Chess & History: The Rise of the Queen

Chess & History: The Rise of the Queen

Chess is a game of infinite depth and strategic complexity that has fascinated people worldwide for centuries. It combines elements of art, science, and sport, providing an arena where two thinkers test their tactical skills. Each chess piece on the board has its own significance and specific movement patterns, leading to unique strategies.

Among all these pieces, the queen stands out as the strongest. Her ability to move horizontally, vertically, and diagonally across the entire board gives her immense power. But it wasn't always this way. How did the queen, once one of the weakest chess pieces, become the most powerful force on the chessboard? What historical and cultural influences contributed to this transformation?

In this blog post, I want to explore the fascinating history of the queen in chess and highlight the various factors that may have led to her current dominance.


Historical Background

The queen in chess was originally known as the advisor or prime minister, often referred to as the vizier. This title has its roots in the Sanskrit "mantri," the Persian "farzīn," and the Arabic "firzān," "firz," or "wazīr." Initially, the vizier's movement was highly restricted, moving only one square diagonally. However, around the year 1300, the rule was adjusted, allowing the vizier to jump two squares diagonally on its first move. This change marked the beginning of a transformation that eventually turned the vizier into the queen.

The first mention of the piece as the queen can be found in the Latin term "regina" in the Einsiedeln poem, a medieval work from the year 997, kept in a monastery in Einsiedeln, Switzerland. Early medieval chess pieces depicted the vizier as a queen. The original term "fers" was grammatically adjusted in various languages to emphasize the female form, such as "alferza" in Spanish and "fierce" or "fierge" in French. In the Carmina Burana, the queen is also referred to as "femina" (woman) and "coniunx" (wife), further strengthening the feminine symbolism.

During the major chess reform in the 15th century, Catholic countries continued to use terms reminiscent of the Virgin Mary, such as "dama" in Spanish, "donna" in Italian, and "dame" in French. Protestant nations like Germany and England avoided any connection to the Marian cult and chose secular terms like "Königin" (queen) in German and "queen" in English. This different terminology reflects the cultural and religious divergences of that time.

In Russian, the chess piece retained its Persian name "ferz," while colloquially also called "koroleva" (queen), although never by professional chess players. Interestingly, in Arabic countries, the piece is still referred to and depicted as the vizier, emphasizing its original role and origin.

Historian Marilyn Yalom identifies several factors that contributed to the development of the chess piece queen. These include the significance of medieval queens like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella I of Castile, the cult of the Virgin Mary, the power attributed to women in courtly love, and the popularity of chess among women, which allowed them to play on equal terms with men. These cultural influences helped the piece gain its identity and power in the game of chess.

The earliest treatise on the modern movement of the queen was published during the reign of Isabella I of Castile. Before that, the Valencian poem "Scachs d'amor" described a game with the modern moves of the queen and the bishop. The queen was romantically depicted as vital to the king, so her loss was considered a great disadvantage in the game.

Isabella I of Castile

Isabella I of Castile
(Close-up of the altarpiece from the church Colegiata de Santa María in the city of Toro, Spain)

The modern move of the queen, which began in Spain during Isabella I's reign, spread through the invention of the printing press and the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, who took this new chess rule with them on their flight. Throughout the 15th century, the queen's movement developed into its current form, a combination of the rook and bishop's moves. This new version of chess, partly called "Queen's Chess" or derisively "Mad Queen's Chess," spread quickly throughout Europe, facilitated by the popularity of new chess books.

Some rules restricted the possibility of promoting pawns to queens while the original queen was still on the board, to avoid "scandals" where the king had more than one queen. In a Latin poem from the early 12th century, a pawn promoted to queen was called "ferzia," as opposed to the original queen or "regina." It was common to warn the opponent with the announcement "gardez la reine" or simply "gardez" when the queen was attacked, similar to the announcement of "check." Some rules even required this announcement before the queen could be legally captured, a practice largely abandoned in the 19th century.

