Medieval Decorated Floor Tiles

Detail from floor tile

This decorated floor tile features the inlaid stylised crowned head of a king and was found at Watton Priory in East Yorkshire. It was made during the thirteenth century. Most tiles that were made in Britain before this were fairly plain. Decorated tiles became more popular by the thirteenth century as craft skills increased and making costs became less.

Early Tiled Floors

The earliest tiled floors were mosaics that were made up of many small tile pieces. These were costly to produce and so were mainly used for paving palaces, monasteries and cathedrals. Designs were often quite complicated and time-consuming to lay. Because of this, tiles started to be made that had decoration on them. Sometimes small decorated mosaic tiles were used within larger mosaic schemes. This example is hexagonal and features a lion's head.

Making Decorated Tiles

Many tiles were decorated with an 'inlaid' pattern. Tile-makers firstly carved a wooden mould of the design. This was then pressed this into the unfired soft red earthenware tile body. This made an indented impression of the design. This was filled with a white liquid clay mixture (called 'slip') and then allowed to dry. Once dried, the slip was scraped off the surface to reveal the pattern. It was then covered with a lead glaze and fired in a kiln. The glaze darkened the red body colour and yellowed the white slip during firing. Copper could be added to the glaze to produce a green colour instead.

Alternatively, some tiles were made that had a raised pattern on their surface. These are known as 'embossed' tiles. They were made in a similar way except that the mould was carved in reverse.

Sometimes tile sections were made to connect together to form a mosaic tile. These were sometimes square but were more often triangular, multi-sided or irregular in shape. The pieces themselves were usually un-patterned. The decorative design was instead formed by their arrangement together. This roundel came from a pavement in Meaux Abbey, East Yorkshire, and depicts a floral motif. It consists of six petal-shaped tiles and six tiles in between that have concave sides.

Materials and Makers

Most usually, local clay was used for the main body of the tile. The clay was worked by hand into a flattened shape and cut into blocks. The tile makers were often journeymen who travelled around the country making tiles close to where they were required. It is likely that at most parishes would have had a brick or tile kiln at some stage and some monastic buildings even had their own kilns.

Decorated Tile Designs

Tiles were decorated with designs that feature stylised flower and plant forms including 'fleur-de-lis' and also animals, birds and the human figure. They sometimes simply feature a geometric pattern which imitates mosaic. Others contain heraldic motifs or crests such as this one. It bears an armorial consisting of a shield bearing three stylised lions. It was found on the site of Holy Trinity Church in Hull.

Decorated tiles continued to be made in the same vein until the sixteenth century. Much patronage of the trade was lost with the dissolution of the monasteries. By this time also, the wealthier classes were starting to favour brighter coloured tin-glazed ceramics and tiles from Europe.