According to Christmas: Its Origin and Associations by William Francis Dawson, playing cards was prohibited by a statue passed in the reign of Henry VII. The old kill-joy! Or maybe it was in defence of the royal purse, it being known that his queen, Elizabeth of York, was rather over-fond of gambling. Henry paid her debts, and his pips probably squeaked.It is thought Elizabeth was the original ‘Queen of Hearts’ on playing cards, and that Henry had her commemorated in this way. Maybe he did. I don’t know. But see here for more of this theory.
However, much as I’d like to think that saving his spare cash was Henry’s real motive for banning cards, it seems he only forbade the lower ranks to play. Higher society could play as much as it liked! Whatever, cards were generally banned, except at Christmas, when the pastime was still allowed for one and all:-
“A Scotch [sic] writer1 referring to this prohibition, says: ‘A universal Christmas custom of the olden time was playing at cards; persons who never touched a card at any other season of the year felt bound to play a few games at Christmas. The practice had even the sanction of the law. A prohibitory statute of Henry VII.’s reign, forbade card-playing save during the Christmas holidays. Of course, this prohibition extended only to persons of humble rank; Henry’s daughter, the Princess Margaret, played cards with her suitor, James IV. Of Scotland; and James himself kept up the custom, receiving from his treasurer, at Melrose, on Christmas Night, 1496, thirty-five unicorns, eleven French crowns, a ducat, a ridare, and a leu, in all about equal to £42 of modern money, to use at the card-table.’”
Now, as the Scottish king was not married to the English princess until 1503, it is quite clear that he had learned to play cards long before his courtship with Margaret; for in 1496, when he received so much card-money from his treasurer, the English princess was but seven years of age. James had evidently learned to play cards with the Scottish barons whop frequented his Father’s court, and whose lawlessness led to the revolt which ended in the defeat and melancholy fate of James III. (1488), and gave the succession to his son, James IV., at the early age of fifteen years.’ ”
1 Book of Days, Edinburgh.