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Anyone who is familiar with a deck of playing cards knows that the king is usually the highest-ranking face card, outranking any queens and jacks, though less valuable than aces. Being dealt a hand with multiple kings in it tends to be a cause for celebration. But have you ever looked closely at those kings? Who are they, exactly? Are they simply generic representations of monarchs, or are they linked with historical leaders or legendary characters?
The short answer is that today, the kings of hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades are generic figures, unless you have a themed or novelty deck, of course. However, in 16th-century France, there was an accepted iconography for the four king cards. French card designers of that period associated the cards with King David, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Charlemagne. Although this was not widely adopted elsewhere, the practice of featuring historical figures on playing cards lasted for nearly 200 years in France.
By the end of the 18th century, however, the glorification of the monarchy had died out — literally — in conjunction with the French Revolution. As a result, the kings featured on playing cards ceased to resemble any specific monarchs.
Deal me in:
- It is unclear when and where playing cards first originated. Historian Joseph Needham believes they may have first appeared in Tang China during the 9th century AD.
- Historians believe that king face cards were first produced in India or Persia before eventually making their way to Europe during the Middle Ages.
- At one point, queens were completely removed from decks of cards in Germany. German playing cards also had their own distinctive suits, featuring leaves, acorns, hearts, and bells.