a brief history of the sport

The origins of the game of Bowls have been a subject of historical speculation. Some theories point to its roots in Ancient Egypt, with artifacts found in tombs depicting a skittles-like game played with round stones as early as 5,000 BC. Another perspective suggests that Bowls spread across Europe and the Roman Empire through Roman soldiers who engaged in a game involving tossing a stone toward a target with the goal of getting as close as possible. Over time, the stones were gradually replaced by balls that were rolled.

This sport evolved and took on various forms across the world, known as Bocce in Italy, Bolla in Saxon regions, Bolle in Denmark, Boules in France, and Ula Maika in Polynesian cultures.

The oldest Bowling Green still in use today is located in Southampton in England (see picture), where historical records indicate it has been a place people have played bowls 1299 A.D.

The game of bowls was very popular with the royality of Europe. During the reign of Edward III of England, the game faced restrictions by royal decree, limiting it to “Noblemen and others having manors or lands.” These restrictions were initially lifted but reinstated due to the growing influence of gambling in the game. King Henry VIII then banned the sport for those who were not wealthy or “well-to-do,” as he believed it was diverting skilled tradespeople, such as “Bowyers, Fletchers, Stringers, and Arrowhead makers,” from their essential roles in supporting the war effort.

To further emphasize its exclusivity, Henry VIII imposed a substantial fee of 100 pounds for anyone who wished to maintain a green, and the green could only be used for private play. Public games were forbidden in open spaces. Nevertheless, despite fines and imprisonment, the game persisted, and it was only in 1845 that the statute was finally repealed. Even Windsor Castle had a permanent bowling green, and notable figures like Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I, and Queen Victoria were known to enjoy the sport.

One of the most famous stories in the history of lawn bowls involves Sir Francis Drake and the Spanish Armada. On July 18, 1588, Drake received word of the approaching Spanish Armada while he was engaged in a game at Plymouth Hoe. In response, he famously said, “We still have time to finish the game and to thrash the Spaniards, too.” Drake completed the match before embarking on the battle with the Armada, ultimately emerging victorious.

During the Tudor Period, bowls was a highly popular sport, and substantial fortunes were won and lost through gambling on games. Bowling even made its way into the works of William Shakespeare, featuring prominently in several of his plays. Phrases like “to kiss the jack” to indicate an advantageous position and “to run against the bias” when departing from the natural course can be traced back to bowling terminology.

The game’s legacy can also be linked to Roman culture, as the term “jack” is derived from the Latin word “jactus,” which means a cast or throw. “Jactus lapidum” in Latin referred to the casting of stones, which is reminiscent of the early form of bowling. It’s believed that the modern word “jack” originated from this Latin term.