12. The Chessboard of Gwenddolau

The Chessboard of Gwenddolau son of Ceidio: if the pieces were set, they would play by themselves. The board was of gold, and the men of silver’.
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

I leave my world behind at Carwinley Burn
to follow the feral steps of a girl,
red-haired, torqued, coloured-trousered,
a wild thing with fox’s teeth at her neck
down a fox-hole to the grave
of Gwenddolau.
Beside his bull-horned corpse
stands a table and upon it a golden board.
Round its edges silver dead men lie.
The Chessboard of Gwenddolau.

has lain here as long as my father,”
she says. “It predicts the outcome of battles.
It played before Arfderydd, Catraeth,
when Britain’s air force clashed
with the Luftwaffe,
on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. As yet
it has never mispredicted an event.
At times of peace it sleeps.
At times of threat
if the pieces are set

they play out every move in the coming conflict.”
As she speaks the eyes of a warrior
jerk open and his spasmodic
hand grips his spear.
A warhorse rises from a tangle of stirrups and mane.
A bishop shakes off his robes and delves
for fireballs and mist in his pockets.
Caers rebuild their ramparts.
Returning to health
they play by themselves

speechless as automata resuming their positions.
Warriors move forward two squares
spearing on the diagonal.
Warhorses leap
over the mounting carnage,
on a fiery blast fall into splinters.
A king drags his queen into a caer.
As the bishops prepare the final spell
I am shaken by a premonitory shiver.
The board is gold and the men silver.

~

The Chessboard of Gwenddolaur

~

Gwenddolau was born around 400. He was the son of Ceidio and a descendant of Coel Hen. His fortress, Caer Gwenddolau, stood on present-day Liddel Strength beside Liddel Water north of Carwinley Burn. It is likely Gwenddolau’s rule extended throughout the present-day parish of Arthuret, which was then known as Arfderydd.

Gwenddolau was renowned as one of three ‘Bull Protectors’ of the Island of Britain and referred to as ‘Chief of the kings of the North’ suggesting he ruled some of the other kingdoms. His ownership of two birds who ate two corpses of the Cymry for dinner and two for supper suggests he practiced excarnation.

In 573 Gwenddolau’s kinsmen: Gwrgi, Peredur, and Dunawd, allied against him with Rhydderch Hael of Alt Clut. In spite of support from his nephew, Dreon ap Nudd, who fought bravely at the Dyke of Arfderydd, and his ability to conjure a mysterious battle-fog, Gwenddolau was killed during the Battle of Arfderydd. Afterward Gwyn ap Nudd gathered his soul.

The Welsh term for ‘chessboard’ is gwyddbwyll. Gwydd means ‘wood’ and pwyll ‘sense’ hence ‘wood sense’. It is translated here as ‘chess’. However it’s important to note that chess originated in the Arab world and was imported into Britain by the Normans in the 11th century. The game played by Gwenddolau would have been quite different to modern chessGwyddbwyll is associated with sovereigns in several medieval Welsh stories. In The Dream of the Emperor Maxen, in the hall of Elen of the Hosts, two lads play with silver and red gold pieces whilst a grey-haired man sits at a second board carving pieces with steel files from a bar of gold.

In Peredur the protagonist finds a board, like Gwenddolau’s, on which the two sides play each other and the losers shout ‘as if they were men’. Peredur is told the side of the Empress has lost and connects this with losing her Empire. This suggests the board represents a ruler’s kingdom.

Arthur and Owain Rheged play gwyddbwyll in Rhonabwy’s dream. The outcome of each game is connected with an ongoing battle between Arthur’s men and Owain’s ravens, suggesting it serves a divinatory function working from the level of microcosm to macrocosm.

One wonders whether Gwenddolau’s silver pieces fell before his death at the Battle of Arfderydd.

~

SOURCES

J. R. Murray, A History of Chess, (Clarendon Press, 1913)
John Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, (ABC-CLIO Ltd, 2006)
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)

Gwyddbwyll – Why the War Games?

Gwyddbwyll is a Brythonic war game. The name derives from gwydd, ‘wood’, and pwyll, ‘sense’, hence ‘wood sense’. It is played with gwerin, which means both ‘pieces’ and ‘men’.

We find references to gwyddbwyll in a number of medieval Welsh texts. Together these suggest it was played by sovereigns and that the board represented their realm and the gwerin their army and the army of a rival. The board and gwerin are usually carved from gold or silver. The gwerin are anthropomorphic and magically endowed with a life of their own.

In The Dream of Macsen Wledig, the Roman Emperor, Macsen, dreams of a hall in which two lads are playing gwyddbwyll with silver and red gold pieces whilst a grey-haired man sits at a second board carving pieces with steel files from a bar of gold watched over by a beautiful, lavishly dressed maiden who he falls in love with.

Macsen finds out the maiden is Elen Luyddog, ‘Elen of the Hosts’ and her castle is at Aber Saint. He travels from Rome to Elen’s hall where he finds her overlooking the gwyddbwyll boards just as in his dream and marries her. It seems likely the first gwyddbwyll board represents Elen’s old realm and the new one the realm she will rule alongside Macsen.

