If Hampton Court Palace had an official sport it would be Real Tennis and we are delighted to welcome one of the most important world tournaments to the Palace this July!
Real Tennis has been played at Hampton Court for almost 500 years and can rightly claim to be the original tennis. Lawn tennis, as played by the Williams sisters and Andy Murray, only came along in the 19th century. Lawn tennis’s popularity required the addition of “real” to the older version of the sport in the 20th century.
Henry VIII knew it was essential to provide his courtiers with sufficient opportunities for distraction and competition. Sport was a way the King could do this whilst also demonstrating his own skills and physique. As well as the extensive hunting grounds, there were archery butts, a tiltyard for jousting, two bowling alleys and three tennis courts at the palace.
The Royal Tennis Court at Hampton Court Palace is the oldest surviving tennis court still in use. The current building was constructed in the 17th century and stands on the same site as one of the Tudor open-air tennis courts.
The earliest record of a tennis court at Hampton Court Palace comes from the 16th century. Cardinal Wolsey had an open-air court built in the 1520s (possibly replacing an even earlier court) and Henry VIII had a new close (indoor) tennis court built in 1532. You can still see the outer wall of this impressive building in Chapel Court.
As a young man, Henry was athletic, graceful and loved all sports, especially tennis. His father Henry VII was the first English king known to have played the game. Henry played regularly and, perhaps aware of the effect on his admirers, often played in a flowing white silk shirt. From this point onwards, tennis became a lasting part of royal sporting life.
Charles I was a keen player and ordered the construction of a new tennis court in 1625. Charles has been described as ‘the best of the English tennis playing monarchs.’ The walls of his new court are those that are still in use today. Charles’ court was improved in the 1630s before being extensively refurbished by Charles II on his return from exile in the 1660s.
Real Tennis at Hampton Court fell out of favour with the royal family in the early-18th century. The Georgian Kings were not big tennis fans, and exercise in general became much less popular. In 1718, George I ordered his workmen to transform the tennis court into a withdrawing room. The walls were painted white, a musician’s gallery was constructed at one end and a billiards table was placed in the middle of the room.
Tennis eventually returned to replace the billiards table and throughout the 19th century the court continued to be a focus for the sporting community at the palace. Whilst the palace’s lawn tennis facilities fell out of use and were demolished at the end of the 20th century, Real Tennis continues to grow in popularity in its historic home.
Historic Royal Palaces are proud to care for this iconic part of sporting history and, thanks to our visitors’ generous support, we recently completed a major £1.35 million conservation project on the Royal Tennis Court. This work to repair the roof structure, windows and balconies will ensure Real Tennis can continue to be enjoyed at Hampton Court Palace for another generation.
The inaugural Hampton Court Palace Real Tennis Champions Trophy will be held at the Royal Tennis Court from the 11 – 16 July 2017 and tickets are available now.