Chertsey Abbey Re-imagined
“Of that noble and splendid pile, which took up four acres of ground and looked like a small town, nothing remains, scarcely a little of the outer wall of the precincts. I left the ruins of this place, which had been consecrated to religion ever since the year 666, with a sigh for the loss of so much national magnificence and national history." Dr. Stukeley, 1752
It is hard to imagine, as one looks across Abbeyfields today, that Chertsey Abbey was one of the greatest religious houses in the country, ranking alongside those of Reading, Glastonbury and Bury St. Edmunds. Such has been its utter destruction. However, archaeological evidence and surviving documents enable us to once again see Chertsey Abbey re-imagined.
The Abbey was founded in 666 on marshy land secured by Erkenwald, a prince from Stallingborough, Lincolnshire, said to be related to Offa, King of East Anglia. It is not recorded why he chose Chertsey for his new Benedictine house, dedicated to St. Peter, but modern excavations uncovered Roman tiles so perhaps the site had previously been occupied. It is recorded that Erkenwald selected the site himself and was gifted land by various Saxons kings, including Frithwald, alderman of Surrey and viceroy of Wulfhere, King of Mercia. The site, comprising of five hides of land, was a raised gravel outcrop surrounded by marshes known as Cerotaesei or the Isle of Cerot, which was cleared, ploughed and sowed by Erkenwald and his monks. Within ten years Chertsey Abbey had grown to include all of the administrative area known as the Godley Hundred. Erkenwald was abbot for nine years before leaving to become Bishop of London, but in that time he not only established the abbey’s buildings but also the moral tone of this important religious institution which would grow to become the fifth largest monastery in the country, with land covering 50,000 acres.
Until the beginning of English written law in the mid 11th century, little is recorded of Chertsey Abbey. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, compiled in the 9th century, only mention it three times and later sources present a confusing narrative. The first reference to Chertsey in the Chronicle is the replacing of secular priests with 13 monks from Abingdon in 964, but no mention is made of the reason they were required. From the late 8th to the 10th century England was regularly subjected to raids by the Danes, a Germanic tribe from south Scandinavia. In 871 Vikings, from the word vikingr meaning raider or explorer, attacked Reading before making their way along the Thames to London at the end of the year. Setting off from Staines across the fields they sacked Chertsey Abbey, setting fire to the buildings and stealing valuables. It is said that Abbot Beocca, Presbyter Ethor and 90 monks were murdered, however, it is unclear whether the deaths all occurred in the 871 raid, or whether the number is a total from three attacks on the abbey . After the initial raid Chertsey Abbey was rebuilt and its land confirmed in a Charter of 889, although some sources presumed that the abbey remained unoccupied until repopulated by Abbot Ordbryht and his Oxfordshire brethren. By the mid 10th century Chertsey was again well established with additional land including Epsom, Bookham, Cheam, Chaldon, Gatton, Merstham, Tooting and Streatham.
With virtually nothing of Chertsey Abbey remaining, and only two images of the Abbey Church in existence, it is difficult to imagine just how imposing it would have been. Despite its total destruction there is sufficient archaeological evidence and comparative buildings to piece together the layout and appearance of the abbey complex.
The original Chertsey Abbey was relatively primitive, with wattle and daub walls and a roof of thatched reeds. Initial buildings consisted of a chapel, a dwelling for abbot and monks, another for travellers, a refectory and kitchen all arranged around a grassy courtyard and protected by a rampart. Outside of the abbey precinct stood a cow shed, a barn and a grain store. There is no record of what these building were replaced with after the Viking raid of 871, but diocesan records state that by 959 the Abbey Church was greatly in need of repairs and the work was carried out under the orders of Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester. Little is recorded about the fabric of the abbey until 1110 when the Anglo Saxon Chronicle record “this year men began first to work at the new minster at Chertsey”.
