History of
Billiards

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A Short History of Billiards

We do not claim that the following material represents the definitive history of billiards. Much is still not known about this subject; and we may have given insufficient weight to some issues and events. If the reader has any further information which might assist with discussion of a particular area or areas we would be very pleased if you contacted us.

The game of billiards has been played for so long that we cannot trace its beginnings accurately. But it seems that the game we know today developed long ago from a game we might call "ground billiards". Although some believe it originated in Spain or Italy, this game probably emerged first in England or France during Medieval times.

Illustrations dating from the 14th century have been found showing "ground billiards" in action. Manuscripts have been located documenting the equipment used for the game at the time. The earliest of these dates is around 1300 AD. It appears, however, that some people continued to play "ground billiards" in its changing forms as late as the 17th Century.

The transformation of the game from one played outside on the grass to inside on a table took place towards the end of the 1400s. Records show that King Louis XI of France purchased a billiard table in 1470.

The Sixteenth Century

The popularity of the game which we may call at this stage, "table billiards", spread among the noble families of France and England during the 1500s. For example, Mary, Queen of Scots, was fond of billiards. In 1587 she complained that her captors had deprived her of her billiard table. Queen Elizabeth I's favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, owned a billiard table.

Billiard tables became more usual in public places in London. Several writers of the late 1500s mention the game of billiards. The best known reference to the game from around this time is that by Shakespeare in his play, "Anthony and Cleopatra", (written in 1609), where Cleopatra suggests to her handmaiden, "Let us to billiards", in Act II, Scene 5.

The Seventeenth Century


During the 1600s billiards became very popular, both among the ordinary citizens in public places and among the nobility who tended to own their own private tables. Indeed, the popularity of billiards among the French nobility grew steadily up until the end of the monarchy with the onset of the French Revolution in 1789. King Louis XIII (1610-1643) was a keen billiards player. Louis XIV (1643-1715) was a great adherent of the game. Louis XV and Louis XVI are also recorded as having played billiards, the latter often being beaten by his wife, Marie Antoinette.

Meanwhile in England, King James I (1603-1625) owned a billiard table. Samuel Pepys, the well-known English diarist, played billiards regularly. And books began to be written during this period explaining how to play the game of billiards, eg, "The Compleat Gamester", written by Charles Cotton was published in England in 1674.

Of course, the game, at this time, was quite different to modern billiards. There were two balls, one belonging to each of two players. Rather than cues, players used as an instrument, the "mace", essentially a crooked stick with a sizeable head. The mace was used to push, rather than strike, the ball through an arch sometimes called a "pass" or a "port" which was placed on the table. Here the player aimed to strike the opponent's ball with his own ball so that his own ball travelled through the "pass", (a "losing hazard); or to strike the opponent's ball with his own ball so the opponent's ball travelled through the pass, (a "winning hazard"). Having achieved the required number of points the more successful player finished the game by using his own ball to strike the opponent's ball so that it then rebounded off a small post, also set on the table called a "pin" or "king".

Later, the pass and the king disappeared from the table, the French dispensing with them somewhat earlier than English players did. (To continue see A Short History of billiards, page 2.)


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