801 AD: Death by Chessboard

It is early June in the Year of our Lord 801. Charlemagne, king of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor, celebrates the Festival of Pentecost by holding a tournament in his capital of Paris. Fifteen kings, thirty dukes, and sixty earls show up, as well as countless knights and esquires and many beautiful ladies.

Among the throng is Berthelot, the king’s nephew, named after his mother Bertha. Berthelot is ancestor of Adam de Bertholot, who would later accompany William the Conqueror on his famous trip to Hastings in 1066.

According to legend, Bertha was Charlemagne’s favorite sister, and so the king took special interest in her son’s education and upbringing, keeping him nearby at court and watching him grow up. But Berthelot was always sickly and perhaps for this reason, he preferred the arts to the usual rough-and-tumble games played by the other boys. Among other pursuits, he excelled in the popular game of chess. This would be fateful.

Of all the knights present at the tourney, few are as formidable as the four sons of the Duke Aymon. They win many of the contests, but ultimately fail to win the top prize, which apparently enrages the eldest son, Raynard, who is already on edge because he has an ax to grind in regards to his dead uncle.

Raynard barges into Charlemagne’s court and demands that the king pay a blood debt of six times his uncle’s weight in gold. The king, enraged, throws his left glove into Raynard’s face. This fateful act gives birth to the gloved slap which will precede duels for centuries to come.

Then, famously, Berthelot picks up the glove and returns it to the king. This noble gesture later becomes enshrined in the Bartlett family’s coat of arms, which depicts three left-hand gloves with gold tassels.

Tempers cool somewhat and the company goes to Pentecostal mass. But after church, as the blue bloods assemble for dinner while no doubt consuming prodigious amounts of alcohol, Raynard is still seething and he will not sit down like the others. Instead he picks up where he left off, demanding recompense for his uncle’s death.

Things get so heated that a Sir Ganclon intervenes to play peace-maker. He suggests a contest between the the king’s nephew and Raynard. Taking his cue, Berthelot duly calls out the deadly Raynard, but not in a contest of arms, as one would normally expect, but to chess. Raynard, perhaps unaware of Berthelot’s reputation, accepts the challenge.

As the story goes, they played six games, each side backed by three noble umpires. The chessboard was a mass of solid gold. Raynard played silver chessmen and Berthelot gold.

Nobody knows the exact outcome but based on Raynard’s reaction it’s easy to make a guess. Words were exchanged. Perhaps Berthelot, fueled by alcohol and spite, goads his victim. Clearly, the fiery Raynard doesn’t require much stimulus.

He picks up the heavy golden chessboard and smashes Berthelot over the head. At the very least this badly injures Berthelot, but Raynard isn’t done. Taking his massive broadsword Flamberge he brings it down on the hapless Berthelot’s skull, ending all doubt.

Word of the murder spreads and the palace erupts. Raynard and his party flee. Most are killed by Charlemagne’s forces but the four brothers make their way back home to Dordogne. Fleeing at their mother’s urging, they later they build a castle in the Ardennes Forest.

Charlemagne's empire at its greatest

Along with The Song of Roland, this story becomes one of the earliest in French literature. More than 650 years later it's commemorated by a miniature, The Murder of Berthelot by Raynard.

The name Berthelot would gradually evolve over the centuries into the modern English Bartlett, the last one appearing in our family tree as Mary Bartlett, Marcel McMullen's maternal grandmother.

From the Bartlett web site

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