A Protestant-made timepiece was chosen by historian Neil MacGregor to be one of twenty British Museum objects which best illustrate Shakespeare’s life and the background for his plays.

The rare musical clock, created by highly-skilled Flemish Protestant refugee Nicholas Vallin in 1598, featured in MacGregor’s Radio 4 series Shakespeare’s Restless World: An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects and the book of the same name .

Nicholas Vallin came to Elizabethan London in the 1580s with his father, John Vallin, who was a native of Ryssell, Flanders – the city now known, many wars later, as Lille in France. Both men were highly skilled clockmakers. Deborah E Harkness says in “The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution”:

“The neighbourhood surrounding the church of St Anne Blackfriars south of St Paul’s Cathedral… was home to at least twelve immigrant instrument makers during the reign of Elizabeth…All of these craftsmen came from France or the Netherlands, and many (like the Vallins) came with their extended families and servants. The Blackfriars instrument makers devised ingenious clocks, constructed mathematical instruments, crafted scales to weigh merchandise, and…engraved plates for the printers in nearby St Paul’s.”

The Black Friar pub stands on the former site of the Priory of the Dominicans, monks known as Black Friars for their black hooded robes. © Huguenot Jo

The City of London was not known for its instrument-making until a wave of immigration brought Huguenots from France and refugee Protestants from Flanders in the latter decades of Elizabeth I’s rule.

Frances Noway, another Protestant refugee, was a neighbour of the Vallins in St Anne Blackfriars. The first affordable domestic clocks in England were made by Frances Noway and Nicholas Vallin; and Vallin quickly became the leading clock- and watch-maker in London. Little more is known about his life, except that In June 1590 he married Elizabeth Rendtmeesters – almost certainly from another refugee family – at the Dutch Church in Austin Friars. Nicholas worshipped at the Dutch Church, which still stands today – pretty much right next to the Bank of England.

The Elizabethan age came to an end in 1603 - a terrifying year for Londoners. In March Elizabeth I died, bringing to an end a long and secure – if repressive – reign, which had given the country a period of relative stability. Her successor, James I, was an unknown quantity. Worse, in June London was hit by an outbreak of bubonic plague so severe that even the new king’s triumphal procession had to be postponed. In all, 33,347 Londoners died: a quarter of the capital’s population. In St Anne’s parish alone there were 670 victims.

The sign of the Black Friar pub – a familiar sight to commuters using Blackfriars Bridge and Blackfriars Station. © Huguenot Jo

Nicholas Vallin’s father John succumbed to the plague, followed by two of Nicholas’ journeymen, then two of his daughters, Margaret and Jane. Finally Nicholas himself died, leaving only his widow Elizabeth and a ten-year-old daughter as the family’s only plague survivors.

The flight from religious persecution ended in tragedy for the Vallin family; but their migration to London undoubtedly pushed forward the scientific revolution in England.

Shakespeare's Restless World: An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects


The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution



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