History and Rules for Medieval Ground and Table Billiards

By Lord Aurddeilen ap Robet

Early History of Billiards

The Modern game of Billiards (originally called “Port and King”) is generally regarded to have evolved into an indoor game from outdoor stick-and-ball lawn games such as Jeu de mail,  Paille-maille, Trucco, Croquet, Golf, and the stick-less game of Bocce.

The first known mention of a form of the word "billiards" appears in Edmund Spenser's Mother Hubberd's Tale in 1591, where he speaks of "all thriftless games that may be found ... with dice, with cards, with billiards". The word "billiard" may have evolved from the French word billart or billette, meaning "stick", in reference to the mace, an implement similar to a golf club. The term billiard may have also originated from the French word bille, meaning "ball". 

A form of billiards was played outdoors in the 1340s, and was reminiscent of croquet in that it used hoops and pins. King Louis XI of France had the first known indoor billiard table constructed in the 15th Century. Louis XIV further refined and popularized the game, and it swiftly spread amongst the French nobility. While the game had long been played on the ground, this version appears to have died out in the 17th century, in favor of croquet, golf, and various bowling games. 

Mary, Queen of Scots, claimed that her "table de billiard" had been taken away by what would eventually become her executioners, who covered her body with the table's cloth. In 1588, the Duke of Norfolk was documented as owing a "Billyard board covered with a green cloth, three billyard sticks, and 11 balls of ivory". Billiards grew to the extent that by 1727, it was being played in almost every Paris café. In England, the game was developing into a very popular activity for members of the gentry.

Initially, the mace was used to push or scoop the balls, rather than strike them. By 1670, the thin “Butt or Cue” end of the mace began to be used not only for shots against the cushion (which itself was originally only there as a preventative method to stop balls from rolling off), but players increasingly preferred it for other shots as well. The “Cue” as it is known today was finally developed by about 1800. The term "Cue" itself comes from queue, the French word for a tail. This refers to the early practice of using the tail of the mace to strike the ball when it lay against a rail or cushion.

The great demand for tables and other equipment was initially met in Europe by John Thurston and other furniture makers of the era. The early balls, ports, and kingpins were made from wood and clay, but the rich preferred to use ivory.

Ground Billiards - 1300

Illustration A: Ground Billiards – 1300

Ground Billiards – 1480

Illustration B: Ground Billiards – 1480

Illustration C: Trucco – Early 17th Century 

Table Billiards - 1674

Illustration D: Table Billiards - 1674

Game Rules

  1. Playing Surface for Ground Billiards

Ground Billiards is played on a level 8’ wide x 16’ long field with a surrounding wood border known as the “Rail ” (typically 3” to 6” in height). Hazard holes are placed at each corner, and at the center of each 16’ rail (if holes cannot be used, then stakes or fixed hoops may be used in their place).

A fixed rotating hoop known as the Port (large enough for the balls to pass through) is located 4’ from an 8’ rail, along the center line of the playing field.

A free-standing tapered pin known as the King (which typically has a base of 3” to 5” and a height of 15” to 16”) is located 4’ from the 8’ rail opposite the Port, along the center line of the playing field.

  1. Playing Surface for Table Billiards

Table Billiards is played on a level 4’ x 8’ green cloth covered table with a padded border known as the “Cushion”. Hazard holes are placed at each corner, and at the center of each 8’ cushion.

A fixed rotating hoop known as the Port (large enough for the balls to pass through) is located 2’ from a 4’ cushion, along the center line of the table.

A free-standing tapered pin known as the King (which typically has a base of 2” to 3”, and a height of 6” to 9”) is located 2’ from the 4’ cushion opposite the Port, along the center line of the table.

  1. Balls, Sticks, and Players

Both Ground and Table Billiards may be played with one or two players on each team. Each player uses one ball and one Stick. Balls for Ground Billiards are typically 3” to 4” in diameter, while balls for Table Billiards are typically 2” to 3” in diameter. Sticks for both Ground and Table Billiards vary from 24” to 36” in length, and usually have a mace like head on one end. Please note that while the mace head is used in Ground Billiards, the narrow “Butt or Cue” end is generally used in Table Billiards.

  1. Game Rounds

The game of Billiards is played through 5 Rounds during the Day (7 Rounds if Odds are given). However, at night the game is played through only 3 Rounds (This is due to the expense of candlelight). In general, Rounds end when the King is knocked down, or a ball is knocked into a Hazard. Please note that the King must be stood upright, and the Port rotated back its starting position before the next round can begin. Refer to Rule 11 concerning “Faults” for other ways to end Rounds.

