Frankincense at Bristol port in Tudor times
Niall C.E.J. O’Brien
The Gospel story in the New Testament Bible as ascribed to Saint Matthew tells us that =
Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea, during the time when Herod was king. Soon afterwards, some men who studied the stars (referred to by later writers as the Magi), came from the east to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the baby born to be the king of the Jews? We saw his star when it came up in the east and we have come to worship him.” When Herod heard about this, he was very upset and so was everyone else in Jerusalem. … So Herod called the visitors from the east to a secret meeting and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem …
And so they left, and on their way they saw the same star they had seen in the east. When they saw it, how happy they were, what joy was theirs! It went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. They went into the house and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, they knelt down and worshipped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, ad presented them to him. They then returned to their country by another road, since God had warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod.
The Magi were the first Gentiles to worship Jesus, just as the shepherds were the first Jews. The Magi gifts of gold, frankincense and Myrrh had symbolical significance. The gold was to honour Jesus as king, the myrrh was indicate that he was human and open to suffering while the frankincense was to honour God and symbolise prayer.
Frankincense was long associated with divinity and religious ceremony. Eight centuries before the birth of Jesus, the great prophet then living in Jerusalem was Isaiah, and he spoke of the birth of Jesus with reference to incense thus =
Great caravans of camels will come from Midian and Ephah. They will come from Sheba, brining gold and incense.
Frankincense comes from inside the bark on the trunk and branches of the Boswellia tree which grows in Africa and Arabia. When the bark is removed a whitish resin emerges and this is frankincense. Every Sabbath in the Temple in Jerusalem 12 loaves of unleavened bread was laid out on a special table inside the Temple with fragrant frankincense as an offering to God.
Regulations on the use of frankincense in the medieval church
In the medieval period of about 500 to1500 the church dominated life and in every church the burning of incense and its distinct smell filled the air. The regulations applicable to Wells Cathedral tell us of the use of incense there. It said that the “Altar and the Choir must be incensed on all double feasts and on simple feasts when the Choir is ruled at Evensong and at Lauds during the singing of Magnificat and Benedictus”. The burning of incense was also expected on “all greater-double feasts outside Eastertide during each Nocturm of Mtins at the second, fifth and eight lessons and at Te deum”. On the “lesser-double feasts and in Eastertide the Choir is not incensed at Mattins during the Lessons but only at the Te deum and the Benedictus at Lauds”.
The regulations go on to say that at Mass on the “greater-double feasts the Altar is incensed by the Priest alone at the beginning of Mass” and again by him at the Gloria and after the Offertory. Between the Gloria and the Offertory the deacon incenses the Altar before the saying of the Gospel. At occasions of simple feasts only one censer was used for the incense and it was carried about the Choir by the Acolyte. The main Altar was first incensed by the officiating priest and then the Choir stalls in decreasing rank. At double feasts two censers were used and after the main Altar was incensed the other altars in the Choir were done but only at Evensong. The Bishop’s throne was then done if he Bishop was present. If no Bishop then the Choir stalls were done to finish the job. The monastic and parish churches followed this course to a varied extent.
Parish church accounts of frankincense
A number of medieval parish churches have surviving financial accounts giving the income and expenditure of the church. Among these surviving accost are those for Ashburton in Devon which cover the years from 1479 to 1580. In 1479-80 the sum of 6d (d = pence) was spent on frankincense while the sexton, William Astryge, got 4s 8d for his wages. In 1482-83 Ashburton church paid 6d for 2lbs of frankincense. The church didn’t buy frankincense every year as it was 1485-86 before another consignment was purchased and another gap to 1492-93 with an even bigger gap to 1510-11 when 6d was spent on frankincense. The last payment for frankincense at Ashburton church was in 1557-58 when 6d was spent. This was the last year of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary. With England going Protestant under Queen Elizabeth the use of frankincense ended in parish churches as it was seen as a Roman Catholic thing.
Frankincense in the port of Bristol
The church records of medieval Europe give us snap shots of incense use and the mention of frankincense in this but what of any records of frankincense before it reaches the church. The English exchequer custom accounts are the most comprehensive and long running records of foreign trade to exist for any country in the pre-modern period. These records first started in 1275 with the levying of a tax on the export of wool and hides. By the mid-fourteenth century this custom tax was extended to all forms of merchandise entering and leaving the country. These custom taxes created a vast archive of material on medieval trade, but until the recent use of the electronic computer, the archive was difficult to collate and analyse.
