It is perilous to annoy Princes, Potentates and Powers. Alert courtiers may just pick up vibes and intentions only vaguely communicated and act thereon with all the force that extreme sycophancy might encourage.
Chess is known as the Royal Game, perhaps recalling that period of kings, knights and bishops of mediaeval England, when chess was becoming better known and inspiring artists in ivory to create elaborate chess sets of great value for their patrons.
In this category belong the so called The “Charlemagne” chessmen, which consist of a group of 11th century chess pieces, fashioned from elephant ivory, and now preserved in the Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Originally, the set contained 30 pieces, but, following the French Revolution, and looting by the Confrères of Madame Lafarge, only 16 pieces survived.
Compared with the Lewis Chessmen, made from Morse or walrus ivory, the Charlemagne set is the second-most important collection of medieval chess pieces in the world and one of the best-preserved sets from the High Middle Ages. Legend surrounding the set states that these chessmen were gifted to Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, by the Caliph of Baghdad Harun al-Rashid, of Arabian Nights fame, who was an avid chess player. But the truth is that they were crafted much later. A Carolingian chess set was first noted in a book of anecdotes concerning the life of Charlemagne, dating from the 880s AD by the Benedictine Monk and scribe, Notker Balbulus, the Stammerer. Notker describes a mission sent by Harun to Charlemagne in 802 AD, citing a list of gifts sent by the Caliph. These included an elephant and a set of chessmen. If this story were true, it would be evidence that chess was played in Europe centuries earlier than had previously been thought. While the Royal Frankish Annals describe the arrival of an elephant, quaintly named Abul-Abbas, there is no mention of any chess pieces. Curiously, in the Baghdad of the day, Notker’s near contemporary, the strongest chess player of the time, Al Lajlaj, was also known as “the Stammerer.”
The “Charlemagne“ set is, in fact, thought to have been made between 1050-1100 in Salerno, southern Italy. The fact that these pieces are figurative representations of people and animals, rather than abstract Islamic designs, further suggests that their provenance was European, rather than imported from an unknown location within the Caliph’s imperium.
From the 13th to the 18th centuries, the Charlemagne set was safely preserved in the Treasury of Saint Denis Abbey, near Paris. In 1598, it was inventoried and stated to add up to 30 pieces. It was in 1625, that the set was romantically, if apocryphally, first associated with Charlemagne, in a report on the history of the Abbey. After the French Revolution, when ecclesiastical property was regularly confiscated by revolting hoi poloi, only 16 of the 30 pieces survived. They were then stored by the French government, gradually regaining its grip, at the Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque Nationale in 1794.
The chess pieces are universally carved from blocks of ivory, which measure up to 15 cm in height, while the kings weigh almost 1kg. There are also traces of red coloration on some of the figures. The pieces include four elephants adorned with inscriptions in Arabic which translate as “Made by Yusuf al-Bahilis”. The human figures are depicted and armed in accordance with the military fashion of Norman warriors, exactly as seen in the Bayeux Tapestry. The pieces thus adhere to the Norman-Sicilian style, which combines a rich cultural cauldron of European, Arabic, Islamic and Byzantine artistic modes. As noted above, only sixteen pieces from the original set survive, with 15 pawns and a rook having disappeared into the pockets of the Canaille. A complete chess set, of course, has a total complement for both sides, of thirty-two pieces, including sixteen pawns. The surviving pieces which escaped the depredations of the sans culottes, are: two kings; two queens; three quadrigas (chariots or rooks); four knights; four elephants (bishops) and just one foot soldier (pawn). It seems that the marauding French Revolutionary mobs evinced a predilection for pinching the proletariat, rather than the aristocracy.
An intriguing clue as to another possible missing masterpiece of ivory chessboard art derives from the assassination of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket. In June 1170, Roger de Pont L’Évêque, Archbishop of York, along with Gilbert Foliot, Bishop of London, and Josceline de Bohon, Bishop of Salisbury, crowned the heir apparent, Henry II’s eldest son, as Henry the Young King, an act unprecedented and unrepeated in British history, though co-rulers were common in the Roman and Byzantine empires, as well as in France. This ceremony at York infringed Canterbury’s privilege of conducting the coronation of the new king. The outcome was that the easily irritable Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket, in November 1170, excommunicated all three of his fellow clerics. Excommunicating three bishops, who were, moreover, friends of the Henry II, strikes me as perhaps the metaphorical medieval equivalent of a comparatively lowly rated teenager beating the world chess champion. On learning of Becket’s response, Henry II is reputed to have uttered a phrase which was interpreted by some of his followers as expressing a desire for Becket to be killed.
There were no clear instructions, no letters, and no formal communication of any sort. Indeed, the precise kingly formulation is even in doubt. Various versions have been reported, with the most commonly quoted wording being as follows: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”
However, contemporary biographer Edward Grim cites the actual wording (translated from Latin) thus: “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?” The low-born cleric, of course, being King Henry’s former friend and companion, Thomas à Becket.
So, no explicit instructions, no paperwork, just a general atmosphere of kingly retribution for the insult. Such dramatic words, delivered variously in French, Latin or (least likely) English, shows how dangerous it can be to frustrate an all powerful ruler, even when he delivers no unmistakable commands. It was, indeed, interpreted by his zealous, one might almost say, sycophantic courtiers, as a royal command.
Almost at once, four knights, Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton, rode forth to confront the dangerously impertinent Archbishop of Canterbury, who had been so audacious as to disrespect royal authority and privilege.
On 29 December 1170, the knightly quadrumvirate reached Canterbury. According to the monk Gervase of Canterbury and the eyewitness Edward Grim, the knights demanded that Becket travel to present himself to the King at Winchester to give an account of his actions. Becket refused. Thereupon the four knights, wielding drawn swords, shouted: “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and country?” Becket retorted, “I am no traitor and I am ready to die.” One knight seized the Archbishop and tried to pull him outside the sanctified ground of the cathedral, but Becket held onto a pillar, lowering his head to make his peace with God. There survive several contemporary accounts of what happened next, for example, that of Edward Grim, who was actually wounded in the attack: “…the impious knight… suddenly set upon him and shaved off the summit of his crown, which the sacred chrism consecrated to God… Then, with another blow received on the head, he remained firm. But with the third, the stricken martyr bent his knees and elbows, offering himself as a living sacrifice, saying in a low voice, “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death.” But the third knight inflicted a grave wound on the fallen one; with this blow… his crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church… The fifth – not a knight but a cleric who had entered with the knights… placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr and (it is horrible to say) scattered the brains with the blood across the floor, exclaiming to the rest, “We can leave this place, knights, he will not get up again.”
One outcome of this murderous onslaught against a living Archbishop of Canterbury was the creation of an ivory piece portraying the assassination, very much in the style of the rook from the celebrated ivory “Charlemagne” chess pieces, as described above. But if it did form part of a larger chess set, the other pieces have, sadly, along with those Charlemagne pieces, purloined by the Parisian peasants, not survived.
This week’s game theme: bishop sacrifices
Raymond Keene ’ s latest book “ Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus ” , containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from Blackwell ’ s .
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