Did the Knights Templar play chess?

white chess piece on top of chess board

Even though Saint Bernard of Clairvaux – author of the Templar Rule – disapproved of gaming and any trivial, non-prayerful activity, it does seem that the Knights Templar played chess. They’ve even been depicted playing this game of skill. Maybe they thought it improved their strategic skills – or possibly, like most of us, they just enjoyed what is a highly immersive and mentally intense board game.

Templar knights play the courtly game of chess

Playing chess came to be seen as an expression of courtly behaviour in the Middle Ages. It exhibited civilisation and refinement. And interestingly, this attitude to chess was prevalent in both Christian and Muslim medieval courts. So much so that there’s even a depiction of a Christian playing a Muslim from the medieval era.

In Castile – Jews, Muslims and Christians playing chess with the Knights Templar

In what is now Spain, the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Leon had pushed south and conquered most of the Islamic caliphate centred on Seville and Cordoba in the 13th century. This left a Spain where three faiths were present: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. And the shock troops who had conquered the Muslim caliphate included the Knights Templar. But board games proved to be an opportunity for people of different faiths to come face to face.

DISCOVER: Templar war in medieval Spain!

So much so that King Alfonso X of Castile (1221 to 1284) commissioned a beautiful illustrated manual of games. Chess figured prominently. El Libro de Los Juegos was largely a translation from Arabic into Castilian of rules for many, many games. It was symptomatic of Alfonso’s wish to be seen as a king of three faiths. He expressed this noble objective through a board games manual!

Unfortunately, Alfonso’s tolerance would be replaced in the following centuries by the Spanish Inquisition and the imposition of one Catholic religion on the entire country.

Viking fans of chess during the Templar era

By the 1100s, when the Templars come on the scene, the famous Lewis chess pieces had been carved out of whale ivory in Norway. Many centuries later, it was unearthed by archaeologists on the Scottish Hebrides in 1831.  The king and queen are pictured below. I love the pensive look of the queen with her hand clasped to her cheek.

2 thoughts on “Did the Knights Templar play chess?

  1. Sunny greetings from Cairo, Egypt.
    I can not claim that I am a chess or history veteran, however, being a good reader for Islamic/Arabic states history and a chess amateur at the same time, gives me a chance to comment on this article. I would summarise in few points.
    1- “Shah mat” is not king is helpless! actually is “king is dead” as “mat” in Arabic means “die or dead”. Needless to say that the term is half Persian half Arabic. However, in Egypt we use another term: “Kesh mat” and honestly I did not know exactly what does “kesh” mean? could be another Persian word, Turkish or even Kurd!! Yes, do not wonder many words, terms and expressions moved freely between the three nations.
    2- The elephant is still used till now among Arab players for what you call Bishop! But the Rook is derivative of “Rokh” which is a legendary huge bird like a Phoenix. We use “Rokh” in our chess notation, however, among norms “Rokh” is used to be “Tabya” which is Turkish word means “Tower with a gun” or castle.
    3- Ironical, chess is a forbidden game in many classical books of “Fatwa” [check this” http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/fatwa ] and it as treated the same way as dice and backgammon, that is to say gambling games, waste of time and keeps muslims distracted from Quran and contemplation of Allah. “I used your words with little twist”. Nowadays, some “Salfi” muslims, [extremely radical wing of muslims] add to the reasons of forbidding chess, it has a Cross on the top of the King!! Despite these “fatwas” muslims norms and elite continued to play chess, even the top statesmen like the Abasside Khalife Haroun ArRasheed, who sent – I read once – chess set to the French King Charles Martel long time before the Crusaders.
    4- The crucial subject is: when and how chess was baptised and let me say christened ? I won’t ask where because it is obvious, the place is Spain or to be more specific “Castilla” which is the north part of Spain – in Arabic “Quashtalla” that was under the rule of Catholic Kings who for long time had a war versus the South Andalucia – in Arabic Andalus –
    That book “Libro de los juegos” could be the start of that process.
    The none copy righted photo you used is not far from another one : http://www.historyforkids.org/learn/islam/games/ The baptism process was complete I assume by the end of 15th century, worth mentioning that the last Arabic/Islamic kingdom of Granada fell down in 1492.
    5- I knew that the major concern of this blog is not chess, but I found this article coincidently and saw that will be good to give a view from a revered angle.
    The Knight Templars have a very bad reputation in Arab History books, it will be interesting to have some bits and bites from time to time.
    You may like this film http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BzMfC7XKt2g&feature=related
    1963 version of Kingdom of heaven as I said before from a reversed angle. Do not believe that every thing in this movie, many scenes are imaginary. Finally, I apologize for 2 things, for the poor English subtitles of the movie. I do not know who put them – the original copy has French subtitles – secondly, for the long comment and any unnecessary information that you find boring or inappropriate..

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