‘Elegant economy’ – the Jesus college candle-stocks

The object illustrated below is in the collection of the British Museum.  It is a wax candle-stock, an artificial candle.   It’s one of a pair and it’s identically decorated fellow, is now in the possession of Jesus College Cambridge.  At fifty four (54) centimetres tall, these stocks when they were first made, would have fitted onto a pair of pricket candlesticks, perhaps a pair of altar candlesticks.  How did they work?  Well you have to imagine a metal ring or fitting on the top of the wax stock, in which a smaller candle would have been attached.   Candle stocks enabled the economic use of wax, while giving the appearance from a distance, that a larger candle was being burnt.

© Trustees of the British Museum.

The stocks are elaborately decorated, bands of colour spiral around them, a barbers pole of gilding, powdered red flowers, green bands and white trailing foliage.  The stocks are usually dated by most authorities to the fourteenth century, but are they?  The decoration on them and the colour palette is reminiscent of the decoration on East Anglian rood screens and would not be out of place in the later part of the fifteenth century.

This particular candle stock was bought by the British Museum in 1965 from the Kett family. It came with a family tradition attached to it that was found by George Kett during a renovation of a Norfolk church. George Kett was a skilled carpenter who had come to the notice of A.W. N, Pugin in the 1840s.  Pugin used him extensively in the interior work of the Palace of Westminster.  Kett would eventually go into partnership with James Ratee and establish the Cambridge firm of Rattee and Kett, who were involved in many east Anglian church restorations.

The provenance of the other candle-stock now in the possession of Jesus College Cambridge, gives a much more likely origin for the pair.  The Jesus College stock was given to the college in 1945 by Sir Ninian Comper.  According to Comper, his stock had been found by Pugin in a recess in Jesus college chapel, during the restoration he had undertaken between 1846 and 1849.  Both Kett and James Rattee are known to have worked under Pugin at Jesus College and it was there that their partnership was forged.  So both Kett and Pugin were in the same place at the same time and though circumstantial evidence, it seems that Jesus college chapel is the most likely origin for both stocks.

© Trustees of the British Museum.
The context of use within the chapel of Jesus college, makes sense of them.  Jesus college Cambridge was founded by Bishop John Alcock of Ely in 1496, but the chapel is the former monastic church of the small Benedictine nunnery of St Radegund. Unless these items were part of the chapel stuff acquired in the fifteenth century when Alcock founded the college, it is likely that the stocks were originally used in the earlier monastic context, the use of candle-stocks makes sense in this context.    From the beginning, St Radegunds was a poorly endowed priory and was beset with financial problems and a whole host of other issues.  In 1277 the bell tower of the church fell down and by 1373 during an episcopal visitation, the buildings were said to be ruinous and the prioresses management ineffective. To add insult to injury in 1376 the house burnt down and in 1389 the repaired buildings were badly damaged by a storm.  In the fifteenth century the house was frequently in debt.  In 1459 Bishop Gray of Ely found the church in a ruinous condition and the ornaments of the church in need of repair, offering forty days indulgence if anyone helped the nuns accomplish the repairs.   However, things didn’t get any better, which is why John Alcock, the diocesan bishop, took the place into his own hands. In 1496 he moved the remaining two nuns elsewhere, dissolved the priory in favour of the foundation of a new Cambridge college.  These candle-stocks if they were in the priory’s possession, would have added a welcome splash of colour to the altar of this poorly endowed and rather bleak little convent, while enabling the already cash-strapped nuns to save on candle wax.   “Elegant economy!” as they say in Cranford!  
J. Alexander and P. Binski, Age of Chivalry (London, 1987), pp. 243-244. 


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