Medieval Tiles

We have two medieval tiles in our collection, both of which are from Strata Florida Abbey near Rhayader.

Very few medieval tiles survive today – during the dissolution of the monasteries (1536 – 1541) King Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church of England, and seized the wealth of all the religious orders affiliated with Europe and the Pope.
Abbeys such as Strata Florida had a great deal of wealth, which is why they could afford so many of these beautiful tiles. Their survival is remarkable.

They were uncovered in an excavation in the 1880s, and made Strata Florida a popular Victorian tourist destination – although many tiles were taken as souvenirs!

These tiles were made by a travelling craftsman, in the 16th Century.

Most medieval tiles were from clay that was dug out of a riverbed (the clay for these tiles quite possibly came from the River Teifi, which is next to the abbey). The clay was then left on a table outside over the winter so that the rain, snow and frost could leach impurities from it. After all that it was pounded out and “levigated” – turned into a fine, smooth, paste-y powder.

After that they were shaped into squares, and decorated, either by pushing in moulds to create patterns, or by painting over the top. Some tiles were glazed using tin, to create different colours, or carefully inlaid with a contrasting colour of clay. 

Try Your Hand At Medieval Tile Making Techniques

If you don’t happen to have levigated river clay to hand, then some salt dough works just fine – there’s a good recipie for it in the craft instructions. Suitable for all ages!

Tile A Medieval Floor

 Originally the tiles were laid on the floor of the abbey, and could only be trodden on by special guests and choir monks.
Laying them was a very important task, and many of the tiles have patterns that “join up” and make a bigger pattern.
Have a go at tiling a floor and seeing for yourself how the patterns can go.

The Patterns in the Tiles

These are the tiles on the floor of Strata Florida Abbey.
Look closely. What can you see?
The Man in the Mirror
This mysterious figure is probably a man dressed in the fashion of the 14th Century - a close hood, and doublet, and cloak - gazing at his reflection of a mirror. This could be a symbol of vanity, or pride.
Fleur de Lis
This is a reminder of the origins of the Abbey, which was founded by the Norman lord Robert FitzStephen. It translates as the 'Lily' and has connections to the purity of the Virgin Mary, making it popular for the decoration of Abbeys and Churches.
Birds & Beasts
Birds were a popular symbol during the Medieval era; do these look like red kites to you...? There's also griffins and serpents hidden in the tiles. Medieval people had a real taste for mythical creatures, keeping accounts of them in huge books called "bestiaries" - often attributing moral lessons to them.
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Colour in some Medieval tiles! There's three to try - and they get more complicated.....

Try your hand at a jigsaw puzzle!

This is a lithograph, circa 1786, of the Strata Florida Abbey ruins!

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