Tennis fever at the Restoration Court

As normal during Wimbledon, the country has been tennis mad for the past ten days, and with Murray in today’s semi-finals this will only get worse! Dr Stuart Handley takes a look back at another time when tennis fever hit: at the Court of Charles II…

As all eyes are on SW19, one should perhaps reflect upon the popularity of the game of tennis among British political leaders – Tony Blair, David Cameron and Nick Clegg – and even to those of a much earlier period. During the Restoration, the game’s forerunner was extremely popular with the political classes.

For Charles II’s courtiers, skill at tennis gave them both a political and social advantage. Although the Restoration began with the tennis court at the Cockpit being converted into a chapel for the duke of Albemarle in July 1660, soon tennis was in vogue. Prowess in the game was likely to draw one to the attention of the King, a keen player. Thus, the duke of Ormonde’s sons, Thomas Butler, earl of Ossory and Richard Butler, earl of Arran, both English peers, were often to be found with racquet in hand.

In May 1671 Ossory partnered the king to a four-set victory over Prince Rupert and a Monsieur Le Grand, one of a number of visiting French dignitaries. However, the English summer had not been so kind to him a few years before. On 30 July 1667 Ossory reported to his father that he had played so often with the King at tennis he had had caught a cold in the process – perhaps demonstrating that ‘Wimbledon weather’ has a much longer history than we normally think!

Ossory’s brother, Arran, was described by the Count of Grammont as having ‘a singular address in all kinds of exercises, played well at tennis and on the guitar, and was pretty successful in gallantry.’ Political life was not allowed to get in the wayof the game, of course. On 30 Aug. 1678 he jokingly wrote from London to Secretary of State Coventry at Windsor:

I ask your pardon for not taking my leave of you when I left Windsor.  Nothing but so weighty an affair as a tennis match could have hindered me.

Nor did Arran limit his activities to London – from Dublin he wrote to his father in September 1683 of a bang on the head while playing tennis, but with so little hurt that he hoped ‘tomorrow to make an end of the buck-hunting season in this Park.’

Let us hope for no further injuries in this year’s Wimbledon, and the weather continues for the tennis!


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