Knight’s Papal Chess:

Late SCA Period Chess Variants from the Low Countries

Jan van Seist


Chess is the nourishment of the mind, the solace of the spirit, the brightener of the understanding; wherefore it has been justly preferred by the philosopher, its inventor, to all other means by which we arrive at wisdom. (Ali Suli – 10th century)
Signor Gaspare replied: ‘And what do you say about the game of chess?’
‘That is certainly a refined and ingenious recreation,’ said Federico, ‘but it seems to me to possess one defect; namely, that it is possible for it to demand too much knowledge, so that anyone who wishes to become an outstanding player must, I think, give to it as much time and study as he would to learning some noble science or performing well something or other of importance; and yet for all his pains when all is said and done all he knows is a game. Therefore as far as chess is concerned we reach what is a very rare conclusion: that mediocrity is more to be praised than excellence.’
(Baldesar Castiglione – 1528 – The book of the courtier)

Fair ladies and gentle lords of Africa’s most wondrous shire, knowing that games of skill in general and the play of chess in particular are popular amongst you, I wish to share with you two chess variants from my own region that I hope will afford you some pleasure and no little amusement.

The first of these, Knight’s chess, has been popular in the Flemish-speaking regions of the Low Countries (Flanders, Brabant, Limburg and the barbarous lands that lie to their north) since the fourteenth century. It consists of the standard form of chess for the relevant region except that the knights are allowed to ride down any peasants that are so foolish as to get in their way. In all other respects the knight’s move is the same as that used in most other forms of chess, although it is more precisely defined for obvious reasons. In knight’s chess, the knight’s move consists of two squares in a straight line and then one square to the side. It is NOT one square in a straight line and then one square on a diagonal to the direction of travel.

The usual practice in knight’s chess is that only the opponent’s pawns are considered trampled and removed from the board (those of the same side are considered pushed in a ditch and allowed to remain in play). However, in some regions, the rules are such that any pawn (regardless of allegiance) that has the misfortune to be in the path of a rampaging knight is considered to be both officially and permanently down-trodden.

Knights are not allowed to pass over squares containing more dignified pieces (i.e. anything other than a pawn) belonging to either side. A merchant from Brabant was murdered in Bruges in 1497 for being unchivalric enough to attempt to break this rule. The bourgeois swine claimed that he had acted in ignorance of local custom – as though it would be acceptable anywhere for knights to run queens into ditches or to spatter mud all over bishops in the pursuance of their knightly duties! He was clearly either a cheat or a barbarian and deserved exactly what he got.

The second variant, Papal chess, has been banned by the church ever since its inception and his grace the Duke of Alva – on whose name be peace and on whose grave will undoubtedly be much dancing – was forced to execute 40 people for its play in 1571. However, as its popularity continues unabated, I will share the rules with you and allow you to decide for yourselves whether its play is worth the risk that it undoubtedly poses to your immortal souls and your inflammable bodies.

Play is once again similar to the standard chess for the relevant region, except for the following:

1. The knights trample the peasantry underfoot as in knight’s chess.

2. The bishops are permitted to move up to (but no more than) four squares at a time in any diagonal direction. They cannot jump over intervening pieces.

3. Any bishop who attains the corner square of his opponents rear rank can move to his opponent’s other corner (thus changing the colour of the squares that he moves on and thoroughly confusing his opponent).

4. The object of the game is not the checkmating of the opponent’s king but rather the attainment of sole control over his holiness, the Pope (as though it is possible for a temporal power to exercise control over the spiritual leader of all Christendom. The arrogance of these heretics is unbelievable!). The Pope is represented by a stationary piece placed on the juncture of the four centremost squares. A player achieves sole control by having both a bishop and a royal piece (either king or queen) on the centremost squares at a moment when there are no opposing pieces on the remaining centre squares.

5. Knights who break through to the rear line of their enemy are eligible for promotion to bishop should they be moved later in the game next to either their king or the pope.

6. Pawns who achieve the same feat are knighted but are not eligible for ecclesiastical honours until they have departed from that line and returned to it at least once more in their capacity of knight. (It is one thing to bishop a horse but quite another to consecrate the canaille!)

7. Should the king be lost, either a knight or a bishop can be promoted to king by reaching the pope and then returning to the starting position of their king.

Basic Rules for Late Period Chess

Alas, the basic rules of chess vary from province to province, from town to town and from tavern to tavern. It is therefore impossible to say with any certainty that this or that is the definitive form of knight’s chess or any other variant. These variants were just added to the rules of whatever form of chess was locally popular and I suggest that, should you wish to try them, you simply graft them onto whatever from of chess you and your friends enjoy playing.

However, should you wish for more guidance the following are the major aspects in which “standard” late-period chess play in the Low Countries differed from the form of chess that is currently popular among the wider community.

Pawns had all the abilities of modern pawns (including the option of a double-square opening and the consequent risk of en passant capture). However, promotion rules varied. In some areas they promoted exclusively to queens, in other areas they promoted to the major piece that started in the file that the pawn had finished in (i.e. if the pawn reached the corner-square of its opponent’s rear rank it promoted to a rook). In the latter case, pawns that reached the end-square of the king or queen’s files were usually promoted to bishops.

The King could not castle but he was often able to jump a couple of squares on his opening move (to QB1, QB2, QB3, Q3, K3, KN3, KN2 or KN1).

The Queen’s moves varied considerably between regions. She was usually limited to one square in a diagonal direction (like the vizier in chess’ precursor Shatranj) but in some regions (particularly in later time periods) was allowed to move one square in any direction like a king. The latter appears to have been the norm in Papal chess. Like the king, the queen was often allowed to jump a couple of squares on her opening move (to QN1, QN3, Q3, KB3 or KB1).

King and queen jumps, when permitted, could not be used to escape check or gardez (“check” on a queen) or to capture a piece but could pass over intervening pieces.

Bishops were also weaker than their modern equivalents. The most common bishop move during period was a move of exactly two squares (jumping over any intervening pieces) in any diagonal direction. This was replaced in about 1500 by a move of up to 4 squares (but no jumping) in any diagonal direction. Apart from the 4 square limitation, this new bishop move was identical to the bishop move used in the modern game.


In compiling this article I drew most heavily on two volumes of the Complete Anachronist; Number 4 (Indoor games: How to while away a siege) and Number 71 (Period pastimes: being a timeline of games with instructions and commentary on selected games played in Medieval Europe). Both of these issues can be obtained for a nominal price through the SCA and contain much more information than I could possibly give here.