Decorated clay floor tiles were in use as early as the 10th century, but the chief period of their popularity came between the 13th and 16th centuries. Tiles were made for monastic and ecclesiastical buildings and would also have been seen in the residences of royalty and of the more prosperous members of the community in both town and country. Surviving examples are often found at monastic sites and in parish churches.
A number of decorated medieval tiles can be seen on the floor of the south aisle chapel of Frampton church and a panel, made up from several types of tile dug up on Revesby Abbey site, is in Revesby church tower.
Although a number of tiled pavements are known from sites of merchants' dwellings and rural manor houses such as the Mowbray Manor House, Epworth, tiles from domestic premises are not found so frequently, probably because they are more likely to have been turned out when they became unfashionable.
Individual tiles and fragments are still being discovered. The examples illustrated show some which have been found in the region.
The manufacture of brick and tile was well established in the county by the early 14th century and kilns are known at Boston and Mareham le Fen. Any such kiln could have produced floor tiles but for tiles using more than one colour clay, more sophisticated techniques were required than for roof tiles. Decorated tiles were made at fewer centres but were more widely marketed. At Toynton All Saints, near Spilsby, the medieval potters also turned their hands to making decorated tiles, but as yet no other production centre has been discovered in Lincolnshire.
In this clay-rich county it is likely that brick and tile kilns existed in almost every parish at some time. Evidence can often be found in the records of field names like 'Tilekiln Field' and 'Brickclamp Close', though these may be hard to date. Many medieval religious houses produced their own tiles and the rejects (known as 'wasters') from the kiln are often ploughed up. Such Lincolnshire sites include Sixhills Priory and Swineshead Abbey. At Haverholme Priory, near Sleaford, the tilery output included ridge tiles with elaborately cut crests and animal heads, some of which are on display in the British Museum.
Most local clays contain iron minerals which fire red in normal conditions and these were used for the basic tile. Decoration on inlaid tiles was done using a clay that was white when fired. The tiles were covered with a lead glaze which made the red darken to a reddish brown and turned the white to pale yellow although it is usual to describe these as simply 'red' and 'white'. Other colours were obtained by adding copper to the glaze which gave a dark green or black on red earthenware and a light green on the white clays.
In the 13th century small plain tiles were used to make up floor mosaic patterns. Tiles were first formed several in a block, rather like a chocolate bar, to be broken up after firing. Geometric shapes were made and variety was added by changing the surface colour.
Reconstruction of sixteen
The most widely used decorative technique was that of inlay (described by early writers as 'encaustic'). The design was stamped onto a plain, red, unfired tile, four to six inches (10-15cms) square, leaving an impression about 3mm deep which was filled with white clay, probably in the form of a 'slip' (a mixture of clay and water). The upper surface was covered with lead glaze and the tile fired. Examples of designs common to several East Midlands kilns have been discovered in Lincolnshire. Inlaid tiles have also been found at Lincoln, Hagnaby and Epworth.
Sometimes a similar effect was achieved by printing the design with white slip onto the tile - a means of economising on the relatively scarce white clay. However, this was less successful, as the very thin slip was easily smudged or wiped away.
The other major group of decorated floor tiles is that of relief or 'embossed' tiles which have an impressed design in relief or counter-relief. Some examples may have an overall slip coating. Tiles made in the 1370s at Bawsey near King's Lynn in Norfolk fall into this group; they are known from many parts of south Lincolnshire, including monastic sites at Crowland, Spalding and Boston, and in Frampton church.
A few examples of large relief tiles with distinctive characteristics have been found in the Swineshead/Boston area, and it is possible that they were actually being manufactured near Swineshead Abbey in the 14th century.
Large relief tile from Swineshead