As a young man, Henry VIII was a keen and talented tennis player, who spent hours on court. His second wife Anne Boleyn was gambling on a game of tennis when she was arrested to be taken to the Tower of London. She even complained that she couldn't collect her winnings!
There has been a tennis court on this site since 1625, when this one was built for Charles I. Three of the walls of the court in use today are 17th-century, with the other being Cardinal Wolsey's original.
One of the first English guides to tennis in 1553 claimed that 'this game has been created for a good purpose, namely, to keep our bodies healthy, to make our young men stronger and more robust, chasing idleness, virtue's mortal enemy, far from them and thus making them of a stronger and more excellent nature'.
The game of real tennis is played in a court divided between the service end and the hazard end. 'Hazards' include the grille window and the winning gallery. Players at the hazard end lost the point if the hazards are hit.
However, the game is safer. Since the 1500s the balls have been made with leather and filled with soft stuffing, which included animal and human hair. Before this, balls were more like ammunition, filled with clay, sand and powdered egg shells and could take out an opponent with a single hit!
Henry VIII would recognise a game of real tennis if he saw it today: it has changed little since he enjoyed it. The equipment is still hand-made on the tennis court site, as it has been for nearly 500 years.
Although the game looks like a strange mixture of tennis and squash, the techniques, strategies and rules are both more difficult and more complex than those of the modern derivatives. Despite this complexity, the game can be played at various speeds allowing for players of all ages and abilities to play. Except at the very highest levels of the professional game both singles and doubles matches are mixed gender.
Today the court is home to a thriving club with over 500 members, and is open and in use from 7am to 11pm every day of the year, except Christmas Day.
The Royal Tennis Court is one of fewer than fifty real tennis courts in the world, and one of the few courts in the world where the public can watch this intriguing sport.
Comfortable Club Rooms, including a dining room with kitchen facilities and a secluded walled garden, are available to members and guests. The club rooms are available for hire by members. The club has an active policy of arranging a number of social events throughout the year.
Day-to-day tennis activities at the club are arranged by the Head Professional, Nick Wood, and his assistants. The professional team arranges a wide range of tournaments to suit all playing standards.
Never one to shy away from impressing the ladies, Henry was probably well aware that he cut a fine figure in his flowing white silk shirt.
The Venetian Ambassador at court, Sebastian Giustiniani, was also impressed, describing the King in 1519 as 'much handsomer than the King of France. It was the prettiest thing in the world to see him play; his fair skin glowing through a shirt of the finest texture.'
However, Henry lost a huge amount of money gambling on the outcomes of his own and other matches.
Edward Hall, a 16th-century chronicler recorded in 1510-11 that: 'The King was much enticed to play at tennis and at dice, which appetite, certain crafty persons about him perceiving, brought in.'
During one game between her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and his rival Lord Norfolk, Dudley took a cloth from the Queen's hand to wipe his sweaty brow. Incensed by this public show of intimacy Norfolk threatened to strike Dudley in the face with his racquet. The ensuing commotion upset the Queen, who ruled that Norfolk was to blame for overreacting!
The King had special tennis suits made, designed to look like fashionable doublets and breeches. They were brightly coloured and made from silk, satin and velvet, and often trimmed with silk lace in an intricate braid. These were worn with special 'tennis stockings' and tennis shoes.
Charles also had special suits, stockings and shoes made for tennis in the latest fashions to impress his onlookers.
'The tennis court now takes up more of the Duke of York's time than the Parade; His Royal Highness paying more respect to the top of the ball that the step of the soldier.' The Duke loved to gamble on tennis matches and in one year he ran up a debt of over £60,000.
Frederick's demeanour on court was described as too hot and passionate'; and that he 'leaps over the net with great agility'. When he played he wore a 'dress of flannel - stockings, breeches and shirt, all joined together which is put off and on in a moment'.
Sir Spencer Cecil Brabazon Ponsonby-Fane, the splendidly named President of the Royal Tennis Court club from 1896-1915, remarked of the contents: 'Some flannel garments and a racquet remained fr many years, until moth and corruption eventually consumed them.'