworth as a gamble. Charles Ross notes that he enjoyed hawking and commissioned his servants to search out new birds for him, [36] but there is no indication of his attitude toward even eminently respectable pastimes such as chess. It may or may not be significant that in his censorious account of Richard’s Christmas court of 1484, the Croyland chronicler complained that “too much attention was paid to singing and dancing and to vain exchanges of clothing between Queen Anne and Lady Elizabeth,” but did not mention gambling in his parade of horribles. [37]

Richard, however, was evidently not disposed to tolerate much frivolity among his common subjects. In May 1485, he sent a letter to James Herde, bailiff of the town and lordship of Ware, marshalling the archery argument and threatening the man with the loss of his position if he did not bring the locals into line:

Forsomoche as it is commen (to) unto oure knowlaige that diverse & many personnes inhabitants within oure said Towne whiche be of habilite in theire persones & expert in shoting approved a lawfulle game and necessarily requisite to be exercised for the defense of this oure Royalme refusing the same game applie theim customably to use carding dising Boling playing at the tenys Coyting picking and othre (unf) unlefulle and inhibited disportes. . . . marveling that ye have suffred any suche inconveyences soo to be used within youre Offices.

Those who continued to play the prohibited games after a warning (along with offenders caught taking hares, partridges, pheasants, and other game) were to be committed to prison to remain there at the king’s pleasure. [38] Whether Herde managed to bring his unruly town into line is unknown.

Henry VII, who has been rather unfairly saddled with a reputation as a miser, was quite fond of gaming. Extracts from his accounts aptly demonstrate the willingness with which he was parted from his money through playing cards, dice, tennis, and even chess:

To the King to pley at cardes, £5.

To the King which he lost at cardes, £4.

For a par of tables and dise bought, 1s. 4d.

To the King for his losse at cards, £2.

To a Spaynyard the tenes pleyer, £4.

To Sir Charles Somerset for the Kinges losse at tenes, to Sir
Robert Curson, with the balls, £1. 7s. 8d.

To the King for pleying at the cards, £3.

To Hugh Denes for the Kinges losse at tenes, 14s. and for a
silke girdle, 6s. 8d.—£1. 0s. 8d.

For the Kinges losse at the paune pley, 7s. 8d.

To the Kinges grace to play at the cardes, in gold, £20., in
grotts, l00s. in grotts, £19., and in grotes, 60s.

To the new pleyer at tenes, £4.

To Jakes Haute for the tenes playe, £10.

For the Kinges losse at cardes at Tawnton, £9.

To Hugh Denes for the Kinges pley at dice upon Friday last
passed, £7. 15s.

To the Kinges losse at cardes at Hegecote, 3s. 4d.

For the Kinges losse at tenes, 8s.

Delivered the Kinges grace for play on Sonday at night,
£1. 13s. 4d.

To my Lorde of York to pley at dice, £3. 6s. 8d.

For the Kinges losse at chesse, 13s. 4d.
To Weston for the King to pley at cleke at Burton-opon-
Trent, £2. [39]

On one occasion, Henry VII lost half a mark at cards to his seven-year-old son Henry. [40] The future Henry VIII did rather better than his older brother Arthur, who lost forty shillings in 1496. [41] The Tudor family matriarch, Margaret Beaufort, was not above wagering herself. Michael Jones and Malcolm Underwood report that she “sent a man of Buckden to go on pilgrimage on her behalf whilst she gambled at blank or cards”! [42]

Elizabeth of York’s privy purse expenses from the last year of her life show her to have been an avid player as well. In August 1502, 10 shillings were delivered to her for “tabuls”; in October 1502, Lady Guildford delivered 13 shillings and 4 pence for the queen to play at dice. In December, the queen received 100 shillings “for hure disporte at cardes this Cristmas.” [43]

The subject of Elizabeth of York and cards leaves us with a final question: Was Elizabeth the “playing card queen”? This has been stated as fact many times, including by an authority no less august than The Weekly World News, [44] but there seems to be little or no evidence to support this proposition, other than the vague resemblance between Elizabeth of York’s most famous portrait and the stylized queen that appears on modern playing cards. Parlett makes no mention of Elizabeth of York. The International Playing-Card Society’s website states that Anglo-American cards take their design from the patterns used in Rouen in the 1400’s, where the kings, queens, and jacks mainly represent named figures from antiquity, although some of the names may have become corrupted over time. [45] Notably, in a fifteenth-century French set, the Queen of Diamonds clutches a flower, just as do Elizabeth of York and the Queen of Hearts in English decks. [46] Unfortunately, then, it seems as if the story of Elizabeth of York inspiring the Queen of Hearts must be consigned to the stuff of legend, though we can take comfort in the fact that the queen did enjoy a good game of cards nonetheless.


John Ashton, The History of Gambling in England. London: Duckworth & Co., 1898.

Samuel Bentley, Excerpta Historica, or, Illustrations of English History. London: Richard Bentley, 1831.

S. B. Chrimes, Henry VII. Yale University Press, 1999.

Anne Crawford, intro., Howard Household Books. Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton, 1992.

James Gairdner, ed., The Paston Letters. Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1983 (reprint of 1904 edition).

