For some odd reason, I decided to wonder about how chess evolved and why the queen is the strongest piece, by far. This was due to watching a BBC film about Shakespeare’s Henry VI. This is when the War of the Roses began and the most fearsome, nettlesome, fighting figure in the beginning of that long war was Queen Margaret who came out of France and who stunned the British nobility with her ferocity. Was there a connection between her and the way chess is played? I would suggest, yes, there is.
The queen (♕,♛) is the most powerful piece in the game of chess, able to move any number of squares vertically, horizontally or diagonally. Each player starts the game with one queen, placed in the middle of the first rank next to the king.
I always wondered, back when I played chess a lot, why the king was only slightly stronger than a pawn and a pawn could become a very strong queen if they manage to cross the entire board to the other side. Worse, the king’s best move is to be locked up in a castle! Why is that, I wondered.
With the chessboard oriented correctly, the white queen starts on a white square and the black queen starts on a black square. (Thus the mnemonics “queen gets her color”, “queen on [her] [own] color”, or “the dress [queen piece] matches the shoes [square]” (Latin: servat rēgīna colōrem).) In algebraic notation, the white queen starts on d1, while the black queen starts on d8. Because the queen is the strongest piece, a pawn is promoted to a queen in the vast majority of cases.
In the game shatranj, the ancestor of chess that included only male figures, the closest thing to the queen was the “vizier”, a weak piece only able to move or capture one step diagonally and not at all in any other direction. The modern chess queen gained power in the 15th century.
Now, this article should state why that happened but it doesn’t.
In most languages the piece is known as “queen” or “lady” (e.g. Italian donna). Asian and Eastern European languages tend to refer to it as vizier, minister or advisor (e.g. Persian وزیر wazir, Russian ферзь ferz). In Polish it is known as the hetman – the name of a major historical military-political office, while in Estonian it is called lippu (“flag”, “standard”).
So, the ‘queen’ piece is basically a French/English concept to the game. This narrows down the field greatly and allows me to state, there is a historical reason why the chess queen gained vast powers and at that particular time. She is Queen Margaret and the nobility who played this game changed the rules deliberately and in memory of her. She changed the game very fundamentally due to her actions in the real world.
She wasn’t the first French Queen that was strong and who went into war deliberately and caused lots of problems for the male nobility: Eleanor of Aquitaine -was the earliest strong French queen to rule England:
Eleanor of Aquitaine (French: Aliénor d’Aquitaine, Éléonore, Latin: Alienora; 1122 – 1 April 1204) was Queen consort of France (1137–1152) and England (1154–1189) and Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right. As a member of the Ramnulfids (“House of Poitiers”) rulers in southwestern France, she was one of the most powerful and wealthiest women in western Europe during the High Middle Ages. She was patron of literary figures such as Wace, Benoît de Sainte-Maure, and Bernart de Ventadorn. She led armies several times in her life and was a leader of the Second Crusade.
March 1430 – 25 August 1482) was the Queen of England by marriage to King Henry VI of England from 1445 to 1461 and again from 1470 to 1471. Born in the Duchy of Lorraine into the House of Valois-Anjou, Margaret was the second eldest daughter of René of Anjou and Isabella, Duchess of Lorraine.
She was one of the principal figures in the series of dynastic civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses and at times personally led the Lancastrian faction. Owing to her husband’s frequent bouts of insanity, Margaret ruled the kingdom in his place. It was she who called for a Great Council in May 1455 that excluded the Yorkist faction headed by Richard of York, 3rd Duke of York, and thus provided the spark that ignited a civil conflict that lasted for more than 30 years, decimated the old nobility of England, and caused the deaths of thousands of men, including her only son Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales, at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471.
She actually put on armor and went to war. This infuriated the male nobility no end. Her husband was literally insane. One of the ironies of history and genetics is, powerful kings and queens and other leaders usually produce very weak offspring. Henry V was strong and brave and his son, Henry VI, was mentally ill and retarded.
Henry VII was very strong and brave and was the last king to actually fight in battle and survive while his son, Henry VIII mainly killed his several wives or did other cruel things to them and had no grandchildren at all, ending that short dynasty.
Back to Queen Margaret: she had to be strong because her husband was barely above vegetable status. She took up the sword, literally, before Joan of Arc who did this coming from a peasant family. The English burned Joan of Arc at the stake and they vilified Queen Margaret who had to fight ferociously because her husband was so timid and weak.
I happen to admire Margaret’s spunk, by the way. What on earth was she to do in her situation? Fight, of course! There is another French princess (why were there no such females in England during all these many centuries doing the same?) who was a fighter: Isabella of France – Wikipedia
Isabella of France (1295 – 22 August 1358), sometimes described as the She-Wolf of France, was Queen of England as the wife of Edward II, and regent of England from 1326 until 1330. She was the youngest surviving child and only surviving daughter of Philip IV of France and Joan I of Navarre. Queen Isabella was notable at the time for her beauty, diplomatic skills, and intelligence.
Isabella arrived in England at the age of 12 during a period of growing conflict between the king and the powerful baronial factions. Her new husband was notorious for the patronage he lavished on his favourite, Piers Gaveston, but the queen supported Edward during these early years, forming a working relationship with Piers and using her relationship with the French monarchy to bolster her own authority and power. After the death of Gaveston at the hands of the barons in 1312, however, Edward later turned to a new favourite, Hugh Despenser the Younger, and attempted to take revenge on the barons, resulting in the Despenser War and a period of internal repression across England. Isabella could not tolerate Hugh Despenser and by 1325 her marriage to Edward was at a breaking point.
Travelling to France under the guise of a diplomatic mission, Isabella began an affair with Roger Mortimer, and the two agreed to depose Edward and oust the Despenser family. The Queen returned to England with a small mercenary army in 1326, moving rapidly across England. The King’s forces deserted him. Isabella deposed Edward, becoming regent on behalf of her son, Edward III. Many have believed that Isabella then arranged the murder of Edward II. Isabella and Mortimer’s regime began to crumble, partly because of her lavish spending, but also because the Queen successfully, but unpopularly, resolved long-running problems such as the wars with Scotland.
Edward the First was the Hammer of the Scots and crushed those stubborn fighters. His son was a weak idiot following the formula of strong daddy/weak son matrix. The She-wolf’s son, Edward III was strong. Queen Isabella, too, was vilified by male historians who hate strong female leaders.
Then along came Elizabeth I who was probably the only female ruler the men writing history could tolerate. Unfortunately, she was doomed to the same rule of ‘strong leader/imbecile leader’ matrix. Back to chess, it appears that in England and France, nobility had fun changing the chess game rules to make the queen the strongest piece because this amused them.
It was a commentary from the lower nobility on their top leaders. It is, in short, a political message from the War of the Roses era. The changes in the rules for the queen by increasing the piece’s powers and making it more mobile (the Queen of England went back and forth between France and England a lot) was a political commentary of present events.
Then it got set in stone and everyone forgot why the rules of the game suddenly changed. When I played the game as a young person, I often pondered on the qualities of the Queen and the weakness of the King. It was so contrary to most situations, it had to have roots in something quite revolutionary.
Some people like to think it was just a name change from male ‘prime minister’ type to queen for no reason. But I strongly disagree. It is a real political commentary on the powers of strong queens when they have weak husbands. Russia chess history: Catherine the Great loved to play the game and loved the Queen piece.
Catherine the Great proves my point. She had an idiot husband who was helpless and she kept him locked up and ran the country. And loved chess and I bet a billion dollars that she knew exactly why the King was castled all the time. Locking up the King was key to freeing the Queen to roam about freely, fighting everyone or giving orders. Funny, that.