The People on the Playing Cards

Jack of Diamonds - Roland

by D. J. McAdam

Who are the figures on the court cards in a standard deck of playing cards supposed to represent? 

It is a simple question, but one with two different answers.  If we're speaking of English playing cards and their descendants (which would include American playing cards), the answer is "no one."  This answer is the one most scholars would agree on, based on historical research.  It is also the answer most people would be dissatisfied with, because most of us seem to have heard (or to think that we've heard) of a list of the people represented on the face cards, and just can't remember who's who.  Isn't one of the kings Richard the Lion-Hearted?  Isn't one of the Queens Cleopatra?

So then - now that we've tipped our hat to the scholars, let's get on with it.  The traditional associations of persons with playing cards - the meanings of playing cards, if you will - are as follows:


Playing Card

Historical Personage

King of Hearts Charlemagne
Queen of Hearts Judith (of the Book of Judith,
an Apocryphal Book of the Bible)
Jack of Hearts "La Hire," a famous French warrior
a.k.a. Etienne de Vignoles
King of Spades King David
Queen of Spades Pallas, a.k.a. Minerva
Jack of Spades Hogier the Dane,
one of Charlemagne's paladins
King of Diamonds Julius Caesar
Queen of Diamonds Rachel (of the Bible)
Jack of Diamonds Hector of Troy
alternately, Roland of France
King of Clubs Alexander the Great
Queen of Clubs Argine
An anagram of Regina
Jack of Clubs Lancelot



The only book to discuss this subject at length is the now out-of-print Playing Cards: History of the Pack and Explanations of Its Many Secrets, by W. Gurney Bentham.  (London, Spring Books.)