Queen of Hearts: She baked the tarts? She bakes?

As we all know:

  • The Queen of Hearts, she baked some tarts all on a summer's day.
  • The Knave of Hearts, he stole those tarts, and took them clear away.
  • The King of Hearts, called for the tarts and beat the Knave full sore.
  • The knave of Hearts, brought back the tarts, and vowed he'd steal no more.

The Foolishness of the Knave

The scofflaw "knave" in the story is defined as a deceitful rogue or dishonest fellow. He also seems foolish. Did he not consider what could go wrong before stealing the Queen's tarts? How delicious were those tarts to risk the wrath of the Court?

An ink drawing of the Knave standing in front of the King and Queen at court, pleading his case. Story by Lewis Carroll.

The trial of the Knave of Hearts in front of the king and queen in Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."
Original illustration in the 1865 version by John Tenniel


Where did these characters come from? For that, we shift our gaze to the Queen.

Tarts or Hearts: Which Came First?

My question is: which came first, the queen of hearts and the making tarts, or a deck of cards featuring the Queen of Hearts? In other words, was there a queen somewhere baking tarts before the first deck of cards?

Actually, many early decks of cards didn't include queens. Just kings and knaves. Therefore, it seems the playing cards came before the baking queen.

Decks of cards have a long history. We can't confidently pinpoint a starting point. It's agreed that Asia was likely the birthplace. But, as some suggest, was it 1000 years ago? Historians are scratching their heads to even define what is “a playing card.”

So let's move forward to about 1300 for the verified start of playing cards.

A 2009 study cites “a 1294 police record as the earliest unambiguous record of playing cards. A couple of gamblers in Shandong, China, were arrested, and their cards and printing blocks confiscated."

Then, in the 1300s to 1400s, the concept of playing cards for games of chance, including wagering, and conning people from their hard-earned money, seemed to develop simultaneously in China, France, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy.

The "German-suited:" playing cards evolved with both 32- and 36-card decks. They first appeared in the late 1300s. The deck featured four suits identified with: acorns, leaves, hearts, and balls.

An array of four cards, the 10 of acorns, 10 of leaves, 10 of hearts and 10 of balls (almost like sherical Christmas tree ornaments.)

The "Bavarian Pattern" for the suits of the deck: acorns, leaves, hearts, and balls. Shown here is the Number 10 of each of the four suits.


If you compare the acorns to the clubs, or the leaves to spades, it's easy to imagine the evolution from the images on the German-suited cards to the French-suited cards. The French-suited decks being the ones that we are familiar with today.

The German-suited cards originally had four suits, with four court cards per suit, including a king, queen, and two military representatives. The queen was dropped from these decks in the early 1500s. I’ve been told that decks similar to these are available in Italy and Germany today. (Any of you who are traveling and see one of these decks, take a photo of it for me, please. :-) )

An example of the court representatives for the suit of acorns: two military men and the king.  

3 cards from the Leaf suit. The king in green royal attire, and two gentlemen, one with a feathered cap holding a plant like a botanist, and the other pointing a finger on his right hand, perhaps a teacher?.

Example of the court representatives for the suit of leaves:
two men and the king. 


The Salzburg deck features the king, two military or subordinate men, and a fourth card that was eventually replaced with the queen.

The complete Salzberg deck with all the cards laid out in rows and columns.

The Salzburg deck. with 40 cards in the deck. There were no numbers below five, except the unusual "twos" on the
right-hand side of the image.


The oldest known deck that is configured as we would recognize it today is the Cloisters deck, in the collection of The Met, New York. It is considered in the French style which in part means it has 52 cards, consisting of 13 in each of four suits. Notice also that two suits are in red and two are in blue. This may have been the beginning of the decks with two sets of 13 in each of two colors. Typically today, it is red and black.

This set is from the late 1400s.

Four rows of cards. Each row comprised of all the cards in that suit.

This is the whole deck of 52 cards of the Cloisters Deck
from the collection of the Met, NYC.  

"The Cloisters’ set of fifty-two cards constitutes the only known complete deck of illuminated ordinary playing cards (as opposed to tarot cards) from the fifteenth century. There are four suits, each consisting of a king, queen, knave, and ten pip cards. The suit symbols, based on equipment associated with the hunt, are hunting horns, dog collars, hound tethers, and game nooses.

"Although some period card games are named, it is not known how they were played. Almost all card games did, however, involve some form of gambling. The condition of the set indicates that the cards were hardly used, if at all. It is possible that they were conceived as a collector’s curiosity rather than a deck for play."

From the online description from The Met. 

The "hunting horns" suit from the Cloisters deck. The members of royal court depicted include the king, the queen, and the knave.


The Augsburg deck, 1595-1600, was created with the French-suited designations of hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs. These icons for the suits had been standardized across Europe by that time, and have been recognized since then.

A drawing of a woman holding a small pennant, wering a crown and regal clothing. There is the shape of a heart in the upper-left hand corner of the drawing.


The Queen associated with baking tarts did not appear until about the late 1700s. It fell to a renown English poet, Charles Lamb, who in 1805, published the "King and Queen of Hearts: with the Rogueries of the Knave who stole the Queen’s Pies,"

Finally, the Queen of Hearts and Her Tarts

The next step toward establishing our story of a Queen of Hearts was created by Lewis Carroll in his wild story of a young girl named Alice.

A hand-drawn page in brown ink showing the words to "Alice's Adventure Underground," with a preliminary drawing of a Queen of Hearts.

