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 [, 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.)

About gawainsmum

I'm an academic researching on the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller, the crusades, religion and the role of women in warfare and in religious life in medieval Europe. This blog will feature developments in my research as it progresses.
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2 Responses to Clocks

  1. Signalman says:

    Fascinating post as always.

    The added interest for me is that both clocks mentioned are local to me, or at least local to where I grew up. I went to school in St Albans, and walked past the Abbey nearly every day, but cannot recall ever visiting it either on one of those days or with the school.

    Finally, I visited earlier this year and found the Abbey to be a wonderful building, with much to admire architecturally, historically and still spiritually.

    The reproduction clock you mention is in the Abbey itself, since I do not recall any separate museum. It is in the aisle just down from the shrine of St Alban, and has excellent explanations of its working and history.

    The guides at the Abbey are very helpful and chatty, and when I asked if St Albans was buried in the shrine told that there had never been a body there, but that in the early 2000s a bone purporting to be of St Alban from a Church in Cologne was given to the Abbey and placed in the shrine. No idea how true that is !

    Also good to see a mention of Dunstable. It was never that great a place in the 70s and has declined even further since then, but its good to be reminded that it was once a significant place, with a Priory and other trappings of mediaeval civilisation !

    Two memories of Dunstable remain with me. One was a mention in a book ( ‘Leopards and Lilies’ by Alfred Duggan ) where a character stated that they would be safe and comfortable once they reached Dunstable. That produced more than a snigger from me ! The other was a pub called ‘The Norman King’. One of Dunstable’s better pubs with a reputation for good food too. I was surprised to find that it was an original 11/12th century building, and was on the site of a palace built by Henry I, no doubt the Norman King of the later pub name.

    Sadly, it was burned down in the last 5 years or so, and damaged considerably. No idea if it has re-opened or what it current use is.

    Thanks again for the post, and stirring up some memories !

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