Our reports are  written as usual by our Secretary Penny Lawton.

In January we held our AGM and our programme for the coming year can be found on our website. In February we celebrated our group anniversary with lunch at Sandbach Old Hall. The theme for our March meeting was, “Developments in the Fifteenth Century”, with the following key paper giving a Europe - wide perspective. 



Every century has its own successes and developments which further human knowledge and civilisation. The fifteenth century must rank highly in that regard. It could be regarded as the beginning of the modern world.

The century saw the fall of empires and formation of distinct nations. Latin began to be replaced with vernacular tongues. The new learning came to the West. The hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church and its doctrines were seriously challenged. New worlds were discovered. Great artists were born. The flowering of music had to wait until the next century.  Printing introduced the possibility of mass communication. Architectural styles changed. It saw the birth of renowned humanists, scientists  and philosophers: Nicholas Copernicus, Sir Thomas More, Erasmus, Martin Luther.

The fourteenth century saw the beginning of the decline of the German Empire, and Bohemia broke  off in the fifteenth century as a result of the Hussite (religious) wars against the predominantly Roman Catholic states of the Empire. Gradually, Poland emerged as a separate country, as did Hungary, although both retained their Roman Catholic tradition. Russia emerged from the Mongol/Tartar domination and developed as a czarist monarchy, ie landlords and peasants. China, too, shook off the shackles of the Mongols to emerge as the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

In Europe, both France and Spain gained overall control of their territory. At the outset of the reign Louis XI, the King controlled only the centre of the country while large areas were controlled by the vassals of the King, which included the King of England as Duke of Normandy; the other significant vassals were the Duke of Burgundy and the Duke of Brittany. Louis effectively bought peace with England through the Treaty of Picquigny in 1475, and is quoted as saying that, while his father chased the English out with weapons of war (and Joan of Arc), he had succeeded in banishing them with veal pies and flagons of wine. The whole territory of France eventually came under the monarch’s control when Charles VIII (son of Louis XI) married Anne of Brittany. Spain, under the “Catholic Kings”, Ferdinand and Isabella, secured the final victory over the Moors at Granada in what became known as the “Reconquista” in 1492; the Moors had occupied southern Europe since 711.  Elsewhere in Europe, Sweden gained its independence from Denmark.

The century saw the establishment of a clear West and East division, with spheres of influence being carved out by France, Spain and England.  This set the pace for development in a range of sectors, namely the dawn of the Renaissance, and ultimately translated into religious areas of influence, with England on the Protestant side, France and Spain on the Catholic. (In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued a Papal Bull which effectively divided the new world between Spain and Portugal.)  The conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by the Ottoman Sultan (Mehmet II), prompted the flight of philosophers to the West, bringing with them their knowledge and priceless manuscripts. From this grew the new learning and humanism.

The Ottoman Empire continued to expand into Eastern Europe as far as Serbia, and was particularly successful under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the next century. This expansion came to an end with the conquest of the Sultan’s forces by the Imperial forces at the siege of Vienna in 1683. Its end came at the end of the First World War.

From this spirit of fresh thinking emerged the great artists.  In this era, Florence was at the pinnacle of artistic endeavour:  Leonardo da Vinci (although he died in France), Michelangelo, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Bernini, Bramante. Of them all, Leonardo was arguably the most remarkable: the breadth of his interests extended beyond painting into scientific and martial experiments. Michelangelo is renowned for the Sistine Chapel ceiling and his sculptures; Donatello for the David; Brunelleschi for the Duomo in Florence; Bramante the architect, worked with Michelangelo on the structure of St Peter’s Basilica. The Northern Renaissance, essentially German, was represented by the artists and engravers Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Durer.

Europe entered the era of mass communication with the invention of the printing press in Strasbourg in the 1430s, and the eventual publication by Johannes Guthenberg in 1455 of the Vulgate Bible. William Caxton adopted the new technology on his move to England and the publication of the Canterbury Tales and the Tale of Troilus and Cressida.

Universities had existed in Europe since the eleventh century: Bologna (1088), Oxford (1096), Cambridge (1209), Salamanca (1134), Paris/Sorbonne (1170), Padua (1222), Coimbra (1290), Heidelberg (1388). The fifteenth century saw a great expansion across Europe inspired by the new learning. Scotland’s universities came into being in this century: St Andrew’s (1410), Glasgow (1451) and Aberdeen (1494). Many others grew across Europe; Uppsala in Sweden came into being in 1477.

The new technology enabled the more rapid spread of learning and fresh ideas about approaches to religion. Lollardy had already emerged in the previous century and developed gradually into the Reformation in the next century. The need to tackle clerical corruption and a Christian renewal were the watchwords of the Florentine Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola, who was burned at the stake.

New worlds were discovered and explored. The land mass of Asia had been explored in the previous century by Marco Polo to the Court of the Great Khan. Earlier, Moorish explorers such as Ibn Battuta (1304-1369) had explored the coasts of Africa, India and as far as China. The hitherto vast and unexplored (Atlantic) ocean inspired Prince Henry the Navigator (Portugal), known as the initiator of the Age of Discovery by his exploration of the West African coast, and later the Atlantic islands; he also designed a model ship (the caravel) capable of faster sailing and an ability to manoeuvre in shallow and narrow areas. Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus discovered the New World in 1493; and from England, John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) discovered Newfoundland in a search for a route to Asia. His son, Sebastian, searched for the North West Passage. This new world brought considerable wealth and trading opportunities.

