Medieval London

Terracotta Frieze

Object report terracotta frieze.jpg

A frieze is an architectural feature that dates from classical Greece. It is a horizontal band which wraps around the upper part of a wall, often adorned with carved decorations. This fragment, discovered at the priory of St. John of Jerusalem in Clerkenwell, provides archaeologists with information about the full frieze and the buildings of the Knights Hospitaller based at Clerkenwell priory on the outskirts of the medieval city walls of London. This large fragment of the terracotta frieze measures 345mm (width) X 120mm (depth) and weighs 15kg. While the entire frieze was not discovered in the excavation, scholarly calculations estimate that it was approximately 520mm long. 

Terracotta Rendering.jpg

Reconstruction of the terracotta frieze found at the original rectory house at the priory of St. John of Jerusalem in Clerkenwell. This rendering uses calculations to show what the frieze would have looked like in its entirety.

The frieze was made out of terracotta, which provides invaluable insight into the social life of the object. Production of terracotta in the middle ages was a lengthy process that required care and skill. ‘Terracotta,’ Latin for ‘baked earth,’ is kiln fired, moulded clay which is not glazed. Due to the exceedingly high heat needed to bake the clay, the beginning of the manufacturing process required careful preparation to remove any impurities from the raw material, otherwise it would crack in the kiln. After collection, suitable clay sat and weathered during the winter months, which allowed the frost action to break it down and further purify it. This step further prevented the clay from cracking in the kiln. Once clay had been checked for impurities and weathered, it was hand-pressed into molds for decorations on the frieze, which was a time-consuming process. Once the molds were sufficiently dry, they were placed into kilns and baked at extremely high temperatures. Despite all of the precautions taken to reduce the risks, terracotta items still often broke in the kiln. As a result, extra terracottas were produced to compensate for any breakage in the kiln, thus raising both the manufacturing cost and the selling price. While there is no way to discern where the clay originated, it was likely produced in or near Clerkenwell, as this and surrounding areas are part of what geologists have nicknames the ‘London clay basin,’ due to the large quantities of blue clay there. 

The frieze itself is red-brown in color, with white and lighter spots on certain areas, which is likely a result of weathering of the object over the past five centuries. The largest fragment of the frieze to be recovered was not in perfect condition, the most notable damage being a large chip in the top corner. Evidence of the building from where the frieze is thought to have been attached suggests that at one point the frieze was likely painted red. The frieze was made from architectural terracotta with Italianate motifs such as floral designs, as this was a very popular trend during the early Tudor period. The frieze was also adorned with what appear to be hop cones, although it is difficult to definitively tell given the condition of the surviving section.. Including  hop cones on the frieze would make sense, however, because hops were first grown in England specifically in the London area during the sixteenth century, around the same time the frieze was probably constructed. 

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The handcrafted details of the frieze, such as the hop cones and floral designs, are very visible in this photograph. 

The painted and decorated aspects of the frieze display the wealth required to afford this type of architectural feature and suggest that the people who used the building were of high status. King Henry VIII popularized the use of architectural terracotta friezes in England by bringing in craftsmen from other countries to decorate lavish buildings. More than an ornate building decoration that was expensive due to manufacturing costs, the decorative frieze signified power, because of its association with the royals. Ornamentation with architectural terracotta thus signaled that the building was prestigious and important. It is thus not surprising that this type of frieze was found at the priory of St. John of Jerusalem in Clerkenwell, since the priory was home to the Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, a very prominent Catholic military order that was active during the Crusades but owned properties throughout Europe. The priory’s  buildings were used to host a variety of prominent guests, such as royalty, nobility, and high- ranking church officials. As such, the use of such ornate decor by the Hospitallers on these buildings is quite logical.

King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries disbanded the Knights of the Hospitaller at Clerkenwell in 1540. Three years after Henry VIII’s son Edward took over as king, Lord Protector Somerset took the nave and bell-tower of the priory church down with gunpowder. As a result, materials such as stone were taken and repurposed.

Building 22, original rectory house in Clerkenwell Close Area

The map of the Clerkenwell Close Area, dating from 1590 to 1683, shows the location where the frieze was excavated. Building 22 on the map (upper left corner) is the site of the original rectory house. Located very close to St. James's Church and other important buildings in the priory, it is not surprising that the terracotta frieze ended up in here. 

It is believed that the terracotta frieze was originally on the rubble of the old hospital walls of the military order but was moved into the rectory house after parts of the church were taken down. Building 22 of the excavation site, the original rectory house, is characterized as highly unusual and innovative for its time. Numerous luxurious objects were found on this site during the excavation, including the frieze, gothic arches, and effigies.

The rectory house where the frieze was found was built in the early seventeenth century, providing evidence that the frieze was relocated to the rectory after the dissolution of the priory. The use of architectural terracotta occurred over a relatively brief period in the later middle ages, and is believed to have stopped around 1530 due to its high price as well as shifting architectural tastes during the reign of Henry VIII. The frieze would have had a vibrant ‘social life’ due to its associations with the wealthy and prominent Hospitallers and citizens of medieval London. It was clearly used as an expression of elitism within society. 

--Julia Pudimott


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