The Ramsey Abbey Censer

This is a photograph of the Ramsey Abbey Censer, which now resides in the Victoria and Albert Museum London. If you would like to see a larger image click on the image.

The “Cambridge Chronicle” of 15th February 1851, reporting from Whittlesey, says, “The Mere is now free from water, and next year will no doubt be under the plaugh. Various articles in gold and silver have been taken from the bottom; among other things, a gold censor (sic)”

It makes no mention of James and Frank Coles of Mereside who had gone out to fish for eels in the receding waters and to whom the find was attributed. It was two wonderful silver objects, a censer and an incense boat’ together with some pewter plates stamped with a ram’s head design. It seemed most probable that they had belonged to Ramsey Abbey and had been lost or buried at the time of the Dissolution.

The Censer

In the Middle Ages incense grains were burnt on hot coals in a metal bowl suspended by chains. Later a perforated cover was added to stop the contents falling out when the censer was swung by a server at significant points in the service. The smoke from the incense was supposed to represent prayers going up to heaven.

The bowl of the Ramsey censer is modelled on a mazer or drinking-bowl. The cover is made of silver gilt in the form of a six-sided mediaeval chapter house, maybe that of Ramsey Abbey itself. It has three full-length windows and three wider ones fashioned as lancets in groups of four with a clerestorey window above. The angles are marked by double pinnacled buttresses joined, above the lancet windows, by a battlemented parapet. Behind these is a steep, pyramidal, crocketted (decorated) roof topped by a knob from which a single chain for lifting the cover of the bowl is attached to the carrying plate. This plate, shaped like a triangular shield with curving sides, also carries the three chains that bear the weight of the bowl and its contents of hot coals and incense. The height to the peak of the roof is just over eleven inches. It is thought to have been made about 1325. For more images of the Censer click this link.

The Victoria & Albert Museum considers this to be the finest surviving piece of English Gothic ecclesiastical metalwork. (Ref 13)

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