In part one of this blog, as we walked round the Cathedral, we looked at the C19th versions of medieval encaustic tiles in the quire. Even in the early C19th encaustic tile making could be a laborious job and had changed very little since the medieval period. Both medieval and early C19th encaustic tiles were made by impressing a pattern in the unfired clay tile using a carved wooden mould and the resulting indentations were filled with a liquid clay, or slip, of contrasting colour. Even a skilled worker probably only produced around 25 tiles a day using these methods.
In the early 1860s William Godwin experimented with a more mechanical form of tile production, dust-pressing, and introduced this method into his works and it is just possible this method was used to make some of the many patterned tiles required in the restoration of the Cathedral. With both methods the tiles were left to dry for up to three months, before being fired. They then were glazed with a lead glaze. In the medieval period this was made by boiling up scraps of lead and skimming off the lead oxide which formed on the surface, a method which would now probably be frowned upon with today’s health and safety rules! The tiles were refired to harden this glaze.
In this section of the ‘walk’ we are going to look at the original medieval tiles from which those in the quire were copied.
From St John’s Chapel we now continue our walk, moving into the only part of the Cathedral where medieval tiles remain in situ and all date to c1377. The treasury building, where we are, was completed in c1377, therefore the tiles must have been laid around the same time.
These rooms have always been service rooms, trodden by fewer feet than the floors of the main body of the Cathedral. Consequently, not only have the medieval tiles survived but being rooms not seen by the public there has always been less incentive to replace them. Even so, encaustic decorated tiles by their very nature are prone to damage as the impressed pattern is very shallow [only millimetres depth] and once the glaze has worn off they erode easily. As a result, foot traffic over the last few decades has obliterated many of the decorated tiles and much of what is left is now protected by carpet.
I am going to start by looking at some medieval tiles. We are in the chapter parlour and the floor is covered by a carpet to protect what remains of the tiles. I will roll it back and then you can see a worn medieval tile floor, some of the tiles have the vestiges of the pattern still remaining, other are bare or cracked, but enough survives to give a good impression of what it looked like once.
The room was at also at one time used as the carpenter’s workshop, perhaps explaining why in parts the damage and wear to the tiles here is considerable.
Not all these tiles are original to this room, although all are medieval, [perhaps serious conservation experts should stop reading now]. It seems that in 1932 Miss Matley Moore, a Cathedral volunteer, offered to varnish the tiles to preserve what survived of the decoration. Apparently the first attempt wasn’t successful as she varnished over the dirt! Sir Ivor Atkins, the then librarian, decided to start anew. He ‘devoted much time to cleaning the tiles’ and, according to a report he wrote for the Cathedral Chapter, then spent a huge amount of time scouring the Cathedral for surviving tiles of similar design and age from the backs of cupboards and other hidden places to replace the some of the worst damaged tiles. The floor was then varnished again with a shellac varnish. This, perhaps unconventional method, has at least preserved what survived and hints at how magnificent the floor would have been originally.
We will now walk through a small door in the back right-hand corner of the room and into what is known as the lay clerk’s vestry. Surprisingly, considering its size, this was also once the singing school. Unfortunately large cupboards and carpet obscure the floor, which is a great pity for us but has probably preserved the tiles.
Luckily, one Henry Shaw visited the Cathedral in the 1850s and published a painting of this floor which illustrates what we can’t see, an intricate and complicated design similar to a Persian carpet. Henry Shaw was a C19th architectural draughtsman, engraver and illustrator who published many books on various ‘antiquities’ in England, one entitled ‘Specimens of Tile Pavements’ which included the illustration of the tiled floor in the ‘Old Singing School’ now known as the lay clerk’s vestry.
From here we will retrace our steps to the stairs which will lead us to the upper floor.
On this level we are going to take it in turns to pop our heads in the head verger’s office. As you can see from this photograph from 1916, when it was being used as the music library, it has changed a lot!
The music library is now housed in the main library, which is up even more steps, and I won’t drag you up there today. [42 to be exact, but at least they are C14th!]
The tiles here in the head verger’s office are again covered for their protection, but the centre panel is the same design as in the lay clerk’s vestry except that due to the irregular shape of the room it is bordered by a simple chequerboard design separated from the central border by tiles of a single design.
Finally, to finish off this ‘virtual walk’ we are going to look at the best preserved of our tiles. To orientate yourself, we are going to move to a small gallery overlooking the chapter parlour where we started this part of the walk. At this point, if any of you are wearing stiletto heels or hobnail boots can you virtually take them off please if you want to walk on this floor.
This area is in a remarkable state of preservation and I have had the carpet lifted so you can see it. Many of the tiles are in almost original condition with very little wear and the glaze is still surviving. Measuring just under 2 metres by 3 metres, the floor is wide enough to contain a complete central panel of 4 tiles which make a complete pattern.
On one side is a border three tiles wide with a variety of different designs, on the other side is a border one tile wide made of a regular pattern of heraldic shields. Although not a substantial area, it is one of a few remaining complete medieval tile pavements in situ in the country.
Looking at this highly decorated floor I want you to think of it in the context of the medieval church. Remember that medieval churches and cathedrals were highly colourful, ceilings, walls, choir stalls and organ cases would have been richly painted. Altars and tombs were highly decorated, the walls covered in paintings and all the windows were filled with stained glass. The Cathedral would have been a riot of colour. Add to that the pageantry of the vestments, reliquaries and altar plate, and it is in this context that you should look at the floor in front of you and I hope that it gives you an indication of the full impact that a vast area such as the Cathedral floor would have made in the medieval period.
Barker, Philip and Romain, Christopher, Worcester Cathedral. A Short History, Logaston Press in association with Chris Romain Architecture, Almeley 2001
Byng, Hon John; Andrews C.B., The Torrington Diaries; a selection of the tours of Hon. John Byng, Eyre & Spottiswoode London, 1954
Clarke H B, Excavations at Worcester Cathedral 1970-71, in Transactions of the Worcestershire Archaeological Society, s.3, Vol 7, 1980, p 134
Engel, Ute, Worcester Cathedral: An Architectural History, London, 2007
Greene, Betty The Godwins of Lugwardine, and the Other Hereford Tile Makers, Industrial Archaeology Review, v5:3, 241-252, (1981).
Holywell Glass, http://www.holywellglass.com/worcester-cathedral-repairs-to-the-great-west-window, accessed 11/09/2022
Howrie Anne, ‘The Floor Tiles of Worcester Cathedral – Ancient and Modern’ in Christopher Guy (ed.), Archaeology at Worcester Cathedral report of the Fifteenth Annual Symposium March 2005, Worcester 2006.
Keen Laurence, ‘The medieval decorated tile pavements at Worcester’ Trans. Bristol & Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 133 (2015), 131–140.
Noake, John, The Monastery and Cathedral of Worcester, Longman, 1886
Shaw, Henry. Specimens of Tile Pavements: Drawn from Existing Authorities. BM Pickering, 1858.
The Restoration of Worcester Cathedral in the Eighteenth Century, Worcester Cathedral Library and Archive Blog (wordpress.com) accessed 11/09/2022
Thomas, W, Survey of Worcester Cathedral, 1736
 WCM/A398(iv). Cathedral Library Report
 Shaw, Henry. Specimens of Tile Pavements: Drawn from Existing Authorities. BM Pickering, 1858.
One thought on “A Walk over the Floors of Time: The Floor Tiles of Worcester Cathedral [Part Two]”
Extremely interesting as usual
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