Domestic dwellings became more luxurious as owners acquired the beautiful tapestries from Flanders and France (Gobelins). Caister Castle in Norfolk was renowned for the luxury of its appointments.

 Socially, the fifteenth century did not exhibit significant change from its predecessor: there were still aristocratic patrons who exercised “good lordship” over their tenants and others. The position of the common people/non-gentry remained much as before, although an appreciation of their work emerged from the scarcity of labour following the Black Death, and the merchant classes and the military continued to profit from opportunities for advancement and wealth. The emergence of non-gentry into the ranks of the higher political class had to wait until the next century with men such as Wolsey and Cromwell in England. But King Louis XI had invited men of talent who were not noble (eg Jean DeLude/Cleverness) to be advisers; this was because he did not trust his nobility.




The desire to measure time is as old as recorded history. The Ancient Greeks had a kind of clock with a water powered mechanism. Other early devices included candle clocks, of which the most famous is that of Alfred the Great. The hourglass may also have been used together with the magnetic compass as an aid to navigation as early as the 11th C., although the first definite evidence to survive is in the 1338 painting. “Allegory of Good Government”, by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

The Ancient Egyptians used sundials. These were nodus-based with straight hour-lines  divided into 12 equal segments, with the result that the hours were shorter in the winter and longer in the summer.  Muslim astronomers improved on this in the 14th century. Using developments in trigonometry, they produced sundials with a gnomon parallel to the earth's axis which gave hours of equal length. This type of sundial is recorded as appearing in Europe in 1446 and they were built in large numbers in the following century.

Ironically, the appearance of these sundials co-incided with the emergence of a device that brought the fifteenth century into the modern world: the mechanical clock. They were first invented in Europe at the beginning of the 14th C. These clocks had a verge escarpment mechanism which became the standard until the invention of the pendulum clock in 1656.  Wells Cathedral clock, constructed c. 1390 by Peter Lightfoot is in the London Science Museum. Like many early clocks it is an astronomical clock, its function being closer to what we would now call a calendar. The 14th C. abbot of St. Albans constructed a highly sophisticated clock which, as well as keeping time, could accurately predict lunar eclipses, probably showed the sun moon and stars, a wheel of furtune and indicated the state of the tide at London Bridge. Norwich cathedral had an astronomical clock built 1321-5 by Roger de Stoke. The heavy weight of such clocks could also drive automata, of which Norwich had 59!  “including a procession of choir monks and figures representing the days of the month, lunar and solar models and an astronomical clock.”[1] Southwold still has a 15th C. clock built into the church tower facing into the church with a “Jack-in-the-Clock”: a mechanical figure of a knight in the armour of the Wars of the Roses period, who raises his sword arm and strikes the hour upon a bell with his axe. In Dublin, there was a clock on top of the city court and chamber by 1466 and provided for the official measurement of time, locally. These clocks had an hour hand only, the earliest surviving mention of a clock with a minute hand is in a manuscript of 1475. 

Westminster also had a clock, in New Palace Yard and the Parliament Rolls for the last quarter of the 14th C. provide early references to “clock time”. In 1376, because many of the Knights of the Shire and Burgesses from more distant towns had not yet arrived for the “Good Parliament”, those who had were told to re-assemble the next day at 8 o' clock. In Richard II's 1397 parliament, William Rikhill reported that he had seen the Duke of Gloucester, who was imprisoned in Calais, “entour viii del clokke devant l'oure de noon” ... “& revient a luy entour de neof del clokke apres l'oure de noon, mesme le jour.”[2] So there must have been a clock in Calais. Clock time was being recorded in official documents. By the later years of the 15th century, a London tailor could specify,


“And I . wil that the same prest singe ev[er]y day During the said iij yeres At the forsaid Auter of our[e] lady at viij . of the Clok . afore mydday ...”[3]


Because of the type of mechanism, all these clocks were built into clock towers. The invention of the mainspring in the early 15th C. allowed portable clocks to be built. The earliest surviving example of a spring driven clock is the chamber clock given to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, around 1430, which is now in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum. However, there is an intriguing reference from 40 years earlier, referring to clock that was somehow portable. When Henry Earl of Derby, (the future Henry IV) was preparing to go on crusade, he paid “John the Clockmaker for a pannier bought from him for the transportation of one clock from London to Bolingbroke, 8d”.[4] The earliest known reference in England, to a clock that was portable.

However, the sundial was not finished. Early clocks did not keep time absolutely accurately and some needed to be wound as often as twice a day. But never mind, the clock could always be re-set by using one of the latest super-accurate sundials, which continued to be made in their thousands right through the following century. Nevertheless, documentation shows that clock-time had arrived.


[1]    Colonel Unthanks Norwich, https://colonelunthanksnorwich.com

[2]    Rotuli Parliamentorum, xxi Richard II. Item 7.

[3]    Will of John Hardy, Richard III Society Milles Wills Project, scan 488, my transcript.

[4]    “The Fears of Henry IV”, Ian Mortimer. 2007, Random House, London. 2008, Vintage pp. 93.

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