Northampton’s chequered history: uncovering Britain’s first medieval chess workshop

Excavation in Northampton town centre has revealed the remains of a 12th-century bone-working workshop that yielded not only antler offcuts and other echoes of industry, but a number of high-quality chess pieces that had been discarded at different stages of their manufacture. With a monograph describing the finds in more detail having just been published, Rob Atkins tells us more about this unprecedented discovery.


Today, Northampton is a medium- to large-sized provincial town, but in the 12th century it was one of the most important towns in England. The wealthy settlement was a regular seat of parliament and home to a significant royal castle, where Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was tried in 1164. Its origins lie in the Anglo-Saxon period, and it is generally thought that Northampton grew up around a Saxon minster or perhaps a royal centre from the mid-7th century in the vicinity of what today is St Peter’s Street. Post-Conquest Northampton benefited from wealth and patronage associated with the newly established ruling Norman elite, and the Domesday Book attests that by 1086 the town ranked around 20th in the amount of tax paid to the king. This then steadily increased, so that by 1184 it provided the fifth-largest tax income to the royal purse in the whole of England. Royal ambitions for the town took physical form in its defensive circuit, encompassing the third-largest walled area in England, and with royal investment came the advances of other institutions and stakeholders, namely the ecclesiastical houses, the Jewish community, merchants, and noble families – and with them flourished the craftsmen, artisans, and vendors who supported their needs.

Recently published excavations by MOLA at St John’s Street, Northampton town centre, have uncovered the remains of medieval industry: a unique 12th-century workshop where a prolific bone- and antler-carver produced a range of wares, including chess pieces, as well as traces of large-scale brewing activity.

In 2014, MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) was commissioned by the local council to excavate ahead of the construction of what was to be Northamptonshire County Council’s new £43m headquarters, One Angel Square. (Following political reorganisation in April 2021, and the creation of two unitary district authorities, it is now the offices of West Northamptonshire council.) The site lies on St John’s Street, which takes its name from the medieval hospital of St John (founded in 1138-1140) that once stood directly opposite. It is located c.0.5km east of Northampton’s supposed Saxon core, in an area brought within the town in the 12th century by the creation of the Norman New Borough.

Medieval Northampton was one of the most important towns in England. The settlement’s Saxon core is thought to be centred on St Peter’s Street, in the lower left-hand corner of this map. The Norman castle (no longer standing today) lies a short distance to the north. St John’s Street, where the workshop was excavated, runs above the Hospital of St John, in the lower right-hand portion of the town.

The earliest features identified during MOLA’s work were industrial: they belonged to a large open-cast stone quarry that was operating on the valley side by the second part of the early 12th century, probably in association with the construction of St John’s hospital and associated infrastructure. It is uncertain how much influence the hospital had on the subsequent development of the site we were investigating, but a number of artefacts recovered during our excavation do suggest a possible link; these include probable ‘rubbish’ from the hospital, such as a fragment of green porphyry from a portable altar or relic cover. This kind of stone was imported, largely coming from Laconia in southern Greece – it continued in use for altars into at least the early 12th century, and represents a particularly curious and rare find in Britain. Other intriguing objects included a silver annular brooch, a fragment from a stained-glass window, pieces of stone architecture, and a number of roof tiles, all of which may have been associated with the ecclesiastical institution.

This fragment of green porphyry is thought to have come from a portable altar or relic cover. It may have been associated with the Hospital of St John, which once stood opposite the workshop site.

MOLA’s excavation spanned three plots fronting St John’s Street, and in Plot 3, the westernmost part of the site, we discovered the remains of a timber building that has since been dubbed the ‘carver’s workshop’. This structure had a possibly L-shaped layout (if its potential earthen cellar was included), and post-holes pick out a footprint at least c.4.5m wide and over 3m long, extending beyond the southern limits of the investigation. As the building’s frontage lay under the modern street, it was not possible to establish its complete dimensions or to show if the building was parallel or end-on to the street, but it is generally thought that most workshops in this period also served as tenements – a view supported by the presence of an oven in the rear yard. Other than a possible sub-floor storage pit and two other pits, though, there was not a significant amount of domestic waste associated with the property. The evidence for craft activities within this space, though, was illuminating.

