How to play medieval Chess

Chess is a supreme game of strategy. It also immerses you in a life and death struggle for control of the board. Not surprisingly that its popularity has been consistent for 1500 years. But in the medieval period – we find a game of chess that differs a bit from what we play today.

So – here are some of the rules of medieval chess:

  • Queens could move one space diagonally
  • Bishops moved just two space diagonally
  • Pawns only ever moved one space per turn and on reaching the other end of the board, could only become a queen (though frankly I’ve never turned my pawns into anything else)

Chequered boards were not always in use. They seem to have gradually become more popular in the medieval period because, obviously, chess players could work out far better how to make their next moves. Before chequered boards, the positions of key pieces like the King seem to have been less fixed. As our familiar boards were adopted, rules became stricter on where pieces were placed at the start of a chess game.

Colours of chequered medieval chess boards weren’t necessarily brown and white. In one image from the Middle Ages, the board is gold and blue. This undoubtedly reflects the medieval love of colour and ostentation among the courtly elite. In castle dungeons, boards have been found etched into the ground – obviously without any colour at all.

Lewis – possibly most complete medieval chess set

In 1831, a medieval chess set dating back to the 12th century was found on Lewis – part of an archipelago that hugs the western Scottish coastline. It’s very Viking influenced in look and reflects the history of that part of the world with its close Scandinavian association. In fact, the chess set may have been made in Norway – Trondheim to be exact – and then brought over to Scotland when it was largely under Viking rule.

Most of the pieces can now be found in the British Museum. When I was a kid in the 1970s, I had a collection of rubber moulds to make Lewis chess pieces. You simply had to pour plaster in and wait to harden. I wasn’t too successful. Most of my pieces crumbled on contact!

Below are the King and Queen from the Lewis chess set which are not exhibited at the British Museum but in Scotland. The queen’s hand on her face is supposed to indicate her pensiveness.

DISCOVER: How to find your Templar ancestors

Medieval chess could have deep spiritual meaning

Chess has long been imbued with meaning. Seen as a way of understanding battle tactics or the art of kingship. It’s even viewed as a way of understanding life itself.

If you have never seen The Seventh Seal – then watch it. A tortured medieval knight is played by a very young Max von Sydow (died 2020), who you may have seen in The Minority Report and other movies. In this scene, he plays a game of chess with Death in order to remain alive. It’s a Swedish movie with subtitles but don’t let that put you off.

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