A Coventry made timepiece fit for a King

Samual Watson clock
Samual Watson Astronomical Clock in Windsor Castle.

King Charles II didn’t much like Coventry. In 1662 he ordered the demolition of Coventry’s city walls as punishment for the city’s support for Parliament during the Civil War and the humiliation of his father King Charles I.

Charles I had tried to enter Coventry, with the intention of gaining access to the large armoury in the city. But after laying siege to the city with cannon fire he did not manage to gain entry, and had to move on.

So Coventry was in the new king’s bad books and was paying for it. The city even had to pay for every cartload of stone blocks taken away from the city wall.

King Charles II
King Charles II

Despite his dislike of Coventry, the King had a penchant for Coventry workmanship and in particular for clocks made by Coventry born clock maker Samuel Watson. He commissioned Watson to make two of them, the second of which still survives. It is the most amazing timepiece, an astronomical clock incorporating planetary motion.

The clock has four large dials and one small one in the centre. The top left-hand dial is the planetary dial and shows the earth in the centre, and the five known planets at the time and the sun. Each ring revolves around the earth, the planets turning in their own orbits. The top right-hand dial is the lunar dial and shows the sun and the moon revolving around the earth, so the moon keeps her illumination face always towards the sun.

The bottom left-hand dial is the Calendar and Solar Cycle Dial and shows the motion of the nodes, when the earth, the sun and the moon will take place predicting eclipses, the long hand revolves once a year showing the day and month of the year for the first three years on the first outer rings and with the leap year on the fourth outer ring. The bottom right-hand dial, the Dial of the Golden Numbers has a long hand revolving once in nineteen years and indicates the Metonic cycle.

The small dial in the centre tells the day of the week and the time, but with only one single hand!

It took Samuel Watson from 1683 – 1690 to complete the clock but by the time he had finished it King Charles II had died.

Later the clock was bought by Queen Mary II of William and Mary fame for Kensington Palace. But she did not like the wooden long case clock frame that it was in, so another case was made and the original case had a different clock workings put in it and is now part of the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum collection. The royal clock is in the Queens collection in Windsor Castle.

Samuel Watson (1635 – 1710) lived and worked in Coventry and was Sheriff of the city in 1686. In 1690 he moved to Long Acre in London and called himself ‘Mathematician in Ordinary to his Majesty’. He was also an associate of Isaac Newton, for whom he made two other astronomical clocks. His other inventions included the “five minute repeater” (a clock which strikes the hours and then the number of 5 minute periods since the hour) and also the stopwatch.

Samuel Watson made many clocks and watches between about 1640 and 1710 and many survive. We would love to see the city host an exhibition of Watson clocks, bringing together the Herbert longcase and the Windsor clock for the first time in 330 years. This would be a worth event for our City of Culture Year in 2021 and would celebrate a great citizen of Coventry who we have forgotten as well as an industry that the city was famous for.

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