Bishop, monarch, and pawn

Within the workshop, MOLA found material reflecting all stages of working from a near-complete antler: numerous sawn offcuts from red deer and fallow deer antlers, trimmed antler pieces, partly carved objects, and nearly finished artefacts – some of which were clearly identifiable as chess pieces.

MOLA’s excavation focused on three plots fronting on to St John’s Street; the workshop was found within Plot 3.
Overlooking the remains of the carver’s workshop. Within its footprint, archaeologists found refuse from all stages of antler-working, as well as partly finished chess pieces.

The simplest of these latter objects was a blank that may represent a partly finished pawn. This was the shortest of the recovered knife-trimmed pieces, at 33mm high by 21-23mm in diameter. There was also a larger stylised head, 25mm long and 15mm in diameter, which is thought to have been part of a king or queen; the tapering lower part would have been inserted into the top of a larger cylindrical body. Its flat top has been cross-cut to form a simple crown, and the face is marked by ring-and-dot eyes either side of an angled nose. It was discarded because in fashioning the right side of the face the spongy core of the antler was exposed, making it impossible to set a ring-and-dot right eye in the correct place, although a misplaced eye, too low and too close to the nose, was added, perhaps in a failed attempt to salvage the piece. The third incomplete chess piece is a cylindrical length of antler, standing 42mm high and 28-32mm in diameter. The front has been cut back to form a pair of simple rectangular heads, one of which is broader than the other, probably because a sliver of antler broke away during manufacturing, which may be why the piece was discarded. The paired heads indicate that the piece was intended to be a bishop, which in Europe had replaced the vizier from the earlier Arab version of the game (see box on p.24), who had been denoted by the tusks of the elephant on which he sat.

The chess pieces being produced at St John’s Street were of stylised form. They are not common – only around 70 similar pieces are known from Britain, while more have been found on the Continent. They usually appear as single stray pieces on archaeological excavations at castles, abbeys, rural manor houses, or important townhouses – probably casual losses by wealthy medieval players. The discovery of chess pieces within a workshop dedicated to their manufacture is thought to be without parallel in this country.

Trimmed antler pieces from the workshop; they include a bishop (second from the right) and (on the right) the head of a king or queen that would have fitted into a larger body as shown in the reconstruction (right).

To put these objects in context, the finest medieval pieces were elaborately decorated and fashioned in ivory – you might think of the Lewis chessmen, which are also 12th century in date but much more detailed in their figurative designs. Such items were beyond the means of all but the wealthiest chess enthusiasts, and to supply the wider market other materials were used, ranging from antler to jet, which had to be brought in from rural locations or mined. At a lower level, animal bone was also used, and presumably wooden pieces would have been even more common – though very few examples from this early period have survived. The quality of the St John’s Street antler chess pieces puts them at the higher end of the trade, and they were presumably intended for sale to the elite. Although they are unprepossessingly plain in design, comparable finds suggest that their maker would have gone on to decorate their bodies with incised lines and ring-and-dot motifs, had they not been discarded.

Before the discovery of the St John’s Street pieces, only six medieval chess pieces of similarly stylised design had been found in Northamptonshire. Three of these were of comparably high craftsmanship: a bishop found during 19th-century excavations at Northampton Castle, a knight found at Helpston (now part of Cambridgeshire), and a pawn from the important prebendal manor at Nassington at the northern extent of the county. The other three were relatively crudely made, probably by amateurs. These comprise a knight from the medieval village of Lyveden, and a bishop and a rook from West Cotton, Raunds. This latter site was home to a small manor house that would have been much lower in the order of wealth and status, suggesting that its residents could only afford a home-made chess set.

Unworked lengths of antler tine (on the right) and knife-trimmed sections including one that is thought to be a partly finished pawn (far left).

The history of chess

The earliest predecessor of chess probably originated in India by the 7th century AD. It later spread to Persia and came into Europe from the east through contact with the Arab world. It appeared in southern Europe shortly before AD 1000 and spread northwards; historical and archaeological evidence indicate that it reached England from France due to the Norman Conquest. The popularity of chess in European courtly circles peaked between the 12th and the 15th centuries, particularly at the upper levels of society. For some people, though, the game was associated with frivolity and the sin of gambling, and as a result there was a series of official ecclesiastical prohibitions all over Europe from the 11th to the 13th century.

