In 1936, British anthropologist Sir Flinders Petrie found a bowling ball and pins in a child's grave in Egypt, dating back to 3200 BC, which would make the game of bowling over 5,000 years old. However, a German historian named William Pehle, asserted that bowling began in Germany around 300 AD. Monks would set up pins called kegels, which represented human sins or temptations. They would then throw stones at the pins, thus conquering sin. Kegling is another term for bowling, even today. There are records indicating that some variation of bowling has been played throughout history all over the world.
As a peasant's game, absolutely nothing was standardized. The size, number, weight and arrangement of the targets varied wildly from village to village, as did the ball. The illustration below (Bodleian Library, Oxford, Ms. Douce, 276, f. 12r) shows bowlers taking turns at a feather stuck upright in the ground. Another variant of the game used a half-ball which was slid on its half side towards the pins.
The oldest bowling green in the world is in Southhampton England, which claims that it has been in continuous usage since 1299. In 1366, King Edward III outlawed bowling because it was diverting his troops from archery practice. In 1477, King Edward IV issued an edict against "bowles, closh, kayles, hand-in and hand-out" for similar reasons. Closh is an early form of croquet. Kayles involves knocking down pins with a stick instead of a ball. Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval England by Compton Reeves states that Hand-In and Hand-Out were two separate ball games whose rules are lost to us. However, Alice Gomme's Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland states that "Hand-In and Hand-Out" is a children's game similar to the American game "Duck, Duck, Goose". While I can easily imagine soldiers playing bowling, croquet, and kayles; I have difficulty imagining grown men amusing themselves with "Duck, Duck, Goose". I believe Reeves to be correct, and Gomme's game came much later and has nothing in common with the earlier game save the similarity of names.
King Henry VIII enjoyed lawn bowling. However, he banned the game for those
who were not "well to do" because "Bowyers, Fletchers, Stringers and Arrowhead
makers" were spending more time at recreation than practicing their trade.
Henry VIII declared that anyone who kept a bowling green had to pay a fee of
100 pounds. However, the green could only be used for private games and the
edict forbid anyone to "play at any bowle or bowles in open space out of his
own garden or orchard".
Bruegel's "Children's Games" (Detail) 1560
The most famous bowling story of all time is attributed to Sir Frances Drake. On July 18, 1588 Drake was lawn bowling when a messenger informed him that the Spanish Armada was approaching. He continued to play saying, "We still have time to finish the game and to thrash the Spaniards, too." He lost the game, but won the war.
The American version of bowling, played with ten pins in a triangular arrangement, only dates back to the mid-1840.s. A number of Internet sites state that the tenth pin was added to get around a anti-gambling law forbidding the game of nine-pins, but I cannot find any citation for the law itself.
The Bowling Museum -- http://www.bowlingmuseum.com/history.asp
Online Guide to Traditional Games -- http://www.tradgames.org.uk/games/Bowls.htm
DeLuca, Jeff (SCA: Salamallah the Corpulent) Medieval Games
Gomme, Alice; Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland (London; Thames and Hudson; 1894; 2 vol.; ISBN 0-500-27316-2; $18.95)
Reeves, Compton; Pleasures and Pastimes of Medieval England (England; Alan Sutton Pub.; 1995; ISBN 0-7509-0089-X; 228 pgs)