Medieval game counter

About the object

© Carisbrooke Castle Museum
© Carisbrooke Castle Museum

Medieval game counters

This object is called a tableman and is a counter from a game called tabula or Tables, similar to backgammon, where each side had 15 counters and raced to remove them from the board. It shows an enlarged figure of a knight standing on the drawbridge of what seems to be a castle. The knight is wearing the Norman mail coat and conical helmet with nosepiece that we are familiar with from the Bayeux tapestry. The castle itself is of Norman style, with mortared stone blocks forming the walls and topped with battlements. The doorway shown in the wall has a round arch typical of this style of architecture. A structure can be seen within the castle which is also constructed from stone blocks and its arched windows allow us a view of two figures inside. The castle gates, one in the foreground of the counter and the other between the knight’s legs, have fallen from their hinges.

More than 200 tablemen survive today. It is likely that this piece was one of a full set of counters, especially as its border is raised to allow pieces to be stacked without damaging the design in the centre. A complete set of pieces found along with their board in Gloucester in 1983 is typical in that while some show aspects of courtly life such as feasting and hunting, the majority have mythological and religious scenes. This has led to the interpretation of this counter as a representation of the biblical Samson tearing down the gates of the city of Gaza, as told in Judges, chapter 16, verses 1-3.

Tablemen were made from a variety of materials including bone, wood and even leather. The walrus ivory from which this piece is made and its intricate workmanship suggest that it belonged to somebody with wealth, who also had the leisure time to play the game. Board games were seen as a chivalrous pursuit for the aristocracy and nobility, as well as being regarded as a way of developing strategic thinking. It was the lords and landowners with the time for games and the ability to afford fine boards and pieces who were the key players in the struggles over the succession to the English throne in the 1100s.

Castles and power

Although the scene shown is from the Bible, it is represented in contemporary style: Samson is unequivocally a 12th century knight and the city of Gaza resembles the kind of stone castle built at this time. Castles had been important elements in the process of securing the power of Normandy over the Anglo-Saxons in the years following the Norman invasion. During William I’s rule, it is thought that more than 500 castles were built across England, including those at Rochester, Lincoln and York and three in London. The first castles were built in motte and bailey style, using wooden structures. These structures allowed the Normans to erect their fortifications quickly, but were vulnerable to attack.

From the late AD 1000s the wooden structures were replaced with more solid stone variants and castles evolved from being tools to oppress the local population to expressions of lordly authority and focuses for economic and administrative activity. However, their continuing importance for winning and holding political power was made apparent during the civil war after the death of Henry I, when both Stephen and Matilda seized existing castles to wrest control of a particular area and built castles to secure territory they had gained. The power that castles could provide the holder posed a threat to the crown, and when Henry II came to the throne he ordered the demolition of those which had been built without royal authority.

More information

Carved walrus-ivory counter
From a Norman board game, dating from between 1150 and 1199.

The Norman period
BBC primary teaching resources for the Norman period.

An overview of the Normans


Henry II and the disputed succession
An introduction to Henry II and the disputed succession.

Dover Castle
A Time Team Special video about Dover Castle, which includes comparisons between William I's and Henry II's castles.

Castles and castle-building following the Norman conquest


Next section: A bigger picture

Medieval game counter