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What Is the History of the King of Spades?

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  • Written By: Sonal Panse
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 October 2014
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Playing cards have been a popular form of entertainment with both adults and children around the world since ancient times. The number of cards used in an card game has varied from country to country, but in modern times 52 is generally an accepted standard. There are four suits — diamonds, spades, clubs and spades — and the king of spades heads the last.

The origin of the king of spades is French; other European and non-European countries had a variety of different suits and characters. The French re-adapted the spades suit from the suit of leaves that was used in German playing cards. It was common for the suits to represent historical characters or the prevailing social class. While the German leaves suit was a representation of the middle class, the French spade suit came to represent the spearheads of the aristocratic knights.

The French card designers were the first to identify the royals in the suits with historical or existing royal personages. The cards usually carried the name of the royal personage, but there was no standard consistency here. As different designers had different preferences or loyalties, it was quite normal for different cards to represent different royals. King David was a popular choice as the king of spades, and was shown with a lyre and a sword. In fortune telling, where royal personages were not a requirement, the king of spades was often interpreted as an intelligent, difficult character, most often a lawyer with shaky ethics.

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The reason that the French king of spades became the standard in playing cards is because of the ingenuity and enterprise of the French card-makers. At a time when printing was a laborious and expensive process, they devised a quick way of producing the cards. Instead of engraving each card separately, they carved the designs of the king, queen and knave on wood blocks or copper plates and used these for all the suits. The symbols of the suits were added on later with stencils.

The French printing process was time-saving and it allowed the French card-makers to produce cards at a faster and cheaper rate than their European counterparts. As a result, it became possible for ordinary people to afford playing cards, and, as more and more people bought the inexpensive French cards and learned to play with the French suits, these then began to be the norm on the European continent. The rest of the world soon followed the fashion.

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jcraig
Post 4

@cardsfan27 - That is a possibility and all I can say is this is something that I feel is open to interpretation.

What I have to wonder though is that if this is the legend of what the king's are then what are the queens or even the jacks stories?

I am sure one of the queens, if there is a legend behind their depictions, is Queen Elizabeth.

One guess I would also say is Cleopatra, but there is definitely not a middle eastern looking queen on the cards, so this makes me suspicious.

Again, this theory could show that it is simply a matter of interpretation and simply a case of what one wants to interpret and what one wants to see in the playing cards.

It could be entirely possibly that it is simply a simple game with simple faces on the cards and everyone is just looking too much into it all.

cardsfan27
Post 3

@stl156 - Although this is something highly debatable across the world, the main western world acceptance is that these four kings of the past are the depictions on the playing cards in a standard fifty two card deck.

Sets of playing cards do vary around the world and many different culture claim that their kings were the basis of what the playing card depiction actually is.

What can be said is that it is entirely possible that the face on a playing card is simply a face of a fictional king, created just to put a face on the card, known as a face card. I think that this is probably more likely than an actual king being depicted, as it is possible the person was just creating a game and simply did not think about using the game as a tribute to the great kings of the past.

stl156
Post 2

@matthewc23 - That is an excellent question. To be totally honest, although this article does state that King David is depicted as the King of Spades, it is really something that is up for debate and depends where one goes in the world.

The other three kings that are supposedly depicted in this myth are Charlemagne, Caesar Augustus, and Alexander the Great. Each of these kings are known as the great conquerers of the world prior to playing cards being made and it is possible that they were in fact the basis for the original design of these playing cards.

However, I know that King George III commissioned playing cards to be made in his image and he is not the only king that has made such an order.

I feel like it may be something that may never be answered as I am sure that Genghis Khan is depicted on playing cards somewhere and the great kings of the Eastern world are depicted on their playing cards there.

matthewc23
Post 1
Wow, I find this incredibly interesting. I never knew that the kings depicted in a standard playing card deck were actually representing famous kings of the past.

It seems to me like these kings will not only be relegated to Europe, since King David is from Jerusalem, and that there may be other kings that are depicted in a standard deck of cards.

I am wondering which kings, and out of curiosity, which Queens are depicted on a standard deck of playing cards and if these depictions vary depending which part of the world one travels to and gets the cards from?

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