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The Pleasure Pursuits of Royals through the Ages

The monarchy has long been a source of fascination for many a mere mortal, from their decadent lifestyles and dazzling finery to their exclusive events and expensive tastes. But, aside from all the jewels, traditions, and fancy attire, they are every bit as keen to enjoy their down time as the rest of us. So, what do they do for fun?

The art of spending one’s time engaging in pleasurable activities is something aristocrats and monarchs are very accomplished at. Throughout the ages and across the world the ruling elite, from the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt to the House of Windsor, have patronised and even pioneered leisure activities such as sports, travelling and the performing arts. Louis XIV, the Sun King of Versailles, for example, wasn’t just a keen dancer but a pivotal figure in the creation of classical ballet and French opera. During his reign he famously performed in the all-night ballet de couer, Le Ballet de la Nuit, introduced musicians and playwrights to compose scores and librettos and established both the Academie Royale de Danse in 1661 and the Acadamie d’Opera in 1669. However, not all the leisurely pursuits of the elite classes were quite so artistically enlightened, Royals have had a long association with activities that in modern times are more likely seen in a casino than a royal court.

The Tudors and Dice

The Tudors were passionate about many games, but none more so than the seemingly simple game of dice. From around 1512 to 1603, the British government attempted to licence taverns housing dice games and stop the less reputable taverns from allowing games on the premises, often to no avail. An act was passed in 1542 banning the working class, including artisans, fishermen, labourers and servingmen, from participating in ‘unlawful’ games such as dice tennis and bowls except at Christmas! In Tudor times, playing dice was very much an aristocratic pursuit, and fortunes could be made and lost on the turn of a die.

Dice in the 16th Century were typically made from bone, silver or ivory and would often be played on specially marked boards with diagonal lines, which determined the score of each turn. Cheating was rife with weighted or false dice, and there were a number of legal indictments passed during the times. Historians have estimated that between 1529 and 1532 Henry VIII lost £3,243 5s 10d in dice games and other gambling-related pursuits, and the Rules of Norfolk, Buckingham and Suffolk were all keen five players at court. Lord Darnley, Mary Queen of Scots second husband, even indulged in a game of dice on the last night of his life. His opponent, Lord Bothwell, was suspected by many to be the organiser of the gunpowder plot that would take Darnley’ life.

The Enduring Appeal of Cards

Mary, like her father before her, was known to be a keen and frequent gambler but her taste lay in cards and bowls. So significant were her interests in these games that she reportedly spent nearly a third of her monthly income on playing cards and bowls after the fall of Queen Anne. Card games were all the rage at the English court during Tudor times, one in particular called Pope Joan with its royal card names and combinations was a favourite with the royals. It was even seen as the symbol for the dispute between Henry VII and Catharine of Aragon during the annulment of their marriage.

As the centuries passed and card games developed, so did royal tastes and interests. Prince Edward VII waited a long time to ascend to the throne (he served as heir apparent at the age of 59) and was able to live a fashionable and leisurely lifestyle in the meantime. With his passion for the finer things in life, his liberal outlook and mixed social circles, Edward became a symbol of the Belle Époque, an increasingly decadent and hedonistic period from the 1870s to the outbreak of World War One. One of the prince’s chief pleasures was cards, and his favourite card game was Baccarat. He was such a keen player that he even had his own set of leather counters made, engraved with the Prince of Wales badge. No doubt he would hugely approve of today’s advances in technology.

In more recent times Prince Harry got caught on camera naked in one of Las Vegas’ lavish casino-hotels. But instead of embarrassing himself in Sin City, he could be using a well-established platform like 888Casino which offers live action with real human dealers. Why stumble around unknown casino-floors when you can play live Baccarat from the comfort of your own palace? Most Brits would approve since in 2016 they spent over £12.6 Billion on games of chance.

The Sport of Kings

Not all royal interests lie in the thrill of gambling on cards and dice, however. Horse racing has held an endurable appeal for monarchs and aristocrats across the globe. Our very own reigning Queen, Elizabeth II has taken a vested interest in the sport of kings. An accomplished horsewoman since her youth, Elizabeth is not only the patron of the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association but owns many notable thoroughbred race horses.

Queen Elizabeth’s registered racing silks worn by the jockeys of her horses are the same as those used by her father King George VI and grandfather, King Edward VII, preserving this piece of history for the current generations. Since 2013 horses owned by the Queen have won in excess of 1600 races, including a number of a British Classic Races, and she was twice named the British flat racing Champion Owner (in 1954 and 1957) becoming the first reigning monarch to do so.

In the case of Queen Elizabeth and horse-racing, an active royal interest in a typically leisurely pursuit is a vital part of keeping the industry built around it running. Not all pleasure pursuits have as devastating consequences as the supposed 3-day gambling splurge Marie Antoinette indulged in in the days leading up to her 21st birthday. A positive association between the elite and activities like casino games, sport and the arts creates a deep interest with people from all backgrounds and ensures their longevity.

So, from dancing and gambling on horses and cards, to keen pursuits in Baccarat and dice, the monarchy has a long tradition of keeping themselves occupied when they are not busy with royal duties. It just goes to show that under all that finery, they are just like the rest of us when it comes to having fun!

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