The Lewis chessmen: 800-year-old chess pieces with pizazz

I’m a big fan of the game of chess, which is why I was thrilled to find this 800-year-old chess piece – a chunky king with a sword across his lap and a bug-eyed expression on his face – on display at the Canadian Museum of History.

Photo of a Lewis chess king.

This 12th-century chess king — described as representing “the ideal medieval leader” — is on display at the Canadian Museum of History until January 20, 2019. (Photo: Caroline Ross, The Road Home.)

Standing 10 centimetres (about 4 inches) tall and oozing character from every pore of his elaborately carved walrus ivory body, this king is one of 93 chess pieces collectively known as the Lewis chessmen. The chessmen were found stashed in a beach cave on the Scottish Isle of Lewis in 1831. They have since become something of a global sensation, immensely popular with visitors to the museums lucky enough to display them.

Just where did these charismatic chessmen come from? And what makes them so spectacular? Their story unfolds below.

Photo of a collection of Lewis chessmen.

A selection of Lewis chessmen. Clockwise from top right: knight, warder (rook), pawn, queen, king, pawn, warder, knight; bishop in the centre. (Photo: British Museum, Collection Online, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.)

Mysterious origins

The Lewis chessmen were found buried on a beach near Uig (Aird Uig), on the northwest coast of the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. They were discovered sometime before April 11, 1831, the date on which they were exhibited by a trader at the Society of Antiquaries in Edinburgh.

Historians concur that the chessmen spent centuries buried in the sand: the pieces have been dated to between 1150 and 1200 AD – thanks largely to their attire. The foot soldiers sport coats, helmets, swords and shields that match actual items conclusively dated to that period, while the bishops wear mitre caps with the peaks positioned front and back – a style that became popular in 1150. (Before then, mitres were worn with the peaks positioned to the sides, above the ears.)

As to where the chessmen originated – and how they ended up stashed in the Scottish sand – no one really knows, although two main theories prevail.

The first theory – held by many scholars and historians, including those at the British Museum, where the majority of the chessmen reside – is that the pieces were crafted in Tronheim, Norway. The style of their carving matches that of other carved items unearthed in and around Tronheim, and the designs of the armour, shields and thrones incorporated into several pieces match those of actual 12th century items uncovered in Norway. Twelfth-century Trondheim was also home to a number of highly skilled craftspeople, who had the support and encouragement of a wealthy population able to afford such luxuries as ivory chess sets.

In the chessmen’s day, the Isle of Lewis was part of the Kingdom of Norway, not Scotland – so that beach near Uig was actually in Norwegian territory. Scholars believe that the pieces may have been cached there for safekeeping by a Norwegian merchant who planned to transport them to markets in Ireland.

The second theory – recently bolstered by Nancy Marie Brown in her 2015 book Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them – posits that the chessmen were crafted in Iceland by one Margret the Adroit, a highly skilled carver of ivory who lived in the cultural and political centre of Skálholt. Margret, the wife of a high-ranking priest, was often commissioned by Skálholt’s bishop, Bishop Páll Jónsson, to carve elaborate ivory objects as gifts for his friends overseas. The pieces ended up buried in the sand near Uig, says Brown, because that part of the Kingdom of Norway was then an important trade hub, and Iceland played an active role in the Viking luxury trade of the time.

Other aspects of the chess pieces support the Icelandic argument. The knights ride small, pony-sized horses like those found in Iceland. And the collection introduces the “bishop” – a term unique to Iceland during the chessmen’s time – as a playing piece for the first time in the game’s known history.

Whatever their origins, the Lewis chessmen are a big hit with pretty much anyone who sees them. Folks cite their unique, almost comical expressions as part of their charm. No two are exactly alike, and each is bursting with personality. Let’s take a look at each type of piece in turn.

Pieces with pizazz

The Lewis set consists of 93 pieces: 8 kings, 8 queens, 16 bishops, 15 knights, 12 warders (rooks) and 19 pawns – plus 14 tablemen (uncarved playing discs) and a buckle that may have been used to secure a bag.

The majority of the pieces are carved of walrus ivory, with a few fashioned from whales’ teeth. The chessmen range in height from 6 centimetres (2.4 inches) to 10 centimetres (3.9 inches). The taller the piece, and the more elaborate its garments and styling, the higher its status in the game.

Each piece has its own unique character, clearly conveyed in its expression and detailing. No two are exactly alike, although the pieces do share some common characteristics.

The 8 kings are crowned, bearded and sit clutching swords across their laps. All lean their heads forward intently, eyes riveted on the action before them as they seemingly plot their next moves in battle. Each grasps his sword with both hands, as if ready to draw the blade at any moment. The kings wear richly decorated clothing, and the backs of their thrones are carved with intricate designs of flora and fauna. These pieces are the tallest of the set, as befitting their rank.

