Bayeux Tapistry and Lewis Bishops

The presence of bishops among the Lewis chessmen is not only significant in terms of dating the pieces, but also with regard to Norman self-representation and art.

Though it is not sure whether the Lewis bishops are the first chess bishops, it is likely that the bishop made its appearance as chess piece only in the twelfth century. The Lewis bishops are the oldest discovered so far.

Although he is seated beneath the king and queen in his function of leaper, his presence is a symbol of power relations of the feudal society: the workers, warriors or knights (aristocracy and monarchs) and prayers (church).

The power struggles and the (military) involvement of bishops were epidemic in Latin Europe in this period. The active role of warrior-bishops was a result of the growing self-confidence, power and numbers of (wealthy) bishoprics and bishops.

The murder on Thomas Becket (archbishop of Canterbury) in 1170, , was another important incident that stresses the political involvement of bishops in worldly affairs.

The appearance of the warrior-bishop on the chessboard came not out of the blue. Chess is a secular war game and was one of the most prestigious games among the aristocracy in the twelfth century.

The Church’s attitude with regard to chess became increasingly relaxed at the end of the twelfth century, after a long period of disapproval. One interesting question remains however. Why did the bishop made its first appearance on a Norwegian chessboard ?

The Bayeux tapestry and the foundation of Norman kingdoms and settlements throughout Europe give some indications. The Bayeux tapestry, commissioned by bishop Odo of Bayeux (1036-1097) around 1075, shows the Norman Odo as warrior, adviser and close ally of King William the Conqueror (1028-1087).

This epic shows the bishop in a secular aristocratic environment seated and fighting in company of the king and his entourage. Another picture, almost 50 years later, shows King Henry V (1086-1125) and Maude or Matilda (1102 –1167) at their marriage in 1125, accompanied on the left and on the right by bishops.

The political situation in Norway after 1153, the year of the foundation of the bishopric of Nidaros (Trondheim), also caused involvement of bishops in wordly affairs.

The prestige of bishops and the Church was at its peak as a result of the crusades, the reform of the Church, the dominant political and cultural role and function and the appearance of new and powerful monastic orders and abbeys.

The bishop was omnipresent, on the battlefield, in politics and in religious affairs. This background could have inspired Norwegian aristocrats, kings or bishops to commission chessboards with bishops.  (Source: J. Robinson, The Lewis Chessmen, London 2009).