The new minster was built in stone, and in keeping with Norman architecture of the time, was an imposing structure. It would have stood in what are now the grounds of Abbey Lodge, Abbey Walls and The Close. The cruciform shaped Church measured 290ft in length (88m), essentially running the whole length of Abbey Gardens. It spanned 132ft (40m) from north to south transept and had a nave that was 74ft (22.5m) wide. The Lady Chapel, once the burial place of Henry VI, lay to the south side of the church where the cloister would normally be found, whilst the cloister was positioned on the north side, where Abbey Lodge house now sits. The layout of buildings within a Benedictine monastery followed a set plan, one building in relation to another. This might be a clue to the reason for the anomaly of the cloister, as beyond it were the domestic buildings. One theory is that the cloister was inverted to make it easier to service the kitchens and outbuildings with water from the Abbey River. Alternatively, this change might have been needed to take into account existing buildings such as Beomonds Manor House which stood at the top of Church Walk.
Each monastery was defined by its precinct, determined by walls and ditches such as those which still surround Abbeyfields. Within the precinct were the abbey’s buildings. The more important structures, such as the Church and Chapter House, were made from white sarsen stone (sometimes called Bagshot Heath stone), whilst lesser buildings made use of greensand stone quarried from the area north of Reigate. Other buildings, outhouses and barns contained a conglomerate known as pudding stone. The remaining walls, at the top of Colonel’s Lane are part of outbuildings. This is the area where the dormitories, kitchens, dining hall, storerooms, washrooms and toilets, infirmary, warming house and perhaps even a brewery, bakery and laundry were situated. However, the abbey stretched far beyond the precinct; vines grew on terraces cut into the Iron Age hillfort of St. Ann’s Hill; nearby fields housed bees kept for their honey, making mead as well as for wax. Beyond the domestic buildings lay the Abbey River, reputedly dug or at least widened by the monks to feed their mill, with fields for grazing livestock on the north side of the stream.
Detailed records of this vast complex are rather scarce, not helped by the abbey suffering at least two significant fires, one in 1235 and another in 1381 when, as a part of the Peasants’ Revolt, records were deliberately destroyed by unhappy residents of Egham. It was during the rebuilding of the abbey after the 1235 fire that the decorative tile pavement was most likely laid. There is a period of Chertsey Abbey’s history that is remarkably well documented, thanks to one abbot who wrote prolifically about his daily life. The Acts of John de Rutherwyk (1307-1346), now preserved in the British Museum, detail the improvements he introduced. In 1308 he ordered the creation of seven stewponds or fishponds, three of which still survive and can be seen on Abbeyfields. He was also responsible for adding the precinct walls around the main buildings, and for installing the moat around the vegetable gardens to save them from flooding. He had drains installed, wells dug, built roads, built a bridge across the River Bourne at Steventon where Chertsey Library now stands, and repaired local churches.
Life in the Abbey
Christianity first came to Britain in AD597 when Augustine, as a missionary from Pope Gregory the Great, landed in Kent. He brought with him the Benedictine Rule and with it, the template for monastic life.
Benedict of Nursea lived in Italy c.480-553 who, as legend has it, went to Rome as a young man to study. He found life there void of morals and left the capital to remove himself from its corrupting influences. In a mountainous area just east of Rome he met a monk who, on giving him a habit, advised him to become a hermit. Benedict spent the next three years in solitude, during which time his holy life began to attract followers. In 529 Benedict founded the great monastery at Monte Cassino, which is where he set out his ideals on how to live a spiritual life, and how to run a monastery. His religious Rule became one of the most influential in Western Christendom, and was followed by the monks at Chertsey Abbey.
The Benedictine Rule stated that followers must live a simple life, in peace with each other in a community or family, with the abbot as father and the monks as brothers. St. Benedict organised the monastic day into regular periods of prayer, both together and privately, sleep, spiritual reading, and manual labour – to the glory of God. Much of the day was devoted to prayer, starting at midnight with the service of Matins, followed by Lauds at 3am after which the monks would be able to return to their dormitories for a few hours sleep. At 6am they would rise once more for the service of Prime before gathering in the Chapter House to receive their daily instructions. Depending on the tasks allocated, they would undertake spiritual reading, work around the monastery, or spend their time in private prayer and being summoned, by the tolling of the Abbey bell at 9am, back to the Church for Terce and High Mass. After a communal meal, at midday a further service, Sext, was held, after which the monks enjoyed recreational time together before resting until 3pm. At that time the monks were called back to church for None, followed by further chores around the site until Vespers at 6pm and the final daily prayer of Compline at 9pm. It was only then that the monks could retire for the day, only to start again in three hours time.
