The Rouen Pattern
Pierre Maréchal - 1567
The Rouen Pattern is fundamentally the archaic stamp of the English Pattern, and lays the foundation for its peculiar characteristics. Rouen was an important center for trade, commerce and manufacture with the advent of the printing industry at the end of the 15th century. Card making was one of it’s industries, and brought with it such exquisite incarnations as is exemplified in Piere’s Marechal’s rendition above. But it wasn’t the only place in all of France that had turned its hand to making cards. Craftsman as far afield as Marseilles and Bordeaux were manufacturing playing cards across France, and therefore it can’t be said that some other contenders may have bestowed their heritage on English culture. Yet, by the end of the 18th Century the French had all but abandoned the Rouen pattern as it faded out of circulation like so many other patterns of the era. No one could have foreseen the broad worldwide circulation that awaited this unassuming French regional pattern.
But across France, skilled craftsman were turning out cards in a variety of incarnations. Patterns across the country varied greatly and emphasized different ideas about the royal family, and their identity in role. For example, the Knights of Auvergne were dressed in armour and carried some heavy-duty steel, while those from Lyonns were a little more lightly attired. Some designers were more concerned about the plaits in Jack’s hair, than they were about the weapons he chose. But then, in France’s high fashion world of playing cards, there wasn’t only variety in regional patterns and design, but competition for market dominance and style.
What came out of France, and indeed many of the regions across Europe churning out cards, were not always lasquenets in armour and Kings with iron thunder. Some of our characters took on more of a gentle side. The Kings and Queens of Provence, for example, kept avifauna perched on their wrists, while those of the north and the west held sceptres, orbs, and even a flaming vase. There was a lot of variety in the French provincial country side, why the Rouen pattern would rise to prominence among its rivals and understate the most widely circulated playing card in the world was yet to come.
This all worked in competition over the centuries, as each separate region advanced across the century and the faces of their playing cards met their destiny. Why the towns of Limoges, Angoulême and Poitiers languished in poor reproductions of the Auvergne design, while centers like Rouen, Paris and Lyons advanced in export trade to the north, west and British Isle is, for the purposes of this article, anyone's guess. This put patterns like the Rouen, Paris, and Bourgogne in widespread circulation.
As playing cards virgining appearance in England began around the 15th century with old Latin Cards, by the 17th century, the most common cards in circulation were those of Hearts, Clubs, Spades and Diamonds – French Suits.
The advent of playing card production in England is a bit of a murkey old mystery that doesn’t lend itself well to investigation. This is largely due to the fact that early English playing cards were so badly manufactured without much technique or finesse that their incarnations found solace in refuse or crumble dust. It doesn’t leave a trail of artefacts to unravel its story. Even those that do, like the work of Hewson and Blanchard, though considered some of the finer examples of English craftsmanship, are no match for their European counterparts. But Europe had had some heritage up to that time, and a few hundred years to establish tradition.
Playing cards therefore emerged out of an obscure murky backwater of no particular notoriety. About the only thing that can be said about Hewson, for example, is that he was of some relation to Cromwell’s father, and nothing related to playing cards ever transpired between them.
Even as early as the 17th century, English manufacturers had blurred the details of their French invented characters, and their duped blunder in reproduction was taken as fact and faithfully duplicated over time. What once looked like the swing of a battle-axe may now seem like the hilt of a sword, and where there was once sword, may not now even be a hand. Things got lost, things were changed. These were the inauspicious semblances of the English Pattern.