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  • Place of origin:

    Denmark (probably Danish or Northern German, made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1400 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Walrus ivory

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

This is a walrus ivory chess piece, a king, made in Denmark or Northern Germany in about 1400. The present chess piece belongs to a highly distinctive group of pieces of similar form and style, including kings, queens, bishops and knights, which range in size from 8 cm to 14 cm. Notwithstanding the close relationship to one another, there is insufficient evidence to prove that any of the above mentioned pieces belonged to the same set, and their find spots (where these are recorded), provenance and present locations indicate that they were widely scattered all over Europe, albeit with an emphasis on German collections.

By 1200 chess was a popular game in Europe, having been brought from India via the Middle East in the early medieval period. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the playing of chess became established as a courtly – and courting – pastime par excellence, as numerous references to it in written Romances, illustrations in manuscripts and depictions on works of art attest.
By the beginning of the Gothic period the principal pieces had already taken human form. The castle though does not appear to have taken the form of a building until the sixteenth century, and is most often represented as a mounted figure not unlike a knight. It is no9teworthy that hardly any chessboards have survived. The overwhelming majority of chess pieces were made in non-Parisian workshops and the most active workshops were based further north, in Scandinavia, Germany and England

The game of chess has from its inception carried chivalric and military associations. These qualities made the game a suitable intellectual pastime for the elite of Renaissance Europe. Luxury chess boards and finely carved chess pieces became common possessions in palaces from Italy to England and as today, color was used to distinguish between opposing chessmen.

Physical description

A mounted king, bearded and wearing a tall foliate crown, is protected with a small concave Tartsche (shield) at his chest. Issuing from a castle of two storeys he is garrisoned with archers, with long bows, thirteen on the lowest level, and six on each of the middle and upper levels on a terrace behind. Other bowmen stand around the horse. The king is holding a shield on which is carved a human leg and at his side are two attendants bearing a spear and a banner.

Place of Origin

Denmark (probably Danish or Northern German, made)


ca. 1400 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Walrus ivory


Height: 10.9 cm, Length: 6.6 cm at base, Width: 3.7 cm at base

Object history note

Purchased from Mr S.G. Fenton, 'The Old Curiosity Shop', 33 Cranbourn Street, London, W.C., in 1912 (£20). O.M. Dalton of the British Museum wrote to Eric Maclagan of the V&A on 17 August 1912 that '[Sir Hercules] Read would not buy it for some reason or other, though I don’t myself see anything the matter with it beyond its essential ugliness. I rather hope, if you agree with me, that you acquire it, as they are pretty rare and this example is unusually perfect' (letter in Museum file).

Descriptive line

Chess piece, walrus ivory, a King, probably Danish or Northern German, ca. 1400

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Longhurst, Margaret H. Catalogue of Carvings in Ivory. London: Published under the Authority of the Board of Education, 1927-1929, Part II, p. 56
Cf. Dalton, O. M. Catalogue of the ivory carvings of the Christian era with examples of Mohammedan art and carvings in bone in the Department of British and Mediaeval Antiquities and Ethnography of the British Musuem. London: Printed by order of the Trustees, 1909, p. 134
part II, pp. 724-726
Williamson, Paul and Davies, Glyn, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 1200-1550, (in 2 parts), V&A Publishing, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2014
Williamson, Paul and Davies, Glyn, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 1200-1550, (in 2 parts), V&A Publishing, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2014, part II, pp. 724-726, cat. no. 247





Subjects depicted

Castle; Archers; King; Horse


Sculpture; Games


Sculpture Collection

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