The Beginnings of Chess in Britain

1213. A messenger runs, out of breath, into the royal chamber, the echo of the soles of his shoes smacking on the stone booming around the room. The English King John with his chin-length, chestnut-brown hair and tired, drawn expression leans over a table, stroking his beard, deep in thought. He lifts up his hand to signal not to be disturbed. The messenger stops suddenly, eyes darting awkwardly from left to right at officials, wondering what he should do next. He had important news from Normandy about the Siege of the city of Rouen. But for John, looking down intently, Rouen could wait. 

He was in the middle of a game of chess. 

John wasn't the only monarch who enjoyed this virtual table-top battle game. Edward I, Henry I and Henry II were all said to be keen players, along with Richard I. In tragic irony, no rook, queen or pawn could protect Charles I when, in the in the middle of a game, he learned of his capture by the Parliamentarians in 1637. And so frustrated at one match was William the Conqueror that he threw the board at his opponent's head. His opponent was the Prince of France. 

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

For someone that seemed ever-drawn to war, glory and prestige, it's not surprising that Henry VIII was also a fan of the game, owning a dozen chess sets, according to an account of his wardrobe inventory. His daughter, Elizabeth I also played. In an account written during his travels in England in 1599, Thomas Platter marvels at a table, where there "stood a very fine chess-board, with ivory chess-men, very artfully fashioned" in the queen's 'Paradise Chamber' at Hampton Court, which also contained a glittering diamond-set throne and a game of backgammon, ready to be played.

But what did these early chess sets look like? And what was the game's appeal?

Lucky for us, in 1831, a set of chess pieces, now dated to the 12th to 13th century were discovered, buried, on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. The pieces, carved from walrus tusk, are said to have come from Norway, although the game's origins are said to come from either India in the 8th century - or China, who claim they invented it way back in 200 BC. 

The Isle of Lewis chess pieces are works of art, each one intricately and carefully carved. There are kings, enthroned resolutely, resting a sword in their laps. The queens vary slightly, their heads resting on an upturned hand in an expression that could be anything from concern, worry or resignation. Knights sit upright on small horses or bite down on their shields, eyes bulging. All while a bishop raises his two fingers, palm outwards, to signal peace. 

The dating of this set puts it not too far from King John's game in 1213 or the reign of his fellow chess-loving brother Richard. Could this be similar to the sets they used? Analysis suggests that some pieces were coloured red, rather than the traditional black that we know today. The playing of the game itself seems to be similar, except for some adaptation of rules that were brought in in the fifteenth century. Housed in the British Museum and also in the National Museum of Scotland they are completely beautiful. You can see them in all their 3D virtual glory here

But what was the appeal? What was it about chess that those at the centre of power couldn't resist? The first reason is that, as anyone who's played a challenging game knows - it passes the time. In an age before telecommunications, a postal service or TV, people played games much more often to help pass those empty moments of the day. You are also entirely focused on the pieces, keeping a look out for attacks and defending as you go. This encourages a state of mindfulness, and a break from the worries of state. It's no wonder then that Charles I was said to have taken an amber and silver chessboard with him to await his execution.

Chess can also be used to suss out an opponent, improve memory and practice tactical manoeuvres. No one goes charging through the chequered squares of a chess board with their king, undefended - and no one does that in battle, either. 

Another draw, according to chessmaster and historian Harry Golombek, was that it appealed to the Medieval ideals of romance, chivalry and courtly love. He mentions that chess appears in the Irish pagan romance of Dairmud and Grainne, as well as stories of Charlemagne. One story has Richard I, as an imprisoned Duke in France, bravely breaking one man's neck and overpowering a room full of heavies armed only with a white queen piece from his chess set. In Huon of Bordeaux, written around 1200, a man plays a game of chess with a king to win the hand in marriage of his daughter. Chess has also been linked to the legend of King Arthur, with him playing a set 'whose men were gold and whose board was silver.' All this elevated the status of the game, as not only tactical play but romantic, chivalrous and an opportunity to display courage. 

Do you play chess? Do you have any more information on the development of the game in the Medieval and Early Modern period? Let me know in the comments... 

Edited to add: I stumbled upon some historical chess sets and now I want them. They're beautiful - have a look (affiliate link) here

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Sources and Notes: 
Thomas Platter's Travels in England, Clare Willions. Internet Archive. 1937. Page 203. 
Chess: A History, by Harry Golombek, 1976. Internet Archive.