Part III: Jeu de Mail - The Genesis of Golf
'At another time playing at goff, a play not unlike to pale maille, whilst his schoolmaster stood talking with another, and marked not his highness warning him to stand farther off, the prince, thinking he had gone aside, lifted up his goff club to strike the ball; mean tyme, one standing by said to him, "Beware that you hit not Master Newton"; wherewith he, drawing back his hand, said, "Had I done so, I had but paid my debts."'
The winter had been extraordinarily unseasonable, with January temperatures in London as hot as they usually were in June. In the Turk's Head at Cornhill, there was talk of a mysterious plot against the new 'Reformation' government, and more still, about Nature gone mad. The bewildering climatic change had grave implications for farming, since England, despite its great Navy and merchant fleet, depended on home-grown crops to survive. Mention of earlier famines brought involuntary shivers. Worse yet, as everyone knew, warm weather encouraged the plague, a regular deadly visitor to the great city. Grey heads vividly remembered the calamitous visitation of '03, which killed 30,000 London residents.
Little did the scarred survivors suspect that the next assault was lurking just over the horizon poised to decimate the population, with no respect for wealth, age, race, colour or creed. In 1666, Black Death would pounce on unsuspecting England in a final devastating strike, claiming the lives of 100,000 Londoners. The process from infection to death was lightening-like. Boccaccio, who estimated that that an equal number of citizens had died in the Florence's 1348 Black Death, wrote that plague victims 'ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.'
Fear of an Apocalypse moved Parliament to order a day of fasting during which the citizenry could pray for more seasonable weather. It didn't help. Spring had now arrived and the weather remained hot. Frost on window panes, a frozen Thames with its beloved fun fares and ball games on the ice, were dreams of the past. Daffodils, narcissus, daisies and even roses, had long since bloomed and withered.
It was mid-morning, the 2nd of April 1661, as 28 year old Samuel Pepys (who himself had lost brothers to the Plague), strolled leisurely towards St James Park, time on his hands before his first appointment at the Admiralty. He had heard that a new mall – whatever that was – had just been constructed in the park for pall-mall. The game, so they said, had been played on what was now a busy street called Pall Mall, since the time of James I. During Cromwell's reign it had been built over and, although brought back in use, was rendered unplayable by the clouds of dust stirred by passing carriages and wagons. The unseasonal warm weather added to the problem, bringing out crowds of gaily dressed ladies and flâneurs, oblivious to the danger of being struck by a heavy wooden ball. Even though the French cry, 'Gare' to warn of an errant drive, was well-established, few who heard it knew what it meant. Strollers, felled by the half pound wooden balls, were an annoying distraction for the player.
English society had been increasingly caught up in pall-mall since Dallington's trip across the Channel in 1598, and the book, 'View of France, in which he published his observations. The Master of Charterhouse had bemoaned the fact that Palle-Maille, as he spelled it, wasn't played in England: 'Among all the exercises of France, I preferre none before the Palle-maille, both because it is a Gentleman-like sport, not violent, and yeelds good occasion and opportunity of discourse, as they walke from the one marke to the other. I marvell, among many more Apish and foolish toyes, which wee have brought out of France, that wee have not brought this sport also into England.'
That was most puzzling, Pepys thought, since in Basilikon Doron, the book of guidance that James wrote and had privately published in 1599 for his infant son, Henry, Prince of Wales, the king had recommended the game as a preferred recreation. And hadn't James' own mother, Mary Queen of Scots, been observed playing pall-mall in Scotland as early as 1567? The sport, known by its playing equipment – the palla (ball) and mallaeus (mallet) – had a long tradition in Italy and was acceptable for the nobility, thus for anyone. It was an ancient favourite of the French, Scotland's Auld Ally, who claimed that the rules went back to the time of the Gauls. One would have thought that the English would have adopted the game much earlier.
Although intrigued by the idea, Pepys had little time for strenuous games, preferring to devote his days to stimulating conversation while supping on oysters and tasty brawn. Washed down with cider, ale, wine and sack, his socialising usually kept him occupied until late at night. The consequences, including his head 'akeing all day' from the previous night's debauch, were not conducive to sports. The diarist stopped for a moment, to catch his breath, wipe his brow, and regard the darkened sky above London. Could the unseasonable weather somehow be the result of the ubiquitous seacoale fires that produced such a fuliginous, filthy vapour? The fuel's dangers were legendary and as far back as the reign of King Edward I 'Longshanks' nearly 400 years earlier, anyone caught burning sea coal was to be tortured or executed. Still, what were the alternatives? Pepys began to jot a reminder to travel out to Wotton to discuss the matter with John Evelyn, when he was distracted by an unfamiliar sound – not unlike the hammering of tent pegs with a wooden mallet – but sharper – a distinctive pistol-like report.
