Monday 31 July 2017

Counting the King's chessmen

Putting away the sets and pieces is a thankless task, yes? Not always. Around nine hundred years ago it was a task which allowed the Russell family to hold the Manor of Kingston Russell - the service being performed for the King, the King in this instance being Henry III.

I owe this information to, among other sources, The Gentleman's Magazine for 1840

which in the course of that year published a review touching on the matter of Serjeanty.

What is Serjeanty? It's a feudal concept by which land was held in return for the performance by the tenant of a particular service, and our reviewer lists a number of the more interesting ones.

Most interesting to us, of course, is the Serjeant Warden-of-the-Chessmen.

This information is attributed to a work of Blount

this being Thomas Blount, whose 1679 Fragmenta Antiquitatis: Ancient Tenures of Land was revised and reissued a number of times. (I came across a mention of one of these reissues

in the English Review for 1784, should you wish to see it, though I am perhaps straying from our topic a little.)

The medieval historian Mary Bateson, whose 1903 work Medieval England has only just this month been reissued, mentions our chessmen (in a passage cited by the Wikipedia page on Sejeanty, mentioned above)

but says nothing more than that. I assume, until someone tells me otherwise, that her source for that was also Blount - and similarly with the useful footnote on the Wikipedia page for Kingston Russell.

However, none of these snippets tell us why, in the thirteenth century, the young Henry III would have had a particular interest in having his chess set properly looked after.

Perhaps a little more on Henry III and chess sets later in the week. In the meantime, if you're playing at Llandudno, have a thought for the people who pack up (and count!) the boards and pieces after you've finished. They don't even get so much as their very own manor for doing it.

[Thanks to Marc Mulholland]

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