Candle-holders are lighting devices into which candles were fitted. They can be of many shapes, the main division being between the socket type (with a cup into which the candle was inserted) and the pricket type (with a spike onto which the candle was pushed). Sockets were certainly used by the Romans, but are then absent from the early-medieval world where the pricket was used. Sockets could hold smaller and more brittle candles, and Egan argued that the socketed candle-holder was re-introduced from the Islamic world in the 11th century (Egan 1998, 133-4).
Most everyday pricket candle-holders seem to have been made from iron, and few are recorded on the PAS database; an exception is NLM-525AA4. Socketed candle-holders can be made from ceramic, but most recorded on the PAS database are made from copper alloy.
This guide only covers metal candle-holders; details of how to record ceramic candle-holders can be found in the guide to Ceramics.
Rushlights were apparently used both in the Roman and medieval worlds, and experienced a resurgence in post-medieval England when a candle tax was imposed, from 1709 to 1831. Post-medieval rushlight holders were made from iron and look like tongs or pliers, with one half weighted (often with a candle socket) to keep the rushlight held fast. There are no examples of these on the PAS database (but there is one in the V&A).
PAS object type to use
Use CANDLE HOLDER. The mda thesaurus defines this as ‘an object in which a candle is put in order to provide light’ and defines other words, such as candlestick, candle stand, candelabrum and chandelier as different types of candle-holder.
For toy candle-holders, use TOY (and put ‘candle holder’ in the classification field).
PAS object classifications to use
Medieval candle-holders come in several highly standardised forms. Unfortunately there are a lot of folding or collapsible candle-holders, and several which have a tripod foot, and more than one zoomorphic type. It is therefore useful to have standard terms in the Classification field for the commoner types.
Terms to use in the Classification field include the following. For medieval candle-holders: zoomorphic, Geraardsbergen type, folding, Limoges style, adjustable. For late medieval or early post-medieval candle-holders: looped, branched double socket, Bunsen burner. See below for details of when to use each term.
Terms to use in the description
Most candle-holders can be divided into base, stem and socket.
Most of the other parts of a candle-holder (prickets, drip trays, etc) do not feature much within PAS material. Other components (feet, ejectors, spikes, loops and so on) will be dealt with below as they arise.
Candle-holders are rare in the Roman world, but examples do exist and have been gathered together by Eckardt (2002). There is a small and disparate group on the PAS database.
The commonest type of Roman candle-holder known from Britain is very simple, and is made from relief-decorated lead sheet, bent round to form a cylinder, with one end forming the socket and the other end cut into three strips which are bent out to form legs. One is known (and well illustrated) from Colchester (Crummy 1983, no. 4709; download the report here). Two more came from Heybridge and are published in Atkinson and Preston 2015 (relevant section here). We have two on the database, both from Piercebridge; BM-BBD22E and BM-BBBA45.
Eckardt (2002) also notes a number of three-dimensional zoomorphic candle-holders, most in the form of cockerels. We do not appear to have any on the PAS database, but check out WAW-86E32D, which on current evidence appears to be medieval.
There is a single example on the database of what may be an ‘hour-glass’ Roman candle-holder, DENO-E13701.
When Alfred and his father Æthelwulf travelled to Rome in the 850s, among their gifts to the Pope was “a gilded silver candle-holder in the Saxon style”. So early-medieval candle-holders did apparently exist, but we don’t have any yet recorded on the PAS database. Perhaps they were all as large as this one in Essen Cathedral, made c. 1000 AD.
Many of the candle-holders recorded on the PAS database are small, flimsy objects which were probably used for travelling, and thus have become accidentally lost.
Most medieval candle-holders recorded on the PAS database – whether of sheet or cast metal – are made from several components which tend to come apart, so it is important to be able to recognise fragments. Most are made from copper alloy; a few are of lead alloy, but this does not tend to survive well in ploughsoil.
With circular or triangular tripod base
Ward Perkins (1940, 180-1) traces a convincing evolution of the everyday table-top cast copper-alloy candle-holder, from those with a triangular base and three small feet, to a circular base with three small feet, to the simple circular form current around 1500 AD (see below for this).
