Court Cards with French Pips

By M. K. Van Rensselaer.

As early as 1656, according to the writers of the day, a pack of cards was called in England, “a pair of cards,” which was evidently derived from the Italian, Paio, as the combined Atout and numbered cards, or the two volumes of the book of Thoth Hermes Trismegistus, were occasionally called in Italy. The importation of cards was prohibited in England in 1463, by Act 11, Henry VII, as local productions were to be encouraged, so foreign cards are seldom found in England.

Sometimes the collection of fifty-two cards, adopted from the French, was called “a stock,” notably in the play of “The Three Ladies of London,” where one of them says: “Now, all the cards in the Stock are dealt about.” But the word is now only applied when it is wished to designate those cards left after a hand has been dealt, although they are more commonly called “the widow,” or “the forsaken one.” In Queen Elizabeth’s day, a pack of cards was called “a bunch,” and Shakespeare terms them “a deck,” which designation is still used in Scotland and in parts of the United States.

The designs on the cards representing the numbers are technically termed pips, or peeps, perhaps from the seeds of apples, pears, and oranges, that are so called in England; and they are also called spots.

In the “Metamorphosis of Ajax,” by Sir John Harrington (1615), he says: “When Brutus had discarded the kings and queens out of the pack, and shown himself sworn enemy to all the Coate cards, there crept in many new forms of government.” This rather unique and old-fashioned way of designating the figures in the pack leads some persons to suppose that the name implied “coated figures, that is to say, men and women wearing coats, in contradistinction to the other devices of flowers or animals.” The term does not seem to have been general, however, and it is more probable that they were called “court cards,” since these representative persons are dressed in ermine, with rich embroideries and jewels, and two of each suit are crowned, so that they were recognised as “coated,” or fashionably dressed. It has been pointed out that the original French court cards were probably likenesses of the kings of France of the day, as well as their consorts and mistresses; while in England, they were copies of well-known portraits of Henry VIII and his beautiful mother, Queen Elizabeth of York, so that they were rulers of the card kingdom, as well as of their respective countries. The cards were, therefore, called “of the court,” or “court cards.”

The collection necessary for most of the games played with the French cards vary in number, but this is merely a matter of local preference, as demanded by the games in vogue. In Paris, a Piquet pack requires only thirty-six cards, while, in the United States, Nonsuch Euchre calls for sixty-one, including the Joker, which card is unknown in France. A standard French or English pack contains fifty-two cards, divided into four suits, like their forefathers, the Tarots. The distinguishing feature of the junior pack is the two colours into which it is parted, for two of the suits are painted black, and two are red; this distinction marks the difference between the French cards and those of all other nations, where local pips are used.

The Tarots had four court cards to each suit, while the French and Spanish packs have only three members of the court world. The Spaniards omit the woman from their cards, while the French drop one of the men, the cavalier, a mounted figure that gives variety and value to the royal family in other countries, and makes the game more like one of war, and not merely a compliment to a distinguished lady. However, the King, Queen, and Knave are now the only ones with the French emblems, and these are followed by ten pip cards, in which number one, or the Ace, is sometimes the highest, and, at others, the lowest in the pack, according to the game to be played.

In the United States, a pack is incomplete without the Joker, which then makes fifty-three cards to a standard pack. Many writers have tried to connect the number fifty-two with the weeks of the year, but, as can easily be seen by studying the Tarots, this was not the original number, and the French, when inventing their new set of cards, probably had no such connection in mind, and the Piquet, which is the earliest French pack, contains less than fifty-two cards.

