Did King Arthur play chess?

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 91%
  • Interesting points: 93%
  • Agree with arguments: 89%
61 ratings - view all
Did King Arthur play chess?

Did King Arthur play chess? The answer should be “yes”; at least that is according to my understanding of the name chosen by The Welsh Chess Union to describe itself. In the Welsh language, the name of the governing body for chess is rendered as:  Undeb Gwyddbwyll Cymru.  Formed on 19th June 1954, as a Union of Chess Associations from South Wales and Monmouthshire, it was originally a constituent part of The British Chess Federation. The Union inaugurated the Welsh Chess Championship in 1955, while, on 15th November 1969, it withdrew from The British Chess Federation, to apply for membership of the World Chess Federation (Fédération Internationale des Échecs or FIDE for short) as an independent body. FIDE accepted the Welsh application at the Siegen Congress in Germany in 1970, and Wales was to compete in its first Chess Olympiad at Skopje, Macedonia, in 1972. 

The Union’s objectives are to promote, organise and govern competitive chess in Wales. Its motto is “Ymosodiad Dewr; Amddiffyniad Sicr” which, when translated, becomes: “Bold in Attack; In Defence Secure”.

The important, key and central word of The Welsh Chess Union (Undeb Gwyddbwyll Cymru) to note is Gwyddbwyll, which has been adopted by the Welsh Chess Union to signify chess. And if Gwyddbwyll means “chess”, then King Arthur certainly played it, at least according to that 13th century collection of even more ancient stories, often described as the Welsh National Epic, The Mabinogion. Thus, in the story, “The Dream of Rhonabwy” within the epic, King Arthur takes on Owein, son of Uryen, issuing his challenge in these terms:

“’Owein, will you play Gwyddbwyll?’ ‘I will, lord’, said Owein. So the red-haired man brought them the Gwyddbwyll set, whose men were gold and whose board was silver.”

There is further evidence in the courtly tales of Arthurian Romance, when Tristan plays Isolde at chess, as depicted in an ivory mirror case of c. 1325.

As Richard Eales, one of the world’s leading historians of chess, has pointed out, most of the Arthurian corpus was based on de novo invention by Geoffrey of Monmouth and his notable book Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain). He was writing in 1135, and that corresponds closely to the likely real date of chess (as opposed to other board games) being known in Wales. The first appearance of chess in England was documented slightly earlier, around 1100. Richard Eales writes in his standard history, Chess: The History of a Game:

“Chess did not become popular in the eleventh and twelfth centuries because it came to people who thought it wholly original or had never seen board games before. Rather, chess succeeded by displacing the existing range of games; because it was inherently more complex and interesting or because it was introduced as one aspect of a new dominant culture.”

So when Arthurian stories were written in French (for example by Chrétien de Troyes, known for his Arthurian Romances), gwyddbwyll in any original version was simply rendered as chess.

“Gwyddbwyll” (otherwise known as “Fidchell”) literally means “wood sense”; so one possible alternative explanation is that the Welsh bards might have been referring to a game widely known as “Fox and Geese”, mentioned in early literature by the Icelandic saga of the mediaeval brigand, Grettir the Strong.

Board games broadly fall into two categories: battle games of skill, such as chess and draughts, and, on the other hand, racing games that exhibit certain elements of an aleatory nature. The latter include the ancient Egyptian “Sennet”, The Royal Game from the lost city of Ur, as well as backgammon. There is, though, a third type of board game, which might be termed “the escape variety”. The typical scenario in this category is the flight of a small, but superior, force, from the surrounding embrace of a larger number of inferior units. “Fox and Geese” falls into this classification.

In the same vein, The British Museum has issued its own Viking Game, based on the Nordic game “Hnefatafl,” while Russian chess Grandmaster and games expert Yuri Averbakh has identified a game, from the Baltic region, called “The King of Sweden against the Muscovites”. This game relates to the military campaign of King Charles XII of Sweden, which resulted in disaster against Czar Peter the Great at the Battle of Poltava in 1709. In this interpretation, Charles XII assumes the vulpine role, while the more numerous Muscovites represent the Geese.

But revenons à nos moutons: why does King Arthur exert such a presence in the Welsh national epic and why does Wales figure so prominently in Arthurian myth and legend?

It is my contention that this quasi-archaeological search is bound up with the correct identification of Arthur’s fortress of power, Camelot. Various explanations have been proposed for the location of Camelot, for example Caerleon in Wales itself, or Tintagel in Cornwall (pictured above), as well as Cadbury Castle in Somerset and Winchester Castle. To me, though, an explanation is at hand, which is both tempting and plausible. Camelot is, I submit, Colchester, otherwise known as Camulodunum in Roman times. Even the first three syllables give the game away. But there is more. Ancient Britain was conquered by the Roman Empire, when Claudius invaded in 43 AD with one legion, Legio II Augusta, led by emperor-to-be, Vespasian, the ultimate imperial beneficiary of the chaotic year of the four emperors, 69 AD.