The simple life of the monks at Chertsey would have been the same as any monk in a Benedictine monastery, anywhere across the world. They would dress identically, having been issued two coats, two cowls, a table book, a knife, a needle, and a handkerchief. Their cincture, or belt, was knotted in three places to remind them of the vows they had taken of poverty, chastity and obedience. Monks lived in humble dwellings, with just a mat, blanket, rug and pillow in their communal dormitories, and they would sleep in their clothes. The Abbot was in charge of discipline, punishing lesser faults with exclusion from meals, barring brothers from taking Communion for greater misdemeanours, and even expulsion for serious crimes.
Benedictine monasteries were self-sufficient organisations, as the Rule stated they should shun the outside world. As a result, Chertsey Abbey would have been an industrious place with the bricked up doorway opposite Abbey Farm Barn, Colonel’s Lane, leading the monks from the main Church buildings to domestic outbuildings. Each brother was required to take their turn providing meals, maintaining buildings, seeing to the land and livestock, and helping the poor and the sick. Originally the Benedictine Rule stated that monks could not eat meat from 4-legged animals, although this rule was later relaxed. Their diet would have consisted of goose, pigeon, chicken, swan and also blackbird. Later salted or pickled pork and rabbit became staple fare. Cows were kept for milk and cheese and eggs were eaten, but all these delicacies would have been the menu of feast days. The main diet of a monk would have been fish, bread and a thick vegetable soup or pottage. Most of the produce eaten had to be grown by the monks themselves, and the open space which is now Abbeyfields would have been covered in vegetable patches and fruit trees. Other produce would have been given to the abbey in form of tithes, for example Byfleet was required to give Chertsey Abbey 325 eels per year, Chobham 150 hogs, whilst Egham annually provided 50 fat hogs and 24 lean hogs.
The Chertsey monks would have spent between three and six hours each day on daily chores around the site, depending on the time of year. Some would have worked in the Scriptorium, reproducing religious text, copying legal documents and recording House rulings in vast ledgers, like the Chertsey Cartulary, or if a novice, drawing lines on vellum to ensure the neatest of calligraphy. Others would have worked in the forge and mill, situated on the Abbey River in the area now called Abbey Chase, where two watermills stood – one grinding grain for use at the Abbey, the other for the town – or tended to the animals grazing in the field on the opposite river bank.
Some monks had specific roles which required them to interact with the town outside the monastery precinct. The main entrance to the abbey grounds stood in Abbey Green, where Church Walk meets Abbey Gardens, and it was here that the gatekeeper had lodgings. The role of gatekeeper was to act as the first point of contact between the religious House and the town of Chertsey. It had been a hereditary post, held by the de Thorpe family for several generations, but during the abbacy of John de Rutherwyk the terms and conditions were altered as part of cost-cutting measures. By the mid 14th century it was no longer hereditary, and the gatekeeper, Richard de Thorpe, was removed from the dwelling he had inherited with the position, and instead given a single room in the almonry nearby. It was the Almoner’s job to distribute tithes of food to the poor of Chertsey, or to give alms; a vital part of the Benedictine Rule. Also in this area of the Abbey was the Porter’s Lodge, where poor travellers could claim up to two nights food and lodging. Visitors to Chertsey Abbey would have been an everyday occurrence – tenant farmers paying their dues, those appealing at the Abbey Court, dignitaries on their way to London, and from 1471, pilgrims wishing to pray at the burial site of holy King Henry VI. Those who could afford a better class of accommodation would have stayed in the abbey guesthouse, or in one of the increasing numbers of hostelries and taverns which were springing up in Chertsey to meet the demand. However, if the visitor was nobility or royalty, then they would stay with the Abbot himself.
Chertsey Abbey was of such importance that it was frequently visited by the King, throughout its history. King John was a regular visitor and would have been familiar with Abbot Adam who was there at Runnymede to witness the sealing of Magna Carta in June 1215. John’s son and successor, Henry III, held court at Chertsey Abbey in 1217 to discuss the safe conduct for the King of France’s Council who would be visiting England. It was also at Chertsey that he issued the order to the County Sheriff that Magna Carta, which he had confirmed, should be publicly read throughout Surrey. Edward III also visited regularly, and whilst fighting the French Wars Queen Philippa representing him, presided at the Chertsey Court in 1340 and 1341. And whilst Henry VIII might be known as the destroyer of Chertsey Abbey, he was very fond of it and spent his summer holidays there.
