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King Charles I

Clockmakers Sundial, 1634

by Lee Borrett, UK.

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Before clocks arrived in England, sundials were being used to tell the time. However, even after the arrival of early clocks, sundials were still very important during the 16th and 17th centuries because the earliest domestic clocks prior to the invention of the pendulum were not always accurate, and so domestic clocks had to be reset regularly using sundials as a reference. Lantern clock makers would often sell their clocks accompanied by a brass sundial that was made by the clockmaker himself, or alternatively, for more wealthier customers the dial could have been made by a mathematical instrument maker. The wonderfully original, early 17th century brass sundial shown here is believed to have been made by a provincial clockmaker and has some nice early features including retaining its original, thin brass knife-edge gnomon with fringed northern supporting plate. Interestingly, the dial is dated 1634 and was made in the same year as when King Charles I, from October 1634 onwards, levied ship money during peacetime and then extended it to the inland counties of England without Parliamentary approval. This provoked fierce resistance and was one of the grievances of the English propertied class in the lead-up to the English Civil War.  And it is about this fascinating, early provincial sundial with its unusual features and fabulous historical background story that is the subject of my article which is fully illustrated below.

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Above. Showing the wonderfully original and very rare Charles I clockmakers sundial. complete with its original, thin brass knife-edge gnomon with fringed northern supporting plate. The dial is dated 1634 and measures 7.85 inches square.  Private collection, Photographed by Lee Borrett.

Below. Showing a close-up of the engraved date of making of 1634. Private collection, Photographed by Lee Borrett.

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Being lightweight in construction this sundial is very versatile and could be used in different parts of the house or garden, including to reset the clock(s) of the house. However, having the very sturdy gnomon supporting plate attached to the dial suggests to me that this sundial was originally custom made by the clockmaker, for its first owner to be able to use it whilst travelling, either by foot or on horseback, as the gnomon support is there to strengthen, protect and shield the gnomon from getting damaged or bent whilst travelling. Interestingly, tests done by Dr John Davis of the British Sundial Society (BSS) shows that the dial plate is quite a standard brass for the period and has a lower zinc (Zn) and higher tin (Sn) resulting from the processing and source of the copper ore respectively. However, the original gnomon and its fringed northern supporting plate are a most unusual material - almost a straight copper but not quite as pure as you might expect from pure copper. They are both a low-grade gunmetal containing zinc (Zn) and tin (Sn) with just traces of lead (Pb). Almost certainly these parts are of the materials a clockmaker might have used in this early period. It is a well-known fact that early provincial clockmakers would often use old brass clock parts and melt them down to re-cast the brass. The gnomon and its northern supporting plate may well have been made from old clock parts which have been melted down and simply reused - for this dial. But this is just typical of what early provincial clockmakers did. The clockmaker probably supplied this sundial along with a balance wheel lantern clock of the day.

Above An angled view of the original thin-edge gnomon. Private collection, Photographed by Lee Borrett.

Below. Showing a side view angle of the wonderfully original Charles I sundial. Private collection, Photographed by Lee Borrett.


Having no noon gap (and typical for early clockmaker sundials) is another indication that this sundial has probably been made by an early provincial clockmaker (rather than a scientific Instrument maker) who would have made and supplied it along with a lantern clock he had sold to one of his customers..

Above Showing a close-up of the original northern supporting plate which is held in place with original tenons from the gnomon and also with the original tenons from the back support to the underside of dial. Private collection, Photographed by Lee Borrett.

Above Interestingly the hours are marked out using roman numerals and in between the fifteen minute intervals are also shown using engraved and non engraved areas just like some early clock dials were during the 1630s.  Private collection, Photographed by Lee Borrett.


Below Interesting miniature lantern clock dated 1637. Note the very similar engraved 15 minute markings to that of the 1634 sundial shown above. Private collection, Photograph Lee Borrett.

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Below. Showing a closer view of the 1637 clocks 15 minute markings. Private collection, Photograph Lee Borrett.

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First Period lantern clocks were made with balance-wheel control and having a sundial indoors or outside in the garden to correct and regulate a clocks time would have been very useful in rural areas.  In the English provinces during the early 1630s, when time was governed by Sun Up and Sun Down, provincial domestic clockmaking had barely just begun and this sundial would have helped its first owners to plan and organise their days much better than before - with the added bonus of being able to take the sundial on long journeys if so desired. The dial would have been mounted on a small wooden plinth.

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Above. Showing evidence of the dial being secured to a mount (probably wooden).  Private collection, Photographed by Lee Borrett.

Below Showing a rear view of the 1634 sundial. Note the original gnomon and gnomon back support rivets still in place. Private collection, Photograph Lee Borrett.

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Historic Event

Being almost 400 years old, this exceptionally early provincial clockmakers sundial is an historically important survivor and is very interesting in its own right, but because of its known year of making being 1634 - it also has a fascinating historical link to The English Civil War which ultimately led to the death of the King Charles I in 1649


Charles I

Ship Tax of 1634

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Above. King Charles I, reigning over the House of Lords.

When King Charles I from October 1634 onwards levied ship money during peacetime and then extended it to the inland counties of England without Parliamentary approval it provoked fierce resistance and was one of the grievances of the English propertied class in the lead-up to the English Civil War. 


Ship Money was first used as a tax in the reign of Elizabeth I at the time of invasion threat from the Spanish Armada. The crown levied the tax on the coastal towns of England where each town was required to supply ships and crews or to provide the equivalent in money to help the Queen pay for the defence of the country in an emergency. In this case it was successful and the response was prompt and generous. The City of London supplied thirty ships when only fifteen had been levied.


King Charles I was in a desperate state in the early 1630s when his extravagances had led to him needing to resort to new and ingenious sources of income. His counsel suggested that Ship Money could be re-imposed and would not infringe the "Petition of Right" that he had agreed to earlier.


Above. War Ships on the time of Charles I was king of England. Image by

Below. Charles I, King of England, reigned 1625–1649. This portrait was painted in 1633 and just before he introduced the Ship Tax that would turn out to be very unpopular with the people. Daniel Mytens I

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Ship Money was one of the financial measures implemented by Charles I in his attempt to rule without calling Parliament, and one of the factors that led to the outbreak of the Civil War. The first ship money writ of October 1634 simply requested the coastal towns to provide ships, following on from earlier acts of Elizabeth I. This could be justified at a time when pirates threatened coastal trade around the country, but that was not Charles's intention, and the following year ship money writs demanding money were sent to inland areas, provoking increasing resistance, especially after John Hampden refused to pay. The resulting court case found for Charles I but by a very small margin, and the judgement, which in effect gave Charles the power to do whatever he wished, alienated almost the entire nation, including many who fought for Charles in the Civil War. Ship money was made illegal by the Long Parliament in 1641.


I would like to thank Dr John Davis of the British Sundial Society who took the time and effort in March of 2024, to examine and experiment on this 1634 sundial. 

I would like to the private collector who allowed me to use images of their interesting 1637 lantern clock for this article.

I would like to thank Wikipedia for allowing me to use their own published information about the Charles I Ship Tax of 1634.


17th century brass sundial Wanted

Please Contact Lee Borrett

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