Like the origin of playing cards, the origin of solitaire is largely unknown as there are no historical records to support it. There is much conjecture and controversy about the history of Solitaire as to where it actually began. However the first written documentation of solitaire doesn’t show up until the end of the 16th century and since then Solitaire has had a long history and at one time had a less than stellar reputation.
Around the 12th century the game “Al-qirq” (the mill, in Arabic), which later became the game of “Alquerque”, was the most prevalent game until around the end of the 12th century in Europe. Playing cards were first introduced in Italy in the 1300s. During that time they also became popular in Northern Europe. There is a card game called Tarok that was invented around that time that is still played to this day. It is also believed that solitaire games were first played with tarot cards, which would indicate that solitaire most likely preceded traditional multi-player card games.
The French engraving of Princess de Soubise showing her playing a card game, dates from 1697. Legend says that Solitaire was invented by Pelisson, a French mathematician, to entertain Louis XIV – known as “Roi Soleil” (Sun King). Another legend says that a unfortunate French nobleman, while imprisoned in the Bastille, devised the game using a Fox & Geese Board (the Fox & Geese Board has been used for a variety of board games in Northern Europe since the Vikings). There is doubt about these legends, since Ovide wrote about the game and described it in his book “Ars Amatoria”.
The end of the sixteenth century was an active period for the invention of various card games. This was when the ace first appeared as high instead of low in the rankings of the world of solitaire cards. Several new card games were invented during this time and new variations were added, so this is likely a time when solitaire games were invented and named as well.
The first known solitaire game rules were recorded during the Napoleonic era. The author of War and Peace, Tolstoy, enjoyed playing solitaire and mentioned it in a scene from his famous novel. Tolstoy sometimes used cards to make decisions for him in a somewhat superstitious way. Most early literature mentioning patience is of French origin. Even the very word ‘solitaire’ is of a French origin, and it means ‘patience’. The names of most early solitaire games are French names as well, with the most well known being La Belle Lucie. When Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena in 1816 he used to play Patience to pass the time. Deported to the island lost in the ocean, knew what confinement felt like fully; he also knew how cards could solace one sentenced to solitude. During his exile at St Helena, Napoleon Bonaparte played patience in his spare time. Some solitaire games were named after him, such as Napoleon at St. Helena, Napoleon’s Square, etc. It is not known whether Napoleon invented any of these solitaire games or someone else around that same time period.