The so-called Charlemagne Chessmen

Le jeu dit "de Charlemagne"

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Histoire des échecs




Charlemagne never played Chess. However, these piece were at the Saint Denis Abbey since the end of the 13th century. They are dated from the end of the 11th century and were probably manufactured in Salerne, near Napoli in South Italia. This is confirmed by their Normand military equipment, which can be related to the famous Tapisserie de Bayeux (also from the 11th c.).

With the presence of Elephants, those pieces are obviously of Arabic influence.

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The full set, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

These piece are carved from elephant ivory. They could have been made for Robert Guiscard (dead 1085), tireless Normand warrior who dreamed of conquering an empire, or Pope Gergory VII ? The way they come to Paris is unknown, perhaps as a gift to French King Philippe II Auguste or Philippe III bringing back the body of Saint Louis his father, both Kings having stopped in Salerne.

In 1598, 30 pieces were inventoried. They were 16 in 1794 following the turmoil of the French Revolution : 2 Kings, 2 Queens, 4 Elephants, 4 Knights, 3 Chariots and 1 Foot Soldier. They are now at the Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.


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Elephants (Bishops)

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Ivory King Elephant which was once presented as belonging to the "Charlemagne set". It is known now that it comes from a different origin : India, IX or X century. 
With its large size, 160x88 mm, it is not even sure that it is a chessmen. As the matter of fact, several similar artefacts are known. They are more probably mere table decoration and not game piece at all.
Thanks to Manfred Eder to have drawn this point to my attention)

 The images and photographs shown on this page are coming from the following sources :

The authors of theses works, books and photographs, are kindly acknowledged.
(Un grand merci aussi à Thierry Depaulis et à François Leysour de Rohello)

If there is any problem with their presence here, please do mail me.


See also: "Ist der ,Elephanten-König' doch (k)ein ,Schach-König'?", Manfred A.J.Eder, Schach-Journal 1/1994.

"Die ,,Charlemagne''-Schachfiguren erzälhen eine völlig andere Gsechichte", Juri Awerbach, Schach-Journal 1/1994.

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More black & white photographs from the "Charlemagne set", Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris