Wednesday 2 August 2017

Past and presents

On Monday we were discussing the thirteenth century role of Serjeant Warden-of-the-Chessmen, by which the Russell family kept their Dorset manor through the grace and favour of King Henry III.

I don't have vast amounts to add to what I wrote then, but after a bit of research (Googling henry iii chess) I did discover some useful information in a piece by Professor Nicholas Vincent published in The Growth Of Royal Government Under Henry III (Crook and Wilkinson, eds, Boydell and Brewer 2015)

entitled An Inventory of Gifts to King Henry III, 1234-5.

It so happens that, Professor Vincent tells us, we have a record of the gifts that were made to the King over a six month period covering both those years, and that this list includes some chess sets. A footnote quotes MAE Green, Lives of the Princesses of England from the Norman Conquest (London 1849-55) which says that the previous Christmas, the Prior of Jerusalem had sent Henry "a chess-table and chess-men, enshrined in a casket of ivory" while the records of which Vincent writes directly included "two gaming sets, with chess and other gaming pieces".

These were courtesy of the Prior of the Hospitallers and the Countess of Ponthieu: but, Vincent continues, "in due course both sets were presented to Isabella", the king's sister, who was married off to the Holy Roman Emperor. One hopes she found a couple of chess sets adequate compensation. Two sets fewer, anyway, for our man Russell to have to worry about.

To be honest, I don't have the information, or the period knowledge, to say or even guess whether Russell's duties were serious ones, a joke at his expense, or a whim dreamed up because no more serious duty to perform could be thought of. I don't know enough. But I was interested in Vincent's footnote which informed me that Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry's grandmother, was properly interested in the game

and doesn't have appeared to have offloaded her present at the first opportunity. Quite right too. And if the chess sets were anything like this one

you'd want someone to look after them properly - and count the pieces too.

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