Royal Tennis Court - Hampton Court Palace

Royal Tennis Court - Hampton Court Palace
With the recent media frenzy over the announcement of the Royal Wedding in 2011, it seems appropriate to look back at the history of tennis in relation to the Royal families and courtiers of the UK and throughout Europe.

Hampton Court Palace in London, UK was once the home of King Henry VIII of England. Here, it is claimed, stands the worlds oldest tennis court. The Royal Tennis Court at Hampton Court Palace, where tennis has been played almost uninterrupted since King Henry VIII first built a court there, is regarded as the world's centre or home of real tennis, in the same way as St Andrews is regarded as the home of golf. Historical researchers suggest, the first tennis court, or 'tenys playe' as they were called in Tudor times, was built by Cardinal Wolsey between 1526 and 1529. It was the first of three constructed at the Palace.

There is of course some disagreement over this: it seems likely that the disagreement over the oldest court is due to the fact that the (now demolished) 1532 court at Hampton Court was older than the court at Falkland Palace (1539). The present court at Hampton Court was not built until 1625. According to research by Dr Howard Colvin, described by Lord Aberdare, the original wooden court at Hampton Court was built before 1532. The present court there was built on the site of this wooden court by Charles I in about 1625. However, the researcher Roger Morgan writes: "The oldest court still standing is that at Falkland Palace which was built in 1539. . . . The tennis court at Hampton Court Palace is the next in terms of age which still exists, and was built in 1625."

In Great Britain, as in France, royal patronage ensured the continued popularity of the game. French Kings in the 16th century and Stuart Kings in the 17th century were enthusiastic players. George IV (1763-1830), Prince Albert (1819-1861) - there is a locker in the changing room at Hampton Court Palace which still bears his name - Edward VII (1842-1910) and George V (1866-1936) have all supported the game. In Great Britain it is called Tennis or, to distinguish it from Lawn Tennis, Real Tennis or Royal Tennis. In the USA it is called Court Tennis: in France Jeu de Paume (hand ball): and in Australia Royal Tennis. The various names throw light on the development of the game. Tennis wasy played in 5th century Tuscany when villagers used to strike balls up and down the streets with bare hands.

No two tennis courts are exactly alike. That at Hampton Court is marginally wider than others. Other differences occur in the width or angle of the penthouse roof above the corridor and in the width of the tambour. Lawn Tennis, which derived from Real Tennis in about 1874, is played on a marked-out surface without side or end walls. Whereas 'Court Tennis', to use the American name for Tennis, indicates that Tennis is played in a specially court with walls on four sides.

The Royal Tennis Court at Hampton Court Palace was last extensively refurbished in 1628 and is the oldest surviving real tennis court in England. It has been in more or less continuous use since it was built. 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.

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