British Collection Highlights:

Medieval Tiles from Godstow Abbey, Oxfordshire

Godstow Nunnery was founded in 1133 or earlier, and was dedicated to St Mary and St John the Baptist. It was founded by Edith of Winchester, and was approved by King Henry I. It was supposedly founded for 24 nuns. In 1445 there were 16 nuns and the abbess; 14 nuns, 3 junior nuns, a lay sister and the abbess in 1520; and 20 inmates in 1535 with a net income of £258. Rosamund Clifford, the mistress of Henry II, was entombed in Godstow after her death in c.1176. She was known as Fair Rosamund and there are a number of legends about her life, and death.

The Nunnery was dissolved in 1539, and granted to Henry VIII’s physician George Owen who converted it into Godstow House. The Owen family occupied it until 1645 when it was badly damaged in the Civil War, and was quarried for building stone after. Although occupied by the Owens it was sold it to Sir John Walter in 1616 and descended in his family until 1702.
Little remains of Godstow Nunnery site after its conversion into a secular house and later quarrying. In 1924 the site was given to the University of Oxford on trusts to preserve the ruins for the nation. A section of tile pavement was recovered during excavations on behalf of the Oxford Archaeological Excavation Committee at Godstow Nunnery site in 1971. The excavation was to investigate a line of mortar observed in the bank at the site and two groups of tiles were uncovered, thought to have been part of the floor of a chapel.

Click to enlarge

Floor tile from Godstow Abbey (Click to enlarge)

One of the excavated tiles from Godstow Abbey which formed part of the floor, decorated with deer and birds (AN1974.75)

One group has been reconstructed recently based on the excavation photograph published in David Ganz’s 1972 paper on the buildings of Godstow Nunnery (Plate XVII A). The tiles were accessioned into the Ashmolean’s collections in the 1970s but were not displayed as a whole until the reconstruction work in 2011

The reconstruction of the pavement section was supported by the Oxford Preservation Trust. Work began with identifying which tiles in the Ashmolean made up the pavement, photographing them and then doing a jigsaw to recreate the layout. Once this was done, the conservator, Dana Norris, conserved the tiles which needed treatment and created the mount that they sit in. The plinth in which the mount sits was then made and the whole thing assembled in the ‘England 400-1600’ gallery.

It is suggested by David Ganz that the fourteenth century tiles with later repairs are patchy and lack a coherent design because they were a job lot bought cheaply from another religious foundation, or it is a repair of damage caused by the movement of a tomb. The Benedictine Nunnery was recorded as being one of the wealthiest of Post-Conquest foundations, so it may be that the tomb movement explains the haphazard nature of the tiles, rather than the rich foundation sourcing cheap goods. Tiles with a similar motif of the deer and bird have been found elsewhere in Oxfordshire - at Osney Abbey, Goring, Great Haseley rectory, and in other counties, for example, Catesby Priory in Northamptonshire.

Click to enlarge

Aerial photograph of Godstow Abbey (Click to enlarge)

Aerial photograph of the site of Godstow Nunnery, Oxfordshire, taken by Major George Allen on 21 July 1933 (Album Ref 3, 13).

Click to enlarge

Reconstruction of tile floor (click to enlarge)

Reconstruction of tile floor as on display in the 'England 400-1600' gallery

Godstow Abbey

Modern photograph showing some of the remains of Godstow Nunnery today. Only fragmentary remains are left and none are dated to before the 1400s. The building surviving in the south east corner of the enclosure is dated to the early 1500s and is thought to have been a chapel. There are no traces of the church and cloisters, or the tower that once existed.(Photograph Eleanor Standley)

Further Information

Amt, E. (ed.) The Latin Cartulary of Godstow Abbey (OUP/British Academy: Oxford, 2014 ).

Crossley, A. and Elrington C.R., (eds) ‘Site and remains of Godstow abbey', A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 12: Wootton Hundred (South) including Woodstock (1990), 311-313. (Available online from British History Online)

Ganz, D., ‘The Buildings of Godstow Nunnery’, Oxoniensia, 37, (1972), 150-157. (Available online from the Oxfordshire Architectural and Historical Society)

Knowles, D. and Hadcock, R.N., Medieval Religious Houses in England and Wales (Longman: London, 1971).

Page, W. (ed.) 'Houses of Benedictine nuns: The abbey of Godstow', A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 2 (1907), 71-75. (Available online from British History Online)

Thompson, S., Women Religious: The Founding of English Nunneries After the Norman Conquest (Clarendon: Oxford, 1991).

Find out more about:

Eleanor Standley
January 2012, updated August 2014