Ni fedrai iarll pan fu drin
‘Gwyddbwyll’ and chess
Gwyddbwyll is the first of the board games included among the ‘twenty-four feats’. It is also mentioned in earlier prose tales, namely ‘Breuddwyd Maxen’, ‘Breuddwyd Rhonabwy’ and ‘Peredur’, and in poetry, the earliest reference being in a twelfth-century poem in praise of Cuhelyn Fardd (fl. c.1100-c.1130). In modern Welsh the word gwyddbwyll is used to denote the game of chess, but it is thought that medieval gwyddbwyll was a different type of game, similar to tawlbwrdd (see below).
Chess itself, or an early version of it, had been introduced into England following the Norman Conquest and was popular among all ranks of society by the later Middle Ages. The Welsh loan word sïes (‘chess’) is first recorded in a poem by Rhys Goch Eryri (c.1365-c.1440), where it is mentioned in a list of feats which also includes gwyddbwyll, lending weight to the idea that they were two different games. Other references to sïes are found in poems by Lewys Glyn Cothi and Ieuan ap Rhydderch, and by Hywel Swrdwal, who also uses the term siec mad, derived from the English ‘check mate’.
Like gwyddbwyll, tawlbwrdd has a long history. It is mentioned several times in law texts dating back to the time of the independent rulers of Wales - it was, for example, one of the items given by the king to the court justice and the bardd teulu or household poet. Tawlbwrdd was played ‘with a king and eight (or twelve) men on one side playing against sixteen (or twenty-four) men on the other side aiming to prevent the king’s movement’. Though it seems the terms tawlbwrdd and gwyddbwyll could sometimes be used interchangeably by the end of the Middle Ages, their inclusion as separate items in the list of ‘twenty-four feats’ indicates that here they were envisaged as distinctly different games.
Though Guto’r Glyn does not refer to either gwyddbwyll or sïes, he does mention tawlbwrdd in his praise poem to Sir Roger Kynaston of Knockin:
Ni fedrai iarll pan fu drin
Warae cnocell â’r Cnwcin;
Gwarae a wnaeth ein gŵr nod
Towlbwrdd gwŷr duon Talbod,
Gwarae bars â’r Mars y mae,
Eithr y gŵr aeth â’r gwarae.
When battle was in progress an earl could not
play tip with the man from Knockin;
our distinguished warrior played
the board game of Talbot’s black men,
he is playing chevy with the March,
but it was the warrior who won the game.
The ‘tip’ and ‘chevy’ in this passage can be identified with the games of ‘tag’ and ‘prisoner’s base’, which survive as children’s playground games today. Guto uses them in a metaphorical sense to praise Sir Roger’s prowess in battle. His reference to tawlbwrdd is also metaphorical and seems to refer to a particular incident, also mentioned by Lewys Glyn Cothi: tawlbwrdd gwŷr duon Talbod, / tros y bwrdd gwnaed Rhys eu bod ‘let Rhys move Talbot’s board game black men over the board’. Any kind of board game with two opposing sides, of course, would provide a useful metaphor for poets when describing conflict. A poem attributed to Dafydd ap Gwilym also uses tawlbwrdd in a metaphorical sense, in this case likening the stars in the sky to the game’s pieces.
‘Tabler’ and ‘ffristial’
The poets of this period also refer to tabler, this word denoting an early form of backgammon or the board upon which the game was played. As with the other terms for board games there is some uncertainty as to its precise meaning and it could have been used to refer to a variety of similar games. Like modern backgammon, tabler (often termed table(s) in English) was played by rolling dice to determine the movement of the counters on the board. In his poem to request a brigandine (a type of armour) Guto’r Glyn compares its construction to a tabler:
Dyblwyd ar waith y dabler
Dyblig o’r sirig a’r sêr;
a covering made from the silk and the stars
was doubled in the form of the backgammon table;
Guto also mentions y dabler deg ‘the fair game of backgammon’ in his poem to request a hunting horn (see below), and Siôn Tudur, who died in 1602, composed an entire poem to request a tabler on behalf of a patron. Ffristial, listed among the ‘twenty-four feats’, could also refer to a kind of backgammon, though its other possible meanings include ‘dice (the game)’ and ‘dice box’.
