One of England’s most magnificent astronomical clocks is Hampton Court astronomical clock, a sixteenth-century masterpiece located in Hampton Court Palace. As King Henry’s lavish residence was designed to celebrate his wealth and magnificence, the astronomical clock served as an extra symbol of prestige.
Built not only for decorative purposes, it was also vital to planning barge travel up and down the adjacent Thames River. The clock was built and installed in the palace in 1540, positioned on the gatehouse to the inner court, also known as Anne Boleyn Gate. The clock overlooks the courtyard below, which was named the Clock Court in its honour.
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The Masters Who Built Hampton Court Astronomical Clock
The astronomical clock was designed by German astronomer and horologist Nicholas Kratzer. Kratzer was appointed the personal astronomer for King Henry VIII, and as part of the royal court, he even collaborated with celebrated portraitist Hans Holbein The Younger. Together, they worked on producing maps, and Kratzer was painted by Holbein, his portrait now hanging in The Louvre.
It was built by Nicholas Oursian, a Huguenot immigrant from France, who worked as the royal clockmaker for four different monarchs. He maintained royal clocks in many royal palaces, such as Hampton Court, Oatlands and Westminster. His initials, N.O. are inscribed on the clock face. The clock was built before the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo, so Oursian built a geocentric central dial.
Features Of Hampton Court Clock
The complex central dial of Hampton Court Astronomical Clock displays a wealth of information. Three copper dials revolve around the dial to display the hour in 24 hour time, the day, the month, and the number of days since the beginning of the year. It also shows the current zodiac sign, the lunar phase, the age of the moon (days since the last new moon), and the hour of the meridian/anti-meridian. This was useful for Thames barge transports to know so they could avoid high water at London Bridge. As King Henry often travelled by barge, he commissioned the clock be built for this main reason.
The clock is huge, measuring over 3 metres (nearly 10 feet) in diameter (though not as large as some of the world’s other astronomical clocks, such as the Torrazzo of Cremona 8.2-metre giant clock)! Interestingly, while the time is 24-hours, it reads 1-12 twice around the dial.
Changes And Renovations Of Hampton Court Astronomical Clock
The clock underwent numerous changes and restorations over the years. The clock face was changed in 1711 by William Herbert, who mislaid the astrological dials during the renovation. In 1831, the clock mechanism was replaced, and in 1835, the clock’s second face (on the other side of the gate, facing Base Court) was removed and replaced with a regular slate clock. In 1879, Herbert’s missing astrological dials were rediscovered after over a century and a half, and were replaced. Most recently, in 2008, the clock was fully restored.
The Hampton Court Astronomical Clock is one of the oldest surviving astronomical clocks in England today, and a great example of a pre-Copernican timepiece. One of the most elaborate and beautiful showpieces of Hampton Court, the clock can be visited by anybody who takes a tour of Hampton Court Palace, just over half an hours drive south from central London.