In 2009 the records of Bristol port between 1503 and 1601 were published and among the over one thousand pages of data in the published book are references to frankincense entering and leaving Bristol. This accessible data is a welcome addition to the story of frankincense but as always in these cases there are as many unanswered questions that may never be answered.
On 22nd March 1526 the navicula Kateryn of Bristol entered Bristol port under the command of Captain John Bernard. The navicula was a type of sailing vessel of undetermined size but which was big enough for ocean travel. She carried cargo for eight merchants with wine as the principal cargo at about 39 tons. Nicholas Walter and Thomas Shipman had one hundred weight of frankincense and two hundred weight of rosin on the vessel. The value of the frankincense was 3s 4d while the rosin was worth 4s. It is possible that Nicholas Walter and Thomas Shipman were from Bristol but the evidence is not yet supported by solid foundations. There was a Thomas Shipman, merchant, at Bristol in the years 1548 to 1551 but this is twenty five years afterwards and so it is unlikely that they were the same person.
On 13th November 1541 the Bride of Waterford left the port of Bristol with a varied cargo of commodities for fifteen different merchants. One of these merchants was John Harold who carried thirty-nine different consignments of cargo varying from hats, girdles, cinnamon, to knives from Paris, playing cards and glasses. John Harold also carried 6lbs of frankincense worth 10d. On 17th October 1541 John Harold had brought to Bristol skins of sheep, lambs and foxes aboard the Anthony of Waterford. It is possible that John Harold was a Waterford merchant or from the area of south Tipperary and south Kilkenny as Waterford was the port for these inland areas. Yet it cannot be ruled out that he was the John Harold, merchant of Bristol, who took on an apprentice in 1533.
The three wise men from the East
On 20th November 1542 the Mygell of Waterford left Bristol, under Captain Robert FitzJohn, carrying a very varied cargo for eleven different merchants. One of these merchants was George Walter and among his twenty different items of cargo was 6lbs of frankincense worth 2s 6d. George Walter had previous brought skins into Bristol on 22nd October 1542 on the Bride of Waterford.
On 17th November 1545 the Katheryn of Pasajes de San Juan in Basque country of northern Spain arrived into Bristol port with a cargo of 53 tons of wine, 10 tons of iron, 4 hundred weight of frankincense (worth 13s 4d) and 2 hundred weight of turpentine (26s 8d). John Note de Villa Vaosa (master of the vessel) and unnamed associates brought in the two latter commodities. The Katheryn left Bristol on 9th December 1545 with a cargo that included cloth, hides and lead.
On 4th May 1546 the Katheryn of Pasajes de San Juan again arrived at Bristol under Captain John Note de Villa Vaosa with John de Skyes also the only merchant on board and owner of the full cargo. This cargo consisted of iron, wine, woad, raisins and 1½ hundred weight of frankincense worth 6s 8d. The Katheryn left Bristol on 16th May 1546 with a cargo of cloth, lead, hides and skins for two foreign merchants and five English merchants.
By the time the Katheryn left Bristol the demand for frankincense was changing as the religion of England was changing. The burning of incense was seen as a Roman Catholic thing. The later references to frankincense in the Bristol port accounts relate to frankincense exported from Bristol to Ireland. Ireland remained a Catholic country and even the English settlers in Ireland kept the old faith.
On 9th May 1576 the Peter of Youghal (30 tons burden) left Bristol with a varied selection of commodities from three merchants of Limerick and one merchant of Cork. The Peter first sailed to Cork and then onto Limerick. One of these Limerick merchants, Richard Mahownde, had thirty different items of cargo including 4lbs of frankincense worth 8d. Richard Mahownde only appears this one time in the published Bristol ports accounts and so we cannot determine if he was a regular trader in frankincense. The Peter of Youghal appears three times in the Bristol accounts and it is always traveling to and from Cork. It is possible that the frankincense carried by Richard Mahownde was destined for the Cork market.
