THE TRING TILES
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THE MYSTERY OF THE TRING TILES

WENDY AUSTIN
Reproduced by kind permission of the author.



Above: Jesus blesses the company at a family feast.
Below: 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, august home.

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 Cathedral.

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 a 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 dealer.

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.  As 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 [footnote] 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.

Some 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 was 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 removed them.


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FOOTNOTE


In everyday conversation “apocryphal” refers to a story of doubtful authenticity, but one that is nevertheless told frequently, perhaps even believed widely.  The New Testament apocrypha are books accepted by 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.


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OTHER LOCAL HISTORY TITLES
relating to TRING
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