Little is known about the town of Chertsey before the arrival of the Abbey in 666AD. Archaeological evidence points to it having been previously occupied by Mesolithic hunter gatherers, followed by Bronze Age farmers and Iron Age inhabitants who lived on St. Ann’s Hill. The name Chertsey probably derives from this time as a derivation of Certeseig, a Celtic word meaning the island of Cerotus. Who this Celtic man was, we do not know.
The local area, immediately prior to the founding of the abbey, was scarcely populated, but this marshy open space was soon to be dominated by the towering buildings of the first monastery to be built in Surrey. As it does today, the main centre of the town was focused on the junction of Windsor Street, known as High Street until the late 18th century, London Street and Guildford Street. However, unlike today, Guildford Street continued across the junction taking travellers to the ferry at Laleham.
In 1086 at the time of Domesday, Britain’s oldest public record, Chertsey was referred to as a village, with 40 villagers, 24 smallholders and 1 smith. At this point, Chertsey was significantly smaller than neighbouring Egham which had 57 households. However, by the time of its first market charter in 1135 Chertsey had grown to the size of a town. It seems that its growth was unplanned, given the irregular nature of the field plots, but by 1300 it was a town sufficiently large to require its own church. St. Peter’s Church only acquired that name after the Dissolution. Originally named All Saints, it is likely it started life as a chapel marking the entrance to the Abbey – which was common-place.
Whilst little of the medieval town remains, knowledge of some of its key buildings helps to create a picture of what Chertsey looked like in the 14th to 16th centuries. At the top of Church Walk was, until 1814, a medieval tithe barn. The site of Manor Farm Barn is part of the medieval Manor of Beomonds with a farmhouse, most likely the “hall” listed in Domesday. This manor was acquired for the Abbey in the 14th century with Abbot Rutherwyk taking over when the de Chertsey family moved to Essex. The farmhouse remained there until its demolition in 1828. The barn, which still stands, was built on the orders of Henry VIII in 1538 as a place to stable the horses of Thomas Weldon, Clerk of the King’s Household whilst he oversaw the dismantling of the Abbey to provide stone for Oatlands Palace. The row of cottages also date to the 16th century, whilst the town’s other medieval barn at Abbey Farm dates partly to the 15th century and partly to the 16th when it was rebuilt using abbey stone.
Another medieval manor house, now long since disappeared, once stood on the land opposite Abbeyfields, in Windsor Street. The property, belonging to Sir Richard Berners, was described as being in a ruinous state in the 18th century, and it was finally demolished in 1818. Further along into town, a Market House stood in the middle of the street between the Crown and the corner of Guildford Street. It was probably built between 1350 and 1430, although it was not still standing when the 1599 Market Charter was issued as that states that a new Market House should be built. This was a half-timbered building with a granary above, and was also the location for the Court of “Pie Poudre” (which means court of ‘dusty foot’) which was a summary Court of Record held by the Market Steward, and supposed to settle disputes arising at the market. There was also a “Cage” or jail attached to the west end of the Market House, and a set of stocks next to that. It remained a landmark until 1809 when it had fallen into disrepair and was pulled down.
Near to the Market House flowed a stream called the Tambourne as it made its way beneath a bridge carrying the roadway, and on between the present Town Hall building and Bank House to join the Black Ditch beside Willow Walk.
Due to the presence of the Abbey, Chertsey became a thriving, bustling town with markets and fairs bringing economic prosperity to the area. Medieval fairs were important centres of commerce which is why they required special permission from the King with all rights, profits and tolls to be conceded to feudal Lords, as stated in market charters. Chertsey’s first fair was granted to William, Abbot of Chertsey, by Henry I in 1133. This three-day fair was to be held to celebrate the feast of Peter ad Vincula on 1st August each year. A further fair and market was granted by Henry III in 1249 to mark the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on 14th September which was also known as the goose or onion fair. In 1351 the Statute of Labourers was passed and so this fair became a hiring fair where local landowners engaged new staff to work on their estates. Further local fairs were held on Ascension Day, granted by Edward I in 1281, a May Fair where livestock was sold, and on 26th July, to mark the feast of St. Ann, which was latterly known as Black Cherry Fair.
