The duke is a grandmaster

It is difficult to answer the above question with certainty. What is certain is that Philip the Good knew and probably appreciated this game: he had a treatise on chess in his library.

Placing pawns … quite an art

Philip the Good was an exceptional strategist and succeeded in taking a leading position on the European political chessboard in the 15th century. Thanks to the clever “marriage moves” of his grandfather, Philip the Bold, he already had a few moves ahead of his opponents, including a very nice inheritance. He moved his pawns diplomatically and boldly, taking advantage of purchases, marriages and even unexpected deaths to extend his rule over the Southern Netherlands.

Some of his masterly moves included the annexation of Hainaut, Holland and Zeeland, territories that he took from his cousin Jacoba of Bavaria. To justify this seizure of power, he ordered a majestic propaganda instrument: the Chroniques de Hainaut.

This folio comes from a copy of the “Jeu des Eschies” that belonged to Philip the Good. It contains 112 boards with 64 fields. On each page a move is introduced and explained.

The establishment of the “Order of the Golden Fleece” was also a strategic move. This order enforcing a strict hierarchy, was created to protect Christian values and chivalric virtues, but its main purpose was to strengthen – in a barely disguised way – the duke’s authority over all his territories.

Philip the Good also made sure that he could not be attacked from behind. After having distanced himself from France for some time, he sought rapprochement with them, but without offending his English allies. This happens in the context of the Hundred Years’ War that was drawing to a close.

Jean de Vignay, Le livre de la moralité de nobles hommes fait sus le gieu des esches. France, 14th century. Ms. 11050, fol. 84v

In the French version of Jacques de Cessales’s treatise on chess (13th century) of which you see a miniature above, the pawns represent the various components of society. Inside numerous gold-encrusted large initials we find the king, the queen and the bishop, but also the innkeeper, the doctor or the carpenter. Here: “Le roi se mouvant sur l’échiquier” (The King Moves on the Chessboard).

A war game that evolved into a representation of the medieval city

In the 10th century, Arabs brought the game of chess from India to the West. The game quickly spread throughout medieval society. Richly decorated chess boards in ebony, ivory or metal appeared in the homes of princes and noblemen. The game also appealed to common people; it was played in dark inns or in alcoves. Bets were also made on the game, much to the displeasure of the Church.

In Europe, however, many elements of the game are puzzling. The soldiers, elephants and chariots that protect the “shah” (or king) and his advisor, the “firz”, in the original game, are gradually replaced by infantrymen, towers and pawns that protect the king and queen. Over a period of almost two hundred years, this war game evolved into a game of the court, in accordance with the values of the medieval world. Little by little, the chess pieces evolve and the chess board becomes the expression of the new medieval city where the different social categories take their place and interact with each other.

Willem Vorsterman, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, suppressing the Revolt of Ghent. Woodcut, S. II 30316

Would you like to know more about the political strategies of the 15th century? Visit the KBR museum and discover the masterly moves of the Dukes of Burgundy.

Get to know the KBR museum through a series of facts that take you back to the time of the Burgundian dukes. Discover the knowledge hidden in the manuscripts of their library and learn more about the themes in the museum.

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