From bone-working to brewing

The carver operating at the St John’s Street workshop seems to have been impressively versatile. We uncovered evidence for different kinds of bone-working, with a diverse range of cattle and sheep bones – from horn cores and cattle jawbones to tibia and metatarsals – displaying cut marks, trimming, and removed sections. This suggests that – while the cream of medieval Northampton’s society, in their courting of royal patronage, would have provided lucrative opportunities for the carver to sell small luxuries such as chess sets – such artisans could also turn their hand to more mundane items of worked bone, presumably including such things as handles, weaving tools, spigots, and bungs.

More antler waste: a fallow deer antler and red deer crown, and a discarded main beam that had been sawn above the burr end.

This site is particularly exciting for our understanding of medieval activities within the town, as no other commercial medieval workshops of any type have been identified in Northampton. Only four other excavation sites in the town have produced evidence of bone-working, and all of these are thought to pre-date the St John’s Street workshop, with two being late Saxon, one probably Saxo-Norman, and one yielding objects from both late Saxon and medieval contexts. Yet none of these four sites could be tied to workshops. Indeed, it is uncertain if they represented large-scale professional activities at all, as the recovered remains comprised far fewer off-cuts or part-piece artefacts. They were producing a wide range of objects, however, with evidence for combs being made, as well as ice skates.

After the short-lived workshop went out of use, the site was occupied by significant brewing activity. This is one of the malting ovens from this phase of the site’s use.

As for the chess workshop, its operation seems to have been relatively short-lived, and by the late 12th century the structure had been demolished for a large commercial malting enterprise that came to occupy the site. A new maltster’s stone premises were established as a detached building fronting St John’s Street, with associated three back-plot ovens. The collective cost would have been significant, and would have required a wealthy patron with capital to invest. The Hospital of St John seems to have been relatively wealthy up until the Dissolution, and it is possible that this institution owned the malting arrangement that sprang up on the opposite plot. This sort of arrangement would not be unusual, and similar cases elsewhere in the town have been recorded in broadly contemporary documents. John Eustach, for example, held a tenement in Abington Street and he was named as a supplier of ale to the royal household during its stay in the town in 1300-1301.

Two open days were held at the site on 6 and 7 August 2014. Hundreds of people visited the site to see the medieval remains and excavated artefacts. Medieval reenactors and specialists – including pottery expert Paul Blinkhorn – explained the site’s significance.
One of the stone malt ovens from St John’s Street has been relocated and reconstructed at the Albion Brewery Bar.

In Northampton, up to 12 drying ovens have been found in various parts of the town dating to both the medieval and the late medieval periods, all of which (except for examples at St Peter’s Street) were located in back plots. These were all singular finds, or else two ovens placed close to each other – the deliberate placing of three contemporary drying ovens in adjacent back plots within a single road, as we see at St John’s Street, cannot be paralleled anywhere else in the town. As for why brewing was so popular in Northampton, during the St John’s Street excavations the water from two of the medieval wells was analysed and the high water-quality was comparable, showing little mineral variation in the local aquifer. In terms of pH regulation, the water from the medieval wells required little or no adjustment for modern techniques and would have been ideally suited to produce a good quality wort. It is not surprising that Carlsberg presently has a significant brewery in the town – and a further link to the site’s brewing heritage has been preserved, as one of the 13th-century stone malt ovens from St John’s has been taken down to Bridge Street and reconstructed as an internal feature of the Albion, the brewery tap of Phipps NBC (Northampton Brewery Company).

Further reading
Jim Brown, Living Opposite to the Hospital of St John: excavations in medieval Northampton 2014, Archaeopress, £60, ISBN 978-1789699364.
Further information
Twenty-two medium and large-scale excavation areas have examined Saxon and later Northampton over the last 50 or so years, with the present site being the second-largest excavation carried out in the town centre for more than 30 years. Three monographs and a host of journal articles have been published on this work, resulting in a significant publication record which is one of the best for such a settlement in the country. The excavation at St John’s Street has resulted in a recently published fourth monograph for the town (see below), which draws on evidence from the previous excavated sites, as well as surviving documentary records for the town, which have collectively allowed the St John’s excavation to be put into context.
All images: MOLA.