Once upon a time, in a land before COVID, people around the world enjoyed a pastime called “sports”. For thousands of years, athletic events have brought people of all ages, races, religions, and backgrounds together. It also did the same among Royal courts, where oftentimes it was the only interaction the peasantry would have with the aristocracy. With the Summer Olympics delayed until further notice, we decided to fill the void by exploring favorite athletic pastimes enjoyed by Royals.
Let’s start with perhaps the most iconic sport associated with the British royal family – polo.
Who among us hasn’t swooned over photos of William and Harry on horseback, while Kate and Meghan cheer from the sidelines in outfits we immediately coveted? Despite what we know of polo’s popularity among the British elite, the game actually originated in Persia (or Iran), somewhere between the 6th Century BC and the 1st Century AD. First played as a military training exercise, the Persian court soon picked it up. King Khosrow II and his queen were known to be polo fans – that’s right, even in the 6th Century BC women were allowed to play! Over the next several hundred years, the game made its way across Asia and into India where it was picked up by British soldiers in the 1860s.
Jea de paume (Tennis…sort of)
Before tennis as we know it, the game was played indoors and with hands instead of racquets. “Jea de paume” originated in France and fittingly means “palm game”. By the late 17th century, the game had evolved to resemble more of today’s tennis, and it was extremely popular in the court of Louis XIV. Tennis also took on symbolic importance for the French. On June 20, 1789, a group of men met at the Royal Tennis Court of Versailles to make an oath to fight together. Today, the Royal Tennis Court is often thought of in relation to the beginnings of the French Revolution. Not a bad rallying cry (sorry I had to).
Honestly, I am so desperate for sports right now that I would happily watch this. Pigeons, despite the bad rap they get, have actually been quite useful throughout history. Long before the age of telephones, pigeons were used as messengers by everyone from the Egyptians to Genghis Khan. In the early 1800’s, Belgium turned its pigeons from workers to athletes – pigeons were released hundreds of miles from their home base and the first bird to return was crowned the winner. Thrilling! In 1886, King Leopold II of Belgium (this guy makes Henry VIII look like a saint, by the way) gave racing pigeons to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Today Queen Elizabeth II owns several Royal pigeon lofts and just last year, a man in China paid $1.4 million for one of these birds! So think about that the next time you turn your nose up at a pigeon as you’re walking the streets of New York City – with the right training, that bird could be worth a fortune.
I could write an entire blog post on the origins of golf and who claims to have invented it, but I’m on summer vacation, so for the purposes of this, we are going to focus on Scotland. It’s no secret that golf has historically been a sport of the privileged, so unsurprisingly, it took off in popularity because of James IV of Scotland’s patronage. James’ granddaughter, Mary Queen of Scots, was the games’ first recorded female player and her love of the game was used against her. Mary’s first husband was assassinated in 1567 and many had always suspected that the Queen had played a part in the plot. Only days after his death, Mary went golfing, which wasn’t a good look for someone who people were already suspicious of (hint: my father hitting the links anytime the house needs cleaning). Twenty years later, her ill-timed outing on the course was brought up again when she was on trial for the attempted murder of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII). She was found guilty and beheaded.
Ahh, my least favorite “sport”, but worthy of noting because there is perhaps no more universal a sport among royalty than the hunting and killing of innocent animals. From Mughal Emperor Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Akbar’s safaris and tiger hunts, to boar and fox hunting in Europe, if it was an animal who could run or fly, chances are that a king or queen has tried to kill it. And although meant to be a fun pastime, it was also a cause of many deaths – King William II of England died from an arrow to the chest while hunting in 1100. Christian V of Denmark died in 1699 after an unfortunate hunting accident. Robert Baratheon, ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, “accidentally” died after being gored by a boar… ok fine he was a fictional king, but it was an entirely plausible scenario! Not all royals are fans of hunting however; our Kween Meghan Markle, an animal lover, did not buy into the tradition during her tenure as the Duchess of Sussex.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Pigeon Racing.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 3 Nov. 2016, http://www.britannica.com/sports/pigeon-racing.
“The Game.” The Royal Tennis Court, http://www.royaltenniscourt.com/the-game.
Gillmeister, Heiner, and Francis Moran. “Golf.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 30 Apr. 2020, http://www.britannica.com/sports/golf.
Guynup, Sharon. “A Concise History of Tiger Hunting in India.” National Geographic Society Newsroom, 15 Dec. 2017, blog.nationalgeographic.org/2014/03/10/a-concise-history-of-tiger-hunting-in-india/.
Latham, Richard C. “Polo.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 7 May 2020, http://www.britannica.com/sports/polo.
“Royal Captains.” The R&A – Royal Captains, http://www.randa.org/Heritage/The-Royal-Ancient/Royal-Captains.
“The Royal Pigeon Racing Association.” The Premier Organisation for Pigeon Racing in the UK, http://www.rpra.org/pigeon-history/the-royal-connection/.
“The Royal Tennis Court.” Palace of Versailles, 26 Dec. 2017, en.chateauversailles.fr/discover/estate/royal-tennis-court.
Women’s Golf Journal. “Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden – a History • Women’s Golf Journal.” Women’s Golf Journal, 1 Aug. 2017, womensgolfjournal.com/golf/no-women-allowed/.
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