We do not have many of these sturdy household candle-holders on the PAS database. Were they melted down and recycled instead of being lost, or were they always rare in medieval England and Wales? Evidence from excavations in Winchester has suggested that there was a marked increase in the use of candles (replacing oil lamps) from around 1300 AD, possibly due to the introduction of the cotton wick to replace a linen wick (Biddle 1990, 990-1 and note 24).
Roger Brownsword, a metallurgist with an interest in candle-holders, was of the opinion that most cast copper-alloy candle-holders of 14th-century or earlier date were made on the Continent and imported into England (Brownsword 1985, 1) which might explain their rarity. Further research is needed to confirm this hypothesis.
Examples of candle-holders with a triangular tripod base include NMS-DC4BF7. Examples of those with a circular tripod base include LON-6C500D (a lead-alloy example with a religious inscription) and PUBLIC-C37065 (which is thought to be a French import, following Egan 1998, 149-50).
Zoomorphic (including the Geraardsbergen type)
Zoomorphic copper-alloy candle-holders are come in two variants. One is quite naturalistic, but the other (the Geraardsbergen type) is a tripod form where the three legs are formed into the shapes of animal heads and front legs.
The naturalistic type are made in at least two parts, a cast base in the form of an animal and a conical sheet socket that fits into a hole in the animal’s back. LVPL-05B5E4 also has a base, but it is unclear from the record whether this was cast as one with the animal or made separately. Put ‘zoomorphic’ in the Classification field.
Dogs are the usual animal shown, but a lion (NMS-11D931) and a possible cockerel (WAW-86E32D) have also been recorded on the PAS database, and two deer are known from London (Egan 1998, 147-9, fig. 116). They come in both simple and more elaborate forms, probably catering for different ends of the market. NMS-11D931 (the lion) is at the more elaborate end; NARC-6F6352 is simpler, but is complete with its sheet-metal socket (see KENT-F7117A for an example of a detached socket which is probably medieval in date).
One in the shape of a deer was excavated from a context of c. 1270-1350 in London (Egan 1998, no. 425). Egan cites parallels dated to the 14th century from France, Denmark and Germany, but there are now a dozen recorded on the PAS database and they might well also have been made in Britain.
The tripod type has three animal heads on tall necks, and long legs with out-turned feet; the back half of the animal merges into the centre of the candle-holder. SF-74624E is the most complete on the PAS database, missing only its socket. Others, from northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands, one still complete with dish and pricket, are published by Gomez de Soto and de Mulder (2012, fig. 3) as their Geraardsbergen type. Their distribution map unfortunately does not include any examples from the PAS database, but in the future we might be included in studies like these if we use ‘Geraardsbergen type’ in the Classification field.
There are two main types of tripod candle-holder with folding or collapsible legs. The first has a slender cast shaft decorated with knops with cast cross-hatched grooves, and ending in three pierced lugs. The lugs would originally have had three hinged legs attached to them, which could be folded up for storage or travelling, or unfolded for use. Use ‘folding’ in the Classification field.
There is a complete example in Ward Perkins 1940, 179-82, fig. 56.1, no. A2647, but with no context. A complete example with different, very distinctive legs was found in Cork in a layer with late 13th-century pottery (Hurley 1985, 71, 81-2, fig. 11; the pdf can be downloaded here). A near-complete example comes from a 12th- or perhaps early 13th-century context in Low Petergate, York (Wenham 1972, 94-5, fig. 20.7; for dating, see p. 75 and p. 109; reproduced with a 13th-century date by Goodall (in Crossley (ed) 1981, fig. 64.1). A fragment of shaft came from a 13th/14th-century context in Laverstock, near Salisbury (Goodall in Saunders (ed) 2012, 116, fig. 35, no. 258). Taken together, the date-range of this type of candle-holder is probably best quoted as c. 1100-1350 AD.
A second, very distinctive type of tripod folding candle-holder was made in Limoges. They have three separately made curved legs, with loops at one end which are threaded onto the bottom of the candle-holder’s shaft. These were either spread out to support the candle-holder while standing, or swung round to make a more compact shape for travelling or storage. The legs are decorated with enamelled pseudo-heraldic devices, and several have been recorded on the PAS database; see SF-417281 for a list. Put ‘Limoges style’ in the Classification field.
There is a complete example of one of these candle-holders in the Victoria and Albert Museum (acc. no. M.355-1956), and a pair in the Metropolitan Museum, New York (acc. no. 32.100.285-6; published in Boehm and Taburet-Delahaye 1996, no. 134). They are dated to c. 1280-1320 AD and 1290-1310 AD respectively.
