Arrival of chess in Scandinavia

The Christian King Cnut achieved the reign over England, Denmark and Norway between 1016 and 1035. Under King Cnut there was a golden age. The Ramsey Chronical (ca. 1170; Murray p. 419) talks about King Cnut playing chess until deep in the night. It looks that the Danish King was a fervent chess player. Cnut even donated a chess set to an Abbey in Winchester (Murray p. 404).

Earl Ulf was his appointee as regent of Denmark and the husband of his sister. The Norse King Olaf II and the Swedish King Anund Jakob took advantage of the fact that Cnut was in England and attacked Denmark. At the battle of the river Helga in 1026 King Cnut was being beaten until Earl of Ulf showed up with reinforcements. Later that night in the comforts of the stronghold of The Earl Ulf, a great feast had been prepared for King Cnut and his army. Earl Ulf was doing everything he could to try to cheer up King Cnut and eventually they went to play a game of chess. The “Snorri Sturluson” Saga (from ca. 1230; Murray 443) says:

 As King Cnut and Earl Ulf were playing at chess, the king made a false move, in consequence of which the earl took one of his knights; but the king; would not allow this, and replacing the piece, insisted on him playing differently. The earl grew angry, overturned the chess-board, and went away, when the king called after him "Ulf you coward, are you running away?" The earl returned to the door, and said, "You would have taken a longer flight in the river Helga, if I did not help you when the Swedes beat you like a dog; then you did not then call me Ulf the coward." The earl then went away, and the next morning the king ordered him to be killed.

Sigrid Undset noted that Olaf II King of Norway from 1015 to 1028 was baptized in Rouen, the capital of Normandy, just conquered by the Vikings two generations ago. Olaf enforced the acceptance of Christianity throughout his Norwegian kingdom, following Normandy and Denmark which were also converted to Christianity. However, large stone crosses and other Christian symbols suggest that at least the coastal areas of Norway were deeply influenced by Christianity long before Olav's time and most rulers of Norway back to Håkon the Good (c. 920–961) had been Christians.  Olaf II made huge efforts to establish a church organization, among others by importing bishops from Normandy who often spoke the language and were much less likely to be killed.  Benedictine monks were important for the conversion of Scandinavia, and are often related to chess, in contrary to the church which was often critical.

In 1028 Cnut and also became King of Norway after he invaded the country. In Scandinavia Hnefatafl was popular, and this game can easily be confused with chess, since it has also a King and it is not a game of chance and just as chess is also called tafl. Until the 9th and 10th century grave gifts from Hnefatafl gaming pieces were normal. After the conversion to Christianity this stopped. A reason is not known, but the Hnefa or king could be linked to the pagan gods Thor or Frey. Thor or Frey were sometimes symbolized as a man with a (split) beard being hold in the right hand. Maybe this explains the (rapid) replacement of Hnefatafl in Scandinavia by chess (Dahl par 2.4).

The earliest date when chess was introduced is not known. The Vikings travelled a lot and had many contacts, so chess could have arrived in many ways in Scandinavia. The Byzantine emperors in the 9th century liked to have Norse guardsmen and so chess may have been introduced to Scandinavia. However there are no pieces known with Byzantine features. Abstract Arab pieces are found regularly, however how they got there is not known. Since the Scandinavians also had direct contact with the Arabs, via the Russian trade roads. An abstract rock crystal chess piece dated 11th or 12th century has been found in Lund, an urban center during the life of King Cnut. (Kluge-Pinsker Catalog A41).

There are so many Carolingian Figurative pieces in Scandinavia, that the suspicion rises that they originated there. Even more confusing it that Cnut but also William the Conqueror are depicted sitting as a chess king with a sword. The most publicized chessmen made in Norway are called the Lewis chessmen and were found in Scotland. They are generally accepted to have been made in Norway in the mid 12th century. The Lewis Chessmen contain early bishops. However the original characteristics are most probably Carolingian. Many Scandinavian nobles stayed on the Carolingian courts, so the knowledge of chess as well as Carolingian symbolism could well be spread to Scandinavia from the beginning of the 9th century.


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Stapleton Historical Collection London King Canute and Earl Ulf quarrel over chess: Illustration from "The Northmen in Britain" by Eleanor Means Hull, published 1913. Picture