Profile of the Medieval Gambler

Gambling has been around for about as long as we have and, over the centuries, it has changed apace with our own evolution. In fact, the history of gambling worldwide is so rich and extensive that it would be impossible to cover all of it in a single article. So, in this article, we’re only going to focus on one particular moment in a specific place in the history of gambling – Medieval times in Anglo-Saxon England.

Although gambling was as popular in the early 12th Century as it is now, not everyone was technically allowed to, with a succession of monarchs making it harder and harder for the lower classes to do so:

1190: Richard I

During Richard I’s Crusade, the King officially banned any person below the rank of knight from gambling. Of course, the lower classes still gambled but their pursuits were forced underground into seedy taverns and other places of ill repute.

Meanwhile, the gentry and upper classes enjoyed (and often squandered their wealth on) a wide array of games of chance – generally featuring playing cards, dice, or sports betting.

1461: Edward IV

Three hundred years later things began to look even grimmer for peasant- and working-class gamblers, when the parliament of King Edward IV banned any activity involving dice or playing cards among their ranks. Things got even worse two years later, when the parliament even banned all imports of playing cards – with the primary motive, no doubt, of eliminating the competition for local manufacturers.

Paradoxically, Edward IV also spent a considerable amount of time and energy on promoting fox hunting – a variation of “Fox and Geese” – in which onlookers wagered on the outcome as riders on horseback, with the help of a pack of trained dogs, hunted and killed foxes. Of course, this game was only legal for the wealthy, who were the only ones who could afford it anyway.

1495: Henry VII

Things were still not looking up for the commoners at the end of the 15th Century, with King Henry IV (of Shakespearean fame) continued this elitist stance on gambling. In 1495, Henry IV emended the existing law to specifically prevent apprentices, agricultural workers, labourers and employees in craft from playing.

Henry clearly did not consider gambling to be a vice when enjoyed by the middle classes as he imposed no such restrictions on the gentry and his own gambling debts were so extensive that he often had to borrow money from friends to settle them. In particular, the king liked to wager on chess, tennis, and dice games.