Camulodunum is not just phonetically similar to Camelot, it also became the headquarters of Roman cavalry legions, in other words, mounted knights in armour, certainly seen as such, refracted through the lens of several later centuries of verbal myth and legend.

The Arthurian legends arose in Wales, not because Caerleon was Camelot, but because the Romano-British population in the fifth century AD, under pressure after the departure of the legions to defend Rome itself from barbarian attack, surely became a refuge for the “cultural elite”, reviving and lauding heroic tales of the exploits of the legions. I used to hold the even more extreme view, that vast swathes of Romano-Britons must have fled to the security of the Welsh hills and mountains, after the protective legions departed. However, modern DNA analysis tends to refute this otherwise convenient hypothesis of the westward migration of an indigenous population exposed to Anglo-Saxon invasions. Nevertheless, the tales of the legendary King Arthur were undoubtedly reinforced by intermingling with Irish myth, emanating from the opposite direction, and crossing the sea from Ireland to England, via Wales.

Nevertheless, the undoubted incursion of Irish myth brings me to one of the most famous knights, Sir Gawain, and his celebrated quest from the epic of The Green Knight. As New Year’s Day dawns in Camelot, Arthur and his knights are poised to relish their sumptuous feast, but no one touches a morsel, until a new adventure befalls. Honour demands it thus.

Then come mighty blows on the giant door of the festive hall, a Green Knight enters and challenges the assembled heroes to a feat of valour. Offering to have his own head sliced off, the Green Knight defies any of Arthur’s men to carry out the deed, and receive the same fate at the Green Knight’s own hand one year later, at the mysteriously remote and northerly Green Chapel. Only Gawain has the courage to accept this exceedingly bizarre and hazardous challenge.

But who is Gawain? In fact his name is a Frenchified version of the Irish hero Cú Chullainn, who experiences an almost identical challenge in his own corpus of legends. This is perhaps the most potent example of an Irish myth, crossing the Irish Sea to Wales and commingling with ancient, possibly even fact-based stories from the old Camulodunum-based Roman cavalry legions, far to the East of Roman Britain.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Arthurian version of the Chullainn legend, is a 14th century Middle English chivalric romance, by an unknown hand, written in alliterative verse:

Sithen the sege and the assaut watz sesed at Troye,
The Borgh brittened and brent to brondes and askes….“ 

This is the unforgettable opening of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, and a translation into modern English was carried out by none other than J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien’s rendition runs:

When the siege and the assault had ceased at Troy,
And the fortress fell in flame to firebrands and ashes…”

Tolkien also mentions chess several times in his own epic, The Lord of The Rings. During the siege of Minas Tirith, Gandalf compares the war against Sauron to a game of chess, while the Hobbit Pippin (aka Peregrin Took) thinks of chess, while speculating on the progress of the war, with Beregond on the city’s battlements. Gandalf encourages the diminutive Hobbit by saying: “The board is set, and the pieces are moving… But the Enemy has the move, and he is about to open his full game. And pawns are likely to see as much of it as any, Peregrin son of Paladin, soldier of Gondor”.

Tolkien’s fictional universe was doubtless inspired by Celtic, Finnish and Arthurian legend, not to mention Wagner and Shakespeare, specifically Macbeth, but also by historical fact, specifically, in one example, finding inspiration in the cavalry ride of the Polish King Jan Sobieski III to annihilate the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683. The parallels with the ride of the Rohirrim to save Gondor in Tolkien’s The Return of The King, the final instalment of The Lord of The Rings trilogy, are palpable. In The Enemy at the Gate by Andrew Wheatcroft, the passages on the decisive charge by Jan Sobieski III’s squadrons are well worth comparison with the sweeping onslaught of King Theoden’s horsemen at the battle of the Pelennor fields. It is also no accident that the black language of Mordor, as spoken by the Orcs, bears more than a passing resemblance to Turkish. It is well known that Tolkien had originally based his stories on his love of philology and talent for creating fantasy languages. In a further case, Old Entish, as spoken by Treebeard, resonates with Finnish, quite appropriate for a land which is heavily populated by forests and trees.

In 1683, with the Turkish camp, under Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, focusing its efforts on Vienna, the forces of Islam were essentially facing in the wrong direction when the Polish cavalry struck them in the rear. The allies were now ready for the last blow; 18,000 horsemen streamed down the hills, the largest cavalry charge in history. Sobieski himself led at the head of his Polish heavy lancers. The impact easily broke the lines of the Ottomans, who swiftly fled the field of combat. The cavalry onslaught was a lethal blow and within three hours the Catholic forces had scored a glorious triumph, simultaneously rescuing the Habsburg imperial capital, Vienna. Afterwards Sobieski adapted Julius Caesar’s famous aphorism: “Veni, vidi, vici by announcing: “Venimus, vidimus, Deus vicit” – “We came, we saw, God conquered”.

