Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them

Ivory Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown

Ivory VikingsIvory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them

By Nancy Marie Brown

St. Martin’s Press, 2015
ISBN: 978-1137279378

In the early 1800’s, on a Hebridean beach in Scotland, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: 93 chessmen carved from walrus ivory. Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks, the Lewis Chessmen are probably the most famous chess pieces in the world. Harry played Wizard’s Chess with them in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Housed at the British Museum, they are among its most visited and beloved objects.


Questions abounded: Who carved them? Where? Nancy Marie Brown’s Ivory Vikings explores these mysteries by connecting medieval Icelandic sagas with modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games. In the process, Ivory Vikings presents a vivid history of the 400 years when the Vikings ruled the North Atlantic, and the sea-road connected countries and islands we think of as far apart and culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, and Greenland and North America. The story of the Lewis chessmen explains the economic lure behind the Viking voyages to the west in the 800s and 900s. And finally, it brings from the shadows an extraordinarily talented woman artist of the twelfth century: Margret the Adroit of Iceland.

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Read an Excerpt from Ivory Vikings:

If the Lewis chessmen were carved in the last decades of the twelfth century, two of the kings on our chessboard are Sverrir, who reigned from 1184 to 1202, and the king he deposed, Magnus V, who was crowned in 1164. Magnus V was killed in battle after twenty years on the throne: He was then twenty-eight. Sverrir was twenty-four when he first claimed the crown. Both are fantastic characters who challenge our assumptions of kingship in the Middle Ages and of the limits of the Norwegian realm. Neither spent much time in the city of Trondheim. Neither provided the stable, wealthy royal courts we assume an ivory-carver would seek out. Nor had the kings who preceded them


From 1130, when Sigurd the Jerusalem-Farer died, insane, Norway was engaged in almost constant civil war until 1240. The kings had no permanent royal court but moved among Trondheim, Bergen, Oslo, and other sites as the fighting and factions dictated. For much of the time, there was more than one crowned king: Traditionally, any king’s son, born in wedlock or out, could inherit the title, and two came from the farthest reaches of the realm.

Harald Gilli, for example, was raised in Ireland. He was living in the Hebrides when he met the young “master of nine skills,” Kali Kolsson, who would become Earl Rognvald Kali of Orkney. Kali grew up on his father’s estate in Norway. As Bishop Pall writes in the Orkney Islanders’ Saga:

Kali was fifteen when he went with some merchants west to England. They had a good cargo and headed for a town called Grimsby. Great crowds of men had come there, both from the Orkney Islands and from Scotland, and even from the Hebrides. There Kali met a man who called himself Gillikrist; he was asking many questions about Norway. He talked most with Kali, and they became great friends. He told Kali in confidence that he was really named Harald and that King Magnus Bare-Legs was his father, but on his mother’s side he was partly from the Hebrides and partly from Ireland.

With Kali’s encouragement, Gillikrist, or Harald Gilli as he began calling himself, went to Norway. King Sigurd was not too surprised to learn he had an Irish half-brother: Magnus Bare-Legs had left behind a love poem to an Irish girl who made him “feel young again.” Still, to prove his paternity, Harald Gilli had to undergo an ordeal: to walk on red-hot plowshares. When his burns healed cleanly and did not fester, he was acknowledged King Sigurd’s brother, even though “he wasn’t fluent in the Norse tongue and often stumbled over his words, and many men mocked him for that,” Snorri Sturluson writes in Heimskringla.


Upon the king’s death, Harald Gilli and his nephew Magnus agreed to share the throne; their truce lasted four years. Harald Gilli, says Snorri, was merry, generous, and “not haughty.” Magnus IV, in contrast, was not only haughty, he was greedy and a hard drinker. He was also, it’s true, a great athlete and “more handsome than any other man in Norway,” but in Snorri’s opinion, “it was mostly his father’s popularity that gained him people’s friendship.”