Curious, he crossed the road to the edge of the park and drew in his breath when he say that the whip-cracking sounds were emanating from their highnesses, James, Duke of York, and his brother, Charles Stuart, soon to be crowned King of England. Following his battlefield loss to Cromwell at Worchester in 1651, Charles had been forced to flee and had spent nine years in penniless, nomadic exile in the Spanish Netherlands, The United Provinces and France. With his charm, Italianate dark good looks and masterful horsemanship, he had little difficulty in finding companionship, often joining his hosts at the popular ball games of their countries. Now, home again, Charles would ascend to the throne in three weeks time.
Pepys saw that the future king and his brother were standing at the end of an 800 yard-long, smooth-surfaced alley, its sides lined with low boards – the wood so freshly sawn and planed that it sent off a pungent scent in the warm morning air. James stood, feet wide apart, opposite a large wooden ball, raised on a mound of dirt. His gloved hands encircled a grip made of white leather straps wrapped around the end of a nearly 4 foot-long wooden shaft. At the other end was a barrel-shaped head re-enforced with iron bands.
Fascinated by the novel sight, the diarist lingered to see what would happen next. In a flash of movement, the Prince took back the mallet over his head and swung violently downward to strike the ball at his feet. The boxwood 'boule' took off in a low skimming flight, touched the surface, bounced slightly and continued skipping, then rolling down the alley, before it slowed and stopped. 'Demned fine shot, Jamey', said his brother, as he stepped up to play his own Début or Volée'. An impressed Pepys recorded the event in his diary, encoded in a cipher that wouldn't be cracked until 1825: 'To St. James's Park, where I saw the Duke of York playing at Pelemele, the first time that I ever saw the sport.'
The poet Edmund Waller, another who had seen the future king in action on the mall, penned an account unlikely to cause royal displeasure: 'To see our Prince his matchless force employ; His manly posture and his graceful mien, Vigour and youth in all his motions seen; No sooner has he touched the flying ball, But 'tis already more than half the mall. And such a fury from his arm has got, As from a smoking culverin 'twere shot.' Waller can be forgiven his attempt to curry favour from the most influential of patrons, but his account of Charles' tee shots is wildly exaggerated.
Swinging a 'mail' that weighed some two pounds, to drive a ball weighing between 5 and 7 ounces, required power, technique and timing. Despite the fact that the rules permitted the use of a tee made of dirt or a rolled card for the initial drive, it was unlikely that amateur players, such as the Stuart princes, could have driven more than 70 – 100 yards. When compared to the greatest of the professionals, Louis Brun, an 18th century master from Provence, who drove a series of balls 400 paces or 300 yards, to end grouped within a foot of each other, this was very small beer, indeed.
But Pall-Mall, as the game was known in English, wasn't just about distance. The width of the alley was no more than 10 – 14 feet, and the low boards running its length on both sides, kept only rolled shots in play. That, coupled with penalty strokes for out of bounds shots (the marque), placed a premium on accuracy. The malls themselves were magnificent constructions, the grandest of which was at Den Haag in the Netherlands – a mind-boggling 1073 metres or over 1100 yards long! And that of the Reggia di Veneria (the Royal Hunting Lodge) in Turin, was over 1000 metres long and 'U' shaped. Gracious rows of trees, sometime double rows, ran the length of the sides to provide shade. In 1673, Richard Bloome wrote that the St James mall '…was said to be the best in Christendom'. Evelyn took issue, contending that the mall at Tours, the cradle of early golf '… with its seven rows of tall elms, was the noblest in Europe for length and shade.'
Thanks to carefully-constructed bedding, a surface optimised over generations and an ingenious drainage system, malls were playable most of the year. January, 2, 1664, Pepys recorded: 'Afterwards to St Jame's Park seeing the people play of Pell Mell; where it pleased me mightily to hear a gallant lately come from France, swear at one of his companions for suffering his man, a spruce blade, to be so saucy as to strike a ball while his master was playing on the Mall.' The prospect of a public course was not bright.
Much like a private golf club today, the mall had a 'pro shop' (loge du maître) which included a cloakroom, served refreshments and offered club and ball rental. In the event of damage or loss, the fine was fixed by the professional (mâitre de mail or palemardier), who, like pros today, gave lessons and assigned caddies (laquais or port lèves) to the players. Since the caddies, like their Scottish descendents, were not adverse to improving the lie of their players ball, they were required to stay outside the mall. Could the French saying, 'To lie like a laquais', have been born on the mall? The alleys varied in length, usually between about 400 – 800 yards, and were enclosed by low, smoothly-planed oak walls (palisades), a feature insisted on by the all-round sportsman, King Henri II, of France and his wife, Catherine de Medici, for their own malls. It was at Henri's châteaux that young Mary Stuart, later Queen of the Scots, spent her girlhood years and learned to play Pall Mall.