On 31st July 1576 the Katherin of Waterford (16 tons burden) left Bristol under Captain John Gall for Waterford. A person called John Gall was admitted a freeman of Waterford in 1570 and it could be the same person as the ship captain. The vessel carried a varied cargo but all for one merchant, Thomas Stretch of Limerick. Among the cargo was 6lbs of frankincense worth 12d. It is not known if Thomas Stretch intended to sell all his goods at Waterford or take some onto other ports including his home town of Limerick. Thomas Stretch does not appear elsewhere in the published accounts of the port of Bristol and so it is difficult to determine his usual trading habits.
The published port accounts for Bristol cover the years 1503 to 1601 but not even year in between is printed, just sample years across the century. A detailed examination of the frankincense trade in and out of Bristol would therefore mean examining all the records in their manuscripts state. The results of that examination would tell you much the same as this article, i.e., that frankincense was imported from Spain with Spain receiving the trade by camel train across North Africa or ship across the Mediterranean with Arabia as the principal source. Once in Bristol before 1546 the number of customers requiring frankincense was numerous across England from cathedrals and monastic churches to the thousands of parish churches. There was also a good export trade of frankincense across the Irish Sea to Ireland. After 1546 when England turned Protestant the majority customers for frankincense was in the Irish market.
End of post
 Matthew 2: 1-3
 Mathew 2: 7-8
 Matthew 2: 9-12
 Kaari Ward (ed.), Jesus and his times (Reader’s Digest, New York, 1989), p. 29
 Isaiah 60: 6
 Paul Z. Bedoukian,’Frankincense’, in The World Book Encyclopaedia (Chicago, 1980), vol. 7, p. 411
 Kaari Ward (ed.), Jesus and his times (Reader’s Digest, New York, 1989), p. 132
 Dom Aelred Watkin (ed.), Dean Cosyn and Wells Cathedral Miscellanea (Somerset Record Society, Vol. 56, 1941), p. 35
 Dom Aelred Watkin (ed.), Dean Cosyn and Wells Cathedral Miscellanea, p. 35
 Dom Aelred Watkin (ed.), Dean Cosyn and Wells Cathedral Miscellanea, p. 36
 Alison Hanham (ed.), Churchwarden’s accounts of Ashburton, 1479-1580 (Devon and Cornwall Record Society, New Series, Vol. 15, 1970), pp. 1, 4, 8, 19, 42, 139
 Susan Flavin & Evan T. Jones (eds.), Bristol’s trade with Ireland and the Continent 1503-1601 (Bristol Record Society, vol. 61, 2009), p. xi
 Susan Flavin & Evan T. Jones (eds.), Bristol’s trade with Ireland and the Continent 1503-1601 (Bristol Record Society, vol. 61, 2009)
 Susan Flavin & Evan T. Jones (eds.), Bristol’s trade with Ireland and the Continent 1503-1601, pp. 1, 239
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 Susan Flavin & Evan T. Jones (eds.), Bristol’s trade with Ireland and the Continent 1503-1601, pp. 287, 295
 D. Hollis (ed.), Calendar of the Bristol Apprentice Book, 1532-1565 (Bristol Record Society, vol. 14, 1949), part 1 (1532-1542), Ms. p. 18
 Susan Flavin & Evan T. Jones (eds.), Bristol’s trade with Ireland and the Continent 1503-1601, pp. 391, 398
 Susan Flavin & Evan T. Jones (eds.), Bristol’s trade with Ireland and the Continent 1503-1601, p. 467
 Susan Flavin & Evan T. Jones (eds.), Bristol’s trade with Ireland and the Continent 1503-1601, p. 474
 Susan Flavin & Evan T. Jones (eds.), Bristol’s trade with Ireland and the Continent 1503-1601, p. 509
 Susan Flavin & Evan T. Jones (eds.), Bristol’s trade with Ireland and the Continent 1503-1601, p. 510
 Susan Flavin & Evan T. Jones (eds.), Bristol’s trade with Ireland and the Continent 1503-1601, p. 688
 Susan Flavin & Evan T. Jones (eds.), Bristol’s trade with Ireland and the Continent 1503-1601, pp. 685, 688, 716
 Niall J. Byrne (ed.), The Great Parchment Book of Waterford: Liber Antiquissimus Civitatis Waterfordiae (Irish Manuscripts Commission, Dublin, 2007), p. 155
 Susan Flavin & Evan T. Jones (eds.), Bristol’s trade with Ireland and the Continent 1503-1601, p. 694