The Ottoman historian Silahdar Findiklili Mehmed Agha (1658-1723) described the battle as an incalculable defeat and utter failure for the Ottoman Empire, the most disastrous setback since the very foundation of the Ottoman state. There may, however, have been an element of hyperbolic self-flagellation in this assertion, given that the annihilation of the army of Sultan Bajazeth (known as Yildirim, the Lightning Bolt) at Ankara 1402 was hardly less calamitous. The aftermath of Ankara was immortalised in Christopher Marlowe’s tragic extravaganza, Tamburlaine the Great, when the defeated Sultan was imprisoned in a mobile iron cage, and Tamburlaine could declare with justification:

“I hold the fates, bound fast in iron chains,
And with my hands turn Fortune’s wheel about.”

Tamburlaine, the overwhelming victor at Ankara, was a chess player himself, but preferred to play on a much larger board, with extra pieces such as elephants, camels and giraffes. Tamburlaine was so addicted to chess that he named his firstborn son, Shah Rukh, after the rook in chess (in Arabic “rukh” was the war chariot). Shah Rukh in fact commanded his father’s left wing at Ankara, an appropriate position for a rook on the chessboard.

Returning to 1683 and what was probably the second worst ever Turkish military disaster, King Jan Sobieski III himself wrote in a letter after the rout of the Turks:

“Ours are treasures unheard of… tents, sheep, cattle and no small number of camels… it is victory as nobody ever knew before, the enemy now completely ruined, everything lost for them. They must run for their sheer lives… General Starhemberg (the Imperial general commanding the defences of Vienna) hugged and kissed me and called me his saviour.”

As retribution for his utter failure, the commander of the Turkish janissaries executed their former leader and on the symbolically significant date of 25th December 1683, Kara Mustafa Pasha was despatched in Belgrade by strangulation with a silk cord, stretched taut by several muscular men on either side. Unlike modern Britain, where palpably spectacular incompetents and failures are not infrequently rewarded with promotion or a peerage, seventeenth century Ottomans demonstrably linked reward to result.

The respective rides of Kings Sobieski and Theoden offer a clear parallel. Analysing more deeply, critics and fans love to speculate on the primary sources of metaphor or allegory in Tolkien’s works, in particular, what he meant by the “Dark Lord” and the dark forces at his command.

It seems to me that in The Lord of The Rings, Tolkien, a staunch Roman Catholic, was taking belated literary revenge for the stream of victories against Christian strongholds and field armies by the Turkish Sultans: Bajazeth at Nicopolis 1396; Mehmet II Al Fatih the Conqueror, notably against Constantinople itself in 1453; and Suleiman the Magnificent, for example, at Mohacs in 1526.

To engineer the final defeat of Sauron, Tolkien, whose work, apart from his homage to Jan Sobieski III, was so deeply rooted in Celtic myth, place names and legends, took a leaf from the book of the Undeb Gwyddbwyll Cymru, employing their approved strategy “Ymosodiad Dewr; Amddiffyniad Sicr — Secure defence, both at Helm’s Deep and at Minas Tirith, combined with bold attack at Isengard and Mordor.

The prevalent unifying theme of this week’s column should now, I hope, be manifestly clear: metamorphosis through magnification to mythic status, epic narrative or heroic legend, of even the most mundane of facts or events; how the humble, rustic game of “Fox and Geese” can refine into a battle royal of chess, conducted with pieces and board of silver and gold, between the two leading martial magnates of the time; how an Irish strongman is elevated to become Sir Gawain, the most noble knight of King Arthur’s chivalric Round Table; how an Uzbek warlord becomes, in the inspired pen of Christopher Marlowe, the world conquering Scourge of God; how a battle between Christians and Turks at Vienna is transformed, in Tolkien’s grandiose vision, into the archetypal struggle between the quintessences of Good and Evil.

Finally, I hope I’ve shown how Arthur, first mentioned as a heroic Christian military leader, in the earliest surviving Welsh poem (Y Goddodin by Aneirin of 594 AD) and in my opinion a legionary tribune of cavalry units in Colchester, attains apotheosis. And he does this as the wielder of the invincible sword Excalibur, saviour of his nation in its hour of need, and Rex Quondam et Futurus, The Once and Future King.

This week’s game is a strategic masterpiece by the king of Welsh chess, Arthur Howard Williams, eighteen-times Welsh Champion, victory being achieved by a judicious blend of solid defence followed by slaughterous counterattack.

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 91%
  • Interesting points: 93%
  • Agree with arguments: 89%
61 ratings - view all

You may also like