Dissolution of the Monasteries
Between 1532 and 1534 Henry VIII passed a series of Acts which brought about England’s break with Rome, culminating in the 1534 Act of Supremacy which declared him to be "Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England". What was to follow was to have a seismic impact not just on religious life, but on all aspects of life in this country.
Whilst the Dissolution of the Monasteries was Henry’s idea, it was implemented by Thomas Cromwell, the King’s legal expert, chief minister and chief fixer. Henry’s desire to obtain a divorce was a factor in this saga, but there had been unease about religious houses for some time. By the 16th century many began to question whether they were living up to their monastic ideals, and their use of holy relics was beginning to be seen as superstitious and idolatrous. In January 1535 government appointed commissioners set about visiting every religious house in the country to complete a survey of their lands, revenue and income. This survey, the Valor Ecclesiasticus, survives today and is a remarkable insight into these institutions, but it was not these commissioners but a separate set that revisited the monasteries intent on uncovering scandal, inappropriate behaviour and misdeeds. Monastic inspections were not new. In the 12th century Bishops’ reports record evidence of monks not living up to the oaths they had taken, but they would often turn a blind eye to corruption or immorality.
In 1536 an Act of Parliament was passed to dissolve the smaller monastic houses, followed by a second Act in 1538 sealing the fate of the remaining religious orders. The last Abbot of Chertsey was John Cowdrey who seems to have been somewhat sympathetic to the King’s cause. Perhaps he felt he knew the King’s true purpose, after all he had been host to the monarch on his summer holidays on numerous occasions. It has been suggested that Cowdrey believed this was just the first step in a plan to reorganise the monasteries, after all, smaller Houses were often dissolved only to be merged with larger ones. Commissioners Legh and Ap Rice appeared at the gates of the Abbey, accusing 13 of the 15 monks of living immorally. Abbot Cowdrey and his monks assembled in the Chapter House to sign the surrender document on 6th July 1537, and in return were sent to Bisham, on the King’s orders, to set up a new order specifically created to pray for the soul of Jane Seymour. Land formerly belonging to Chertsey, in Cardigan, Ankerwyke, Little Marlow and Medenham, was transferred to the new Royal foundation, but further promised grants were not forthcoming and within a year the new House was also dissolved. This time Cowdrey and his monks were paid a pension and dispersed.
As for the empty buildings of Chertsey Abbey, work began on their demolition. The Church bell was taken to the parish church, which was renamed St. Peter’s, taking the name of the former abbey, where it remains. Records show that the Abbey Church and other buildings were taken down, stone by stone, and recycled to create Oatlands Palace, Weybridge, for Anne of Cleeves. However, this is not quite the end of the story for Chertsey Abbey. On 9th September 1548, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer consecrated Ferrar, Bishop of St. Davids at Chertsey Abbey, and the following year the Book of Common Prayer, which included the complete forms of service for daily and Sunday worship, was compiled there. Alas, within a century the remaining stone had been used by locals, and the buildings utterly destroyed.
The social impact of this decade of English history cannot be underestimated. In the early 16th century there were 800 different religious institutions in England and Wales, which meant that one was never more than a 30 minute walk from a monastery anywhere in the country. Monasteries had been part of the country’s landscape for hundreds of years, their imposing buildings a visible link between heaven and earth and a constant reminder of God’s presence. Then suddenly, the bells which summoned the monks to prayer, and could be heard across the fields, fell silent. People’s beliefs were called into question as the religion the country had followed since its conversion to Christianity was challenged and replaced. Shrines were dismantled; pilgrimage became a thing of the past, affecting hospitality and trade in towns along pilgrim routes. Holy relics were destroyed, statues burned and religious houses demolished to prevent them from being reused for worship.
However, the monasteries had provided more than just religious guidance. They had been places of hospitality for the rich when moving around the country, and places of refuge for the weary and those in need. They were also huge employers of agricultural labourers, owning one third of all the land in England and Wales. The upheaval was as monumental as the abandoned abbey buildings.
Monasteries had also been centres of education with schools run by both monks and nuns. Families who could do without child labour could send their offspring to religious houses to be educated, and their removal curtailed women’s education for over 200 years. Monastic libraries also became Crown property and were often dismantled and stripped of their treasures, destroying manuscripts and leaving gaping holes in the history of the nation.
