KING HENRY VIII MAY BE most famous for ruthlessly beheading his wives, but he was also keen on rolling other spherical objects: namely, bowling balls. Henry VIII and his courtiers were known to be fans of lawn bowling, which involved tossing a “bowl” or ball across open lawns in royal gardens.

The English didn’t invent bowling. The first precursor of the sport is said to date to the Egyptians and Romans, who would stuff leather balls with corn, as Roy Shephard notes in An Illustrated History of Health and FitnessIn England, historians trace the sport back to the late 13th century, as open greens or “bowling greens” became more of a common feature in gardens.

During the early modern period, sport was typically reserved for elites and even governed by the monarchy. Games such as tennis, wrestling, jousting, and bowling were not only for physical fitness, but opportunities for dukes and lords to socialize and exhibit power.

Henry VIII, an avid sportsman, attached a number of sporting venues to his palaces. Hampton Court, Nonsuch Palace, and Whitehall boasted tiltyards, cockpits, and bowling alleys. The complex at Whitehall was particularly elaborate, including four indoor tennis courts, a jousting yard, a cock-fighting and bear-baiting pit, and a bowling green.

More than one British monarch tried to ban commoners and peasants from participating in bowling, along with other sports, arguing that they were a waste of time and encouraged gambling. In 1477, King Edward IV decreed that for commoners, playing sports was a finable offense. Similarly, in 1511, King Henry VIII tried to make the sport even more exclusive. He declared that bowling was illegal for common people.

Lauren Young in Atlas Obscura

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