Candlemas or the Feast of the Purification of Mary is February 2 and the date when the baby Jesus was supposed to be presented at the Temple. Jesus is the light of the world – there were ceremonies that involved processing with candles which were often then blessed. These candles were supposed to be helpful in time of illness – they would be decorated and kept throughout the following year. They were also supposed to protect dwellings from storms.
Candlemas is one of those feasts that turns up in a historical context to mark the time of year. It’s not a quarter day but it is an important feast. I’ve come across it most often when reading about the border between England and Scotland. George MacDonald Fraser made the feast famous with his novel The Candlemas Road a story set in the sixteenth century about Lady Margaret Dacre the heiress of Askerton Hall.
Essentially Candlemas was the feast that was half way between Christmas and the Spring Equinox. For the borderers this meant the “light at the end of the tunnel” so to speak – the reivers’ horses weren’t up to the task of raiding from that point onwards.
Raiding and reiving seems to have gone on all year but the cycle of the seasons made the winter months particularly noticeable. “The longer the nights grow the worse they will be,” notes Sir Robert Carey in his memoirs of his time as the Deputy Warden of the English West March. George MacDonald Fraser records that from September to November the land was dry and the cattle which had been in the meadows all summer were at their best i.e. it was good riding and the cattle were at their most valuable and thus a greater temptation. As the winter progressed the cattle grew weaker and the weather was often too bad to want to steal them in any case. By February 2nd – forty days after Christmas, the cattle were in their poorest condition and feed was more expensive so it was unlikely that many people would be feeding their horses the oats they required for hard riding – so if you were a law abiding soul you would probably sleep a little easier…until the better weather at any rate.
It should be noted that there is always an exception! The Scots won the Battle of Nesbit Moor in August 1355 before attacking and sacking Berwick-Upon-Tweed. Edward III was forced to bring an army north in order to defend the castle at Berwick which was under siege. The Scots decided that discretion was a sensible option and backed off before Edward arrived at his destination. Having met with Edward Balliol at Roxburgh, Edward decided to teach the Scots a lesson and in delivered his retribution in February 1356 in the Burned Candlemas Campaign. Basically Edward III set fire to the Lothians and what the English didn’t destroy the Scots did in a bid to force the English back with a burned earth policy. In the end this turned out to be justified as Edward’s fleet was destroyed in winter gales off North Berwick.
Edward expressed his irritation by destroying Haddington Monastery but was eventually forced to turn back.
‘Whitekirk and the ‘Burnt Candlemas’, Rev. Edward B. Rankin in the Scottish Historical Review Vol. 13, No. 50 (Jan., 1916), pp. 133-137
MacDonald-Fraser, George. The Steel Bonnets
Mortimer, Ian. (2008) The Perfect King: the life of Edward III