Watch for errors


Did the nobility of the fifteenth century routinely own watches? Would they have carried them into battle? This is a question I asked myself recently when I read a book which suggested they did.

It is very easy to criticise authors of historical fiction, but as an author myself I know how hard it is to get everything right. Most readers have no ideas of how many facts you have to get right and check, then double check. Then there is the fact that records can often be incomplete or non-existent.

The book in question was a great read, and I can’t fault it, hence why I am not naming the book or the author – I don’t want to criticise. However, there were two sentences that stood out and made me think. The scene was early on in the book, in spring 1471, when Edward IV of England was going into battle with the Earl of Warwick and Edward’s brothers George and Richard. Warwick would ultimately die, at what became known as the Battle of Barnet, the first step towards relative peace in Edward’s reign.

Edward makes the decision to get some sleep before taking any action, and says to Hastings, his friend and most trusted advisor, that he wants to get some sleep first.

“Wake me after midnight, about two,” he tells them.

The king goes to sleep and Hastings, speaking to the king’s two brothers and brother in law, suggests, “Two-hour watches each?”

Now this struck me as funny and made me wonder. Would the king and his men know the time or would they just have had a vague idea based on where in the sky the sun was? Were watches commonplace in the fifteenth century, even if just amongst the nobility? And if they were common, were nobles likely to have them on their person when they went into battle?

Most watches of this time period were clock watches. Pocket watches came later and were smaller. Clock watches were fastened to clothing or worn on a chain around the neck. Heavy and large in size, they had hour hands, but no minute hands. Timepieces had been around for centuries and were slowly developing in accuracy. The average person would not have owned a watch, certainly not until relatively recent times.

So it is likely that Edward IV owned a time piece of some sort, perhaps more than one. But would he have taken it into battle with him? And would other members of the royal family have owned watches, and again taken them into battle? I am inclined to think not. My understanding of battles of the fifteenth and sixteenth century is that battles were timed to happen on certain days, not certain times. I also have not heard of anyone being identified by their watch upon their death, which, as they were often engraved, would surely have been likely.

I certainly don’t want to criticise another author’s work, but I am interested to know whether this was an error or whether the nobility of the fifteenth century routinely carried timepieces into battle.

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