Spain’s Catholic Chess Queen

By Meghan Ferrara

Photos by Teresa Limjoco

Though chess is an ancient game, its popularity continues to this day. The strategy and finesse required to succeed are an integral part of the fascination the game holds for players.

What is less well known, though equally intriguing, is the story of how chess developed into its modern form. An essential aspect of this story is the evolution of the queen piece and the role that Renaissance Spain and its greatest queen played.

In lieu of a ‘queen’ chess piece, however, early chess players used a ‘king’s adviser’ piece, which was able to move only one square at a time on a diagonal. As the game flourished in Catholic medieval Europe, this piece became known as the queen, due particularly to its proximity to the king. Nonetheless, it would not be until the late fifteenth century that the queen would acquire the power that is a hallmark of the modern pastime.

The coronation of Isabella of Castile in 1474 brought significant changes to Spain. It marked the beginning of the Renaissance there and solidified Spain’s status as a world power in that tumultuous age.

SIGNED DOCUMENTS OF THE ‘CONCORDAT’ AT SEGOVIA, wherein Isabella is guaranteed her future as queen in her own right.  Isabella was heavily involved in all aspects of governance, including military campaigns.

The Siege of Baza was a quintessential example of Isabella’ s prowess; it also provided the catalyst for the alteration of her chess counterpart.  On November 7, 1489, King Ferdinand and his troops received a visit from Queen Isabella after having laid siege to the town for six months. The king’s troops were losing the fight and on the brink of capitulation. Ferdinand sent a message to Isabella in Jaen to share this decision with her.

The queen’s response was an adamant refusal to accept defeat. She urged Ferdinand and his soldiers to persevere and promised that she, herself, would ride to their aid. Isabella’s arrival revitalized the Spanish and led to their victory three weeks later, thus ensuring her status as a warrior queen and absolute monarch.

The celebrations of the Christian victory at Baza resounded throughout Spain and directly correlate to the critical transformation of the queen chess piece at this juncture. Inspired by the military ability of Queen Isabella, new chess rules came into effect, reflecting the prowess and Catholic faith of the young queen.

WHILE THE KING REMAINED THE MOST IMPORTANT PIECE IN THE GAME, the queen was now the most powerful. No longer a weak, restricted piece, the queen now moved boldly across the board in any direction for an unlimited number of spaces. Eventually, Luis Ramírez de Lucena set forth the new rules in Repetición de Amores y Arte de Ajedrez, the oldest printed book on chess, ushering in the modern form of chess.

LAST RESTING PLACE OF THE CATHOLIC MONARCHS IN GRANADA: Queen Isabella’s devotion to her troops, loyalty to her husband and strong Catholic faith not only made her a remarkable queen, but also changed one of the world’s most popular pastimes.

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