Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mary Queen of Scot's skull watch?

I'm having a lovely time working on Horrible Histories magazine at the moment, writing poo jokes and investigating stupid deaths. Today, I've been on the trail of an unusual gift apparently given by Mary, Queen of Scots, to her maid, Mary Seaton.

Search the web and you'll find plenty of sites referencing Mary Queen of Scot's skull watch. They seem to link back to a post on This Write Life from October 2012, but I'm struck by the three images of the watch in that post, reproduced below:

The first image is clearly not the same watch as the other two.

A bit more searching, and the second image appears to be cropped version of one from the Victoria and Albert Museum - an engraving from 1820-35 by Charles John Smith.

The third image, of the same watch in a distinctive holder with a hole in the top, seems to match one in the collection of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers. There are three images of this particular skull watch on the Bridgeman images site. But the description for each of these says it is not the watch given by Mary Queen of Scots to her maid; it's an 18th century copy made by "Moysant, Blois".

The This Write Life site - and plenty of others that repeat the same information with the same pictures - claims the skull watch to be the work of "Moyant A. Blois (1570-90)". Surely Moyant A. Blois must be related to Moysant, Blois - but is this clockmaker from the sixteenth or eighteenth centuries? Does the original skull watch still exist? In fact, did Mary Queen of Scots really give such a gift, or is it the invention of a later century?

I shall continue to search… But here's a description from an 1894 book that says it wasn't a "watch" as we understand it anyway, but more of a table decoration:

The curious relic, of which we herewith give an engraving, was presented by Mary, Queen of Scots, to her Maid of Honour, Mary Seaton, of the house of Wintoun, one of the four celebrated Maries, who were Maids of Honour to her Majesty.
"Yestreen the Queen had four Maries,
The night she'll hae but three;
There was Marie Seaton, and Marie Beaton,
And Marie Carmichael and me."
[Illustration [++] Memento-Mori Watch.] [SG: I assume this is a version of the Charles John Smith engraving.]

The watch is of silver, in the form of a skull. On the forehead of the skull is the figure of Death, with his scythe and sand-glass; he stands between a palace on the one hand, and a cottage on the other, with his toes applied equally to the door of each, and around this is the legend from Horace "_Pallida mors æquo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas Regumque turres_." On the opposite, or posterior part of the skull, is a representation of Time, devouring all things. He also has a scythe, and near him is the serpent with its tail in its mouth, being an emblem of eternity; this is surrounded by another legend from Horace, "_Tempus edax rerum tuque invidiosa vetustas_." The upper part of the skull is divided into two compartments: on one is represented our first parents in the garden of Eden, attended by some of the animals, with the motto, "_Peccando perditionem miseriam æternam posteris meruere_." The opposite compartment is filled with the subject of the salvation of lost man by the crucifixion of our Saviour, who is represented as suffering between the two thieves, whilst the Mary's are in adoration below; the motto to this is "_Sic justitiæ satisfecit, mortem superavit salutem comparavit_." Running below these compartments on both sides, there is an open work of about an inch in width, to permit the sound to come more freely out when the watch strikes. This is formed of emblems belonging to the crucifixion, scourges of various kinds, swords, the flagon and cup of the Eucharist, the cross, pincers, lantern used in the garden, spears of different kinds, and one with the sponge on its point, thongs, ladder, the coat without seam, and the dice that were thrown for it, the hammer and nails, and the crown of thorns. Under all these is the motto, "_Scala cæli ad gloriam via_."

The watch is opened by reversing the skull, and placing the upper part of it in the hollow of the hand, and then lifting the under jaw which rises on a hinge. Inside, on the plate, which thus may be called the lid, is a representation of the Holy Family in the stable, with the infant Jesus laid in the manger, and angels ministering to him; in the upper part an angel is seen descending with a scroll on which is written, "_Gloria excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonæ volu----_" In the distance are the shepherds with their flocks, and one of the men is in the act of performing on a cornemuse. The works of the watch occupy the position of the brains in the skull itself, the dial plate being on a flat where the roof of the mouth and the parts behind it under the base of the brain, are to be found in the real subject. The dial plate is of silver, and it is fixed within a golden circle richly carved in a scroll pattern. The hours are marked in large Roman letters, and within them is the figure of Saturn devouring his children, with this relative legend round the outer rim of the flat, "_Sicut meis sic et omnibus idem_."

Lifting up the body of the works on the hinges by which they are attached, they are found to be wonderfully entire. There is no date, but the maker's name, with the place of manufacture, "Moyse, Blois," are distinctly engraven. Blois was the place where it is believed watches were first made, and this suggests the probability of the opinion that the watch was expressly ordered by Queen Mary at Blois, when she went there with her husband, the Dauphin, previous to his death. The watch appears to have been originally constructed with catgut, instead of the chain which it now has, which must have been a more modern addition. It is now in perfect order, and performs wonderfully well, though it requires to be wound up within twenty-six hours to keep it going with tolerable accuracy. A large silver bell, of very musical sound, fills the entire hollow of the skull, and receives the works within it when the watch is shut; a small hammer set in motion by a separate escapement, strikes the hours on it.

This very curious relic must have been intended to occupy a stationary place on a _prie-dieu_, or small altar in a private oratory, for its weight is much too great to have admitted of its having been carried in any way attached to the person.

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