In Russia, the queen could move like a knight for a long time, which some players disapproved of. An enlarged queen with these abilities is now known as the fairy chess piece "amazon." Around 1230, the queen was also invented as a piece in Japan, where it was part of the game Dai Shogi and retained in Chu Shogi, although it no longer plays a role in modern Shogi.


Speculations on the Reasons for the Rule Changes

The extraordinary power of the chess piece queen in the modern game can be explained by a variety of historical and cultural factors, which historian Marilyn Yalom has detailed. These reasons reflect not only the development of the game but also profound societal changes that have occurred over centuries.

A major factor was the significance of medieval queens like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella I of Castile. Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most influential and powerful women of the Middle Ages, played a central role in the politics of her time. Her reign was marked by clever diplomacy and strong leadership. Isabella I of Castile was instrumental in unifying Spain and was a driving force behind the funding of Christopher Columbus's voyages of discovery. Both queens represented a model of female power that went far beyond traditional gender roles. Their ability to make political and military decisions might have symbolically influenced the chess piece queen, characterized by unprecedented freedom of movement.

The cult of the Virgin Mary also played a crucial role. In medieval Europe, Mary was venerated as the mother of God and regarded as a symbol of purity, mercy, and protection. This veneration was reflected in many aspects of daily life and could have influenced the game of chess. The chess piece queen might have gained significance through the symbolism and veneration of the Virgin Mary, being understood not only as a worldly power figure but also as a spiritual symbol.

Repetición de Amores y Arte de Ajedrez con CL 150 Juegos de Partido written in 1497 by Luis Ramírez de Lucena

An illustration from the work: "Repetición de Amores y Arte de Ajedrez con CL 150 Juegos de Partido" written in 1497 by Luis Ramírez de Lucena and printed by Leonardo Hutz y Lope Sanz (Illustration: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).
It is considered one of the oldest surviving chess books and was written during the reign of Isabella I of Castile.

Another significant aspect was the power attributed to women in courtly love. The troubadour tradition of the Middle Ages idealized the lady as the object of worship and adoration. In courtly love, women were often depicted as dominant figures, whose favor knights sought. This romantic idealization of female power could also have contributed to the enhancement of the chess piece queen. She represented not only a strategic component in the game but also the high esteem and respect that women enjoyed in certain social contexts.

Finally, the popularity of chess among women played a not insignificant role. In the Middle Ages and the early modern period, chess was one of the few games where women could compete on equal terms with men. This not only promoted interest in the game itself but also the acceptance of a powerful female figure on the chessboard. The chess piece queen offered women an opportunity to demonstrate their strategic skills and at the same time strengthen their social position.

Another peculiarity of the chess piece queen is that she, along with the king, is the only chess piece that a player has only one of. A rule change aimed at making the game more exciting and varied would only ensure that the game would not become too destabilized with the chess piece queen. If the rule change affected the knight, bishop, or even the rook, both players would have two equally powerful chess pieces - not to mention the 8 pawns per player. It can therefore also be assumed that no other chess piece besides the queen would have promoted the development of the game of chess with such a rule change. Moreover, the queen was the weakest chess piece at that time, which certainly might have disturbed many players purely based on her utility.



The rule changes that made the queen the most powerful chess piece on the board were indicative of many historical events and cultural developments. Significant medieval queens as well as the popularity and work on the game itself played a central role in this transformation. This rule adjustment gave the game of chess more dynamism and strategic depth by opening up new tactical possibilities. Moreover, the strengthening of the queen reflected societal change and the growing recognition of the role of women. Thus, the game of chess became not only more exciting but also symbolically more significant by emphasizing gender equality.

Thank you for your interest in the rule changes of the queen in chess. If you have any further questions, feel free to contact me through my contact form. And if you need chess pieces or chessboards in tournament format, take a look at my assortment. I wish you lots of fun with the game, much success, and swift progress in learning.


See you soon.


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