Dates and calendars

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By Ken Clayton with additional material from Dr Charles Kightly


Many of the issues affecting calendar dates in the 17th century relate to the way in which the date of Easter Sunday is determined. It seems likely that few people today give this any thought but it’s actually not straightforward because Easter is, literally, a moveable feast: it’s a religious feast day that moves between dates each year. So how is the date of Easter determined?

The formula was fixed at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE and takes as its starting point the day of the Last Supper. This is crucial within the church because Jesus was crucified on the following Friday and was resurrected on the Sunday. Given the importance of the Resurrection within Christianity, the church was keen to get the date right.

The Last Supper is identified in the Synoptic Gospels as a Passover meal so the date of Easter depends on the date of Passover and that isn’t straightforward either. Passover isn’t a fixed date: it falls on the day of the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox (Paschal Full Moon). So the date of this natural event (the Equinox) is critically important within the church which fixed it as 21 March. The date of Easter, therefore became the Sunday after the first full moon after 21 March.


However, this method of deciding the date of Easter was defined when the world worked on the Julian calendar. Unfortunately this was slightly out of kilter with the natural world and, by the mid-sixteenth century, 21 March was several days adrift from the day on which the Vernal Equinox actually happened.

The problem, clearly, was that the Julian calendar did not accurately reflect the intricacies of the solar year and, while it would have been possible to correct it by missing out some days, this would have been a process that would have had to be repeated unless the calendar was changed.

One other feature of the Julian calendar from a modern point of view is that the year started on Lady Day, 25 March.


Most months were written as we would recognise them - April, May, June and so on. Some writers adopted a different approach when they came to September, October, November and December. Those months were sometimes identified as 7ber, 8ber, 9ber and Xber.

These were the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months of the Julian calendar (March being the first month). The Latin for seven is septem, for eight is octo and for nine is novem. The Latin for ten is decem but the abbreviation used is usually xber. One possibility is that writers chose to use the Latin numeral X instead of the Arabic numeral 10 but a more likely explanation is that December was the month of Christ's nativity and, since the word Christ was sometimes abbreviated to X, it may be that writers who wrote xber were abbreviating this month in a slightly different way.


One slight complication is that dates often used the year of the reign of a monarch (known as Regnal year) instead of the year number. Occasionally, the writer of a document might identify both the Regnal year and the calendar year as in the case of a letter relating to the founding of Ashbourn free grammar school. The author explained that the school "was founded in the twenty seventh year of Queen Elizabeth of blessed memory and in the year of our Lord one thousand five hundred eighty and five."

In order to work out the date as we would know it, the reader has to know that Queen Elizabeth I reigned form 17 November 1558 to 24 March 1603. So the first year of her reign was 17 November 1558 to 16 November 1559. The second year was from 17 November 1559 to 16 November 1560 and so on.

There is, however, one further complication that can catch us out: some authors regard the reign of Charles II as beginning on the day of his father's execution. So these authors would regard the fifth Regnal year of Charles II as 1653, for example, even though he was not restored to the throne of England until 1660. In other cases the Regnal year would not have been used to define a date between 1649 and 1660: writers would have used the style of date that we recognise today.

Fortunately we do not need to know the years of each of the monarchs: there are websites that have calculators which allow us to insert the day, month and regnal year and they will show the year as we would express it now. All that's needed is an online search for 'Regnal year calculator'.


Pope Gregory XIII (1502–1585) decided to adopt a new calendar that avoided the mistakes made by the Julian calendar. In 1582 he issued a papal bull which had the aim of introducing this new calendar, called the Gregorian calendar, across the Christian world. It was adopted by Spain, Portugal, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and most of Italy but, initially, the rest of Europe chose not to use it. Other countries adopted it slowly but the old Julian calendar remained in use in Britain and the American colonies until 1752, mainly because the new calendar was a ‘Popish’ development.


As an aside, in 1688 when William of Orange (1650-1702) landed in England with his invasion force, he was keen to do so on 5 November since, as a Protestant, he was intending to replace a Catholic monarch (James II). By this time the Dutch Republic had adopted the Gregorian calendar so, in order to arrive on 5 November in England, he had to leave on 11 November in Holland, thus arriving before he left.


However, by the time the English decided to adopt the new calendar in 1752, dates were 11 days adrift from much of continental Europe so, in order to bring the country in line, 11 days had to be lost. As a result, Wednesday 2 September 1752 was followed by Thursday 14 September 1752.


This appears to have caused consternation among tax officials who faced the possibility of losing 11 days of tax. As a result, they decided to move the start of the year forward 11 days from Lady Day (25 March) to 6 April for tax purposes.

That explains why the tax year starts on 6 April in Britain.


However, the rest of the country did something completely different. When the new calendar was introduced, the Church decreed that the year would begin on 1 January. Until that point the new year started on Lady Day (25 March). This was one of the quarter days which are used even now for some rents, the others being Midsummer Day (24 June), Michaelmas (29 September) and Christmas (25 December).

What this meant was that 1640, for example, ran from 25 March 1640 to what we would regard as 24 March 1641. That means that a document written in 1640 and dated 14 February 1640 would, in our way of applying dates, be dated 14 February 1641.

In some cases, modern authors try to help readers by showing dates as O.S. (Old Style) or N.S. (New Style).

Even in the seventeenth century, some manuscripts represent a date such as 24 March 1640 as 24 March 1640/1 meaning 1640 old style but 1641 new style.


All of this also helps to explain some of the contemporary reporting of natural occurrences that can seem odd to us. Had we kept to the Julian calendar, we would now have been 13 days adrift from the rest of Europe and, importantly from our point of view, 13 days adrift from 17th century England. But the fact that we are now on the Gregorian calendar explains some oddities. For instance, while in many years May blossom has not appeared on the day we identify as 1 May, it has usually appeared by our 14 May, which would have been 1 May in 1645. And a white Christmas is much more likely on our Jan 8 (which is the 17th century 25 December).


The ways in which authors show the dates vary. In some cases they simply convert the old date to the new so a document that was originally dated 28 January 1645 might be shown as having been produced on 28 January 1646. In other cases they will put letters such as OS (for old style) after the date. Victorian books seem to prefer 164½ meaning 1641 in the Julian calendar and 1642 in the Gregorian and, indeed, it is not unusual to see dates written in this way, even in handwritten letters dating from the seventeenth century.

Fortunately, for most of each year, none of this matters but it’s something of which we need to be aware.

However, there is one aspect of dates in Early Modern England that needs to be understood. It was common to refer to feast days rather than dates so, for example, a school's founding statutes might state that the scholars are to be in school from 6am 'between Lady Day and Michaelmas' and 7am 'between Michaelmas and Lady Day', whereas we would define those periods as between 25 March and 29 September and 29 September and 25 March. Although even this is not always so simple. The second date may be described as 'the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel' but what it means is that historians of the period need some familiarity with the Church's feast days.