C is for lots of parliamentary things: committees, chairs and conferences, but also for candles, which in Parliament have been the instrument of darkness, as well as a method of illumination, and whose abolition in 1718 was perhaps the first successful attempt at procedural reform….

A Letter from an Ejected Member of the House of Commons, a tremendous polemic against the iniquities of the Long Parliament, addressed to Sir John Evelyn in 1648, vehemently attacked its ‘long debates, which sometimes held from morning till night, and then almost from night till morning agen, [and] looked little better then great brawles: and when the people supposed their Gallant wise Members were very busie, and took great paines, to sit up late anights, making them good Lawes, they were then altogether by the ears perhaps, and drawing Swords, about the Candles’.

The author (probably the Dorset MP Giles Strangwayes) was referring to the motion to bring in candles, which had, over the past seven years (and especially the in the course of the fraught politics of the years 1646, 1647 and 1648) suddenly become an essential component of the procedural armoury, a weapon that could be used to divert or delay debate, or even halt it entirely. It was initiated, it seems, in the course of a bitter debate in the late evening of 8 June 1641, which Strangwayes may well have had in mind. It was almost a month after the execution of the king’s right-hand man, Thomas Wentworth, the earl of Strafford, after a bitter series of debates and mounting popular pressure forced the king’s deeply reluctant acceptance of Strafford’s attainder bill. On 8 June the House were hearing the report of a committee established to investigate what would become known as the army plot, an alleged conspiracy – very close to the king – to use the military to suppress Parliament. There was uproar in the chamber as the House debated whether two of those involved should withdraw from the House: in the end both withdrew, and then, wrote the diarist Sir Simonds D’Ewes, ‘a long dispute or debate followed touching their censure which was prosecuted with so much heat and animosity on both sides as the Speaker could scarce direct who should speak, we sitting so long that it began to grow dark, whereupon the House did at last rise in confusion’.  Other sources indicate that the final uproar came around nine o’clock, when the serjeant at arms came in with candles to illuminate a chamber which must have been getting dark.

The following day complaints were made against two members, Herbert Price and Sir William Widdrington, both future royalists. The two had, it was alleged, violently seized the candles from the hands of the serjeant ‘when there was no general command in the House for the bringing of candles in but a great sense of the House went for rising, it being so very late’. Herbert Price claimed that candles had been ‘called for and brought in’, but when he found out that it was likely that they would be taken out again, he ‘stepped out of his place to the Serjeant, and took one of the candles from him, and set it on the House floor that it might have been of use to all’. It was said that others had tried to push the serjeant out of the House when he was bringing in the candles, and Sir John Hotham confessed that he had told him that he ought not to bring in lights without the order of the House. The Speaker remarked that he had not expected to get out of the House alive. It was generally agreed that ‘the serjeant ought not to bring in lights without the consent and order of the House’. Widdrington, when he finally turned up, agreed that he had taken the candle from the Speaker ‘desiring to hold it that himself might be seen because he intended to speak’. The two ended up in the Tower for a week or two before being released.

The incident suggests that previously it was assumed that the House would formally order candles to be brought in when necessary: however, the journal records no such order before June 1641, so it must have been a matter of routine. Thereafter, as tensions rose even higher, the request for candles was treated with much greater formality. On 15 December, when the House was urged to vote to print the great listing of the iniquities of Charles I’s regime, the Remonstrance, ‘it growing so dark as the clerk could not see to write divers moved to have candles brought in’, there was a division over the motion.

Motions for candles became common during 1646-8, following Parliament’s victory in the Civil War, as the House of Commons broke into factions that struggled over the fate of the king. The procedure is noted in the journal once more in 1642, again in 1645. But candles were called for on six occasions in 1646 (four of them in December); nine in 1647; eight in 1648 and six in 1649 – always in the context of bitterly argued, partisan debates. And their use reached their apogee in November-December 1654, during the debates on the Instrument of Government, the constitution for the Cromwellian Protectorate. Between 10 November 1654 and 4 January 1655 candles were moved for 12 times, on 5 occasions provoking a division.

The device of calling for candles was by then regarded as manipulative and underhand, a way of perverting the normal course of debate. With London poorly lit, and in a House which was accustomed to sit early in the morning – seven, eight or nine o’clock were the usual hours for the beginning of business, although a tendency would shortly become visible for the time of beginning to become stretched later and later – sitting late into the night was not only unusual, but, if too often repeated, impractical and unbearable. There was pressure to put off business to another day, if it seemed likely to be extended after the hours of darkness. ‘I never knew good of candles’, said Sir Arthur Haselrig in March 1659. Nevertheless, it rapidly became a normal, if disliked, aspect of Commons procedure. By the 1690s it was seen as a way in which an organised court could divert difficult questions: one pamphleteer complained of ‘the scandalous way of putting the question for candles, and carrying it in the negative’, in order to prevent the Commons from carrying out an attack against a government minister. (Considerations upon the Choice of a Speaker (1698), p. 7).

This suggests that the effect of an unsuccessful motion for candles was that it stopped a debate short and made no provision for it to be taken up again on another day – in effect, the debate was adjourned sine die, a way of killing it off. Journal entries for days on which the motion for candles was negatived do suggest just that: that the House carried out no further business once it decided not to bring in candles (though in a number of cases there was an attempt to set a date for when the business could be resumed). Conversely, if a motion for candles was passed, it could act as a proxy for a vote on the business itself, and lead to a quick abandonment of resistance by the losing side, once they recognised that the supporters of the business concerned had a majority to carry it through the night. At least early on there was plenty of confusion about what was and was not the effect of calling for candles – it was claimed in 1675 that ‘one candle may always be on the table, when it grows dark, without a Question, and at a division, that you may see who goes out, and who in’.

The business of candles ended almost as abruptly as it started. On 6 February 1718 the House declared that ‘when the House, or any Committee of the whole House, shall be sitting, and daylight be shut in, that the Serjeant at Arms attending this House do take care, that Candles be brought in, without any particular Order for that Purpose’. And that was that: the House never again ordered that candles be brought in, for the first time – and the last time for long afterwards – removing a procedural obstacle that obstructed the House in its day to day business. It’s difficult to say why it was stopped: I’ve found no discussion surrounding the change, and the House had been routinely ordering candles to be brought in (two occasions in 1717, three in 1716, and so on). Perhaps one explanation might be the tendency of the House of sit later in the day, a process which may have meant that the need for candles was no longer an exceptional occurrence, though if that was so, one might have expected that over the previous twenty years the number of occasions on which candles were called for would have been steadily growing, whereas they seem to have been stable. Or perhaps it was because a House in a rather less charged period of party competition had come to see that a motion to switch on the light was a patent absurdity.


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