The Joker did not make its appearance in the United States until about the middle of the nineteenth century, and then for a rather strange reason. The cards used in the Northern States were those inherited from France or England, while those used in the extreme South-western States were of Spanish origin, but the packs of none of these countries had retained the old figure of Mercury. The Joker, however, suddenly appeared in the American packs, the reason for this being as follows, cards are printed or stamped on large sheets of paper, which are afterwards cut apart to the required size. When arranged on the sheet, one space in a corner was not used, and, therefore, left blank, although the back was printed exactly like all the rest of the pack. Having no need for this card, the makers generously threw it in, and placed it on the outside of the wrapper, so as to show the colour and design of the back. The value of the new card was rapidly recognised by players, who, impelled by some unknown power, assigned to it the position originally occupied by Il Matto of the Tarot pack, with all its old privileges of taking every other card. It was particularly valuable in the game of Euchre, that sprang into popularity at the same time that the Joker (or the one who played tricks and took them) was adopted. So, through this accidental appearance of a blank card in the pack, Mercury suddenly asserted his old supremacy, and cunningly resumed his wonted place and power in the card world, although his original prominence and his cult had been entirely overlooked and forgotten for over five hundred years, except in one particular town in Italy, where the old Tarots are retained in their pristine condition.

Instead of using a blank card on the outside of the pack, some of the European card manufacturers make a hole in the wrapper, through which may be seen the Ace of Hearts, stamped with the government revenue stamp. In England and the United States, the name of the manufacturer is printed on the Ace of Spades, and the revenue stamp is pasted on the wrapper of the pack. German card makers often place a blank card in their wrappers, but it has not been incorporated into any of the local games, nor does it bear a revenue stamp or the maker’s name upon it.

As soon as American manufacturers discovered that card players considered the odd card of value, the Joker was quickly represented by various grotesque figures, that differ in every pack, and are somewhat confusing to players. It, therefore, seems a pity that a uniform design is not agreed upon, as is the case with the court cards. Any deviation from the dress of the figures on the latter meets with instant opposition from players. It seems peculiar that the card is never represented by Mercury, or a fool, or a clown, or perhaps, a red devil, which would make it easy to distinguish from the Ace of Spades, which is often, and sometimes disastrously, mistaken for the more powerful Joker. The most desirable image that might now be used would be a reproduction of the beautiful flying figure of Mercury, carrying the caduceus, by John of Bologna.

No French packs, and very few English ones, contain a Joker, since the games that call for its use are not favourites in those countries. However, the Joker, with all its inherited value, is known in the Japanese and Korean packs of cards, where it seems to be of sporadic growth, and is apparently not connected with the ancient god, Mercury, the quondam ruler of the cards.

Nor are the makers of the French packs wedded to one costume for the court cards, as are those of England, where the slightest change in the dress, emblems, or colours, causes a remonstrance from players, who insist on retaining everything as they have been accustomed to it for several hundred years. The English people, however, do not reverence the images because they are those of their own royal families, for it remained for an American to identify the origin of the pictures, and to connect them with the originals.

English players even resented the alteration made about 1870, when the cards were cut in two, and reversed, making what are known as “double headers.” These are sometimes declared to be an American innovation, but in “Cartes a Jouer,” by M. Merlin, a pack of Venetian cards, dated 1602, is illustrated, the court cards of which are so divided.

Another novelty invented and introduced in America, is the “index,” or the number of the card printed in the upper left-hand and lower right-hand corners. This was necessary for playing Poker, where the players keep the cards squeezed together as closely as possible, to prevent other players looking into their hands. These useful little numbers have given their name of “squeezers,” or “indexed cards” to this fashion. English clubmen, however, absolutely refused to adopt cards printed in this way.

The costume of the King in English and American packs is a grotesque reproduction of that of Henry VIII of England, and that of the Knave is like the dress of the page of his day. The long sleeves were nicknamed “pokeys,” since food or precious articles might be concealed in them, so these bag sleeves were the ancestors of pockets and reticules.

It is quite as important to retain the position as the dress of each figure, if the wishes of players are to be respected. Thus, the King of Hearts holds the sword of Mercury uplifted in his left hand. It is an heraldic weapon, and not a rapier, or what is known as a dress sword, that would have been usual with the costume of the period. His mate on the English cards, the red King of Diamonds, has a battleaxe displayed in the upper left-hand corner, and he is the only king whose face is in profile. His right hand is raised, as if bestowing a blessing.

