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.