A deck of playing cards is filled with enigmas and mysteries. One of the most enduring features a man with no mustache. The King of Hearts is one of the most iconic cards in the deck, mainly because of his awkwardly placed sword. Because of that, he’s earned the nickname of “suicide king.”
But that may be somewhat inaccurate.
A little history:
- ~ Modern playing cards — spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds — are French in origin. The shapes were easier to stencil than the detail-laden bells, hearts, leaves and acorns of German decks.
- ~ The designs seen in a deck from the U.S. Playing Card Company, Gemaco, Carta Mundi and other modern publishers descend from models produced by Pierre Marechal in Rouen around 1565, according to World of Playing Cards.
- ~ Near the end of that century, French publishers started naming the court cards after heroes, legends or historical figures. Names were printed on them until about the 18th century.
- ~ Originally, the court cards were portrayed as fully standing figures, complete with stockinged feet.
- ~ The simplistic graphics of today’s modern court cards can be traced back to those Rouen designs. Elements of those designs, including the flowers held by the queens, the King of Diamonds’ axe and the positions of the courts’ faces (namely, the one-eyed royals) have been incorporated in modern-era decks from numerous publishers.
The King of Hearts was dubbed Charles, presumably after Charlemagne. He’s the only king without a mustache, the only king doing something active with his weapon. The mystery deepens with an examination of that weapon, however: According to Wikipedia, it’s been suggested that because Charlemagne’s sword does not exactly match the weapons held by the other kings, perhaps he is not killing himself, but recovering from an attempt on his life.
Or maybe he’s just raising his sword, ready to attack. It’d be easy enough to speculate that –because the Rouen designs featured flat crowns on each court card flush against the border of the art, there wasn’t a lot of room left over to depict Charles in charge, ready to slice some heathens.
And conquering is what he’s known for: Charlemagne is remembered in history for a humongous expansion of his kingdom, including overtaking the Roman empire. Pope Leo III declared him emperor of the Romans, after he and his armies helped defeat a rebellion. Charlemagne died in 813 of an infection in his lungs.
Not exactly the kind of guy who would jab a sword in his skull.
But the myth of the suicide king endures. He was a character in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” There are a few plays named after the card, and a Roy Orbison album, released after the singer’s death, was named “King of Hearts.” And we’ve read some reports from Christian magicians who say the king’s apparent act of sacrifice make the card perfect for representing either God or Jesus.
Yet of all the iconography in a deck of playing cards, the suicide king remains one of the most often repeated designs, as critical to a complete deck as two one-eyed jacks. The reason for his apparent sacrifice is probably one of the biggest mysteries in a modern pack of playing cards.
INSIDE THE CARDS is an occasional feature that dives into the history of a single card. Know any good legends behind cards? Let us know. Comment below or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.