A Brief History of the Calendar

by David Harper, PhD, FRAS

Old Style, New Style

The new calendar was accepted without delay in Italy, Poland, Spain and Portugal, all of whom adopted it on the date stipulated in Inter gravissimus. France and Belgium moved to the new calendar in December 1582. The Catholic regions of Germany, Austria and Switzerland moved during 1583 and 1584; other regions of those countries waited in some cases until 1701.

In England, memories were still fresh in 1582 of Henry VIII's split from the Church of Rome. Elizabeth I had been excommunicated by an earlier Pope in just such an apostolic letter as Inter gravissimus. Nonetheless, the calendar reform met a sympathetic attitude on the part of the secular authorities. The Queen referred the matter to John Dee, a noted mathematician, who responded favourably. Dee's verdict was passed in turn to the astronomer Thomas Digges, Henry Savile, a patron of the sciences, and a Mr Chambers. All three endorsed Dee. The matter was then referred in March 1583 to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was invited to confer with his bishops and return a reply as quickly as possible, as the Queen intended to make a proclamation in May of the following year to announce the adoption of the new calendar.

The Queen and her ministers did not receive the favourable reply that they had hoped for. The response from the English churchmen was full of invective against the Pope, who was denounced as the Antichrist. It was argued that what was done by the Council of Nicaea could only be undone by another council at which all the churches took part. The Council of Trent was not such a council, and since the Protestant churches regarded the Pope as Antichrist, they could never enter into dialogue with the Catholic church. There could be no second Council of Nicaea.

England would remain with the Old Calendar for another 170 years, ten days (eleven from 1700) behind of the rest of Europe and observing the New Year on March 25th. Letters to Europe carried two dates, one in the Old Style and one in the New Style.

Historians who study English events and dated documents prior to 1752 must be careful when interpreting dates. As an example, the letter from Sir Thomas Walsingham to the Archbishop of Canterbury asking, on behalf of the Queen, for his views on the calendar reform, was dated March 18th, 1582. This is an English date, in the Julian calendar. On the Continent, the year 1583 had already begun in January, and countries which had adopted the new calendar were ten days ahead. In Rome, the date was March 28th, 1583.

In the English calendar, the year changed on March 25th, a date which marked the Annunciation or Lady Day. This date, together with June 24th (Midsummer Day), September 29th (Michaelmas) and December 25th, is one of the quarter-days when rents and other quarterly charges are traditionally paid.

Thus in England, March 24th, 1582 was followed by March 25th, 1583. Historians and genealogists generally write these dates as March 24th, 1582/3 and March 25th, 1583. When writing about events in England and the Continent in the period after 1582, it is also common to indicate an English Julian date with the words "Old Style" and a Continental Gregorian date as "New Style".

Reason finally prevailed over religious antagonism. In 1751, Parliament approved the adoption of the Gregorian calendar. By this time, the Julian calendar was eleven days out of step, and so September 2nd, 1752 was followed by September 14th. The same Act of Parliament decreed that from 1752, the year should begin on January 1st.

The old calendar still lives on in the British tax year. This ends on April 5th each year, which is March 25th in the Old Style, plus eleven days.