When Candles Became Food


There are harrowing tales of beseiged people resorting to the consumption of candles in places such as Londonderry and Leningrad.  Such despiration should be wept at, and the plight of civilian populations in wartime lamented.

This particular account of candles as food, however, is not one of desperation in warfare, but of political expediency and of a civil power struggle. It occurred in Cambridge in 1628, and was one of the most marked clashes between “Town and Gown,” to take place there.

The Vice-Chancellor, Henry Smyth D.D., had set the price of candles at 4 1/2 d. per pound. Four of the town’s chandlers exceeded this price and were summarily arrested. The chandlers had the support of the mayor John Sherwood, and were subsequently freed by the Court of Common Pleas.  The court ruled that while it was accepted that the university had control of the price of food within Cambridge, this power did not extend to candles, as they were not “victuals.” Candles therefore were not within the Vice-Chancellor’s control, and the arrests then were invalid.

The situation was not settled, however, and the university soon petitioned the king on the matter.  The result of this was a ruling by the Privy Council that candles were indeed victuals. By order of the Council, the mayor, civil bailiff, and the chandlers were to publicly admit fault and were to pay whatever fine the Vice-Chancellor set. What was ultimately at issue here was the matter of “University Privilege.”*

Tallow (and to a lesser extent bees’ wax) candles are edible, and as I noted in the opening paragraph, people in extreme hardship have been driven to consuming them.  But what we have here really is the assertion and misuse of power and influence, not a matter of survival.

Such tales of abused privilege are not unfamiliar to us, but does “might make right?” Jesus said that “The greatest among you will be your servant (Matthew 23:11),” and  “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the last of all and the servant of all (Mark 9:35).”

True authority does not come from forcing others to obey your rules, but guiding them to share your vision.  “The greatest leaders” said Ken Blanchard, “mobilize others by coalescing people around a shared vision.” Is our vision today one of power or of purpose? Is it one that makes food of candles, or one that truly serves.


* See J. Miller Gray, Biographical Notes on the Mayors of Cambridge, n.p. 1922, p. 35; and Rowland Parker, Town and Gown: The 700 Year’s War in Cambridge, Cambridge: Patrick Stevens, 1983, pp.126-127.

The historical portion of this blog is from my booklet, A Gentleman’s Guide to Fayre Cambridge


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