Medieval London

Stove Tile from Abbey

Found at the excavation site of St. Mary Graces, this stove tile was once part of a large, decorative tile-stove that furnished the private rooms of the abbot in the first quarter of the sixteenth century (fig. 1).

Stove Tile.jpg

Fig. 1: c. 1500-1525 ceramic stove tile from the Abbey of St. Mary Graces, London, with a radial, circular design.

The stove tile is approximately 100 mm in diameter and in the form of a rosette. With a round hole in the center, twelve petal-like recesses radiate out from the center in alternating shades of yellow and reddish-brown. The tin glazing and relief molding indicate that this tile was decorative in nature and was likely located on the upper part of the stove.[1] While mostly intact, the stove tile features damage on its right side, with half of one recess broken off and missing. Additionally, there are two notable cracks in the tile: one crack runs from the base of the missing recess down and left, ending three petals to the left, and the other runs down the exact center of the tile. 

Originally manufactured in West Germany or the Low Countries, the stove tile from St. Mary Graces was part of a larger technological innovation of the fifteenth century. Rather than adding tiles to the interior of the stove, the walls of the stove itself were replaced with an interlocking layer composed entirely of stove tiles, resulting in greatly improved heat distribution.[2] The polychrome tin glazing found on this rosette tile was first developed near the end of the fifteenth century, close to the manufacturing date range of the stove tile.[3]

Winter - tile stove.jpg

Fig. 2: A 1531 painting of a winter festival in January celebrated by a wealthy, German household, featured a tile-stove on the left. Painting by Jorg Breu the Elder.

The technological advances in the manufacture of tile-stoves changed how heating was utilized by the elite. A stoking room was used to heat the tile-stove, and the smoke created by the heating process was directly vented out of the stoking room. The tile-stove became the face of the interior’s heating system, and often these tiles-stoves would be embellished with decorative tiles, like the rosette piece (fig. 2). Tile-stoves were often prominently featured to illustrate wealth and status, while their iconography could display the beliefs and identity of the owner. The tile-stove innovations of the fourteenth century thus produced a new and improved heating system that also provided a socially distinctive material display for its wealthy owners.[4]

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Fig. 3: A reconstruction of the tile-stove at St. Mary Graces based on excavated stove tiles, c. 1500-1525.

After manufacture, the rosette piece made its way to London, where it was incorporated into a tile-stove commissioned for the Abbey of St. Mary Graces (fig. 3). St. Mary Graces was a Cistercian Abbey located next to the Tower of London, just outside the walls (fig. 4). The site was originally granted in 1350, but construction was not completed until 1390. Unlike other Cisterian houses, the Abbey of St. Mary Graces was settled in an urban location, and documentary evidence from its Dissolution in 1539 indicates that St. Mary Graces was the third most wealthy Cistercian Abbey in England.[5] The commissioner of the tile-stove is unknown, but was probably one of the last Abbots of St Mary Graces. For three to five years following the Dissolution, the Abbey was controlled by Christopher Morice, a master gunner and later diplomat who travelled widely in the Low Countries, where many of these tile-stoves were made. [6]


Fig. 4: Map of South London, c. 1520, featuring the Thames River on the bottom left, the Tower in the center, and the Abbey of St. Mary Graces on the far right, outside of the walls.

The rosette piece, and other stove tiles recovered from the St. Mary Graces site, also reflect how London institutions like St Mary Craces tapped into the extensive trade routes and the manufacturing power of the Continent. In the first half of the sixteenth century, tile-stoves were limited to the aristocracy and religious institutions, as these stoves were expensive and in high demand in the Low Countries and Germany. The tile-stove at St. Mary Graces thus represented cutting-edge fashion, so their importation to London reflects the city's consumer demand for fine goods from abroad. [7]

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Fig. 5: An excavation site map detailing the locations of the recovered stove tiles from St. Mary Graces.

