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Early civilizations
6th - 1st century BC
1st - 12th century AD
13th - 16th century
     Royal tennis
     Draughts in Spain

17th - 18th century
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Bowls: from the 13th century

The throwing or rolling of stones to hit a mark is certainly among the earliest of human pastimes, but the intention has usually been to knock down the target - as in skittles or modern ten-pin bowling. In medieval Britain a different version of the same idea develops. The purpose now is to roll a round object on grass towards a mark, with the winner being the one who ends up closest.

The earliest images of this kind of bowls feature in English manuscripts of the 13th century. The earliest recorded reference to a bowling green relates to Southampton in 1299, and it is claimed that an annual tournament still held in the town goes back to that time.


The early game is most famous for the legendary moment when Francis Drake is supposedly playing on Plymouth Hoe in 1588. He is urged to hurry when news comes of the approach of the Armada, but he coolly replies: 'There is plenty of time to win this game and to thrash the Spanish too.'

The game is taken most seriously in Scotland, in effect as a summer alternative to curling. Standardized rules for the game are first established in Scotland in 1849, and it is largely Scottish emigrants who spread it through the British empire later in the 19th century.


Royal tennis: from the 14th century

The origins of royal tennis, also known as court tennis, are accurately reflected in both names. The game is a popular sport of the kings of France and of their courtiers by the 14th century. And it is first played in open courtyards.

The early players use racquets to hit balls back and forth above a fringed rope stretched loosely across a courtyard. Details of courtyard architecture, such as the sloping roofs of covered walkways from which the ball bounces back into play, remain a feature of tennis courts after they become purpose-built for the game.


The heyday of royal tennis is the 16th century. By the 1590s there are said to be some 250 tennis courts in Paris. An English visitor comments that there are more tennis players in France 'than ale-drinkers with us'.

But the English aristocracy of this same century is also addicted to the game. Henry VIII is a particularly keen player. He builds a court for himself in 1532 at Hampton Court (the one still in use there today dates from 1625 in the reign of Charles I, another enthusiast). Though inevitably a minority sport, the game continues to be played - particularly in France, Britain and the United States. Meanwhile the majority are well content with the ancient game's modern offspring, lawn tennis.


Curling: from the 16th century

Curling, a version of bowls on ice, is well established by the 16th century in two wintry regions of northwest Europe - Scotland and the Netherlands. The game involves sliding an object across the ice towards a fixed mark. Unlike in bowls, the player is allowed to affect the progress of the object towards its mark - either by sweeping the ice clear in front of it (to extend its course) or by brushing surface slush into its path for the opposite effect.

In Scotland the game is played with smooth heavy stones, known as granites, held by a handle attached to the top. The earliest curling stone to have been discovered carries the date 1511.


No such stones have been found in the Netherlands, where the first depictions of the game appear in the mid-16th century in paintings by Pieter Brueghel. It is probable therefore that the early Dutch and Flemish players use lumps of frozen earth or even ice for their stones, with a piece of wood frozen in as the handle.

The earliest book on curling, written by a Scottish minister, John Ramsay, is published in 1811. In 1838 the Grand Caledonian Curling Club is founded in Edinburgh 'to unite curlers throughout the world'.


Draughts in Spain: 1547

The first book on the game of draughts, or checkers, is written in 1547 by Antonio Torquemada. The game is no doubt at this time already ancient, but it is more sophisticated than the very earliest board games, differing from them in two respects. In the Egyptian senet, or in backgammon, the players use all the marked areas of the board, and the purpose is to remove all one's own pieces before the opponent succeeds in removing his.

In draughts, by contrast, only half the squares are used (the black ones). And, like chess and go, this game is warfare. The aim is not to evacuate the field but to remain in undisputed possession of it.


Billiards: 16th - 19th century

One of the minor irritations of her captivity, complains Mary Queen of Scots in 1576, is that her billiard table has been removed. The game is popular in 16th-century France, where Mary probably acquires a taste for it, and it is imported from there into England. The game is played at the time with just two balls, which are struck with the edge of an implement resembling a hockey stick. The table is of wood covered in a green woollen cloth, and the cushions are stuffed with strips of felt.

Early prints show some tables with pockets, others with obstacles on the cloth such as hoops, pegs or miniature military fortifications.


The modern form of billiard cue, using the tip to strike the ball, emerges in about 1760, and the third ball is introduced in France some fifteen years later. But other familiar features must await the 19th century. Rubber cushions and the heavy slate bed of the table are novelties in the 1830s.

By this time the game is taken sufficiently seriously in Britain for there to be an acknowledged champion, Jonathan Kentfield, who holds his position for a quarter of a century until 1849. In the late 19th century a billiards room is an indispensable part of any rich man's household. But by then the game which will effectively replace billiards is already making a quiet start - as snooker.


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