The rare surviving astronomical clock, located in the upper stories of Hampton Court’s Tudor gatehouse, is one of the most significant late-medieval clocks in Europe. Only a handful of clocks predating King Henry VIII’s 470 year old astronomical clock survive today.
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King Henry VIII commissioned Nicolas Kratzer, astronomer and ‘Devisor of the King’s Horologes’ to design the clock for his palace at Hampton Court. Made prior to Copernicus (1473–1543) discovering the motion of the earth around the sun, it is constructed on the Ptolemaic system with the earth as the centre of the universe and the sun, moon and planets revolving around it.
Nicolas Kratzer worked with French clockmaker Nicholas Oursian. His initials (N.O.) are stamped onto the mechanism. Henry VIII’s association with artists, scientists and philosophers of international renown demonstrated to other rulers and to the court his importance as well as his learning and his patronage of men of science. The clock was more than a marvel of Tudor engineering; it was also an enviable work of art. It had great practical use showing the time, month, day of the month, position of the sun in the zodiac, the phase and age of the moon. In addition it determined the time at which the moon would cross the meridian and therefore the time of high water at London Bridge, useful for King Henry who travelled to London by royal barge.
The clock was installed around 1540. It has three bells; the largest appears to have been cast in the foundry of Thomas Harrys around 1479, while the smaller bells may have been manufactured c1500 by William Culverton. Originally there were two clock faces, one on either side of the gatehouse, both powered by the complex mechanical and gearing system. The smaller dial which faced Base Court was for guests; however, this was replaced in 1835 by a slate clock face from St James’s Palace bearing the monogram of William IV (1830-7). When James I’s queen, Anne of Denmark, died here in 1619 the clock is said to have stopped.
The dials rotate at different rates using a complex system of gearing. Various sizes and shape of cogs behind the dials enable movement at different speeds, all powered by one mechanism. The larger dial, measuring over 2.5 metres wide and made up of three separate copper dials, overlooks the royal courtyard. The biggest dial rotates once a year in relation to the solar dial. The middle dial, the solar dial, rotates once every 24 hours. The smallest dial is the lunar dial and rotates once per month in relation to the solar dial. The outer fixed scale is marked I to XII twice over for a twenty four hour period.
Records show that the mechanism was frequently repaired and readjusted, indicating that the clock was perhaps too advanced for its time. The archive reveals that the dials have been run from at least four different movements over the years. Repairs took place in 1567-70 and 1591-2; repainting of both dials occurred in 1584-5 and again in 1664; various repairs were undertaken in 1700-2, including ‘making all new the watch part of the great Clock’; more repairs happened in 1707, 1721, and 1732; new mechanisms were made by Langley Bradley of Fenchurch Street in 1710-11 and again in the 1880s when the last one was made and installed by Gillett and Bland of Croydon.
In 1794-5 the dials of the clock and the surrounding stone frame were repainted and gilded, and the stonework cleaned and repaired. In 1839 Vulliamy (possibly the maker of the clock movement installed in 1835) to the Board of works said “The great Clock at Hampton Court Palace has gone until it will go no longer for want of cleaning, not having been cleaned since it was put up in 1835… The copper faces forming the front of the dial are much perished and also the painting destroyed by time and weather. The dial has not had anything done to it for the past half century.”
Mr Ormsby Gore to Office of works in 1858 said “Please to enquire why the Clock at Hampton Court Palace has not been properly repaired… at present it is going all wrong and causing great inconvenience to the inhabitants.”
The three dials facing into Clock Court appear to have been removed and stored for a number of decades in the mid-19th century and replaced by black boards. In 1879 Ernest Law found the dials in an outhouse and ‘induced the authorities to put it back’ and so the Astronomical Clock was restored and reinstated in the 1880s. Gillett and Bland of Croydon made and installed the new clock mechanism. The last time the dials were removed and fully restored was 1959-60. Greg and Son were responsible for the new paintwork. The clock is currently maintained on an annual basis to ensure that it continues to keep correct time.
The clock has a striking, although probably less intricate, paint scheme than it originally had. A description of works by George Gower, ‘Serjannte Painter’ to Elizabeth I, gives us insight into how spectacular the original Tudor dial looked with seas, ships and continents depicted: ’for cleansing of the two dialls the great diall with the howres of the day and the night, the course of the Sunne and Mone, xii Signes with the Carectors of the Planetts, the Sea, shipps and Territories all wrought in oyle coullors as Vermilion, Bise, White leade etc and gilded with fine golde.’
While nearly all of the original Tudor paint scheme has been removed from the dials and the mechanics of the clock altered to make it operate accurately, the astronomical clock remains an iconic feature of Hampton Court Palace, with thousands of visitors every year studying its face as King Henry VIII did 500 years ago.
The removal and restoration of the astronomical clock in 2007 is part of a larger project to repair and conserve the Tudor brickwork and stonework of Anne Boleyn’s Gatehouse at Hampton Court Palace. The project will take approximately nine months, which will include reinstating Henry’s famous astronomical clock in April 2008. The Cumbria Clock Company who is responsible for the annual inspection of the clock mechanism are dismantling and removing the clock dials and the original gearing. They will also be assessing and conserving the mechanism and gears as necessary. The dials will be on public display at Hampton Court Palace from August through to October 2007. Then they will be removed from public display so work can be undertaken. The Astronomical clock will be reinstated to Anne Boleyn’s gatehouse in May 2008.
Information courtesy Hampton Court Palace Press Office.
Photos courtesy HRP and newstream.co.uk