Fighting broke out when both kings decided to winter near Trondheim. Harald Gilli, the eventual victor, found ready allies in Denmark, for Magnus IV had made a political gaffe: He agreed to marry the sister of King Valdemar, then sent her back home to Denmark as unsuitable.

In a battle in Bergen, Harald Gilli captured his nephew. To keep Magnus from ever again sitting the throne, Harald had him blinded and castrated and cut off one foot. Magnus the Blind found refuge in the cloister at Munkholmen near Trondheim.


Harald Gilli then sent for the English bishop of Stavanger and accused him of hiding the royal treasury. Bishop Reinald denied it. Harald Gilli fined him fifteen marks of gold. The bishop refused to pay. Harald Gilli sentenced him to hang. As the bishop walked to the gallows, “he shook off one of his boots and swore on his oath, ‘I don’t know about any more of King Magnus’s treasure than what’s in this boot.’ In it was a gold ring.” The king hanged him anyway. Wrote Snorri, “This act was much decried.”

Harald Gilli made another blunder: He captured and imprisoned his half-brother, another Sigurd, nicknamed “the Sham Deacon.” This Sigurd had been raised in the Orkney Islands and served for several years under King David of Scotland before coming to Norway where he, like Harald Gilli, proved himself a true son of Magnus Bare-Legs by undergoing an ordeal. Sigurd the Sham Deacon escaped and murdered Harald Gilli in 1136. He then released Magnus the Blind from his monastery, but the Norwegian nobles spurned them both. Magnus tried to reclaim his throne with Danish support, and civil war erupted again.

Norwegian historians say it’s anachronistic to call these clashes a “civil war.” Yet they did pit brother against brother. Take the experience of Ivar Skrauthanki. In 1140, Ivar (though an Icelander) would become bishop of Trondheim; his son, Eirik, would be chosen archbishop in 1189. But in November 1139, Ivar Skrauthanki was a fighting man aboard the dragonship of Magnus the Blind during a sea battle in the Oslo Fjord. When he saw King Magnus killed, Snorri writes, Ivar fled to the ship of his brother Jon—who was fighting on the opposing side. Jon arranged his ransom but could not save Bishop Ivar’s companion and namesake, Ivar Dynta. “So said Bishop Ivar, that of all the things that had happened to him, the worst was when Ivar was led up onto land to the axe, and before he was beheaded, he turned to them and prayed that they would meet again.” For this anecdote, Snorri is very clear about his sources. He writes, “So Gudrid, Birgir’s daughter and the sister of Archbishop Jon, told Eirik Oddsson, and she said she had heard Bishop Ivar himself speak of it.” Jon Birgisson of Stavanger became the first archbishop of Trondheim in 1153.

Instead of Magnus the Blind, the Norwegian chieftains acclaimed as kings two sons of Harald Gilli. Ingi the Hunchback was crowned at two years old; his half-brother Sigurd Mouth (called that because his was ugly) was a few years older. They admitted a third half-brother, Eystein, into the rule in 1142, but the three kings eventually fell out. Sigurd grew up to become brave and strong and well-spoken, but he was “a tremendously arrogant man and overbearing in all things,” Snorri says. Eystein was “intelligent and sensible,” but “the greediest and stingiest” of them all. Ingi, the only legitimate one of the three, was the least likely king, at least by the standards of the Lewis chessmen, who are all sturdy, impressive figures. “He was short in stature and had difficulty walking alone, because one of his legs was withered, and he was a hunchback.” He was kindly, Snorri concedes, and “openhanded with his wealth.” But the secret to his popularity was that “he mostly let the chieftains rule the country with him.” Because he was born in wedlock, he was also preferred by the papal legate, Nicholas Breakespeare, who established the archbishopric of Trondheim in 1153 and became Pope Adrian IV in 1154.


Ingi the Hunchback ambushed and killed Sigurd Mouth in 1155 and Eystein in 1157, before being killed himself by one of Sigurd’s sons in 1161. Civil war erupted once more, as many noblemen held equal claims to the throne.

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