The two black kings each hold uplifted swords. That of Clubs faces towards the left, as does the King of Hearts, but Clubs holds an orb in his right hand. The King of Spades faces towards the right. All the kings have long hair, resting on the shoulders, and curling upwards at the ends. They wear small, pointed moustaches (with the exception of Hearts), and all have beards divided in the middle and curled. Crowns and long, flowing robes, trimmed with ermine, complete the costume, excepting on the modern, double-headed cards, where their royalties are curtailed of half of their splendour.

It was once fashionable to assign names to the royal family of cards. This custom has been retained in France, and is the only one, with the exception of the colour and designs of the pips, that has been kept, for the early dresses have been entirely discarded, and fantastic ones, with no heraldic meaning and no inherited intention, have been substituted. The revolution that overturned the throne of France also upset the costumes of the card world, that had closely resembled the original designs up to that date, but when royalty was banished, the cards followed many and various fashions.

In the originals, the Knave of Clubs was named Roland, for one of the heroes of French literature in the time of Charlemagne. The king of that suit has a legend printed beside his name, “faut sou” or “lack penny.” The Queen was called Tromperie.

The King of Diamonds received the historical name of Corsube, and the motto of his Queen was “en toi te fie,” or “self-trust.” The King of Spades was Apollin, a Saracenic hero, and the Queen of Hearts bears the motto, “La foie etsp. d. u.,” or “lost faith.” The date of these cards is about 1450.

In another pack, of probably nearly the same date, the King of Hearts is named La Hire. This was the nickname of the warrior who was said to have assisted in the invention of the game of Piquet, and the pips unalterably connected with it. The King of Diamonds has, beside his name, that of Hector of Troy, said to have been the ancestor of the kings of France. The Knave of Spades is Ogier the Dane, reminding the players of one of the peers in the time of Charlemagne. The kings of this historic pack were Alexander, Cæsar, David, and Charlemagne. The queens were Judith, Pallas, Argine, and Rachel. Judith was intended for Isabella of Bavaria, mother of Charles VII, and a very disreputable person; Pallas typified Joan of Arc, who gave her life for her nation; Argine was supposed to represent the wife of the king, Marie of Anjou; and Rachel was Agnes Sorel, whose emblem, the sorrel or clover leaf, had been placed among the pips.

The Knaves in the card kingdom of England wear battlemented caps of red velvet, shaped like those worn in that country by the servant class in the middle of the sixteenth century, when the dress of each man and woman marked his or her position with peculiar distinctness. To be quite correct, the caps should be black, but the touch of colour is well-liked on the cards. The warriors or police of the pack are the black knaves who hold pikes as weapons. The Knave of Clubs looks to the right, and his comrade to the left. These cards typify Boaz and Jakin, or the pillars of the Temple of Solomon, revered by Freemasons.

The Knave of Hearts is a soldier, like his comrades, but of a somewhat higher grade, and he carries on his right arm a halberd “at rest.” In his left hand is a branch of olive, representing the messenger of peace, clearly descended from the emblem of Mercury, whose wand was often used as a flag of truce. The Knave of Spades carries a twisted ribbon, strongly suggestive of the caduceus; and he is supposed to represent Patch, the favourite court fool of Elizabeth of York. Both the Knave of Hearts and the Knave of Spades are in profile, and look over the left shoulder. The hair of all is long and curly. With the exception of Clubs, all of the Knaves wear moustaches, but no beards. Diamonds once sported a quiver with arrows, but this has now become part of the dress, and is difficult to separate from its trimmings. Before they were so ruthlessly cut in half, these Knaves had funny short, fat legs, with broadtoed shoes.

The names given to the knaves in different localities and in different games are not written on the cards, as is the case in France, but they receive them from the players, and are sometimes historical and rather affording. In the old game of Gleek, they were nicknamed Tom. In other games, the Knave of Clubs was designated Pam, and in Germany, he is called Wenzel, Wencelaus, or der Treffle-Bube.

Jack was the name given to all the Knaves in All-Fours, which cognomen has clung to them. In Euchre, the Knaves of Trumps are called Bowers. The rules of that game make the Joker the highest card, followed by the Knave of the suit declared to be trumps, and the Knave of the suit of the same colour. Thus, if Hearts are trumps, its Knave is called “the right bower,” and the Knave of Diamonds becomes “the left bower.” This word is a corruption of a dialect word, meaning “young man,” and was given to the Knaves when Euchre was invented, about the middle of the last century, at the same time that the Joker was reappointed to his old place in the pack.

In Skat and the games from which it has been adapted, such as Tappé Tarot, of the Austrians; L’Ombre, of the Italians, and Primero, of the Spaniards and English (to all of which the German game bears a strong resemblance), the Knaves are called “Matadores.” In France, the Knave is called Varlet, or Valet; in Italy, Fanté; in Spain, Soto; but there are local nicknames for all the Knaves in different countries and in different games. Obermann and Untermann, or, for short, Ober and Unter, are printed on the two male figures in the German packs, where three court cards are retained, but where no Queens are to be found, although the Tarots had four royal personages, including a Queen.

The attributes, dresses, and devices of the queens of the card kingdom are historical and most interesting, for, like their kings and valets, their fashions have survived unchanged for practically four hundred and twenty-five years, since the French cards were introduced into England.

None of the faces are in profile, but the Queens of Diamonds and Clubs incline to our right, while the Queens of Hearts and Spades look towards our left. The robes are trimmed with ermine and are confined at the waist by jeweled buckles. A wimple or veil floats from the fair hair that is parted over the brow and crowned with a diadem, worn quite far back instead of on the top of the head.

The representation of the Queens on the cards is a close copy of the costume of the many portraits extant of Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV of England, wife of Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII. Some of her likenesses are in different collections in England, the most interesting one being in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

The picture of Henry VII, which hangs as a pendant to that of his lovely wife, is marked 1505, or four years before his death, and looks like an elderly, careworn man, but that of his consort was probably painted at the time of her marriage, as she is portrayed as a young, sweet-faced woman. It is this picture that has been placed on the cards, where it has remained practically unaltered for four centuries, while her husband’s likeness has not been perpetuated among the court cards.

The reason for placing the likeness of Elizabeth of York on the cards may be briefly stated. She was born in the palace of Westminster, February 11, 1466, and was the eldest child of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. For some years the little royal princess was heiress to the throne. When his daughter was about nine years of age, King Edward made an expedition into France, and war with that country was averted only by her submitting to become tributary to the invaders. In the articles of peace, the Princess Elizabeth was contracted to the Dauphin Charles, the eldest son of Louis XI and the great-grandson of the crazy Charles VI, for whom the French pips were said to have been invented.

“From the hour of her contract with the heir of France, Elizabeth was always addressed in the palace,” says Miss Strickland in her “Lives of the Queens of England,” “as Mme. la Dauphine,” so “the most illustrious Maid of York” (as she was also called) was taught to speak and write French by ladies sent to England by Louis. They also dressed the princess in the latest French fashions. The simple veil of fine white muslin, that had been the customary court dress, was replaced by a velvet hood with long lapels heavily jeweled. Flowing sleeves trimmed with ermine took the place of the tight ones with broad lace cuffs that had formerly been the style in England, and a robe confined at the waist by a girdle and jeweled buckle took the place of the stiff, tight bodice. All these items of dress have been closely copied in the cards, where they may be easily studied.

Early Italian Tarots
Pip and Court Cards of the Sword Suit


Elizabeth was also taught embroidery by her French dame d’honneur, but, above all, was instructed to play with the cards bearing French pips instead of those with German emblems, showing Acorns, Leaves, Hearts, and Bells, that were probably used before that time in England, since they are the only ones found in that country.

The marriage contract was treacherously broken by the French king, who married his son to Anne of Bretagne, and this slight to the Princess Elizabeth so infuriated her father that it caused his death.

After years of sorrow and vicissitudes, Elizabeth married Henry VII, January 16, 1486, thus uniting the houses of York and Lancaster, and her heraldic rose remains on the cards to remind us of this important event.

