The Macabre History of Death's Head watches

Jean Morin's  Memento Mori  (The Skull) 1650. Image courtesy of the British Museum.

Jean Morin's Memento Mori (The Skull) 1650. Image courtesy of the British Museum.


Update 1: Since posting this article Mr. White of the Clockmakers' Museum contacted me and said that the Death's Head Watch currently in their collection is the Lauder Family piece. 

With Halloween just a few short weeks away I thought it fitting to delve into the macabre world of Memento Mori and Death's Head watches. The literal translation of Memento Mori is "Remember that you have to die" and for hundreds of years this phrase has been used as inspiration for art, architecture and horology as a constant reminder that one day death must come to us all.

Mary Queen of Scots. 

Mary Queen of Scots. 

As the art of horology became more sophisticated watchmakers were able to create literal ticking reminders of the relentless march of time and soon "Death's Head watches" were being developed, watches and clocks in the shape of a human skull. Only the very rich could afford such macabre luxury with Elizabeth I having a Death's Head watch listed in her inventory yet the most famous piece is said to have belonged to her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. Needless to say that when it comes to historical artifacts dating back nearly five hundred years the line between fact and fiction tends to blur so there are claims for and against the existence of this watch. The popular story goes that on the night of her execution, Mary Queen of Scots gave her watch to one of her handmaidens, Mary Seton, who had been in the service of the young Queen since youth. Mary Seton would stay in the service of the Queen's household after the execution and eventually retired to Rheims in 1585 where she became a Nun in the Saint-Pierre Convent. The first stumbling block is the lack of record of possession until nearly three hundred years later with no mention of the watch till the 1800s. I have seen many references in 19th Century encyclopedias that report the Pre-execution gift story as fact and that somehow it came into possession of the Lauder family. In "A History of the Family of Seton during Eight centuries" George Seton laid out an explanation for this as well as an alternative story to how the watch came into Mary Seton's possession. As opposed to the Execution story, George said that after her husband Francis II of France died, Mary Queen of Scots gave a death's head watch to Mary Seton which was eventually passed down through the family to the descendents Lauder. 

There are reports of several death's head watches rather than one with Mr. Cedric Jagger (Former Keeper of the Clockmakers' Museum in Guildhall London) saying in his book Royal Clocks that "preliminary investigations quickly revealed that this is not the story of one watch, but three" and that a skull watch was known to have been in Salisbury in 1822 which could have led to the creation of the other two. An 1863 letter from Alexander Bryson, Her Majesty's Clockmaker for Scotland, says that he and his father were in charge with cleaning the Dick-Lauder skull watch and that he was told by Sir John that it was given to a Catherine Seton, not Mary. In an 1895 record of transactions from the St. Paul's Ecclesiological Society, there is a record of sale of a Death's Head watch that was similar in style to that owned by Sir Thomas Dick-Lauder and that this watch was the one given to Mary Queen of Scots by Francis; however in that same record Sir Thomas claims that his watch is one of 12 that were given to the Queen's favorite handmaidens.  Unfortunately this proves nothing other than a) we can be confident that the Dick-Lauder family had a skull watch and b) they were claiming it was the Mary Queen of Scots watch but there is no real proof to that claim. I think a certain healthy degree of healthy skepticism must be maintained when looking at some of the written "evidence" of providence for the Mary Queen of Scots watch as the impartiality of a family history written by a descendant could be drawn into question. Why let silly things like facts get in the way of telling a good story especially when it involve Royalty, execution and family heirlooms. There is an engraving dated between 1820-1835 in the V&A Museum of the supposed Mary Queen of Scots watch but there is no mention of the Dick-Lauder possession. I believe Mr Jagger was right when he proposed that other Death's Head watches "were created as evocation of the past and that their specific attribution to Mary Queen of Scots came later".

I spoke with Mr. George White, current Keeper of the Clockmakers' Museum, who said that there are antiquarian horologists who believe there is more to the story left to discover. The museum currently has on display a Death's Head watch that is now believed to be one of the 19th Century revival pieces. Mr. White says that no-one knows of the location of where the Salisbury watch is or of another which last appeared in public in November 1989 at a Sotheby's auction. I have contacted Sotheby's London Clock Department for more information and will update this when I hear back. Perhaps the other watch is described in "Former Clock and Watchmakers" by F.J. Britten which was "an exact facsimile of the Mary Seton one, with the additional inscription around the eyebrows Ex. Dono. Fr. R. Fr. Ad. Marias de Scotorum Fr. Regina".

