The origin of the Billiards family of games probably comes from the out-door croquet family of games, played during the 14th century in Northern Europe. 'Billiard' is probably a French derivative either from 'billart' (mace) or 'bille' (ball). During the middle ages many sports were played with balls, clubs, maces, bats and/or skittles.
Ground Billiards was played in the 1340s through the 1600s throughout Europe - in Italy it was called 'biglia', in France 'bilhard', in Spain 'virlota' and some say in England it was known as 'ball-yard'. The game apparently led to both Billiards- and Croquet-type games.
The earliest evidence of table Billiards is a 1470 inventory of items purchased by Louis XI of France: "billiard balls and billiard table for pleasure and amusement."
In 1588, Billiard tables were owned by the Dukes of Norfolk and Leicester, and Mary, Queen of Scots had a billiard table in her prison cell while she awaited execution.
Table Billiards was a popular game in France by 1630, and in England it was described in publications during the 1600s including a description by Charles Cotton in 'The Compleat Gamester' published in 1674.
Variations existed, and there were variations in dimensions and equipment. The most popular game was for two players on a table with six pockets, called 'hazards', which were obstacles to be avoided - like bunkers in golf. The table has a hoop at one end (called the Port) and an upright skittle at the other (called the King).
Each player had a ball, which was pushed with a mace (a stick with a special wooden end). The aim was to be the first to put your ball through the Port in the right direction, and then back to touch the King, without knocking either over. The winner was the first to succeed with doing this a number of times - say, 5.
The tables were not flat; the balls were not round; maces were not accurate. The game was as much about knocking the opponent's ball into penalties as about furthering one's own cause. Pushing the opponent's ball into a hazard, the wrong way through the Port, or making it knock over the King was as good as running the Port yourself. If your ball went in the 'wrong' direction, you were deemed a 'fornicator'.
• By the early 1600's, people in Europe started using the mace handle (or 'queue' - 'tail' in French; later 'cue') to hit the ball instead of the head. This was easier if the ball was near the edge of the table, and this technique gradually took over. It isn't that a cue replaced the mace, more that the pointy end of the mace gradually became thinner and was used more while the thick end became less used.
• Balls were originally wooden, but by the end of the 1600s most people played with ivory spheres.
• Cloth covering for billiard tables appeared around 1660, and the quality gradually improved over the centuries.
For more info, see http://www.tradgames.org.uk/games/Billiard-Fami...