The cultural legacy and medieval games

DICE: These were made from bone and found in Rushen Abbey. BELOW: A gaming board found in the island.

DICE: These were made from bone and found in Rushen Abbey. BELOW: A gaming board found in the island.

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This week, iomtoday takes a closer look at ‘the cultural legacy’ of the Forgotten Kingdom and with the Isle of Man’s gaming sector booming, read on to it is amazing to see how gaming has long been part of our past.

For 300 years, Man and the Isles had been a united kingdom of maritime stepping stones with wealthy trading and political influence.

By 1300 the political links between all of the islands had been broken and the people had to find their own future without direct Scandinavian influence.

The legacy is very different in the Isle of Man from elsewhere in the kingdom, and comparing Man to the island of Islay brings this into focus.

After the end of the kingdom, Islay was ruled by the Scottish Lords of the Isles. It became home to their main assembly site, Eilean na Comhairle (Council Isle) at Finlaggan, a successor of the Tynwald system.

In the Isle of Man, Tynwald, the Scandinavain parliamentary system, endured even though the island was alternatively ruled by Scotland and England.

Islay embraced Scottish Gaelic culture more fulsomely, resulting in mostly Gaelic place names and personal names.

The Isle of Man maintained a strong connection to Scandinavia which mixed with its own Gaelic heritage.

One connection between the islands emerges in shared folklore. King Godred Crovan, who consolidated the kingdom in 1079 AD, shares a place in the legends of both Man and Islay. The gaelic ballad Godred Crovan’s Galley (Birlinn Godraidh Crobhain in Scots Gaelic, Birlinn Ghorree Chrovan in Manx) tells the story of Crovan’s sea journey through his kingdom from the Isle of Man to Islay.

If you look around the Isle of Man today, you can still see landscapes and structures that would be familiar to the people of the kingdom almost one thousand years ago.

The Chronicles tell of the arrivals of kings and challengers at Ronaldsway, St Michael’s Isle and St Patrick’s Isle; of murder and mayhem at Tynwald and of a spectral saint at Maughold.

They record that the land upon which Rushen Abbey is built was given to the Church by King Olaf I in 1134 and that at least three kings of Man and the Isles were buried there. The last king of Man died at one of the kingdom’s great fortresses, Castle Rushen, in 1265.

As well as places frequented by kings and bishops, there are other reminders. In the hills in the middle of the island are hundreds of small grass mounds. These are the remains of shieling huts, where people lived and worked during the time of the kingdom.

To follow in the footsteps of the kings, queens, bishops and knights you could take a walk along the Millennium Way.

This path from the foot of Sky Hill, over Slieau Managh alongside Snaefell, down to Crosby, on to Ballasalla and into Castletown is based on the route likely to have been taken by the kings of Man as they travelled the length of the island. In the Chronicles, this path is called ‘the Royal Way’.

Chess – Game of Kings

The game of chess originated in India sometime around 500 AD.

Chess evolved over the following centuries and the pieces we recognise from modern chess sets are the result of this development.

The pieces in the Lewis chess set are very similar to those used in the modern game, with the only major difference being that the warders are in place of rooks.

It is a game that requires great skill and strategic thought and was regarded as a suitably intellectual leisure pursuit of the higher classes of society.

In medieval times, the figures on the board represented the order of society, from the single, elaborate, wealthy king and queen at the top to the numerous faceless, disadvantaged pawns at the bottom. Planning the move of each piece and predicting the consequences was seen as good training for real life tactical decisions that had to be made to preserve the system of governance.

The game spread quickly along trade routes through Europe from the east and became a popular pastime for both men and women. It has been said that playing chess was sometimes a substitute for fighting real battles, but evidence from the Norse sagas suggests that the game didn’t always resolve quarrels between two opponents.

The Heimskringla saga, written around 1230 in Iceland, relates the tale of King Cnut and his brother-in-law, Earl Ulf. Ulf had made an attempt to take Denmark from Cnut, but one winter’s evening in 1026, the two men sat down for a game of chess.

When they had played a while the king made a false move, at which the earl took a knight from the king; but the king set the piece again upon the board, and told the earl to make another move; but the earl grew angry, threw over the chess-board, stood up, and went away. The king said, ‘Runnest thou away, Ulf the coward?’

The earl turned round at the door, and said: ‘Thou wouldst have run farther at Helga river, if thou hadst come to battle there. Thou didst not call me Ulf the coward when I hastened to thy help while the Swedes were beating thee like a dog.’

The earl then went out, and went to bed. A little later the king also went to bed. The following morning while the king was putting on his clothes he said to his footboy: ‘Go thou to Earl Ulf, and kill him.’

Although a noble and intellectual game, the moral of the story from this saga is if a king wants to cheat at chess, let him.

Not every game in the medieval period was as complex as chess. Simple games were played, purely to pass the time and socialise. One of the simplest and oldest games is draughts. This game still requires strategic thinking but can be made quickly and easily from cheap materials, locally-sourced and was available to everyone, not just the wealthy.

In the Isle of Man, simple gaming boards have been found at Block Eary, Druidale and Cronk yn Howe. The chequer pattern of the board was scratched onto local slate using knives or other stones and the gaming pieces made from smooth stones or even animal vertebrae. Once a board and playing pieces were made, then games like draughts or hnefatafl, a Scandinavian board game mentioned in many of the Norse sagas, could be played.

Among the figures of the Lewis Chessmen are a number of carved discs which may have been playing pieces in a game like this.

Gambling on the outcomes of games was frowned upon by the church. But human nature takes over and a number of Medieval dice have been found. The most notable examples are those found during excavations at Rushen Abbey. What these were doing at the most important medieval religious site on the Isle of Man isn’t clear, but perhaps they belonged to people visiting for hospitality.

It wasn’t just making and playing board games that gave idle hands something to do. In the excavations at Peel Castle in the 1980s, a small piece of slate was found with pictures lightly carved into the surface on both sides. On one side there are three figures, possibly dancing. On the other side there is a simple carving of a female figure. That the figure seems to be ‘topless’ would suggest that perhaps a soldier guarding the castle walls had other games on his mind!

Visit the ‘Forgotten Kingdom Exhibition at the Manx Museum, sponsored by Lloyds TSB. Open Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm. Admission free.

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