11. Peerage and chess
When my grandfather and I played chess, he regularly interrupted the game to bring an ode to chess. “It is game for kings’, he shouted at such an outburst. He had never heard of the English chess historian Harold Murray, but Murray’s ideas about chess must have reached our country, the Netherlands, over the North Sea. Murray was as lyric about chess as grandpa. “Nobility claimed chess as the game most typical of their order”, said he [1913:863]. And nobility included royal houses.
When I plodded through Murray’s impressive “A history of chess” for the first time ‒grandpapa had died, he has not grown old‒ I readily believed him. How old might I have been, in my late twenties? I had to, the book confirmed everything I had learned in my youth. I don’t believe everything Murray said anymore, for example his claim on nobility and chess. In the previous chapter (chapter 54) proved that this claim is untenable.
When I consulted for my series about André Philidor the American biographer George Allen and the English chess historian Richard Eales, I found that both distanced their selves from Murray’s claim.
George Allen distanced
Allen [1863:29-30] differed from Murray: Philidor, and with him chess, achieved the affection of the nobility when he in 1748 travelled to Holland to advertise his chess book. “Here was an opportunity, not to be lost, of claiming for chess its proper rank among the great interests of civilized man”, said Allen, a chess player himself. All the time a man makes wrong choices: my grandfather offered me the chance to be a chess player and I did not seize the opportunity.
Already in 1863, Allen distanced himself from the words Murray would write in 1913: in 1748 nobility did not yet play chess, Philidor travelled to Holland to civilize the English nobility there with chess, which was in my country to help us in our war to that terrible France. I don’t believe I could convert so many noblemen. All told, two noble military men subscribed to his book: omnipotent Lord Sandwich for ten copies and the duke of Cumberland for fifty.
Richard Eales distances
Eales too linked up a connection between the interest of nobility in chess and Philidor, but not because of his book. In the 1770s he yearly lived in the English capital for a couple of months, what aroused interest in his person and his work. Between 1770 and 1774 Londoners established two chess clubs, exclusive clubs. It was the exclusiveness which concerned these men, not that of the game [Eales 1985:117]. The interest was only temporary: in the late 1780s the noblemen turned away from the game. When the season of 1790 opened, only fourteen members attended the dinner the London chess players organized every year [Murray 1913:863]. The interest of nobility in chess was a hype; the subscription list of Philidor’s second book (1770) contains the names of many noblemen, but they did not buy his third book (1790).
A same development in Paris: in 1783 a club was founded in Paris, under the patronage of the Comte de Province (later king Louis XVIII). The noblemen were interested, the membership gave social advantages. In the late 1780 decline was setting in, and the outbreak of the French Revolution came as the final blow [Eales 1985:117-8].
The claim of exclusivity
In Philidor’s days Europe had four great board games: chess, tables, morris and draughts. For chess, Murray claimed exclusivity: since the introduction in the West around 1000 AD, chess was the favorite game of nobility, he stated. Even more that favorite: chess was one of the virtues of a nobleman or noblewoman [1913:863]. The claim is both founded and unfounded. Founded because it is the result of thorough historical research. Unfounded because Murray did not make inquiries into the social position of the three other mentioned board games. The iconography by Wim van Mourik & Arie van der Stoep, fruit of 45 years of investigations, proves that Murray’s claim is wrong: painters form all parts of Europe immortalized draughts playing noble people, men as well as women. Draughts rooted deeper in noble families than chess, I conclude, as the noblemen who wanted the membership of chess clubs at London and Paris were all men. And what’s more, at several paintings members of a noble or socially successful family pontifically posed with a draughtboard and pieces, which conveys the idea draughts functioned for these groups as a symbol of their social class.
A historical relation
Murray assumed, as said, a historical relation between chess and nobility [1913:863]. He was authoritative, his monumental work of 1913 is still quoted, this site too confirms it. Our society sees the medieval knight as a lover of chess, and undoubtedly Murray also established this image by tracking the many literary works from the Middle Ages where chess is played and to cite passages.
There are literary genres which are reliable enough to be used as a source for sociological and historical investigations, I alleged in chapter 17-20, but the two medieval genres where chess plays a role fall outside the scope of reliability. Medieval inventories of gaming boards offer us more reliability (chapter 13). Those inventories do not support the story that nobility was fond of chess not at all: the common medieval gaming board was fit for tables, chess and draughts (chapter 14). In short, the available data are arousing doubts about the truthfulness of the story about that so popular medieval chess (chapter 21).
The new name chess received in England pled against the assumption that nobility held chess in great esteem. I summarize it here.
Up to and including the 14th c, the English name for play chess was play at the eschekker, literally “game on the checkered board”. For three ages it was a suitable name. In the 14th c. however the medieval man went to play draughts on the chessboard, and then play at the eschekker meant both chess and draughts. Unpractical, a word with two such different meanings, and because of this the language user took action: play at the eschekker lost its meaning chess. The class of the nobility was little but were socially leading. If chess had been so dear to this class as Murray claimed, play at the eschekker would not have lost its meaning chess, the noblemen (women?) would have opposed. Today the noun checkers would have been meant chess and not draughts.
This language development in English proves that draughts was very popular in 14th c. England. In France too, considering the many metaphors based on draughts (chapter 22). A language is the possession of an entire community, and we may therefore assume that the nobility used the expressions too. It is neither a proof that the French nobility like draughts very much nor that for this class chess was not the most important pastime, but it certainly does not plead against it.
No historical relation
It is, I believe on the ground of my research, an improper thought that chess has been the favorite board games of noblemen and women since its arrival in the West about 1000 AD.
Source: Wim van Mourik & Arie van der St9ep (2019), with sources.
Seekatz painted Kurprinzessin (the Elector’s daughter) Karoline, who paid a visit to Prince and Princess George Wilhelm von Hessen (c. 1765). Neapolitan school: Count Juan Batista de Santana with his sister Rosana (early 19th c.)