Changing Times and English Calendars

I began researching this post with great intentions of writing up a piece about Lady Day and its importance as an English quarter day. But, while researching the topic, I ran into a more interesting topic—how the calendars of England and Continental Europe slipped out of sync with one another in the 17th century. Today we can take an airplane and leave Asia or Australia and arrive in the United States a day earlier, but imagine leaving on a ship off the coast of France and arriving in England eight or ten days earlier than when you’d left France. How amazing and how confusing at the same time that would be.

Since Roman times, all of Western Europe had utilized the Julian calendar. That calendar added three days every four centuries because it overestimated the length of the year (about 365.25 days are in a year) and added a leap day every four years without exception. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII reformed the calendar to shore up the ten days necessary to get the calendar back to the correct date as determined by the equinox. To accomplish this, when midnight hit on Thursday, October 4, 1582, it became Friday, October 15, 1582. The new Gregorian calendar made a small but important refinement to the calculation of leap years to keep the calendar consistent over time. It maintained the practice of a leap year every four years, as long as the year was divisible by 4 (such as 2020). An exception was made for the beginning of a new century (i.e. 1700, 1800, 1900) when, there would be no leap day—unless it was a century that could be divided by 400 (1600, 2000). Those years were designated as centurial leap years, and would have a leap day. The Gregorian calendar was almost immediately adopted by Catholic countries in Europe and, over the next 500 years, was adopted by most other countries and religions, if only for convenience’s sake. Meanwhile, England kept with the Julian calendar until 1752, slipping farther and farther behind the Continent as time went on. Historians now must contend with almost 200 years of inconsistent dating between England and continental Europe.

When England finally transitioned to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, it also made other changes including designating January 1st as the official start of the new year. Prior to 1752, January 1st was celebrated—as the great gift giving day of the Yuletides holidays. The year itself did not change over, though. until March 25th . That day was an English quarter day known as Lady Day because it was also the Feast of the Annunciation, commemorating the day when the Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would be the mother of the son of God. While not a particularly celebrated religious holiday, Lady Day was the beginning date of most legal contracts in England. It was a day close to the spring equinox, but it was not a day that was supremely important for planting or harvesting, so it was a great day to begin new legal contracts—usually between landlord and tenants and employers and employees. Anyone beginning a new job in a new town usually moved on Lady Day.

Together, the transition to the Gregorian calendar and the change in the start of the year created a calendaring system that is still in use today around the globe. While England may have been reluctant to move to the Gregorian calendar, they were by no means the last ones to do so. Countries like Japan, Russia and Bulgaria waited until the late 19th and early 20th century to join. The most recent country to implement it was Saudi Arabia in 2016. Now, we only lose hours and not weeks when we travel across the globe.

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