Historically Speaking: The Royal Origins of Tennis

The strict etiquette at Wimbledon and other tournaments is a reminder that the sport’s first players were French kings and aristocrats.

The Wall Street Journal

June 15, 2023

For the 136th Wimbledon Championships, opening on July 3, lady competitors will be allowed to ignore the all-white clothing rule for the first time—though only as it applies to their undergarments. Tennis may never be the same.

The break with tradition is all the more surprising given the sport’s penchant for strict etiquette rules and dress codes. The earliest recorded version of tennis was a type of handball played by medieval monks in France. Called “jeu de paume,” “game of the palm,” it involved hitting a leather ball against the cloister wall.

Thomas Fuchs

As the sport spread beyond the monastic world, it gained a new name, “tenez,” the French word for “receive.” It had instant social cachet, since it could only be played in large, high-walled courtyards, thus narrowing the pool of players to kings and aristocrats.

Early “tenez” was not without its dangers. Legend has it that King Louis X of France, who introduced the first covered courts, took ill and died after an overly strenuous match in 1316. In 1498 another French king, Charles VIII, suffered an untimely end after banging his head on a lintel while hurrying to his tennis court.

By the 16th century, the game had evolved into something in between modern squash and tennis. Players used angled wooden rackets, and the ball could be bounced off the walls and sloping roof as well as hit over the net. This version, known as real or royal tennis, is still played at a small number of courts around the world.

The Royal Tennis Court at King Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace, outside London, was the most luxurious in Europe, but the sophisticated surroundings failed to elevate on-court behavior. In 1541, Sir Edmund Knyvett was condemned to have his hand chopped off for striking his opponent and drawing blood. Henry ended up granting him a reprieve—more than he did for wives two and five.

The association of tennis with royal privilege hastened its demise in the 18th century. On June 20, 1789, Louis XVI’s tennis court at Versailles hosted one of the most important events of the French Revolution. The new National Assembly gathered there after being locked out of its premises, and made a pledge, the Tennis Court Oath, not to disband until France had a constitution. It was a very brave or very foolish person who played the game after that.

Modern tennis—known at first as “lawn tennis,” since it was played on a grass court—began to emerge in the 1870s, when an eccentric British Army major named Walter Clopton Wingfield invented a version of the game using rubber balls. His name for it—“Sphairistike,” from the Greek word for ball playing—never caught on. But the social opportunities offered by tennis made it extremely popular among the upper classes.

The exclusive All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon, whose championships began in 1877, inspired imitators on both sides of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, many tennis players expended nearly as much effort keeping the “wrong sort” out as they did keeping the ball in. For years, the major tennis tournaments offered no prizes and were only open to amateurs, meaning the wealthy. Professionals were relegated to a separate circuit.

Tennis’s own revolution took place in 1968, following sustained pressure from players and fans for the Grand Slam Tournaments to be open to all competitors. Fifty-five years on, the barricades—and the barriers—are still coming down.

Historically Speaking: A Palace Open to the People

From the Pharaohs to Queen Victoria, royal dwellings have been symbols of how rulers think about power.

Every summer, Queen Elizabeth II opens the state rooms of Buckingham Palace to the public. This year’s opening features an exhibition that I curated, “Queen Victoria’s Palace,” the result of a three-year collaboration with Royal Collection Trust. The exhibition uses paintings, objects and even computer-generated imagery to show how Victoria transformed Buckingham Palace into both a family home and the headquarters of the monarchy. In the process, she modernized not only the building itself but also the relationship between the Royal Family and the British people.

Plenty of rulers before Victoria had built palaces, but it was always with a view to enhancing their power rather than sharing it. Consider Amarna in Egypt, the temple-palace complex created in the 14th century B.C. by Amenhotep IV, better known as Akhenaten. Supported by his beautiful wife Nefertiti, the heretical Akhenaten made himself the head of a new religion that revered the divine light of the sun’s disk, the Aten.

The Great Palace reflected Akhenaten’s megalomania: The complex featured vast open air courtyards where the public was required to engage in mass worship of the Pharaoh and his family. Akhenaten’s palace was hated as much as his religion, and both were abandoned after his death.

