Chertsey tiles

Type: Tiles, Pavements
Date: mid-thirteenth century
Location or Findspot (Modern-Day Country): England
Medium: Earthenware
Dimensions: Richard "the Lionheart" tile, W 25.6 cm
Description: Most of these glazed earthenware floor tiles were discovered in the ruined Benedictine abbey at Chertsey, which was founded in the seventh century, rebuilt in the thirteenth, and abandoned after King Henry VIII dissolved the English monasteries. The mid-thirteenth-century tiles, some of which paved the monks' chapter house, are distinguished by their figural imagery. Several roundels—each composed of four quarter-tiles—depict the encounter of the English king Richard I, known as "the Lionheart" (d. 1199), confronting his adversary Salah al-Din (d. 1193). The two did meet during the Third Crusade, but despite the tiles' implication, the English king did not kill the Ayyubid ruler. Richard carries a heraldic shield and wears armor typical of the first half of the thirteenth century. The medallion format and much of the imagery seems to derive from portable Byzantine and Islamicate works, perhaps acquired by an English ruler who went or hoped to go to the Holy Land.

Other roundels (not divided into quarters) narrate the story of Tristan and Isolde, focusing on the heroic exploits of Tristan. Four other tiles combine to depict a crowned female figure (a queen?) in a Gothic architectural setting, and several tiles depict the labors associated with different months of the year. Others have figural, animal, vegetal, or geometric designs. There are also many tiles with letters, suggesting that Latin inscriptions accompanied the imagery.

The tiles were made by stamping the red clay in a mold and filling in the design with white clay. The amount of oxygen in the kiln during each batch of firing affected the final colors. Scholars agree that these tiles, with their secular imagery, were not made for Chertsey Abbey originally but, rather, for a palace, probably the royal palace at Westminster (London).
Relevant Textbook Chapter(s): 8, 9
Image Credits: © The Trustees of the British Museum; Wikimedia Commons

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