The Charlemagne Chess Set

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Charlemagne was King of the Franks and the first Holy Roman Emperor. Born in 742 AD, he was a medieval king renowned for his accomplishments and charisma. For forty-seven years, King Charlemagne ruled most of western and central Europe.

Although a warrior with numerous geographical conquests during his reign, Charlemagne is nonetheless credited with introducing enlightenment to government unaccustomed to improving the lives of its citizenry. The King also invited scholars from all over Europe to initiate schools. Some of these institutions of learning are still in existence today and are among the most eminent universities on the continent.

Many persons unfamiliar with King Charlemagne’s vaunted place in history are nevertheless aware of his chess set. The Charlemagne chess set might just be the most famous chess set in the world, even though the consensus opinion is that the King never once played the game.

Legend has it that an exquisite set of chessmen was presented to King Charlemagne as a gift from Caliph Harun al-Rashid. This, by the way, is the very same caliph prominently featured in “The Thousand and One Arabian Nights” tales.

The lore surrounding the Charlemagne chess set assumed an added wrinkle when author Katherine Neville penned a postmodern thriller called “The Eight.” The novel follows a character named Catherine Velis, an accountant, on a dangerous mission to retrieve chess pieces stolen from the original Charlemagne set. In this fictional rendering, Neville dubs the chess set the Montglane Service.

So, what is the real truth behind this celebrated chess set? Does it even exist? At the Cabinet des Medailles, Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, sixteen pieces are on display with the official imprimatur as the Charlemagne chess set: two kings, two queens, four elephants, four knights, three chariots, and one foot soldier. The intricate pieces are carved from elephant ivory.

However, the dating of these chess pieces places their origins in the latter half of the eleventh century, more than two hundred years after King Charlemagne’s death. Based on the Norman military equipment featured on the chess pieces, it is believed they were made in Southern Italian workshops between 1050 and 1100.

Still, the so-called King Charlemagne chess set in France is expertly crafted from a time long passed. These chessmen have carved a sizeable niche in a storied chess history known for intriguing game pieces made from all kinds of materials, in all kinds of shapes and images, from all parts of the world. Remember the old adage: When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend.

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