John de Gigh, a prebendary of St. Paul’s, wrote a Latin epithalamium on her marriage, and a part of it describes this exalted lady on her wedding day. A free translation of it may be given as follows:

Oh! royal maid,
Put on your regal robes in loveliness.
A thousand fair attendants round you wait,
Of various ranks, with different offices,
To deck your beauteous form. Lo, this delights
To smooth with ivory comb your golden hair,
And that to curl and braid each shining tress,
And wreathe the sparkling jewels round your head,
Twining your soft, smooth locks with gems. This one shall clasp
The radiant necklace framed in fretted gold
About your snowy neck, while that unfolds
The robes that glow with gold and purple dye,
And fits the ornaments with patient skill
To your unrivalled limbs, and here shall shine
The costly treasures from the Orient sands.
The sapphire, azure gem that emulates
Heaven’s loftly arch, shall gleam, and softly there
The verdant emerald shed its greenest light,
And fiery carbuncle flash forth its rosy rays
From the pure gold.

This graphic description of hair, costume, and ornaments seems to be still repeated in the cards of to-day that closely resemble the portraits of this dainty queen.

Elizabeth was a believer in fortune-telling and consulted an astrologer on many occasions. It was predicted that all sorts of good fortune would befall her in 1503, on the day that she completed her thirty-seventh year. This is alluded to in the elegy that Sir Thomas More wrote on his royal mistress, describing in it the folly and vanity of such divinations and their untrustworthiness, as follows:

Yet was I lately promised otherwise
This year to lie in weal and in delight;
Lo! to what cometh all thy blandishing promises,
O false astrology and divinitrice,
Of God’s secrets vaunting thyself so wise?
How true is for this year the prophecy?
The year yet lasteth, and lo, here I lie.
It booteth not for me to wail and cry,
Pray for my soul, for lo, here I die.

For, after a short and sad married life, Queen Elizabeth died on her birthday, February 11, 1503. “She was,” says Miss Strickland, “one of the most beautiful of our queens. Her portraits are numerous and her monumental statue is in King Henry’s Chapel at Westminster Abbey. It was designed by Torregiano and shows the sweet expression of her mouth.”

The portrait of this lovely, gentle lady may well remain as queen of the Card Kingdom, with that of her son, Henry VIII, as king. In England the Queen of Hearts is still frequently called “Queen Bess.”

The plaid or chequered backs fashionable at one time on cards were later discarded, since they could so easily be used by gamblers, who put marks on the cards that could not readily be discerned by unaccustomed players. The chequered backs gave rise to the supposition that the board for playing chess had been transferred to the backs of the cards, and the chessmen had been converted into printed figures on the faces of the cardboard. This idea has been proved incorrect, since cards are in no way derived from the game of Chess.

In France the backs of the cards are highly glazed and are of a plain, uniform colour, generally red or green. In Spain card makers use speckled backs. The modern Tarots have designs engraved on a very thin paper that is pasted on the back, the edges of which are turned over the face of the card, making a narrow border. These designs are sometimes “the woman of Samaria,” and at others a Hercules throwing rocks down a precipice. The backs of old English cards were generally plain, and when paper was scarce or expensive, old cards were too useful to be destroyed, and were used for various purposes; hence we find them in the bindings of old books.

Sometimes they were cut up for paper dolls. The richly dressed figures of the court cards were ingeniously put to this purpose, while a skillful cutter could with a pair of scissors fashion sleds, chairs, tables, etc., from the pip cards.

In “Henry Esmond,” Thackeray mentions that an invitation was sent on a Ten of Diamonds, and this was a common practice in America before the Revolution. There are several cards preserved in different families on which invitations have been written or printed. One of them is as follows: “Sir Jeffery Amhurst’s compliments to Mrs. Paul Miller, and desires the Favour of her Company to a Ball at the New Assembly Rooms on Saturday the 23dinst., being the Anniversary of St. George. Head Quarters April 18th, 1763, New York.”

In the days of Charles I and the Commonwealth, there was a Sir John Northcote, ancestor of the present peer, who took the Parliamentary side against the king. His father was Justice Northcote, who at a game of cards won an estate in Devonshire from a Mr. Dowrish. The game played was Piquet, and to commemorate this transaction, the hands held by the players were afterwards inlaid upon the table they used, that is still preserved by the family.


This is taken from Prophetical, Educational and Playing Cards.





Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved