Fleur-de-lis shapes are worked in iron on these gates at Caston Church in Norfolk.

The fleur-de-lis is perhaps one of the most widely used flower symbols in the region (the rose being another), seen especially often in heraldic shields.  The fleur-de-lis differs from other flower motifs in the extent to which it has been stylized.  Its high degree of sylization has in fact stimulated a debate about whether it represents the lily or the iris.  Some confusion has been a consequence of its name, lis being both French for ‘lily’ and also a corruption of Louis, after King Louis VII of France in the twelfth century adopted a three-petalled flower as an emblem of the kings of France whereby the three petals symbolized faith, wisdom and valour.  The emblem became known as the fleur-de-Louis, and probably was a representation of an iris which it most closely resembles.  

Above: Fleur-de-lis motifs on the font in Needham Market Church in Suffolk.  The font was given as a gift to the church in 1880.

Above:  Ironwork fleur-de-lis motifs in a doorway at Lowestoft in Suffolk.

Floor tiles with fleur-de-lis motifs in Coddenham Church in Suffolk.

Tiles with fleur-de-lis motifs in Tannington Church in Suffolk.

Fleur-de-lis motifs on tiles at Great Plumstead Church in Nofolk.

Fleur-de-lis motif on a floor tile in Tannington Church in Suffolk.  This is an example of a mass-produced tile of the Victorian era: there are others of the same style in other churches around East Anglia, such as those at Reepham Church in Norfolk (see below).

Floor tiles at Reepham Church in Norfolk showing fleur-de-lis motifs on the outside and the Instruments of the Passion on the inside of the design.  The Instruments of the Passion are represented by hammer and pincers, spear and sponge and a vase for holding spices.



Most of the examples of fleur-de-lis motifs shown here are to be seen in floor tiles in churches.  This is the most common place where the fleur-de-lis motif is found, and most commonly on tiles.  In Christianity, the emblem came to represent the Holy Trinity because of its three ‘petals’.  Sometimes it symbolizes Mary, the mother of Jesus, where it is seen as a lily, the lily’s whiteness being compared to Mary’s purity.


Elaborate patterns resulting from the way that tiles are arranged are known as ‘tile mosaics’.  The difference between tile mosaics and the mosaics of the Romans is that Roman mosaics were mostly made from small pieces of natural stone rather than from fired clay.  The best effect using small pieces of stone is achieved by laying them so that they follow the lines of a subject.  This is not so with the larger tile mosaics which are usually made up of geometric patterns.  While many of these have been found at the sites of former abbeys, others have been found in domestic buildings including one at Clifton House in King’s Lynn.  The inspiration may have come from Italian stone mosaic floors.  All mosaics are difficult and time consuming to lay and the practice died out in the fourteenth century when the Black Death caused a drop in the number of skilled workers and the closure of many on-site tileries.


Since the fourteenth century the usual form of ornamental tilework has been surface decoration, either by producing two-coloured tiles, or by stamping on a pattern in relief or in counter-relief, the latter sometimes having the indentations filled in with ‘slip’ (which is watered down clay) of a contrasting colour.  The surface decoration can also be varied by using different types of glaze.  A tin glaze transforms a coloured tile into a white one.  Although tin glazes were used widely in many countries in ancient times, they only became common here after the end of the sixteenth century, when the idea spread from the Netherlands, and was known as delftware.  The Dutch glaze differed slightly from the English in that it used more tin and was whiter (but more inclined to crack), while the English glaze used more lead and was therefore slightly blue or green and more glossy.

In the 1550s a tile-making centre for delftware was founded in Norwich by Jasper Andries from Antwerp.  This was so sucessful that it became the inspiration for other such centres to open in London, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, which thrived during the eighteenth century.


The Victorians re-discovered the use of slip and found a way of adapting it for mass-production.


The so-called ‘plastic clay’ method of the Victorians was superseded by several others, such as ‘dust pressing’ (which used clay dust compressed into a mould by extreme pressure).  The most popular method, however, was by transfer printing.  The Victorians used tiles extensively, not only in churches, but also in government buildings, in libraries, shops, public lavatories, hospitals and railway stations.


Tiles have been used to cover floors and walls of East Anglian buildings since the early Middle Ages, not only because they are hard wearing and practical, but also because they can be made to look decorative either by the way they are arranged or by their surface treatment.

Above left: Fkeur-de-lis motif in window at Tivetshall Church in Norfolk.

Above: Floor tiles with stylized fleur-de-lis motifs in Palgrave Church in Suffolk.

Above right:  Fleur-de-lis motif on a window at Occold Church in Suffolk.

Right: Tiles at Reepham Church in Norfolk which are similar to those at Tannington ( see above).




The simple, chunky style of this motif here on the right marries well with the heavy stonework around it.

The light and delicately detailed style of this motif (left) is appropriate for its surrounding of small-paned leaded window.