Eternally curious, prying into every corner of London, Samuel Pepys returned to the St James mall May 15, 1663. His diary records: 'Up betimes and walked to the Park, discoursing with the keeper of the Pell Mell, who was sweeping of it; who told me of what the earth is mixed that do floor the Mall, and that over all there is cockle-shells powdered, and spread to keep it fast; which, however, in dry weather turns to dust and deads the ball.'
The earliest-known 'green' keepers regularly sanded and packed down the surface to provide optimal roll, usually equal to the distance of the carry. Depending on the conditions, one of two types of balls was played: With a following wind and light and dry soil, the large Voguet, which weighed 6 oz or more, was the boule of choice. When the air and soil were heavy, the smaller Tabacan was played. In France, boules made in Naples of medlar roots were state of the art, although boxwood was also popular. In England, balls were made of chestnut or boxwood roots. Seasoning balls until they were properly dried and sturdy enough to resist splitting, was a long and elaborate process including storing in sacks of dirty linen – believed to possess the right humidity – and playing them in over months, with progressively stronger strokes.
Unlike early attempts in Scotland, when wooden balls flew irregularly – if at all – French balls offered amazing accuracy. Coupled with artisan-crafted well-balanced clubs having shafts of date palm, and heads fashioned of medlar (or later, evergreen oak), good players, particularly professionals, could drive 200 yards or more, and keep the ball in play within the narrow confines of the mall.
In the middle of the mall was a post or a pivot (a swivel-mounted iron ring), while at each end was either a stone, known as la Pierre (which the ball had to touch) or an elevated arch, the archet or fer, through which players were obliged to play the scoring shot, or passe – the equivalent of holing out in golf. This stroke was taken with a small steel ball (bille), scooped up in the spoon-like head of a short light 'putter' known as the lève, and hurled in one smooth motion through the 'horns' of the archet.
Pall-Mall was played on the mall in two variants. The usual was a game contested either as a singles match (au rouët – in the manner of the Roy, or King), or a team match (en partie), ending with a scoring shot to the archet, The other variant was a long driving contest (au grand coup) in which the rules specified the use of a tee for the initial drive, and handicapped weaker players through advancing them to take their drive opposite a designated tree. If the players were even when they reached the end of the mall, the player whose ball landed the farthest beyond the archet on the next shot won the match.
Simple arithmetic shows that getting a start time on the Old Course today, is a piece of cake compared to booking a match of pall-mall in the 17th century. St James' new mall, even though it was 800 yards long, could probably have supported no more than four or five matches at any given time. Since social order in the Renaissance and Reformation was based on precedence, and malls although numerous in France, were sparse in England, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany, the chances for lesser nobles and merchants to play were marginal, and for commoners, nil. Fortunately, there was an alternative, the ancient French variant mail à la chicane (pall-mall played in the manner of polo) a sport the Crusaders are documented as having seen played on horseback and on foot during the fourth Crusade (1204) which ended in Constantinople.
The game, according to the 17th century philologist, Du Cange, was old hat in France: 'It seems that these people (the 'Greeks', observed by the Crusaders playing Tzykanion) owe the origin to our French, and basically it wasn't anything other than that still in use in Languedoc, which one calls the game of mail, except that in Languedoc the game is played in the countryside and on long pathways where one drives a boxwood ball with a small mallet at the end of a shaft of proportional length.'
The early presence of mail à la chicane in Picardy, Toulouse, Bigorre and Comminges, is well-documented. As M. Sudre, the author of Le Noble Jeu de Mail de Montpellier, wrote: 'The noble game of mail is extremely ancient: Most of the rules of play having been lost through the lack of use; the Gauls attempted to re-publish them in writing; but, since with time the terms of a language change, as all things perishable, these rules become almost unintelligible. The French, successors to the Gauls, desired to conserve in the game the rules of their ancestors; for which they interpreted the terms and inserted them in L'Académy des Jeux.' The original French rules may have been lost, but Les Loix Du Paillemail in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, dating to before 1655, provided guidance and clarity to modern Scottish golf when the first rules were drafted in Edinburgh in 1744.
Golf would not be golf without the trailblazing of jeu de mail. Its substance and spirit are based on the royal and ancient French game which contributed the concepts of unopposed singles or team matches – each player with his club and ball – caddies, pros, clubhouses, penalties, handicapping, the cry 'Gare' that led to 'Fore', the use of a tee for the initial drive, greenkeepers, and much more. In the next chapter, we'll trace the emergence of the multi-club, cross-country variant, mail à la chicane, in Italy; take a peek into Flanders, where around 1480 a hole was introduced as the scoring target, and visit the Netherlands, where high tech and new clubhead alloys would revolutionise Dutch kolf.