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The French royal family suffered from a centuries-long tennis curse

Generations of French kings loved tennis. Tennis did not love them back.

Playing Tennis Indoors Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

What did Louis X (1289-1316), Charles VIII (1470-1498) and Francis III, Duke of Brittany (1518-1536) all have in common? Well, yes, they’re all French royalty who died quite young. Well done. But what else did they have in common? You’ve probably guessed from the headline that the answer is “tennis-related deaths”.

This may strike you as unusual. Two Capetian kings and an heir apparent dying of tennis-ish misadventure in 220 years is a remarkable coincidence. Medieval tennis wasn’t particularly violent — in essence ‘courte-paume’ was a more complicated version of modern tennis with much heavier equipment — so it’s not as though we’d expect it to lead to many fatalities. Dysentery? Sure. The Black Death? Why not. Jousting? Yep, definitely. But tennis? Not so much, right?

And yet ...

Louis X

A painting of King Louis X

Louis X had a closer relationship with tennis than any other French king. Before courte-paume was courte, it was plain old ‘jeu de paume,’ played outdoors with hands, gloves, then finally racquets. What this has to do with apple juice is unclear to me.

Anyway, then-Crown Prince Louis loved jeu de paume. He loved it so much, in fact, that he wanted to play it even in bad weather, which at some point in the 1290s led to him create the first indoor tennis courts in history. Hurray!

Louis ascended to the throne after the death of his father in 1314, which was quickly followed by the death of his wife, who had been convicted of adultery and strangled to death in prison. That’s not a great look, especially when combined with the execution of his own Grand Chamberlain on charges of sorcery.

(We are beginning to see why Louis X was sometimes known as ‘the Quarrelsome.’)

In fairness to Louis, France was a bit of a mess back then. He had inherited a country full of bickering interests that needed to be placated, and Louis did his best to placate them. He also ended slavery and repealed the expulsion of the Jews his father had ordered in 1306, but lest you think that he was some sort of progressive, he did these things mostly-slash-entirely to raise money.

The point of the little digression into politics was to suggest that maybe there were some Powers afoot who didn’t much like the King, so there’s reason to suspect poisoning in his 1316 death. Said death came after a particularly intense game of courte-paume. Thirsty, he imbibed a large quantity of cold wine, took ill and died a few days later.


Charles VIII

A painting of King Charles VIII

Charles was less into tennis than Louis X, but just as quarrelsome, at least in the realm of international politics. In 1494, he made the disastrous decision to invade Italy. Even more disastrously, the invasion was a success. This scared the crap out of every interested power, who united to force the French back out a year later, leading them to basically run away with a long list of casualties and no booty.

(This is the sort of escapade that fucks up your country’s finances for a long while and makes a lot of people very cross with you. If there’s anything to take away from this post apart from ‘check out this weird tennis curse,’ it’s that I’d advise not invading Italy without thinking pretty hard about it first.)

Three years later Charles was dead. Here’s how his contemporary, Philip de Commines claims it happened:

The king ... took his queen (Anne of Bretagne) by the hand, and led her out of her chamber to a place where she had never been before, to seem them play at tennis in the castle-ditch. They entered together into ... the nastiest place about the castle, broken down at the entrance, and everybody committed a nuisance in it that would. The king was not a tall man, yet he knocked his head as he went in. He spent some time in looking upon the players, and talked freely with everybody ... The last expression he used whilst he was in health was, that he hoped never to commit a mortal sin again, nor a venial sin if he could help it; and with those words in his mouth he fell down backwards, and lost his speech.

The king regained consciousness once, but the recovery was a mirage. He died nine hours after he fell.

Charles was succeeded by Louis XII, who, uh, annexed his cousin’s queen in addition to his throne. Louis, incidentally has a tennis story of his own. Louis, a masterful player, ran into trouble when he disputed a refereeing decision made by Princess Anne, the eldest daughter of King Louis XI (Charles VIII’s father). Kenelm Henry Digby relates:

Louis XII, when Duke of Orleans, playing at tennis, Anne de Beaujeu decided a disputed point against him, which so enraged him, that he said “qu’elle en avoit menti [she lies].” “Ha! mon cousin,” said the princess to René Duke of Lorraine, “do you suffer me to be thus insulted?” René made no reply, but gave the Duke of Orleans a blow. The other princes separated and appeased them.

The other princes appeased the combatants so well that a lifelong enmity sprang up between the two. In fact, the Duke of Orleans briefly took up arms against the monarchy, which was then controlled by a regent: tennis umpire and Princess Anne de Beaujeu. GG.

Francis III, Duke of Brittany

A painting of the Dauphin, Francis III, Duke of Brittany

Francis was King Francis I’s eldest son, and heir to the French throne. This was not actually great news for him, because his dad was having A Bad Time. Francis I was taken prisoner by Hapsburg forces in 1525, and forced to sign the Treaty of Madrid. To ensure his good behavior, two of his sons were handed over in his place. Francis was one of them.

But apparently the king didn’t much care for his children, because he immediately went back on his word, leaving both the eight-year-old Dauphin and his younger brother Henry in Spanish custody for three years. Captivity took a toll on Francis in particular, whose health suffered badly during his years in unpleasant confinement, and never fully recovered.

A few years later, now a free man but still not a king, Francis opted for a strenuous game of tennis. During said game — and stop me if you’ve heard this before — he had a cold, refreshing drink, and died shortly thereafter. Was his constitution terminally damaged from his time in Spain? Was he poisoned by Sebastiano de Montecucculi, his secretary (and Imperial agent)? Was Catherine de Medici involved? Your guess is as good as anyone else’s. What is definitely true is that the tennis curse got another one.

Today, French royalty need not fear the noble sport of tennis. This is mostly because French royalty no longer actually exists, terminally damaged by French revolutionary fervor in 1789 and then finally eradicated by the messy convulsions of the 19th century.

One of the key early events of the French revolution came on June 20th, 1789, when members of the Third Estate, fearing attack from King Louis XVI made a collective promise “never to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require until the constitution of the realm is established and fixed upon solid foundations.”

The name of this pivotal moment, which marked the first time that the executive powers of the king were properly challenged by the people, was, of course, the Tennis Court Oath.