The 8 queens, crowned and regally attired, sit holding their right hands to their right cheeks, as if resting their heads in their hands. Some people believe the queens are contemplating — with shock or sorrow — the destruction of war, but it’s also possible that these royal ladies are just plain bored: at the time they were carved, the queen was the weakest piece in the game, able to move only one square diagonally at a time. The queen did not assume her more powerful role on the board until the late 15th century.

The 16 bishops are robed, wear mitre caps and hold croziers (curved religious staffs). Some sit, some stand, some hold a book, others have a hand raised in blessing. As mentioned earlier, the Lewis chessmen are the oldest existing chess set to clearly include the bishop as a playing piece, and the particular style of the Lewis bishops’ mitre caps was used to help date the set. Before the bishop appeared on the chess board, his position was occupied by the “elephant,” an animal-themed piece that could jump only two diagonal squares at a time.

The 15 knights, helmeted, battle-ready and clasping shields and spears, perch atop tiny, toy-like horses. The contrast may seem comical, but Icelandic horses have in fact always been pony-sized, and it was not unusual for Nordic riders’ feet to hang well below the bellies of their small but strong steeds. Some scholars suggest that, because the pieces were sized according to rank – and because the knights had to stand shorter than the bishops and taller than the warders – the horses simply got the short end of the stick height-wise.

The 12 warders, or standing foot soldiers, take the place of rooks or castles in today’s chess sets. The Lewis warders vary widely in appearance. Each holds a sword and shield in a unique position. Some wear pointed helmets, others wear rounded ones. Some appear to hunker behind their shields, others stand tall and proud. One peers warily to the side. The most unique among this group are the four “Berserkers” – legendary, wild-eyed Norse warriors who bit their shields in a trance-like frenzy and fought, armourless, like enraged beasts on the battlefield.

The 19 pawns, the smallest pieces of the set, are simple carved obelisks standing at least 6 centimetres (2.4 inches) tall. The pawns closely resemble the playing pieces of older Islamic chess sets, which used abstract shapes that did not display human or animal features of any kind.

Fun facts (a.k.a. Lewis lore)

Here are a few more interesting facts about the Lewis chessmen:

  • Several pieces show remnants of a red stain, suggesting that early chess sets were red and white, not black and white.
  • A skilled carver could create up to four chess pieces from a single walrus tusk.
  • The chessmen have made the leap into popular culture. They appeared in the first Harry Potter movie, in the Disney-Pixar movie Brave and on the cover of Agatha Christie’s novel The Big Four. In 2016, Scottish artists built a 2-metre (6.5-foot) model of a Lewis Berserker from 90,000 Lego bricks.
  • The pieces were acquired by the British Museum in late 1831 and early 1832 – about eight months after they were first exhibited at the Society of Antiquaries in Edinburg. The chessmen are among the first Medieval artifacts in the British Museum’s collection.
  • The chessmen were named a key U.K. asset – alongside oil, financial holdings and the military – by the Scottish Democratic Alliance party in the lead up to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. In a white paper titled “The Future Governance of Scotland,” the party listed five points of negotiation for an exit strategy from the U.K. Point number three: “Negotiation on the division of the U.K. assets (oil, financial, military, Lewis Chessmen, etc.).”
  • The chessmen are an early example of a “figurative” chess set – one that features human-shaped pieces. Older “abstract” sets – which had basic shapes as pieces – came to Europe around 1000 AD by way of the Islamic world. The Lewis set, with its pieces based on the social roles, ranks and attire of the time, helped adapt chess to a European context.

See the chessmen in person

Eighty two of the Lewis Chessmen (including the 14 tablemen and one buckle) are owned by the British Museum. Most of these pieces are on display in Room 40, the Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery: Medieval Europe 1050-1500, on the upper level.

Eleven Lewis chessmen are owned by the National Museum of Scotland. They are on display in the Kingdom of the Scots exhibit on Level One.

Six Lewis chessmen are on display at the Museum nan Eilean (Lews Castle) in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. They are on long-term loan from the British Museum.

The British Museum regularly lends Lewis chessmen for exhibitions in museums around the world. The lone king that captivated me at the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa, Ontario, is part of a special exhibit called “Medieval Europe – Power and Splendour,” which runs until January 20, 2019.

If you can’t travel to any of the above locations, check out these virtual 3D models of select Lewis chessmen, provided by the British Museum, or visit the British Museum’s online collection holdings for “Lewis chessmen”.

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