Penn Tiles

Nominated by: The Committee of The Arts Society Amersham
Image copyright: Victoria and Albert Museum

Any celebration of cultural treasures in Bucks should include the craftsmen who made the medieval floor tiles, known as Penn tiles – the must-have floor covering of the 14th century.  Working in little village tileries in the Chilterns, they demonstrated the technical skills to pioneer improved manufacturing methods, the artistry to create 173 recorded patterns, and the business acumen to adjust the tiles from 11·8cm sq to 10·5cm sq increasing the quantity in a cartload.

Tiled floors were used extensively in important buildings, both ecclesiastical and secular, an improvement to earth floors. In the Chilterns there are many clay pits shown by local place names like Potter Row, Tylers Hill and Bricky Pond. Tylers Green is adjacent to Penn, where thriving tileries with as many as fifteen kilns over time, were in production in the 14th century.

The “liberty to dig clay and sand” a traditional “right of common” at Penn/Tylers Green, provided the tile-makers with a free source of their main ingredient. Water was available from the ponds and wells nearby and local coppiced wood to fire the kilns could be bought very cheaply.

The Penn tilers’ enterprise pioneered new technique. The design was imprinted into the red clay at the leather-hard stage, smeared with white clay, the whole left to bond and dry out together before glazing and firing, avoiding waste through shrinkage and cracking. The more skilled tilers could modify the colours during firing by varying the amount of oxygen or adding iron, copper or brass to the lead glaze, resulting in tiles in a range of shades of yellow, brown, green and black.

The Penn Tileries were highly successful commercially being the main purveyors of tiles to the Royal Clerks of Works 1350 -1388. Their contracts included work at Windsor Castle where, in the Aerary at St George’s Chapel, the only remaining complete floor of Penn tiles can be found. In the Subsidy Roll of 1332, Henry Tyler, Symon Pavyer and John Tyler, farmer-tilers of Penn and Taplow paid more tax than the Lord of the Manor!

The Penn Tileries were still able to maintain technical quality and output levels throughout the period of the Black Death. The designs provided customers with subjects and patterns to fit into rooms and passages of all shapes and sizes including formal fleurs-de-lys and plants and shapes which can be assembled in repeat designs, heraldic emblems, devil faces and a whole range of royal lions. On one you might see Richard the tiler’s profile, complete with woolly hood and ‘RICARD ME FECIT’ (Richard made me) round the edge, on another a crowned bust with hands raised, and on another a bounding animal, possibly a rabbit or a dog. Some show a sense of humour and bring to life the medieval tilers who made them.

Penn Tiles were nominated by Sheila Borwick, Chair of The Arts Society Amersham, with words by Liz Chalmers.