  1. Starting a Round

To begin a Round, each player places their ball near the “Rail or Cushion” opposite the King. Then in an agreed upon order, each player strikes their ball with a single stroke in such a way as to bring their ball in close proximity to the King without actually knocking it down. Please note that knocking the King down during this initial stroke causes the loss of 1 Round. The player who places their ball closest to the King becomes the leader for this Round, followed by the next closest player. Thus for the remainder of the Round, each players now take turns striking their ball as established by their initial proximity to the King.

  1. Pass through the Port

After “Starting a Round”, the contest to “Pass through the Port” begins. The leader makes their attempt first, followed in order by the other players. On their first stroke, all players must be careful not to touch the “Rails or Cushions” with their ball, or lose 1 Round. All subsequent strokes may touch the “Rails or Cushions” without penalty. Please note that is good play to turn the Port with your ball and hinder your adversary from passing through the Port.

  1. Touching the King

Once a player passes their ball through the Port, they may then strike their ball on their next turn in an attempt to “Touch the King” without knocking it down, and win 1 Round. If the same player can then pass through the port a second time before their adversary has passed once, then they may attempt to touch the King again, and win 2 Rounds. Please note that caution should be taken in attempting this, because knocking the King down causes the player to lose 1 Round.

  1. Hazard an Adversary’s Ball

Any time after the first stroke, a player may attempt to “Hazard an Adversary’s Ball”, causing them to lose 1 Round. To do so, they must strike an opponent’s ball with their ball in such a way as to knock it into one of the 6 Hazard holes.

  1. King an Adversary’s Ball

Any time after both players have passed their ball through the port, a player may attempt to “King an Adversary’s Ball”, and thus win 1 Round. To do so, they must strike an opponent’s ball with their ball in such a way as to hit the King and cause it to fall down. After all, if you are going to bring a King down, it is just good politics to have someone else do it.

  1. Fornication

Fornication results from passing a ball through the back of the Port. Any player who does this is considered a Fornicator, and must pass their ball twice through the front of the Port before they can proceed. Note that the back of the Port is colored black or red, while the front of the Port is colored white. Please note that it is good play to turn the Port with your ball and make your adversary a Fornicator. This can occur when an adversaries ball lies near the Port, and the Port is rotated in such a way as to cause their ball to pass backwards through the Port.

  1. Faults

The following actions are considered “Faults” and result in various penalties:

  1. Striking a ball in such a way as to cause it to fly over a Rail or Cushion;

Lose 1 Round.

  1. Playing out of turn; lose 1 Round

  2. Touching an adversary’s ball or stick with any part of your body or stick; lose 1 Round

  3. Accidentally knocking the King down with any part of your body or stick; lose 1 Round

  4. Accidentally removing or causing the Port to rotate with any part of your body or stick; Lose 1 Round. Port must be placed back to its original starting position.

  5. Raking a Ball, or striking it twice in succession; lose 1 Round.

  6. Striking an adversary’s ball without declaring an attempt to “Hazard” or ”King”; lose 1 Round.

Please note that judgment of this attempt lies with the Bystanders.

  1. Placing a hand, arm, or sleeve on the Table Cloth; lose 1 Round – Table Billiards only.

  2. Bystander making offensive or intrusive comments; lose 2 Pence

(Thus the reference to “adding your two cents”)

  1. Player making offensive or intrusive comments; forfeit the game, and lose 2 Pence.

  2. Damaging the King Pin or any Ball; forfeit the game, and 1 Shilling.

  3. Damaging a stick; forfeit the game, and 5 Shillings.

  4. Damaging a Port; forfeit the game, and 10 Shillings.   



  1. Stein and Rubino, Paul, Victor (1996). The Billiard Encyclopedia: An Illustrated History of the Sport (2nd ed.). Blue Book Publications, June 1996. ISBN 1-886768-06-4.

  2. Bennet, Joseph (1984). Cavendish. ed. Billiards (6th ed.). London: T. de la Rue. pp. ii. OCLC 12788362.

  3. Everton, Clive (1986). The History of Snooker and Billiards (revised version of The Story of Billiards and Snooker, 1979 ed.). Haywards Heath, UK: Partridge Pr. pp. 8–11. ISBN 1-85225-013-5

  4. Charles Cotton (1674), The Compleat Gamester. London: (Reprinted for J. Wilford at the Three Golden Flower-de-Luces in Little Britain, 1725 ed.)


    A.  1300 Woodcut, Reprinted in Strutt's Sports and Pastimes of the English People (1801)

  1. 1480 woodcut, reprinted in Clare's Billiards and Snooker Bygones (1985)

  2. Sotheby's Catalogue #L07123, Important British Paintings 1500-1850, November 2007.

  3. Woodcut from Charles Cotton's 1674 book, The Compleat Gamester. Reprinted in the introductory history chapter (p.iv) of Joseph Bennett's 1894 book, Billiards (publisher T. de la Rue) 

Christina Jenevra de Carvalhal,
Sep 9, 2012, 3:30 PM