THE MYSTERY OF THE TRING TILES
Reproduced by kind permission of the author
Top: Jesus blesses the company at a family feast.
Above: Lion cubs with Jesus. Mary and Joseph stand behind Him.
Jesus says: "These beasts know me: but men know me not."
IN a Special Wall
cabinet in the Medieval Galleries of the British Museum there is a
set of ceramic tiles unique in this country. They were
discovered during the late Victorian restoration of Tring Parish
Church and were immediately spirited away by persons unknown to pass
through many hands before achieving their final, and deserved,
The tiles are so important that one was chosen as the cover
illustration for a book published by the British Museum — English
Medieval Tiles by Elizabeth Eames. They date from the 14th
century and were made using a technique known as sgraffito,
even at the time an expensive hand-worked process. The brown
tile was coated with white slip: the decoration was incised with
lines: the slip was removed delicately from the background using a
small gouge: and a yellow design remained, separated from the
surface colour. Although known in France, no other tiles using
this type of decoration have ever been found in Britain, and it is a
mystery why they should have been used at Tring. Tiles
decorated in a similar, though not identical, technique are to be
found in Prior Crauden's Chapel (built between 1321 and 1341) at Ely
Their Condition is very good, and it is thought that the
tiles were used not on the floor but sited on the walls of the
chancel. They were covered by some drastic alterations in the
first quarter of the 18th century when the church was 'wainscoted
and beautified in a most elegant manner' by the then owner of Tring
Park estate, William Gore. As in everything, fashions in
church architecture change, and these 18th century 'improvements'
were stripped out in the early 1880s.
The tiles were then removed and offered for sale at a
Curiosity Shop in the town. Here they were purchased for a few
shillings by Reverend Owen, rector of a nearby parish. He
asked the owner of the shop several times how he acquired the tiles,
but the man would never say. Reverend Owen later moved to
Essex and when his son died in 1922, the contents of Bramwell
Rectory were dispersed in a sale of household effects. An
antiques dealer from Chelmsford bought the tiles for £17 and then
offered them for auction at Sothebys. They were acquired by
the British Museum for £1,420, ensuring a staggering profit for the
Two more were presented by a Tring resident to the Victoria &
Albert Museum in 1927. After the restorations and at intervals
over the years, some Tring residents owning large properties,
reported finding fragments of medieval tiles during the demolition
of garden walls and paths. All stated the tiles appeared
unworn, bearing out the theory that they could have been used as a
frieze rather than on the floor. A frieze of this type can he
seen on a screen in the Malvern Priory Church.
The tiles carry attractive, and to modern eyes, humorous
designs of scenes from the childhood of Jesus taken from Apocryphal
Gospels* popular in the 14th century. The pictures are similar
to illustrations in a French manuscript now in the Bodleian Library,
but are not direct copies of them. Some depict the young
Christ performing miraculous acts, but others are simply bizarre,
such as 'Children shut in an oven to stop them playing with Jesus'.
One superb double tile depicts Him blessing a family feast.
Four years ago Tring Local History Society took the decision
to commission a specialist potter, Chris Cox of Ironbridge, to copy
the design and to make a complete set of the tiles. It is
intended these should be displayed for all to see in their original
home of St. Peter & St. Paul's Church at Tring.
More research into the origins of the tiles needs to be done,
for the mystery is still far from solved. But it is quite
possible that we may never know who made the tiles, how they came to
England; why they were placed in Tring Church; and who actually
everyday conversation "apocryphal" refers to a story of doubtful
authenticity, but one that is nevertheless told frequently, perhaps
believed widely. The New Testament apocrypha are books
neither Catholic nor Protestant faiths, although artists and
theologians have used them as sources of information and ideas.
They include several surviving "Infancy Gospels", literature created
in the early Christian church to satisfy the need for details about
the childhood life of Jesus. For example, the Infancy Gospel of
Thomas — he of "Doubting Thomas" fame — describes the doings of
Jesus during his boyhood, no record of which exists in the canonical
gospels. According to Thomas, Jesus proved to be
an infant prodigy at school, instructing his teachers in the
unsuspected mysteries of the alphabet and astonishing his family and
friends by the miracles that he performed. Scenes such as
these are depicted in the Tring Tiles.
further illustrations please see the
Victoria and Albert Museum.