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Two Card Games from Tudor England and How to Play Them – Guest Post by Cassidy Cash

Four Gentlemen of High Rank Playing Primero, now attributed to the Master of the Countess of Warwick or his circle. Source 

I met Cassidy at TudorCon – she hosts the wonderful podcast That Shakespeare Life (new episodes every Monday!) and immediately knew I wanted her to write a guest post….This one is fantastic. Hope you enjoy!

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Gathering together for the holidays, we think of games we can play with our family and friends. Card games are a popular choice, but we often forget that our ancestors of the past played similar games for festive occasions as well. Today, I’m going to take you back to Tudor England and teach you about two card games, one of which is now extinct (but we’re going to bring it back!) 

The first game I want to introduce you to is the game of Maw. This game was popular in the court of King James I of England, and was the official court game during his reign. When foreign dignitaries would visit the court of King James, he would entertain them at a game of Maw. James established a Groom Porter whose job included keeping track of the official rules of the game for everyone to follow. Though James is credited with proliferating the game in England’s royal court, it is his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, who is responsible for introducing the game to England in the first place. Maw is a famous Scottish card game and was played prolifically in Scotland. In fact, the 9 of diamonds is anecdotally called the Curse of Scotland as a result of a thief, George Campbell, who tried to steal the crown jewels and made away with 9 diamonds.

After arriving in England, it seems the game caught on quickly, becoming popular at all levels of society. There are numerous historical records about the game Maw, and it seems each one has a slight variation as to what constitutes the “right” way to play it. Like many card games today, it seems house rules were applicable then as well, with the exact play of the game, and accumulation of points, varying depending on who was dealing. 

Facsimile based on playing cards by Pierre Marechal of Rouen, c.1567 which are the ancestors of the English pattern. The original Jacks of Hearts and Diamonds were missing but have been replaced with two similar cards also from Rouen. Published by Rose & Pentagram Design, 2006. www.historicgames.com. Images courtesy Rod Starling. SOURCE: https://www.wopc.co.uk/mounthood/mareschal

Starting in the 15th century, French manufacturers assigned to each of the court cards names taken from history, The Bible, and mythology. There are rumors that Elizabeth of York has appeared eight times on every pack of cards in England for nearly 500 years. (Another rumour has it that the Queen of Hearts represents Anne Boleyn, the second wife to Henry VIII).

Evolution of the King of Hearts. SOURCE https://www.lostinthought.co.uk/blog/post/playing-cards

A fun fact about English card makers is when they did copy the cards from the French, they were bad at it. In 1567 Pierre Marechal draws the King of Hearts holding a halberd, looking ready to defend the Kingdom in Battle. However, when the English card makers copied this design over, they didn’t leave room for the head of the axe, thus cutting it off, resulting in the 19th century King of Hearts now holding a knife, and seemingly stabbing it into his own head, which is why today this card is known as the suicide King. 

After the English banned importing of French cards in 1628, the English replicated the French cards and started circulating them domestically, but historically if you are trying to replicate what William Shakespeare would have played with himself, it’s closer to historically accurate to use a 16th century French deck of cards than it is to use a 17th century English one.

The Card Players (1508-1510) by Lucas van Leyden Source

The instructions for how to play Maw that I use to play it are based on a record of the game I found in a book titled A Collection of Seventy-Nine Black-Letter Ballads and Broadsides, printed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, between the years 1559 and 1597, accompanied with an introduction and illustrative notes. Sorting out the history of that book itself is a project for another day, but you can view all the sources I used to compile these instructions, as well as a video tutorial where me and my family learned to play, at www.cassidycash.com/maw

Noddy is another popular card game from the 16th century, but this game is now considered extinct except for a few places in Lancastershire, England where it is rumored to still be played recreationally. Would you like to bring it back from extinction? I thought you might. Here’s a little history on the game itself, and how to play it. 

The basic play of the game is for two people, or two teams of pairs, to play in rounds, trying to earn up to 31 points to get the Noddy. Historians differ on the exact terminology, remember it is an extinct game, so we have to guess, but it plays a lot like a combination of Cribbage and gin rummy. 

As a basic term, noddy is a derogatory word meaning a fool or simpleton. Interestingly, I was able to find evidence that predates the OED’s estimation of the first time the word was used, when according to the Encyclopædia Metropolitana: Or, Universal Dictionary of Knowledge, Ed. by E. Smedley and his friends, an author named Bale uses the word “noddy” spelled with one d, thirty years before Shakespeare used it when he penned Two Gentlemen of Verona, which features a pun on the word “noddy” as a joke between two characters.

Peasants Playing Cards; Oil on canvas, 56 x 67 cm The Hermitage Source

Thomas Nashe, who is thought to have collaborated with Shakespeare, uses the  word “noddy” in his play, An Almond for a Parrat (1589): “Let not me take you at noddy anie more, least I present you to the parish for a gamster.” That reference invokes the very English historical reality that playing games, and gambling, was considered a detriment to one’s soul. 

The famous duo Beaumont and Fletcher use the word “noddy” in their play, Knight of the Burning Pestle from approximately 1607 when a character responds to the question of “What do you think I am?” by saying “An arrant noddy.” Obviously, employing the use of fool in this usage. 

It does not seem that gambling being a detriment to one’s salvation was too much of a deterrent for Tudor society, as not only were many playwrights talking about the game in their plays, but everyone right up to the English royal court were playing at cards. 

Court accounts during the reign of Henry VII even refer to Elizabeth of York’s fondness for the game, and her significant debt at cards. Turns out that perhaps the Queen wasn’t very good at winning these games, but she definitely enjoyed playing them.

If you’d like to help resurrect a dead card game, you can download full instructions and a tutorial on how to play at  www.cassidycash.com/noddy  

I am Cassidy Cash, host of That Shakespeare Life, and I hope you learned something new about the bard. Have fun playing these Tudor card games, and I’ll see you next time. 

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If you like my posts, you’ll love my books! The Path to Somerset is the latest in the Seymour Saga – have you read it yet? (Will you please review it?) Click on the photo to be taken to Amazon.Com:

(What? You haven’t read or reviewed Jane the Quene yet? Please do! Here are some easy links to Amazon.Com,  Amazon.Co.UK  and Amazon.Com.Au!)

Published inGuest PostsTudor Tidbits

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