Tuesday’s lecture to the first year students included a passing reference to the mechanical clock built at St Alban’s Abbey between around 1327 and 1336 by Abbot Richard of Wallingford (c. 1292-1336) (see J. D. North, ‘Wallingford, Richard (c.1292–1336)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [https://doi-org.abc.cardiff.ac.uk/10.1093/ref:odnb/23525, accessed 25 Oct 2017]).
Richard was the son of a blacksmith, but after his father’s death when he was nine he was adopted by a brother of the abbey and sent to Oxford University to get a good education. As a monk he continued to study and write on astronomy and mathematics. In 1327 he was elected abbot. He retained his love of making things and created a wonderful clock for the abbey, which set out the positions of the moon and planets as well as the time at St Albans. The clock survived until the sixteenth century and the dissolution of the monasteries; was it dismantled for its metal or smashed by superstitious zealots who believed it to be the work of witchcraft? (The sixteenth century was far more superstitious than the fourteenth.) In any case, a modern replica, based on Richard’s own description and writings, now stands in the abbey museum.
But Brother Richard’s mechanical clock was not the first mechanical clock in England: as J. D. North notes, mechanical clocks had been around in England for at least fifty years. The Annals of Dunstable priory note in passing under 1283 that ‘eodem anno fecimus horologium, quod est supra pulpitum collocatum’ (‘Annales de Dunstablia’, in Annales Monastici, ed. Henry Richards Luard, vol. 3, Rolls Series 36.3 (London, 1866), p. 296): that is, ‘in the same year we made a clock, which was placed over the pulpit’. Possibly to time the abbot’s sermons?
Regrettably, the annals of Dunstable don’t tell us anything about what the clock looked like. In fact, the offhand way in which it’s mentioned suggests that clocks were commonplace. Obviously it wasn’t a sundial, because it was indoors over the pulpit. There’s no mention of water. Overall, the most likely explanation is that this was a mechanical clock. Clearly, however, it was a much smaller clock than Richard of Wallingford’s invention, which certainly wouldn’t fit over a pulpit.
(As an aside for Military Orders fans: later that year (pp. 297-8) one of the servants of John Durant junior of Dunstable committed suicide by throwing himself into John’s well. After the coroner had seen the body, it was thrown into a ditch outside the town — suicides could not receive Church burial. But the Hospitallers took the body out and buried it in the cemetery. Why did the canons of Dunstable think this worth noting? — the Hospitallers’ action was a violation of Church privileges, and on another occasion the Hospitallers’ privileges of burial clashed with the canons of Dunstable’s own rights. But by burying the body the Hospitallers were helping to prevent the spread of disease, and of course they were also assisting his soul to eternal rest. It was in tracking down this reference to the Hospitallers at Dunstable that I originally found the reference to the clock.)