Adjustable candle-holders are flimsy and small, and are made from several pieces. When recording one, put ‘adjustable’ in the Classification field.
They have a cast spike which has a D-shaped lug at one end with three notches, corresponding to the three positions in which the object can be fixed. The lug is pierced to take a hinge bar, on which the shaft is hinged. This shaft, often decorated, is made from a strip of metal bent in half with a slot cut for the hinge. Between the two halves a third strip is sandwiched. This can rotate so that it can move into one of the notches, locking the candle-holder in position, or can move out again and allow the candle-holder to be folded up or adjusted into the right position. The third strip (often called a tab) can have a slight spur on one corner, presumably to allow a thumbnail purchase.
Riveted to the top of the double strip is a sheet-metal socket or pair of sockets; sometimes there is a larger candle-sized socket on one side, with a smaller taper-sized one on the other. The sockets have open fronts, allowing the spike and strips to pass through to allow the object to fold compactly.
There is a good illustration showing the way in which these candle-holders worked in Egan 1998, 147, fig. 115; and a good explanation in Wise 2002 (link to download here). They could be either be stuck upright in a crack in a table, or at a right angle in a wall (as NMS-1D35E4), or folded in half for travel or storage. Although they are clearly medieval, the dating is uncertain. Wise (2002, 122-3) suggests a date-range of c. 1350-1500 AD, and notes that several examples have been found near routeways (major roads or ports).
There are also some less complex examples of adjustable candle-holders, such as the two below, one of which is still movable. The hinge must have been quite tight to stop the candle-holder collapsing while in use.
Late medieval or early post-medieval candle-holders
Most sturdy household candle-holders made from cast copper alloy and recorded on the PAS database are dated to the 15th and 16th centuries. They develop out of the three-footed form, and have circular bases (without feet). Stems become taller, and can end in branches so that one base and stem can support two sockets. The bases, stems, branches and sockets are usually all cast separately.
Fragments of base and stem can be hard to recognise. Stems sometimes have incised circumferential lines, often in pairs, or have distinctive knops. Sockets are much easier, and some development can be seen in these.
Faceted looped sockets with apertures or perforations were in widespread use during the 15th century, probably developing from 14th-century French candle-holders such as PUBLIC-C37065 and DEV-4115C5. Most are hexagonal in cross-section, but some are octagonal; a very few are cylindrical. Nearly all have a loop at the base, normally ending in a small projection that could fit into a hole in the base or branch. Because the loop is the usual distinguishing feature, put ‘looped’ in the Classification field.
The faceted socket may continue into the 16th century; one from London is from a 15th- or 16th-century context (Egan 2005, 81, no. 335). A faceted socket on a base is illustrated by Ward Perkins (1940, fig. 55.2) and also by Goodall (in Crossley (ed) 1981, 66, fig. 64.2) but the two parts may not originally have belonged together (Egan 1998, fig. 68a, 81; Bangs 1995). There appear to be no other surviving complete candle-holders which combine these two components, but there is one other PAS example of a faceted socket in place, this time on a 15th-century double-branched candle-holder (NARC-5BBD69).
At the same time, or perhaps slightly later, an unperforated cylindrical socket was in use, often decorated with bands of circumferential incised lines. NMS-CFEEE3 (illustrated above) may be a transitional form between the two types, as it has the faceted socket but is missing the loop and simply has the small projection; BH-4D9E72 alternatively is cylindrical and unperforated, but has a loop, and ends in a horizontal ring with an internal screw thread.
The cylindrical sockets were often used in pairs; each one fixed into a hole on a ‘branch’ with a central ring which fitted over the stem of the candle-holder. These are illustrated by Brownsword (1985, fig. 3) and dated by him to the late 15th and 16th centuries. He calls them the ‘branched double-socket’ type, and this (without the hyphen) can be added to the Classification field.
The ‘Bunsen burner’ type
Alternatively, the sockets and stems could be made in one piece, and this is often known as the Bunsen burner type due to its straight-sided, narrow stem and only slightly wider straight-sided unperforated socket; it looks much like a modern Bunsen burner, so add ‘Bunsen burner’ to the Classification field.
