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Incense boat - The Ramsey Abbey Incense Boat

The Ramsey Abbey Incense Boat

  • Object:

    Incense boat

  • Place of origin:

    London (Possibly, made)
    East Anglia (Possibly, made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1350 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Silver, silver gilt; engraved

  • Credit Line:

    Acquired with the aid of a generous donation from Mr C. W. Dyson Perrins FSA

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 10, case 13

Boats of this shape were used across Europe for storing the incense used in church ceremonies. This silver example would have belonged to a wealthy church or abbey. The decoration of rams' heads is almost certainly a punning symbol for Ramsey Abbey. This incense boat was found in the bed of Whittlesea Mere, Huntingdonshire, when it was drained in 1850. This site is only 7 or 8 miles from Ramsey Abbey. The incense boat may have been lost in an accident, or was perhaps hidden in the mere during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Physical description

The boat has a narrow, battlemented edge and a finial at each end in the form of a ram's head (one with horn missing) rising from the sea, set on a mullet-shaped foot. The body is decorated with punched gilt strapwork; the top is engraved with two stylised double roses and one half is hinged to act as a lid, having a pointed diamond-knop.

Place of Origin

London (Possibly, made)
East Anglia (Possibly, made)


ca. 1350 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Silver, silver gilt; engraved


Height: 12.5 cm, Width: 29 cm, Depth: 9.7 cm, Weight: 0.54 kg

Object history note

Found with the censer (M.268-1923) and a group of articles in pewter and pottery in the bed of Whittlesea Mere, Huntingdonshire, when it was drained in 1850.

The incense boat is of the highest quality, and would have belonged to a wealthy church or abbey. The decoration of rams' heads is almost certainly a rebus (i.e. a punning symbol) for 'Ramsey'. It has therefore been assumed that censer and incense boat were once the property of the nearby Benedictine abbey of that name (7 or 8 miles away). The arms of Ramsey abbey included three rams' heads.

It is possible that the hoard of objects was hidden in the mere during the Dissolution of the monasteries, although Ramsey Abbey seems to have accepted being dissolved quite amicably: in 1538, Richard Cromwell wrote to his uncle Thomas that both abbot and convent were 'conformable to everything that shall be at this time put in ure'. All the monks received comfortable pensions for their trouble. The alternative explanation for the discovery of the hoard in the mere is that it was lost, probably during a boat accident, some time before the Dissolution.

Historical significance: This is the only English example of a gothic incense boat in silver.

Historical context note

The incense boat was used to store incense for the censer, and to pour it into the censer during ceremonies. This boat form was the standard shape across Europe for such an object, and can be found in all metals, Limoges enamel examples sometimes having finials with dragons' heads.

The double rose in this case is not a Tudor device, as has sometimes been suggested, but a symbol of the Virgin Mary. This was much used in the medieval period, and appears on the Grandisson ivory diptych in the British Museum of ca.1340, and on bishop William of Wykeham's crozier of ca.1367 in New College, Oxford.

Descriptive line

The Ramsey Abbey Incense Boat, England, ca. 1350

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Alexander, Jonathan, and Paul Binski (eds.), Age of Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England 1200-1400, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1987.
P. Williamson (ed.), The Medieval Treasury, 2nd edition, London, 1998, pp. 220-221
E. Hawkins, 'Note on Ramsey Abbey censer and boat', Archaeological Journal, VIII, 1851, pp. 195-6
J. Braun, Das Christliche Altargerät in Seinem Sein und in Seiner Entwicklung, Munich, 1932, pp. 606, 620, 639-40
C. Oman, English Church Plate, London, 1957, pp. 89-91
M. Campbell, ' Gold, Silver and Precious Stones' in John Blair and Nigel Ramsay, ed., English Medieval Industries, London 1991, pp.161-3

Labels and date

Silver, gilt or parcel-gilt, the boat bearing the rebus of the Abbey, a ram's head issuing from waves
English; middle of the 14th century
The gift of Mr. C. W. Dyson Perrins, F.S.A, supplemented by a contribution from the purchase-grant of the Museum.
The censer, which is modelled on a design for a chapter-house, can be dated to the middle of the 14th century by comparison with contemporary architecture. Censer and incense boat were found together with a number of pewter plates bearing a ram's head in the bed of Whittlesea Mere, Huntingdonshire, when it was drained in 1850. the pewter plates are now in the Peterborough Museum. []

Production Note

The provenance of this piece, the likely association with Ramsey Abbey, and the many parallels with other English artworks of this period (for example the double rose motif) make it almost certain that this is an English manufacture. The incense boat is appreciably stylistically different from the censer (for example in the handling of its crenellations), and is of slightly later date, probably around the middle of the century, when the incurving hexagonal-shaped foot was also being introduced into England for chalices.


Silver; Gold


Engraving; Gilding

Subjects depicted

Rose bush; Rams (animal)


Metalwork; Religion; Christianity


Metalwork Collection

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