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King's Tennis Courts

Related Materials: The Oath of the Tennis Court by Jacques Louis David.
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Tennis was most likely developed by 11th or 12th century French monks, who played the game as a crude form of handball against monestery walls.  Monks taught the game to the French nobility, and the country boasted as many as 1800 courts at one point. 

The pastime, which was called jeu de paume (game of the hand) or tenez (take this) became so popular throughout France that indoor courts began springing up in aristocratic homes.  Although the game's popularity had significantly dwindled during the eighteenth century, the courts were still a trademark of a well-appointed abode. The court at Versailles is such a facility.  This abandoned athletic facility become an important historical landmark during the French Revolution.

In April 1789, the Estates General, made up of representatives of the France's three legally defined social groups:  the clergy, the nobility, and the Third Estate (which included everybody else) was convoked at Versailles by Louis XVI. 

By May, they were supposed to get to work and make recommendations for reforms that would address the country's financial crisis brought about by excessive spending and archaic taxes that allowed the richest citizens of France (the clergy and nobility) to avoid most taxes. Bringing together the representatives of the three estates was a last-ditch effort to bring about consensus on social, economic, and political reforms that would save the monarchy from bankruptcy.

Unfortunately, the delegates could not even agree on how voting should occur.  Since each social group had an equal number of representatives,  the clergy and the nobility could combine to veto anything proposed by the Third Estate – who represented more than 90 per cent of the French population.  Yet these were the rules the King had mandated. 

The representatives of the Third Estate refused to accept these rules.  By June, they were still debating what to do and refusing to conduct any business.  On June 17, they declared themselves to be not simply representatives of the Third Estate, but of the nation, and dubbed themselves the National Assembly.  They invited the representatives of the clergy and the nobility to join them. 

Three days later, finding themselves locked out of the hall where they usually met, and suspecting that this signalled an imminent action by the King to disband them, they marched as a group to the Royal Tennis Court, where each man swore an oath  "never to separate, and to meet wherever circumstances demand, until the constitution of the kingdom is established and affirmed on solid foundations." 

June 20, 1789, the date of the Tennis Court Oath, is considered by many to be the beginning of the French Revolution, equivalent perhaps to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.

Royal Life

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Tennis Court Oath
Read more about the Tennis Court Oath & other events.

King Louis XVI
Learn more about King Louis XVI's life.

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