Three centuries of fashion and design can be seen in a collection of decorated floor tiles found during building works at Raglan Castle in 1947.
In 1549 William Somerset (1526-1589) succeeded to his father's position as third Earl of Worcester and owner of Raglan Castle. From this base in south-east Wales he launched a career that was to see him thrive at the courts of Edward VI (1547-53), Mary (1553-58) and then Elizabeth I (1558-1603). He is buried in Raglan parish church.
Such a prominent figure lived a lifestyle that suited his high social standing, and we can see this aspiration in the extensive remodelling that he undertook of the fortress-mansion he had inherited.
He set about an extensive programme of modernisation that affected all parts of the castle and its grounds: the hall and accommodation were improved, kitchen and service areas upgraded, a long gallery was introduced and gardens created in Renaissance style.
The Castle's furnishings were also updated with items that reflected contemporary European fashion. This is illustrated in the chapel at Raglan.
The chapel at Raglan dates from at least the 13th century. It had a floor of thick red earthenware tiles with decoration inlaid into its surface using a contrasting colour. Such two-colour tiles often had designs of shields and monograms, over which a clear glaze would be fired. These tiles were the height of fashion in the mid-14th century.
About 1460, these tiles were replaced with two-colour tiles of bright yellows and golden browns. This must have provided a rich backcloth for the treasures of the chapel.
However, these designs were not to the taste of Earl William. He preferred the fashionable products of the Spanish Netherlands, and used his considerable wealth to purchase tin-glazed earthenware tiles painted in a polychrome style that was popular in the Renaissance period.
The result was a dramatic transformation of the chapel, lightening its interior and adding delicacy to its decoration.
Sadly, the abandonment of Raglan in the wake of the English Civil War has left few traces of the other changes that Earl William made to the interior furnishings of his castle. We are left instead to speculate on the luxury he must have brought to it, and to reflect on the transient nature of that wealth, surviving as it does in a small collection of painted floor tiles and a handful of other items.
Guide to the Tiles
- Late 13th- to early 14th-century tile of the Wessex School from the chapel at Raglan. It shows two birds feeding from a central tree. Tiles with this design were also used at nearby Tintern Abbey and White Castle.
- 15th-century Malvern-school tile used at Raglan. The Latin text reads 'May the peace of Christ be amongst us always. Amen'.
- 16th-century maiolica tile from the chapel floor laid by Earl William, probably before 1572. These tiles were probably imported from the Spanish Netherlands, perhaps Antwerp, where maiolica production had been established in the early 16th century.
Raglan Castle by J. R. Kenyon. Cadw (2003).
'The chapel at Raglan Castle and its paving tiles' by J. M. Lewis. In Castles in Wales and the Marches by J. R. Kenyon and R. Avent, pp.143-60. University of Wales Press (1987).
The medieval tiles of Wales by J. M. Lewis. Amgueddfa Cymru (1999).