C. Given-Wilson et al., eds., The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England. CD-ROM. Scholarly Digital Editions, Leicester: 2005.

R. A. Griffiths, The Reign of King Henry VI. Gloucestershire: Sutton, 2004.

Francis Grose and Thomas Astle, eds., The Antiquarian Repertory, Vol. 4. London: 1784.

Rosemary Horrox and P. W. Hammond, eds., British Library Harleian Manuscript 433. Gloucester: Richard III Society, 1979.

Michael K. Jones and Malcolm G. Underwood, The King’s Mother: Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby. Cambridge University Press, 1995 (reprint).

Teresa McLean, The English at Play in the Middle Ages. Berkshire: The Kensal Press, 1983.

Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. London: Bodley Head, 2008.

Nicholas Harris Nicolas, ed., Privy Purse Expenses of Elizabeth of York. London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1972 (reprint of 1830 edition).

Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children. Yale University Press, 2003 (paperback edition).

David Parlett, The Oxford Guide to Card Games. Oxford University Press, 1990.

Nicholas Pronay and John Cox, eds., The Crowland Chronicle Continuations: 1459–1486. London: Richard III and Yorkist History Trust, 1986.

Compton Reeves, Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval England. Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1995.

Charles Ross, Richard III. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981.

C. M. Woolgar, The Great Household in Medieval England. Yale University Press, 1999.

C. M. Woolgar, ed., Household Accounts from Medieval England, Part 2. Oxford University Press, 1993.

C. M. Woolgar, The Senses in Late Medieval England. Yale University Press, 2006.

[1] McLean, p. 102.
[2] McLean, pp. 103-04.
[4] Woolgar, Senses, pp. 185-86.
[5] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales.
[6] McLean, p. 104. A detailed record of Henry’s gaming can be found in Lucy Toulmin Smith, ed., Expeditions to Prussia and the Holy Land Made by Henry, Earl of Derby . . . in the Years 1390-1 and 1392-3. Camden Society, 1894.
[7] Chrimes, p. 306.
[8] Crawford, vol. II, pp. 327, 524.
[9] Grose and Astle, pp. 406-08.
[10] McLean, p. 105.
[11] McLean, p. 22-23; Crawford, vol. 1, p. 227.
[12] Chrimes, p. 306.
[13] McLean, p. 108.
[14] McLean, p. 117.
[15] Parlett, pp. 38-40
[16] Parlett, p. 35.
[17] Parlett, pp. 36-37.
[18] Woolgar, Household Accounts, pp. 592-94.
[19] Parlett, p. 46; Paston Letters, vol. vi, 78-79. Gairdner dates the letter in 1484, but as Parlett points out, it appears to be from an earlier time.
[20] Parliament Rolls, April 1463, Edward IV; Parlett, p. 46.
[21] Crawford, vol. I, pp. 480-481.
[22] Parlett, p. 43, 46. For an illustration of some French cards of the late fifteenth century, see
[23] Parlett, p. 46.
[24] Another view of the cards can be seen at
[25] Ashton, p. 13.
[26] Parliament Rolls, November 1461, Edward IV.
[27] Parliament Rolls, January 1478, Edward IV.
[28] Parliament Rolls, October 1495, Henry VII.
[29] Woolgar, Great Household, p. 44.
[30] See also Mortimer, p. 253.
[31] Griffiths, pp. 250, 269 n. 99.
[32] Reeves, pp. 76-77,
[33] McLean, p. 110.
[34] Id.
[35] Reeves, p. 77.
[36] Ross, p. 142.
[37] Pronay and Cox, p. 175.
[38] Horrox and Hammond, vol. 2, p. 219.
[39] Taken from Bentley, pp. 85-133.
[40] Woolgar, Great Household, p. 101.
[41] Orme, p. 178.
[42] Jones and Underwood, p. 158.
[43] Nicolas, pp. 42, 52, 84.
[44] ‘Every Poker Player Knows This Gal!” Weekly World News, July 6, 1993, p. 28. Page 7 of same issue informs the reader, “Space Alien Graveyard Found!”
[45] See also Parlett, pp. 44-45.


Marg said...

Very interesting speech Susan! And well done on delivering it without any mishaps!

Carla said...

What an interesting lecture! Thank you for posting the text. I admit, I was surprised to learn that Henry VII was a gambler; it's an interesting contrast with his reputation.

Alianore said...

That's so interesting about Henry VII! I had no idea he was such a gambling man.

Gabriele C. said...

Well, everyone needs a vice. :)

Very interesting post, Susan, thanks for sharing.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Thanks, all! I'll be posting come more of Henry VII's expenses later; they're quite in contract to the stereotypical view of him as a joyless miser.

Karen said...

Interesting article; I hadn't read Henry's gambling records before. There's some more images of medieval dice-games (and other forms of gaming) linked from as well, by the way!

Susan Higginbotham said...

Thanks, Karen! I looked at your site a lot when I was searching for illustrations for the visual part, and I mentioned it in my talk as a useful resource.

Lady D. said...

Absolutely fascinating. I wonder what they would have made of the Playstations and Wiis of today?