A handwritten page of the original manuscript of Alice's Adventures Under Ground, illustrated by the author. Held and digitized by the British Library.  I can't help but think some of our courtroom dramas today are more than a little similar to the courtroom scenes in Lewis Carroll's imagination. 

Carroll selected John Tenniel, a British illustrator and cartoonist, to bring the stories of Alice to life. Tenniel illustrated the first edition of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” in 1865. His illustrations have stood the test of time for their craftsmanship and ability to conjure up the inconceivable images of the magic of Alice's challenging journeys.

A profiule of the Queen of Hearts pointing aggressively to the right. Her head is tilted back and mouth is open as in a loud shout. She is attired in regal clothing that looks like it is from a deck of cards.

  Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."
Original illustration in the 1865 version by John Tenniel. The Queen of Hearts at her most ruthless.


The original inspiration for the depiction of the  Queen of Hearts is thought to be Duchess of Norfolk.  Her image was inspired by a panel from a window of Medieval stained glass in the Holy Trinity Church in Long Medford, Suffolk, England.

An image of a reserved woman with starched white lined decoratively composed on to top of her head, as a nun might wear.  Otherwise she is in black clothing.


Clarification: The Queen of Hearts is Not the Red Queen

I was confused between the Queen of Hearts vs. the Red Queen.

In Lewis Carroll's extraordinary book “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” the Queen of Hearts is a protagonist. The Red Queen in "Through the Looking Glass," is a completely different character in a different book.

 a drawing of Alice talking with a chess piece of a Queen. The chess piece is tilted toward Alice for their conversation.

Apparently in the years since Carroll's books appeared, there have been many examples of conflation between the two queens.

I recommend an article in Wikipedia, “Queen of Hearts: Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland,” explaining this confusing mash-up of the two red queens into one character. The article also discusses numerous contemporary examples of the Queen of Hearts used in films, a mini-series, television, and other diverse programming. All the adaptations speak to the popularity of Lewis Carroll’s imagination and the appeal of a powerful, ruthless, mercurial woman in charge.

The Nursery Rhyme

But it was a few generations after the work by Charles Lamb, until his story morphed into a children's rhyme. It completely separated the chaotic rule of an unhinged Queen of Hearts, from the story of a practical, industrious queen who spent some time in the kitchen.

It became an illustrated "Picture Book" by Randolph Caldecott.

In this book in 1881, the Queen perhaps due to the synchronicity of the rhyming of "tarts" with "hearts," becomes the royal Queen of Hearts who bakes some tarts. And, as we say, the story went viral.

Cover of the book, "Queen of Hearts." There are heart-shaped scattered over the page and a queen dressed in an apron is holding a smart tart in her hand.

Cover and illustrations from Randolph Caldecott’s Queen of Hearts (1881)
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "The Queen of hearts." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/69a6dc47-1d80-13bf-e040-e00a18062678. 

the queen sitting on a bench in front of a drape. She is reding a book about tarts. And there is a heart pattern on the fabric for her dress.

the Knave of hearts is alone in a butler's pantry stuffing tarts into his sleeves while looking around to see if anyone is going to catch him.

Queen and King of Hearts festively dancing at court. In the background there are other royal figures representing different suits of cards. In the background in the upper right, partially hidden by a curtain, the Knave of Hearts is being beaten with a cane (?) by someone.

Queen and King of Hearts festively dancing at court. In the background there are other royal figures representing different suits of cards. In the background in the upper right, partially hidden by a curtain, the Knave of Hearts is being beaten with a cane (?) by someone. Children of the King of Spades are watching the beating. 

The original book is a delightfully illustrated story in the collection of the New York Public Library. You can view it as a book and click through each page. I didn't include all the pages here-- but they are all wonderful. I recommend you follow this link, and view all the pages: https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/69a6dc47-1d80-13bf-e040-e00a18062678


To recap, from a deck of cards to the Queen baking tarts, the chronology goes like this:

  • 1600 - The Augsburg deck of cards. (It standardized having queens in the deck, including a Queen of Hearts.)
  • 1805 - Charles Lamb wrote about a "King and Queen of Hearts: with the Rogueries of the Knave who stole the Queen’s Pies”
  • 1865 - Lewis Carroll’s book, "Adventures of Alice in Wonderland," created the fanciful and imaginative story of a courageous child meeting the Queen of Hearts with all her royal passions, ego, and fury. It was a story full of bluster such as “Off with their heads” and a croquet game with hedgehogs for croquet balls.

drawing of Alice holding a bird under her arm while a hedgehog is curled up like a ball at her feet.

  • 1881 - The Caldecott book gave us an updated version of Lamb’s story with the colorful illustrations depicting the Royal court of the “House of Hearts.” It was accompanied by the monarchs of the other three suits in the deck.


After digging into this research on the Queen of Hearts, I can envision so much more to her story. It’s been almost 150 years since the last major plot twist for our friend the queen. 

I think she is due for some new adventures, don't you?


A Queen of Hearts from a deck of cards. This is a familiar style to a traditional queen in a deck.  She has many prints in the fabric covering her body, plus a draped hat on her head.

Queen of Hearts from the Duke Brand (Cigarettes), issued by W. Duke, Sons & Co. from the collection of the Met, NYC. 1888. From the collection of The Met, NYC. 


Thank you! 

A special thanks to one of my favorite places to hang-out online, the New York Public Library in its digital collection. It's an astonishing collection of diverse material that seems endless. I cannot express enough gratitude for the patrons, foundations, and visionaries who committed to the massive job of digitizing so much of the collection. My essays would not be possible without all to their work. 

Did you like this information? All of my blog posts start as an e-letter and my next e-letter is due out soon. Don't miss out!

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