Weiyang, the Endless Palace, built in 200 B.C. in western China by the Emperor Gaozu, was also designed to impart a religious message. Until its destruction in the 9th century by Tibetan invaders, Weiyang extended over two square miles, making it the largest imperial palace in history. Inside, the halls and courtyards were laid out along specific axial and symmetrical lines to ensure that the Emperor existed in harmony with the landscape and, by extension, with his people. Each chamber was ranked according to its proximity to the Emperor’s quarters; every person knew his place and obligations according to his location in the palace.

Western Europe had nothing comparable to Weiyang until King Louis XIV built the Palace of Versailles in 1682. With its unparalleled opulence—particularly the glittering Hall of Mirrors—and spectacular gardens, Versailles was a cult of personality masquerading as architecture. Louis, the self-styled Sun King at the center of this artificial universe, created a living stage where seeing and being seen was the highest form of social currency.

The offstage reality was grimmer. Except for the royal family’s quarters, Versailles lacked even such basic amenities as plumbing. The cost of upkeep swallowed a quarter of the government’s annual tax receipts. Louis XIV’s fantasy lasted a century before being swept away by the French Revolution in 1789.

Although Victoria would never have described herself as a social revolutionary, the many changes she made to Buckingham Palace were an extraordinary break with the past. From the famous balcony where the Royal Family gathers to share special occasions with the nation, to the spaces for entertaining that can welcome thousands of guests, the revitalized palace created a more inclusive form of royal architecture. It sidelined the old values of wealth, lineage, power and divine right to emphasize new ones based on family, duty, loyalty and patriotism. Victoria’s palace was perhaps less awe-inspiring than its predecessors, but it may prove to be more enduring.

Historically Speaking: The Tradition of Telling All

From ancient Greece to modern Washington, political memoirs have been irresistible source of gossip about great leaders

The Wall Street Journal, November 30, 2018


The tell-all memoir has been a feature of American politics ever since Raymond Moley, an ex-aide to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, published his excoriating book “After Seven Years” while FDR was still in office. What makes the Trump administration unusual is the speed at which such accounts are appearing—most recently, “Unhinged,” by Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former political aide to the president.

Spilling the beans on one’s boss may be disloyal, but it has a long pedigree. Alexander the Great is thought to have inspired the genre. His great run of military victories, beginning with the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C., was so unprecedented that several of his generals felt the urge—unknown in Greek literature before then—to record their experiences for posterity.

Unfortunately, their accounts didn’t survive, save for the memoir of Ptolemy Soter, the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, which exists in fragments. The great majority of Roman political memoirs have also disappeared—many by official suppression. Historians particularly regret the loss of the memoirs of Agrippina, the mother of Emperor Nero, who once boasted that she could bring down the entire imperial family with her revelations.

The Heian period (794-1185) in Japan produced four notable court memoirs, all by noblewomen. Dissatisfaction with their lot was a major factor behind these accounts—particularly for the anonymous author of ‘The Gossamer Years,” written around 974. The author was married to Fujiwara no Kane’ie, the regent for the Emperor Ichijo. Her exalted position at court masked a deeply unhappy private life; she was made miserable by her husband’s serial philandering, describing herself as “rich only in loneliness and sorrow.”

In Europe, the first modern political memoir was written by the Duc de Saint-Simon (1675-1755), a frustrated courtier at Versailles who took revenge on Louis XIV with his pen. Saint-Simon’s tales hilariously reveal the drama, gossip and intrigue that surrounded a king whose intellect, in his view, was “beneath mediocrity.”

But even Saint-Simon’s memoirs pale next to those of the Korean noblewoman Lady Hyegyeong (1735-1816), wife of Crown Prince Sado of the Joseon Dynasty. Her book, “Memoirs Written in Silence,” tells shocking tales of murder and madness at the heart of the Korean court. Sado, she writes, was a homicidal psychopath who went on a bloody killing spree that was only stopped by the intervention of his father King Yeongjo. Unwilling to see his son publicly executed, Yeongjo had the prince locked inside a rice chest and left to die. Understandably, Hyegyeong’s memoirs caused a huge sensation in Korea when they were first published in 1939, following the death of the last Emperor in 1926.

Fortunately, the Washington political memoir has been free of this kind of violence. Still, it isn’t just Roman emperors who have tried to silence uncomfortable voices. According to the historian Michael Beschloss, President John F. Kennedy had the White House household staff sign agreements to refrain from writing any memoirs. But eventually, of course, even Kennedy’s secrets came out. Perhaps every political leader should be given a plaque that reads: “Just remember, your underlings will have the last word.”