Many believe that some type of game of bowls was developed from the Egyptians. Artifacts found in tombs dating circa 5,000 B.C. show that one of their pastimes was to play a type of lawn bowling or skittles with round stones. Sculptured vases & ancient plaques show the game being played some 4,000 years ago, & archaeologists have uncovered biased stone bowls from 5,000 B.C. which indicate our ancestors enjoyed the game of bowling more than 7,000 years ago. The sport spread across the world & took on a variety of forms, Bocce (Italian), Bolla (Saxon), Bolle (Danish), Boules (French) & Ula Maika (Polynesian). The sport of lawn bowls is a forerunner of curling, a popular winter version played in northern countries (including Canada) on ice.
When Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) ruled Rome, the game was known as “Bocce,” & conquering Roman Legions of centurians may well have carried the game to Europe & the British Isles. By the 13th century, bowling had spread to France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Germany, & England. The oldest English Bowls green still played on is in Southampton, England where records show that the green has been in operation since 1299 A.D.
The game of lawn bowling became so popular in England and in France, that it was prohibited by law because archery, essential to the national defense, was being neglected. The French king, Charles IV (1294-1328), prohibited the game for the common people in 1319, & King Edward III (1312-1377) issued a similar edict in England in 1361. Statutes forbidding it & other sports were enacted in the reigns of Edward III, Richard II, & other monarchs. Edward III, the game was restricted by royal decree to “Noblemen & others having manors or lands.” Successive kings played & enjoyed the game. Even when, on the invention of gunpowder & firearms, the bow had fallen into disuse as a weapon of war, the prohibition was continued. During the reign of Richard II (1452-1485) bowls were referred to as "gettre de pere" or "jetter de pierre," & describes throwing a stone, probably as round as possible. In the early 15th century bowls were made of hardwoods &, after the 16th century discovery of Santo Domingo, of lignum vitae, a very dense wood.
King Henry VIII (1491-1547) was a lawn bowler, & had bowling greens installed at Whitehall, permitting the common people to play on Christmas Day. However, he banned the game for those who were not wealthy or "well to do" because "Bowyers, Fletchers, Stringers & Arrowhead makers" were spending more time at recreational events such as bowls instead of practicing their trade. The discredit attaching to bowling alleys, first established in London in 1455, probably encouraged subsequent repressive legislation, for many of the alleys were connected with taverns frequented by the dissolute & gamesters. The word "bowls" occurs for the first time in the statute of 1511, in which Henry VIII confirmed previous enactments against unlawful games. By a further act of 1541—which was not repealed until 1845—artificers, labourers, apprentices, servants & the like were forbidden to play bowls at any time except Christmas, & then only in their master's house & presence. It was further enjoined that any one playing bowls outside his own garden or orchard was liable to a penalty of 6s. 8d., while those possessed of lands of the yearly value of £100 might obtain licences to play on their own private greens. However, the green could only be used for private play, & he forbade anyone to "play at any bowle or bowles in open space out of his own garden or orchard." (In 1845, the ban was lifted, & people from all walks of life were again allowed to play bowls & other games of skill.)
The earliest documented use of the word 'Jack' in Bowls is either from 1611 "Was there euer man had such lucke? when I kist the Iacke vpon an vp-cast, to be hit away?" or alternatively Shakespeare (1564-1616) who used it in Cymbeline (thought to have been written in 1609), when he caused Cloten to exclaim, "Was there ever man had such luck! When I kissed the jack, upon an up-cast to be hit away."
Shakespeare (Richard II, Act III, Scene IV):
"Queen: What sport shall we devise here in this garden,
To drive away the heavy thought of care?
First Lady: Madam, we'll play at bowls.
Queen: 'Twill make me think the world is full of rubs.
And that my fortune runs against the bias"
John P Monro, Bowls Encyclopaedia (3rd ed), writes that the name 'jack' is derived from the Latin word jactus, meaning a cast or a throw. 'Jack-Bowl', was the little bowl, later shortened to 'Jack.' In 1697, R. Pierce wrote, "He had not Strength to throw the Jack-Bowl half over the Green."
A sport played by young men called "casting the stone" is mentioned by William FitzStephen, a close friend of Thomas à Becket, in the preface of his biography Vita Sancti Thomae written during the twelfth century. Casting of stones translates in Latin as "jactu lapidum" & was a game in which rounded stones were thrown at or bowled towards a target object & so some are persuaded that the modern word 'Jack' derives originally from this term.
A manuscript from the 13th century in the Royal Library at Windsor (No. 20, E iv.), contains a drawing representing two players aiming at a small cone instead of an earthenware ball or jack. The world's oldest surviving bowling green is the Southampton Old Bowling Green, which was first used in 1299. A 14th-century manuscript, Book of Prayers, in the Francis Douce collection in the Bodleian Library at Oxford contains a drawing in which two persons are shown, but they bowl to no mark.
Pieter Angillis (Flemish, 1685-1734) The Game of Bowls
David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) Playing Bowls
The Spanish Armada interrupted Sir Frances Drake, while he was playing a game of bowls. On July 18, 1588, Drake was involved in a game at Plymouth Hoe, when he was notified that the Spanish Armada were approaching. His immortalised response was that "We still have time to finish the game and to thrash the Spaniards, too." He then proceeded to finish the match which he lost before embarking on the fight with the Armada which he won. Whether this famous story really took place is still debated.
Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) mentions in his diary being invited to “play at bowls with the nobility & gentry.” Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) & Sir Water Raleigh (1552-1618) were bowlers. Ordinary people used public alleys and greens maintained by towns and taverns, and the well-to-do had private bowling greens on their estates.
The sport of Lawn Bowls is the forerunner of Curling, a tremendously popular winter version played in northern countries (including Canada and Scotland) on ice. It isn't clear if the Scots or the Dutch invented the game; the first written records on it are from the 1600's. At one time the stones that slide across the ice were pieces of granite weighing up to 56kg. Gradually they evolved into plump stone discs with a handle protruding from the top surface. The target is a circle 32 metres from the thrower and the game is played by 2 teams of 4 players, each player sliding 2 stones per go. The slightly bizarre final aspect of the game is that each player is equipped with a genuine broom which is used to scrub the ice just ahead of the stone as it slides towards the target. The scrubbing warms the ice which creates a film of water that the stone slides over speeding it slightly. Skilful work with the broom will successfully deviate the direction of the stone or lengthen the distance it travels in such a way that it eventually comes to rest nearer to the target.