The Bunsen burner type “has long been regarded as the first socket candlestick of English design as well as manufacture” (Bangs 1995, 52) because few are known from outside England; in fact, very few unperforated sockets of any type are found on the Continent (Bangs 1995, 52). The stems are usually hollow, and have short flared ends below which a short length of tube extends to fit into a hole in the separate base.
There are some known with apertures in the socket, and some are shown below. Whether these are of English or Continental manufacture is uncertain.
One was found in a 16th-century context in London (Egan 2005, 81, no. 337) and another in a pit with early 16th century pottery in Winchester (Rees et al 2008, no. 1799). Two Norwich finds came from the levels of the 1507 fire (Margeson 1993, 83-4, nos. 537-8), so a date-range of 1450-1550 seems appropriate.
16th- or 17th-century candle-holders
Similar shafts, but with bulbous lower ends, seem to be a 16th-century development. They are often combined with a socket with out-turned rim and often a slight flare at the base (e.g. WILT-858EEE; also see Bangs 1995, nos. 48-50). Brownsword (1985, 1) dates this development to the end of the 16th century.
This type of socket appears to continue into the 18th century, with examples from America (Hume 1969, fig. 24).
It is hard to know if the perforated socket illustrated below (YORYM-0E6643) is of similar date, but it may well be.
Bases of 15th- to 17th-century candle-holders
Bases from late medieval or early post-medieval candle-holders (c. 1450-1700 AD) were made separately, and are not nearly so easy to recognise or to date precisely. Brownsword (1985) does give some useful hints on dating bases, but fragments will always be difficult. In addition, fragments of candle-holder base may be difficult to tell apart from fragments of bell, or of the bases of small vessels such as ewers or chafing dishes.
Later post-medieval candle-holders
We have a few slightly later sockets with a neo-classical appearance; these may be later 17th or 18th century. Copper-alloy versions are shaped a little like a classical urn, with curved sides. Lead-alloy (perhaps pewter) versions have relief decoration.
Some of these sockets may be from saucer-type candle-holders (also known as chambersticks). These are short candle-holders with wide flat bases, stable on a bedside table and easily carried about.
Saucer-type candle-holders were certainly in use in the 17th century, when they had flat projecting handles like little frying pans; we do not have any of this type yet identified on the PAS database, but there is a mid 18th century illustration of one in the British Museum.
The PAS database does have some later looped handles from saucer-type candle-holders, dating perhaps to the 18th to 20th centuries. These have a flat circular or oval plate which formed a thumb-rest, and one or two projections which may have joined the handle to the saucer (check these for breaks).
All certain examples of these loops have undecorated thumb-rests. There are some examples (e.g. SWYOR-8AC357 and FAKL-C674F7) which look a little earlier, and have decorated thumb-rests opposite the scar of an attachment; these may be from candle-holders, but also may be finger-ring pipe tampers which have lost their tamping end.
A ceramic version of the 1770s in the British Museum provides dating evidence (1921,1215.139.CR).
Ejectors are an easily recognisable part of a post-medieval candle-holder. The candle-holder had a long socket with a slot, which could be used to hold a tall candle which was pushed up with the ejector. When recording one, add ‘ejector’ to the Classification field.
Some ejector handles can be oval, sometimes inscribed with initials. Others are simple knobs, which can be hard to recognise. The most recognisable ones, and the commonest on the PAS database, have an openwork trefoil of three circular loops.
A screw thread on the shaft of the ejector helps to identify an object as an ejector, but if this is missing then the general shape of the object and its size (15-25mm wide) can help. The holes tend to be bevelled on one face and with right-angled edges on the other, and there is often a short flaring collar between the trefoil and the shaft.
Bangs suggests that the trefoil type of ejector dates from the second half of the 17th century onwards (Bangs 1995, 145-146, 326; no. 121) but they seem to have become more common in the 18th century.
There are several lead-alloy toy candle-holders in the Museum of London, catalogued in Forsyth and Egan 2005, 181-3. The earliest date to the 17th century, although Forsyth and Egan suggest that there may be occasional earlier examples. The bases are generally 24-40mm in diameter and the candle-holders 40-60mm tall.
We have more than a dozen toy candle-holders now recorded on the PAS database. They are recorded as TOY, and should have ‘candle holder’ in the Classification field. This search should find all examples.