In Peredur, the protagonist sees a gwyddbwyll board in the Fortress of Wonders. The two sides are playing each other. When the side Peredur supports loses, the other side shouts ‘just as if they were men’. Angry because his side has lost, Peredur takes the pieces in his lap and throws the board into a lake.

A black-haired maiden enters saying, ‘May you not receive God’s welcome. You do evil more than good… You have made the empress lose her board, and she would not wish that for her empire.’ Again we find evidence that the gwyddbwyll board of a sovereign represents her realm.

The Gwyddbwyll Gwenddolau is amongst ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ ‘which were in the North’. Gwenddolau ruled Arfderydd and may have been a ‘High King’ of northern Britain during the 6th century. The text states, ‘if the pieces were set, they would play by themselves. The board was of gold, and the men of silver’. It clearly had magical qualities.

Rhonabwy’s Dream features a gwyddbwyll match between Arthur and Owain Rheged. As they play, messengers arrive reporting that Arthur’s men are harassing then wounding and killing Owain’s ‘ravens’. Arthur refuses to call them off saying, “your move” and they play on.

The tides turn. As Owain’s ravens lift Arthur’s men into the skies and drop them in pieces, Owain refuses to call them off saying, “your move” and they play on. When Arthur finally loses his temper and crushes the golden pieces to dust everything becomes peaceful.

This shows gwyddbwyll was related to real wars via the logic of microcosm – macrocosm and suggests that matches had a divinatory function. Perhaps when the gwerin played by themselves they predicted the outcome of future battles.

***

Unfortunately we have no archaeological evidence for the existence of gwyddbwyll. This is odd because boards and counters for the Roman Ludus Latrunculorum, ‘The Game of Little Soldiers’, have been found at Housesteads, Vindolanda, and in the grave of a man from Stanway in AD 50 alongside diving rods suggesting it was buried with its owner and served a divinatory purpose.

Ludus Latrunculorum, modern reconstruction, Museum Quintana, Germany, Wikipedia Commons

Ludus Latrunculorum, modern reconstruction, Museum Quintana, Germany, Wikipedia Commons

These boards were wooden (as ‘wood sense’ might suggest) and have not rotted away. If gold and silver gwyddbwyll sets existed, which indeed might have been possible based on examples of Romano-British silversmithing such as the ‘Empress Pepper Pot’, surely they would have been found?

Empress Pepper Pot, British Museum, Wikipedia Commons

Empress Pepper Pot, British Museum, Wikipedia Commons

In Ireland we find a parallel game called fidchell, from fid, ‘wood’, and ciall, ‘intelligence’, also ‘wood sense’. Again it belongs to sovereigns, the board and pieces are made of gold and silver, and are anthropomorphic and endowed with their own life (in one instance ‘the queen is asleep’). Games are played for high stakes bound up with the livelihood of the realm. Likewise there is no archaeological evidence for its existence.

According to the Lebor Gabala Erenn, the god Lug brought fidchell to Ireland along with ball-play, horse racing and assembling. It seems possible that gwyddbwyll was also perceived to be of divine origin and introduced by the pan-Celtic god Lugus who is euhemerised in the medieval Welsh texts as Lleu Llaw Gyfes, ‘Lleu of the Skillful Hand’ and Lleog, ‘death-dealer’ or ‘flashing light’.

Although gwyddbwyll is the modern Welsh name for chess they should not be equated. Chess originated in India in the 6th century and spread to Spain via Persia, arriving in Britain with the Normans in the 12th century.

***

As I’ve conducted this research I’ve been nagged by a constant question, ‘Why the war games?’

The very concept of gwyddbwyll as a game played by sovereigns predicated on perpetual war between players and realms has felt increasingly problematic.

The gwyddbwyll board symbolises the fact that Britain’s sovereigns have always maintained their power through warfare and by positing a mentality of ‘us’ against ‘the enemy’.

It is no coincidence that Arthur, the first warlord to unite Britain, plays gwyddbwyll. Or that when he raids the Otherworld, subdues its deities, and steals its treasures he is aided by Lleog, the bringer of war games, with his deadly flashing sword.

Arthur’s reign is founded on his defending Britain from enemies within (such as giants, monsters, and the deities of the Otherworld) and from enemies without (such as the Anglo-Saxons).

This gwyddbwyll mentality has led to the Crusades, imperialism, colonialism, and to the War on Terror.

Whereas movements for electoral reform and the rights of minority groups have succeeded, anti-war protests and campaigns have consistently been ignored because war lies at the heart of Britain’s political and economic structure and maintains its hierarchies and elites.

We’re trapped on a gwyddbwyll board growing more terrified of attacks whilst the rulers muster their gwerin.

Where does our hope lie?

In breaking their rules, revealing their war games as ‘wood sense’, refusing to ‘play on’?