The characters in my novels may be fictional, but as an historian I want the setting to be as accurate as possible—places, clothes, food, people, politics and even the weather! All my novels are set between 1740 and 1780s in England and France—stopping short of the French Revolution. SALT BRIDE: a Georgian Historical Romance, takes place in 1763.
So what was the weather like in January 1763? And what has that got to do with tennis, you wonder? And what is REAL tennis anyway? First, let’s talk about the weather, everyone does!
The English obsession with “the weather” means there are plenty of climate records, and countless mentions of the weather to be found in diary entries, newspapers and magazines. That indefatigable letter writer of the mid-1700s Horace Walpole constantly mentions, and curses, the weather throughout his many-tomed memoirs of the Georgian social and political scene. He was particularly scathing of the freezing conditions in January 1763—when the Thames froze over and the wretched poor froze to death in the streets. The London Magazine for January 1763 reported:
“the ice being measured, was, in some places six feet thick.
After saying this, it is needless to observe, that every river
and stream was covered with ice, and the streets of the
metropolis wore a gloomy aspect, and were dangerous
to pass for carriages and persons on foot.”
So with January a bitterly cold month with intense frosts, rivers freezing and generally miserable, what, I wondered, would a gentleman of means do to keep fit if unable to engage in outdoor pursuits? All gentlemen, and those aspiring to be one, would naturally know how to fence, and while taking up a foil would no doubt afford some exercise, I wanted a sport that allowed for spectators, particularly women, and which was not only very competitive but was played indoors in luxurious surroundings.
The hero of SALT BRIDE, the Earl of Salt Hendon has brains and brawn, and, naturally, he is very wealthy. He is a parliamentarian but he is also the 18th century equivalent of a “jock” – he loves and excels at sports. After a long day of parliamentary sittings and meetings he needs to let off steam (and not just in the bedroom!). In the freakishly cold weather of January 1763, horse riding would be out, as would boxing, and fencing out of doors.
That’s when I hit upon the idea that Salt, as a nobleman and sportsman of unlimited means, would have his own Royal Tennis court built at the back of his mansion in Grosvenor Square.
the Earl of Salt Hendon’s court would have been similar to this.
Royal, or Real Tennis as it is known today, is played on an indoor court and predates lawn tennis by at least 500 years. Real Tennis evolved, over three centuries, from a hand ball game played around the 12th century in France called jeu de paume (game of the palm). It is the original indoor racquet game from which lawn tennis and squash are derived. It was described as the ‘sport of kings’ (long before horse racing ever was) as it was the province of nobleman and kings. The most famous court still in use is the Royal Tennis Court at Hampton Court Palace built by Henry VIII who was a keen player. Anne Boleyn was said to be watching a game of Royal Tennis when arrested and that Henry was playing tennis when news was brought to him of her execution. In France, at the peak of its popularity in the 16th century there were some 250 courts in Paris. Recent excavations at the Palace of Versailles have uncovered the Royal Tennis court used by Louis XIII.
Royal Tennis has a place in the French Revolution when the pledge signed by the French deputies, and said to be a decisive step in starting the revolution, was taken on a Royal Tennis court and is now remembered as “the Tennis Court Oath”.
A Royal Tennis court is a very substantial building, wider and longer than a lawn tennis court, with high walls on four sides and a lofty ceiling. There are galleries built into two sides with sloping roofs and it is from the galleries that spectators view the game behind the safety of netting to stop rogue tennis balls that are much harder than the tennis balls used in lawn tennis.
As the court is fully enclosed, Royal Tennis can be played year round, and in SALT BRIDE this allows Salt and his male chums to exercise throughout the freezing winter months, and where from the safety and privacy behind the netting of the Gallery boxes the noblemen’s pampered sweethearts, wives and mistresses are able to appreciate the male physique in action perched on velvet cushions while being offered unlimited wine and nibbles by blank-faced liveried footmen. In such cold weather hot bricks would be placed under benches for warmth.
It is while watching a game of Royal Tennis that the heroine of SALT BRIDE, Jane, the newly married Countess of Salt Hendon, overhears the ladies of Polite Society discussing her merchant origins, and who amongst their number will be her husband’s next mistress. These hurtful whisperings naturally spoil the game for Jane.
The rules of Royal Tennis are, not surprisingly, complicated and would take up far too much ink to explain here. The best way to get an appreciation of the rules and the game is to watch a match, which I was privileged to do when I visited the Hobart Real Tennis Club in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. The resident professional Barry Toates gave of his time and expertise, providing running commentary and explanation of a game in progress, which I watched with studious interest and excitement from the Dedans penthouse that looks straight up the court.
The Hobart Real Tennis Club is the oldest Real Tennis club in the southern hemisphere, established in 1875. The tennis court itself has lovely blue painted walls and polished cement flooring, whereas the Royal Tennis court in SALT BRIDE has a tiled floor, but in every other respect the Earl of Salt Hendon’s court would have been the same as the one in Hobart, or the one at Hampton Court Palace because all Real Tennis courts have been constructed to the same blueprint since medieval times. There are about 45 courts left in the world – Australia has the current world champion and he is from Tasmania—Robert Fahey.
The best way to get an appreciation of the game is to visit a Real Tennis club, where I’m sure you’ll find the resident professional and the players just as friendly as Barry in Hobart and only too eager to wax lyrical about the original “sport of kings”. A list of Real Tennis Courts can be found here.
Watch a game (and the world champion) in action: The 2008 World championships were held in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
Originally published at History Undressed