Where the supposed Death's Head watch of Mary Queen of Scots currently resides in the Clockmakers' Museum.

Where the supposed Death's Head watch of Mary Queen of Scots currently resides in the Clockmakers' Museum.

The dial is hidden on the roof of the mouth and is viewed by holding the skull upside down and opening the jaw. Once open you can see the engraving of the Holy Family in the stable where the tongue would usually be. The dial itself is silver and is engraved with a gold circle in a scroll pattern with a figure of Saturn devouring his children. All documents describe the movement itself is of uncertain origin with there being a makers mark for Moyant A. Blois (France) yet also records of the movement being modified to fit a balance-spring in the 18th Century by J. Moysant of Blois. The open metalwork on the base of the skull allows the chiming of the hours to be heard more clearly as the movement is housed where the brain would be.

All publications I have found have the same description for the Death's Head watch. The skull has several detailed engravings across its entirety with the figure of Death standing between a hut and a palace on the forehead. Around Death is text from Roman poet Horace which reads in Latin : Pale death knocks with the same tempo upon the huts of the poor and the towers of Kings". Around the top half of the skull there are engravings of Adam & Eve in the garden of Eden, an embodiment of Time devouring all things next to a serpent with it's tail in it's mouth (A traditional symbol for eternity) and the crucifixion. On the open metalwork on the bottom there are more emblems of the crucifixion along with swords, flagons, pincers, spears and the Cup of the Eucharist. 

With all the evidence (or lack of) with the Mary Queen of Scots Death's Head the only thing I'm truly confident in saying is that there is much more to learn. In "Old Clock and Watches and their makers", Rev. H.L. Nelthropp questioned the providence of the remaining Death's Head by believing that "ownership of the jewels, dresses, furniture belonging to Queen Mary has proved beyond doubt that watches were not among her valuables". Throughout all my research I've seen many instances of names being changed over years, vowels added or removed over time and the similarity of Moyant/Moysant is too close to be a coincidence. I think the most likely scenario was that it was a revival piece made by the 18th Century Moysant which had the story of Mary placed upon it in later years. I don't think it is beyond the realms of possibility that Mary Queen of Scots did have a Death's Head watch and that she could have given it to Mary Seton however there is no conclusive evidence saying that the piece once owned by the Dick-Lauder family is that piece just isn't there.

Regardless of who it belonged to, the Death's Head watch currently in the Clockmakers' Museum is an exquisite example of what a Memento Mori is: a ticking morbid reminder that one day your time will run out. This is by no means the only Death's Head watch that has ever been made with several notable pieces surviving in a variety of museums around the watch. The British Museum has several watches made of silver and ivory however most are not entirely original especially when it comes to movements, however the meaning behind these pieces are all consistent. One piece dating to the late 17th Century has engraved in Latin "Life is fleeting, Look down upon a fallen thing, Look upon eternity, the hour of death is uncertain". A perfect pick-me-up for a rainy Monday morning if there ever was one! The Louvre has a Death's Head by Jean Rousseau which is often confused online with the alleged Mary Queen of Scots piece due to similar size and metal work. The most obvious difference is that the Rousseau has open metalwork on the top whilst the Queen Mary has it on the bottom. The Vienna Treasury Museum has a watch belonging to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II which purportedly "chimed" the time by the mechanised chomping of the lower jaw. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a Death's Head that whilst originally was from the 17th Century was owned by J.P. Morgan at the beginning of the 20th century.

Nowadays however the notion of remembering that one day you will die isn't quite as popular so watches featuring skulls are less common. The watches of Fiona Kruger all focus on a skull motif yet have more in common with traditional Mexican designs and the Dia de Muertos festival given their bright colors and patterns. We saw a Bell & Ross Limited Edition watch featuring a skull for the Only Watch Auction however this was more to do with the pirate theme than a reminder of our mortality. It's unlikely that Memento Mori and Death's Head watches will make a come back in their original form anytime soon yet you could view Patek Philippe's slogan as a morbid acknowledgment that whilst You or I will one day cease, Death will continue his steady march between all our huts and towers.  "You never actually own a Patek Philippe watch. You merely look after it for the next generation".

I'd like to thank Mr. George White from the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers' in London for his advice and also Reddit user Correon from r/Latin who translated the engravings.