Thirteenth-Century Floor Tiles at Cleeve Abbey (and elsewhere)

(Note to the reader: This post comes with a somewhat lenghty introduction which doesn’t have all that much to do with the rest of the post. So if you’re only interested in the part about the floor tiles, just skip the first few paragraphs, scroll down until you see the first image of a tile and start reading there.)

Have you been following the story of the search for the bodily remains of King Richard III of England? If you haven’t, you can read all about it, well, pretty much all over the internet, but The History Blog may be a good point to start. The story, in a nutshell, is as follows: Having been killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, Richard III was buried in the church of the Grey Friars (i.e. the Franciscans) in Leicester. However, the church was destroyed in the course of the English Reformation and over time the knowledge of its original position was lost. Now, a few weeks ago, a team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester announced that, after careful study of the documentary evidence, they had managed to locate the likely site of the former church and would attempt an excavation to try and find remains of the building and, if all went well, perchance even the remains of Richard.

Movie poster for the 1912 film ‘Richard III’ (Image © Wikimedia Commons).  For convention’s sake, I have felt compelled to include a random image of Richard III at this point – feel free to ignore it, it bears no relevance for the content of this post…

From the outset, the people involved in the project tried to play it cool and keep everyone’s expectations low, even admitting that there was a certain Dan Brown-esque element in their search, so from the outset, this appeared to be a much more sensible endeavour than, e.g., the sensationalist search for the lost Leonardo. It is therefore perhaps not all that surprising then that, only a couple of weeks after the beginning of the excavations, the archaeologists of Leicester University have found everything they could possibly have hoped for – including a male skeleton that could well be/have been Richard III. Of course, until they get the results of the DNA tests, the identification of the skeleton as Richard remains purely hypothetical…

What can be said with a lot more certainty, though, is that they have found the remains of the Grey Friars’ church and friary, one of the most important ecclesiastical institutions in late medieval Leicester. (And, in my opinion, that’s the more important part of the findings anyway.) What has been dug up includes parts of the walls of both the church and the chapter house, fragments of window tracery and some inlaid floor tiles, presumably dating from the 14th century:

Floor tile from the Grey Friars’ convent in Leicester, 14th century, found during recent excavations (Image ©

Now I must admit that I couldn’t care less about the bones of some long dead monarch – even if he has been immortalized in Blackadder by Shakespeare – but I’m utterly fascinated by medieval floor tiles! The thing about floor tiles is that they are generally simply overlooked by art historians, partly because they are usually not high art (most of them being a bit crude in execution and, what’s perhaps worse, mass-produced), partly because not all that many of them survive. Those that do survive are mostly isolated pieces kept (but not always displayed) in museums, but in the later Middle Ages tiled pavements adorned practically every church and every cloister, every chapter house and every refectory, and, in secular settings, every hall and every chamber. Most of the tiles were, of course, purely ornamental, but quite often they would also include figurative scenes such as the famous Tristan Tiles from Chertsey Abbey, now in the British Museum.

Tiles showing scenes from the story of Tristan, c. 1260/70, British Museum, London (originally from Chertsey Abbey, Surrey). Image © Wikimedia Commons

Only very few tiled pavements from the Middle Ages survive in their entirety, but I had the good fortune to get to see one of them only last week when I was travelling in the south-west of England. This particular pavement is preserved at Cleeve Abbey (Somerset), a Cistercian monastery founded in the 12th century:

Refectory pavement, 1270s, Cleeve Abbey

Like Greyfriars’ Church in Leicester, the church of Cleeve Abbey was demolished in the wake of the English Reformation, but most of the other abbey buildings, including the dormitory and the chapter house, are still extant. While most of them date to the 13th century, the refectory range was rebuilt in the late 15th century. However, just to the south of it, the pavement of the original 13th century refectory was discovered and excavated in 1876. As you might be able to discern in the above photo, a sort of tent has now been installed to protect the pavement from wind and rain, but this is relatively recent and before that the pavement had been exposed to the elements for several decades, causing considerable deterioration…

Detail of refectory pavement, 1270s, Cleeve Abbey

It is still pretty well-preserved, though, and most importantly it still retains the original tile arrangement, something that is extremely rare in surviving medieval pavements. Presumably made in the 1270s by a Gloucestershire tilery, the refectory floor at Cleeve Abbey consists mainly of heraldic tiles, visualizing the abbey’s political affiliations and commemorating its most important lay patrons. There are the arms of the earls of Gloucester from the de Clare family…

Detail of refectory pavement, 1270s, Cleeve Abbey

… the arms of the earls of Cornwall…

Detail of refectory pavement, 1270s, Cleeve Abbey

… and, more particularly, of Richard of Cornwall (1209-1272), the double-headed eagle in his crest alluding to his heavily contested stint as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire…

Detail of refectory pavement, 1270s, Cleeve Abbey

… and then, of course, there are the three well-known English lions, presumably commemorating extensive donations made to the abbey by king Henry III:

Detail of refectory pavement, 1270s, Cleeve Abbey

But there are even more 13th century tiles to be seen at Cleeve Abbey: Another batch of them survives in the south-western corner of what was once the abbey church. These too include some heraldic tiles, but for the most part they are merely ornamental. And, as is evident in the photo below, on the whole this particular patch doesn’t look as if it preserves the original arrangement…

Fragments of tiled pavement on site of the former abbey church, c. 1250-70, Cleeve Abbey

Finally, a few more tiles from the church are on display in the small abbey museum, run by English Heritage. Most prominently among them is this pair of tiles which, according to the label in the museum, dates “from sometime between 1244 and 1272” and was designed to be laid “on the risers of steps, perhaps in the presbitery of the church”:

Floor tiles showing combat scene, c. 1250-70, Cleeve Abbey

So far, so good, but the label then goes on to say that “the design shows a legendary combat between Saladin (right) and King Richard I (left) during the Third Crusade” – and I can’t help but wonder: How do they know that? Of course, we know from written sources that the legendary combat of Richard and Saladin was a popular subject in 13th century England, especially in the decoration of royal palaces. And it also appears in the aforementioned Chertsey Tiles:

The combat of King Richard I and Saladin, c. 1250/60, London, British Museum (from Chertsey Abbey, Surrey). Image © Wikimedia Commons

However, in the tiles from Chertsey, the Christian warrior to the left is clearly wearing a crown and sporting England’s Three Lions on his shield (see detail here). Also, at Chertsey, fragments of tiles spelling out the name RICARDUS have been found, so all in all there is a solid case for identifying the combatants as Richard and Saladin (or at least for identifying one of them as Richard and deducing that his opponent has to be Saladin). Unfortunately, no such thing may be said for the pair of tiles at Cleeve: Here, there is no inscription, and while the horseman to the right may be identified as a Saracen (if only by his round shield), his Christian adversary’s shield only shows the crusaders’ cross but not the arms of England. Nothing here suggests that this figure was intended to represent King Richard, and it might be wiser therefore to simply label the scene as something generic like Combat between a Christian Knight and a Saracen.

But regardless of its precise iconography, this fragmented combat scene is a dire reminder that – no matter how amazing the surviving refectory pavement may be – a similarly or perhaps even more amazing pavement must once have adorned the floors of the abbey church…

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6 Responses to Thirteenth-Century Floor Tiles at Cleeve Abbey (and elsewhere)

  1. Etienne says:

    I agree that floor tiles and buildings are far more important than the lives of human beings – Richard III or otherwise.

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