Because of the different kinds of tin and lead glazes found on the tile fragments at the St. Mary Graces archaeological site, the imported rosette piece was either incorporated into one of two tile-stoves of differing glaze types, or one composite tile-stove. In either case, the stove containing the rosette piece was used very little or not at all before its deconstruction, as there is little soot left behind on other tiles found at the site.[8] Archaeological excavations of the Abbey at the Royal Mint site in the 1980s uncovered stove tiles of varying types, which were widely distributed across the archaeological site.[9] The majority of these stove tiles were found in rooms 10 and 11, a cache within a layer dated to the second half of the sixteenth century, so the stove was likely dismantled after Dissolution (fig. 5). Many of the Abbey’s buildings were acquired by Sir Arthur Darcy and their contents stripped away and destroyed; the tile-stove was likely part of this post-Dissolution purge. The Crown later took back the Abbey, converting the land and some of the buildings into the Royal Navy’s Victualling Yard.[10] The stove may not have even been complete before the Dissolution of the Abbey, and the rosette piece may have not been able to fulfill its original purpose.[11]

Although the stove tile may not have been able to complete its original function, it remains as a testament to the technological advancements of the late-medieval period. After being dismantled, this rosette piece sat, largely undisturbed, in a layer of soil for centuries. Above it, the site transitioned from a private residence to a victualling yard to the Royal Mint. The rosette piece was eventually discovered in the Royal Mint excavation in the 1980s when archaeologists were investigating the Black Death cemetery located on the grounds of the Abbey of St. Mary Graces. The rosette piece was examined, cataloged, and put on display by the Museum of London to continue its journey.[12]  

 --Dianna Smith

1 Gaimster, Goffin, and Blackmore, “Continental Stove Tile Fragments,” 25.

2 Langhe, “Heating the House,” 292.

3 Gaimster, Goffin, and Blackmore, “Continental Stove Tile Fragments,” 30.

4 Langhe, “Heating the House,” 292.

5 Grainger and Phillpotts, The Cistercian Abbey of St. Mary Grace, 2.

6 Gaimster, Goffin, and Blackmore, “Continental Stove Tile Fragments,” 36.

7 Gaimster, Goffin, and Blackmore, “Continental Stove Tile Fragments,” 36

8 Gaimster, Goffin, and Blackmore, “Continental Stove Tile Fragments,” 35

9 Grainger and Phillpotts, The Cistercian Abbey of St. Mary Graces, 2

10 Mills, “Royal Mint,” 69-72

11 Gaimster, Goffin, and Blackmore, “Continental Stove Tile Fragments,”  35.

12 Grainger and Hawkins, “Excavations,” 429-431

Works Cited

Breu, Jorg the Elder. Augsburg Seasonal Riches. January, February, March, 1531. Berlin, Deutsches Historisches Museum.

Gaimster, David R. M, Richenda Goffin, and Lyn Blackmore. “The Continental Stove-Tile Fragments from St. Mary Graces, London, in Their British and European Context.” Post-Medieval Archaeology 24 (1990): 1-49.

Grainger, Ian, and Christopher Phillpotts. The Cistercian Abbey of St Mary Graces, East Smithfield. London, Museum of London Archaeology, 2011.

Grainger, Ian, and Duncan Hawkins. “Excavations at the Royal Mint Site 1986-1988.” London Archaeologist, 5:16 (1988):429-436.

Langhe, Kaatje de, et al. “Heating the House. An Archaeological and Archaeometrical Investigation into the Tile-Stoves of Late-Medieval Flanders, Belgium (14–17th Centuries).” Post-Medieval Archaeology, 49:2 (2015): 291–312.

Mills, Peter. “The Royal Mint: First Results.” London Archaeologist, 5 (1985): 69-77. 

“Stove Tile.” Museum of London Collections Online., accessed Oct. 17, 2020.

"City of London c. 1520 Map 4 South Sheet," British Historic Towns Atlas., accessed  Nov. 20, 2020.

Stove Tile from Abbey
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