If you have played any card games, especially rummy, be it online rummy or offline then have you ever wondered where these faces of Kings on the pack originate from? Like King, there is a queen and jack as well but since King is the highest value card that has a face let’s focus on that in this article.
While to most these kings printed on the cards might look anonymous and just a generic representation of the monarchy, the International Playing Card Society, in France, have on record said that these kings have an identity and they once depicted some of the most famous leaders in history.
These faces of the kings over the years have changed many times because of design alterations but in 17th century France, the four kings in the deck were named reflecting the importance of the French monarchy itself.
Since the French rulers wanted to see themselves as successors to the earlier kings that is the reason the kings on the playing cards represented some of history’s most iconic leaders: Charlemagne, David, Caesar and Alexander.
While there is no one established theory behind how the playing cards came into existence, historian Joseph Needham believes they first appeared in Tang China, in the 9th century AD, but these early cards weren’t organized into suits, with numbers and symbols, until much later.
There is a theory on this which says that an image of a king first was seen on playing cards produced in India or Persia, and later these cards were brought to Europe via the Iberian Peninsula in the middle ages.
There are many proofs that the card games registered their presence in Europe in the late medieval period, probably in the latter half of the 14th century. It was around this period that sermons written by concerned clergymen in Italy, France and Spain took references from card games, usually in conjunction with prohibitions of dice and gambling.
During this period, playing card designs varied a lot while there were some familiar elements that seemed consistent. According to the International Playing Card Society, most of these variations had a combination of numbered cards with three or sometimes four “royal” cards: king, queen, knight and knave. These were further divided into suits represented by different symbols, including a cup, coin, sword and stick.
This is when the card games associated with them got popular across Europe, and the makers experimented with ways to streamline production. Regional variations began to develop, as different areas began to standardise the iconography associated with their cards. It was in Germany that queens were removed entirely, and the original symbols were replaced with bells, hearts, leaves and acorns.
The French craftsmen used new techniques for an efficient production program and that is when their designs began to rule within Europe. According to the International Playing Card Society, the French reintroduced the queen, but kept some of the German icons to represent the suits, establishing the symbols that are familiar today: hearts, spades, clubs and diamonds.
The area where the French were at their innovative best was in giving the royal cards names from history. In the 16th century, the designers came up with a variety of characters including Roman heroes such as Augustus or Constantine, or Biblical figures such as Solomon. However, by the early 17th century, they had settled on four key figures that resonated with France’s image.
The king of hearts was identified as Charlemagne. He is considered to be the French hero who unified the Franks and created the great Carolingian Empire. This represented France’s great past and the longevity of its monarchy.
The biblical figure of David became the king of spades, representing the triumph of the righteous over the strong. Julius Caesar became the king of diamonds. It was Caesar who was the Roman hero and the conqueror of Gaul. The king of clubs was Alexander, the ancient Greek leader who got the better of the Persians and conquered lands as far away as the Hindu Kush.
This practice of giving names and identities to the royal cards lasted for almost 200 years in France, although the rest of Europe didn’t adopt this practice to that extent.
It was only towards the end of the 18th century when French revolutionaries started to disapprove of the outrageous monarchical overtones in the playing cards designs. They now wanted more neutral symbols and imagery that did not go all out to glorify their monarchy.
This resulted in the practice of identifying the royal cards as individuals from history ended by the early 19th century and today none of the kings on playing cards, even in France, have any historical connections to any of their heroes or monarchy.