These historic institutions, in a stroke, were dismantled leaving one in every 50 men unemployed overnight. Some monks were given pensions, some took up new roles as parish priests, but most became vagrants. But who was to look after the vagrants now that the abbeys were no longer there as a safety net for the poor, administering alms and caring for the sick? As a result there was a huge vagrancy crisis throughout the Tudor period resulting in legislation to address the problem and the 1538 Poor Law acknowledging this unforeseen outcome.
Ultimately it was the upper classes who gained most from the dissolution of the monasteries. Former monastic land was sold off by the Crown to help fund expensive wars against the French, and those landed families could snap up a manor or two at a bargain price. The landed gentry of England had arrived.
Within a century of the Dissolution of Chertsey Abbey it had been totally destroyed. Within another, “not one stone was left upon another”. By 1700 all surviving remains of the grand minster had been replaced with a new domestic building, named Abbey House in its honour. However, even this has long since disappeared, having been demolished in 1810. By the beginning of the 19th century all interest in the abbey had waned, but, this was a century of growing interest in all things antiquarian. Therefore, when, in 1854, stone walls and a number of stone coffins were uncovered there was much excitement in the town.
Within weeks an excavation of the site was carried out by the Surrey Archaeological Society. There, buried for centuries, was the well preserved pavement of decorative tiles that had once been the floor of the Chapter House. The tiles were put on display in the Town Hall, and such was the interest in them that the people of Chertsey raised the necessary money to fund a full excavation of the site.
On 8th July 1861 work started to reveal the foundations of the Abbey church, the Lady Chapel and Chapter House. Whilst no evidence of the pre-Conquest church have ever been discovered, these foundations were likely to be from the 8th century as the transepts had curved apses at each end, a fashionable architectural detail of the time. Samuel Angell, resident tenant on site and superintendent for the dig, wrote a detailed account of their discoveries. The first thing of note uncovered was a block of Purbeck marble which, when lifted, revealed a coffin pointed east to west. The skeleton within was wrapped in a sheet of lead and had been buried with a chalice and paten near his left shoulder. At the time there was speculation that this was the gravesite of John de Rutherwyk, as it was clearly someone of some importance, but, this has never been proven.
In the south transept of the church, the walls were still decorated with an image of a saint. Alas, the report states that this was brushed off the wall when roughly treated. The excavations revealed that chalk had been used throughout the interior, carved and moulded into decorative friezes. Fragments of painted glass dating from the 13th century were also discovered. In the Lady Chapel, attached to the south side of the church, numerous fragments of moulded stone suggested that the ceiling had been vaulted.
Subsequent excavations in the mid and late 20th century revealed evidence that the stone was reused during the life of the abbey. It seems that in the 12th century stone was recycled and painted. These more recent surveys confirmed the outline plan of the abbey as recorded in 1861, but they also uncovered evidence that the earlier curved apses of the Church had been rebuilt and squared, probably in the 12th century. Changing floor levels also revealed how the church had been rebuilt and developed over the centuries.
At the end of Colonel’s Lane, before the Abbey Farm Barn, stands a fine pair of stone gothic gateposts. These belonged to a large Victorian house which stood on the abbey site until it was gutted by fire and demolished in 1964. The area was then abandoned, and gradually became overgrown. In the summer of 1984, an attempt to clear the vegetation exposed part of the Abbey precinct wall. This rediscovery prompted a further survey of the site by the Surrey Archaeological Unit. The precinct walls date to the 12th or 13th century, and investigations show that prior to this time, the area was laid out quite differently. The walls, built during Rutherwyk’s time, created a clear division between religious and non-religious structures within the monastery. The church buildings were on one side and the domestic buildings on the other, with Colonel’s Lane linking the two sides together. One entrance to the Outer Court can still be seen, albeit bricked up. Outside of the abbey precinct five separate kilns and ovens have been discovered, the most important being that used to produce the Chertsey tiles.
In 1854, during the clearance of the area which now stands between Abbey Gardens and the sweeping bend to the north of Colonel’s Lane, workmen uncovered a concrete floor on which a large amount of decorated tiles were set. Many of these were stolen from the site whilst others were broken up on the orders of the site foreman who was concerned that the builders were spending too much time looking at the tiles and not getting on with their work.
Dr. Manwaring Shurlock, a keen antiquarian and Chertsey resident, was intrigued by the tiles which were superior in quality to any he had seen before. He collated and arranged fragments saved from the 1854 discovery, and succeeded in re-assembling approximately 30 designs, which he published in a volume of full-sized plates. The publication caused such interest in the tiles and the former abbey that when the land was sold again in 1861 the new owner, Samuel Angell, helped finance an excavation of the site. These encaustic tiles, for which Chertsey is well known, were made sometime between 1250 and 1290. The designs were created by pressing a die on to the red earthenware tile and filling the impression made with a white pipe clay. The clay had to be of the same consistency or else the two types would separate during the firing process. Different techniques were used to create the different colours. If there was more oxygen in the kiln when the tiles were fired the results would be a yellowish design on an orange background. If the oxygen was reduced so that the carbon monoxide levels built up, the design would be a greenish colour on an olive background. The tiles were glazed with a golden varnish and fired in a kiln.
When the tiles were first discovered experts thought they must be French in origin, as it was a continental idea to lay a floor of plain or decorated tiles. However, in 1922 the tile kiln with unused but faulty tiles was discovered in the garden of a house in Abbey Gardens. The clay came from an area in the south of the town previously known as the Potteries, now the area between Hanworth Lane and Sandgates. These tiles are reputed to be the finest tiles produced in medieval England and as one antiquarian commented “must have been drawn by one of the ablest masters of the second half of the 13th century for they are exceptional for the delicate lines and edges”.
During his studies Dr. Manwaring Shurlock discovered two important groups of picture tiles. One was illustrated with the romantic tale of Tristram and Isolde, a medieval story of forbidden love, and the other with tales of Richard the Lion Heart and his Crusades. These illustrative tile series were laid surrounded by twelve tiles creating a decorative circular band featuring crowns, grotesques, or maybe letters forming an inscription. The roundels and circular bands were in turn set in a number of tiles with a pattern of foliate scrolls, so that each made a 16 inch square. Other tiles show the medieval farming months of the year. January depicts feasting with a seated man holding a cup and horn, whilst March shows the pruning of trees, illustrating how heavily medieval life depended on nature and the changing seasons.
Chertsey tiles can be seen in many different locations, having been recycled in the same way as the rest of the abbey. Some were used on St. Ann’s Hill as the floor of the summerhouse of the Rt. Hon Charles James Fox, whilst others can still be found in the church in Little Kimble, Buckinghamshire, installed in the late 19th century. However, not all of the far-flung Chertsey tiles were scavenged from the ruins of the Abbey. Those in both Hailes Abbey, Gloucestershire, and at Halesowen Abbey, Birmingham, are contemporary with Chertsey and seem to have been made with some of the same stamps. It seems likely that the fame of these local tiles spread far and wide, even in the 13th century.
Whilst the tiles from the 1854 excavation can be seen in the V&A, most of the tiles collected by Dr. Manwaring Shurlock were bequeathed to the British Museum on his death. Others were given to the Surrey Archaeological Society and can now be seen in Guildford Museum, whilst in 1996 11 complete tiles were discovered near the Abbey site, and were bought by Chertsey Museum.
In 2018 Chertsey Museum commissioned designer James Cumper to create a 3D computer model of the abbey as it would have looked in 1362. It shows the church and its immediate surroundings, from the river via the Black Ditch to the road, and across the fishponds. The date is not one chosen at random, but one that gives us the most archaeological information to draw on. It is a date after Abbot John de Rutherwyk’s ambitious building programme (1307-1346), but it is before the collapse of the bell tower in 1370.
As well as a 4 minute “fly-over” film giving an overview of the abbey, the interactive has an animated timeline and two games for you to try. It also has additional information about the making of the model using stills from the film, and images of the Dissolution documents held at the National Archives, Kew. The model and additional resources are available in the museum's Runnymede Room local history gallery for visitors to enjoy.
This project was made possible due to the support of Surrey County Councillor Mark Nuti, Neil Taylor & Paul Blake of World Cargo Logistics Ltd. & The Friends of Chertsey Museum
The following resources have been created for us by Dr Claire Kennan, Project Officer, Citizens 800, led by Royal Holloway, University of London, and supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Arts & Humanities Research Council and The National Archives UK