Guto’r Glyn refers to tabler, hasard (‘hazard’) and playing cards (card) in his poem to request a hunting horn on behalf of Siôn Eutun ap Siâms Eutun of Parc Eutun:
Ni chyll arian ychwaneg,
Nid arfer o’r dabler deg;
Â chroes ni chwery hasard,
O chair corn ni chwery card.
he doesn’t lose money anymore,
he doesn’t play the fair game of backgammon;
he doesn’t play hazard with a coin,
if he receives a horn he won’t play cards.
One of the meanings of the English word ‘hazard’, from which Welsh hasard was borrowed, was a game played with dice, with varying rules and with the players gambling on the outcome of the throws. Guto’s mention of a cross (croes) in relation to hasard suggests a coin (bearing the image of a cross), and gambling is more directly mentioned in the first line of the passage quoted above.
In this poem Guto seems to regard tabler, hasard and card with disapproval - the implication is that if his patron receives the hunting horn he will cease such pursuits and spend his time in a more worthwhile manner! This attitude is in marked contrast to the inclusion of board games among the ‘twenty-four feats’. Although they had their part to play as entertainment and as part of the revelry of the gentry household, therefore, it seems such games were frowned upon when gambling was taken to excess. In a praise poem to Lewys ab Watcyn, Lewys Glyn Cothi describes the fondness of the body (as opposed to the soul) for playing such games in his patron’s home. According to Cynfael Lake, ‘one senses that both poets are offering careful and circumspect criticism’. In ‘Statud Gruffudd ap Cynan’ (1523) poets are advised not to go i dafarnau neu gornelau kuddiedic i chwarau dissiau neu gardiau neu warae arall am dda ‘to taverns or to hidden corners to play dice or cards or to play any other game for money’.
Bibliography: M. Hughes, ‘ “A chwaryy di wydbwyll?”: ystyr ac arwyddocâd y gêm ‘gwyddbwyll’ mewn Chwedlau Cymraeg Canol’, Llên Cymru, 32 (2009), 33-57; J.E.C. Williams, P.I. Lynch and R.G. Gruffydd (goln.), Gwaith Meilyr Brydydd a’i Ddisgynyddion, ynghyd â Dwy Awdl Fawl Ddienw o Ddeheubarth (Caerdydd, 1994), 2.17.
: Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru (Caerdydd, 1950- ),1754; Hughes, ‘ “A chwaryy di wydbwyll?” ’.
: C. Reeves, Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval England (Stroud, 1995), 77- 9.
: D.F. Evans (gol.), Gwaith Rhys Goch Eryri (Aberystwyth, 2007), 12.25-8; Hughes, ‘ “A chwaryy di wydbwyll?” ’,35.
: D. Johnston (gol.), Gwaith Lewys Glyn Cothi (Caerdydd, 1995), 208.4; R.I. Daniel (gol.), Gwaith Ieuan ap Rhydderch (Aberystwyth, 2003), 3.110; D.F. Evans (gol.), Gwaith Hywel Swrdwal a'i deulu (Aberystwyth, 2000), 11.49-50.
: D. Jenkins (ed.), The Law of Hywel Dda (Llandysul, 1986), 16, 20.
: Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru, 3458, and see further F. Lewis, ‘Gwerin Ffristial a Thawlbwrdd’, The Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (1941), 185-205, and Hughes, ‘ “A chwaryy di wydbwyll?” ’, 35-9.
: Hughes, ‘ “A chwaryy di wydbwyll?” ’;'Dafydd ap Gwilym.net', 161.69n.
: D. Johnston (gol.), Gwaith Lewys Glyn Cothi, 104.49-50, and see the explanatory note on poem 79.51-2.
: 'Dafydd ap Gwilym.net', 161.69. H.M. Edwards, ‘Ar Drywydd y Cywyddwyr Cynnar: Golwg Newydd ar Gywydd y Sêr’, Dwned, 16 (2010), 11-49, suggests that this poem may have been the work of Llywelyn Goch ap Meurig Hen.
: Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru, 3404; ‘The Oxford English Dictionary’, s.vv. tabler, n.¹, and table, n. 18; Reeves, Pleasures and Pastimes, 75-6.
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