What a Difference a Year Can Make – Calendar Confusion

I spent last week recording data on my Family Historian software, ticking off another of my genealogy New Year Resolutions. It included a raft of 18th century parish register entries. Entering the information I was reminded of one of my early family history basic errors which I need to re-visit in my family tree file.  I recorded a swathe of entries under the wrong year.

In my first enthusiastic rush into ancestral research I totally failed to appreciate the calendar change of 1752, the amended start to the year and the implications of this. In fact in those early days I probably didn’t even know a calendar change occurred.

I couldn’t understand why some dates didn’t fit, with babies being baptised at the beginning of March 1747 to couples who married in April 1747. I thought I’d unearthed a family scandal, but there was no hint of illegitimacy in the normally brutally censorious registers.

I assumed the calendar back then was the same one in operation today, with 1 January marking the start of the year. How mistaken I was.

I subsequently discovered from around the 12th century in England the year started on 25 March, Lady Day. So, for example, the day after 24 March 1747 was 25 March 1748.

Not until 1752 did the year start on 1 January, as a result of the 1750 Calendar Act and the 1751 amended Act. Also known as Chesterfield’s Act, it brought the start of the new year into line with England’s European neighbours and ones even closer to home: Scotland adopted 1 January as the official start of the year from 1600.img_0595

It meant that in England 1751 was a short year to take account of the change. It started on 25 March and ended on 31 December.

1752 also had a reduced number of days, as this Act moved England from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar used by many European countries. It meant September 1752 was reduced to 19 days, with 2nd September being followed by 14th September. These lost 11 days were a result of a correction to an anomaly in the Julian calendar.

Chesterfield’s Calendar Act Extract

The Christian world throughout the Middle Ages used the Julian calendar. Based on a 365 day year with an extra day every fourth year it was devised to to ensure seasonal stability in an agrarian society.

But here’s the simplified scientific bit. The 365 ¼ days of the Julian calendar cycle did not accurately reflect the time taken by the earth to rotate the sun. It was too slow. Only fractionally. Less than 11 minutes annually. But it made the calendar too long. Another way of looking at it is there were too many Leap Years. However the cumulative effect of this discrepancy meant by the 16th century the year was 10 days ahead of where it should have been relative to the earth’s cycle. Significantly, apart from any agricultural seasonal impacts and the affect on navigation, for the Catholic Church there were implications for Easter.

Corrective action was needed. Enter Pope Gregory XIII who in 1582 enacted a papal bull introducing the new calendar, named the Gregorian calendar. This omitted 10 days to bring things back into line with the earth’s solar cycle. It also included a mechanism around Leap Years to account for the actual length of a year in future. From now on Leap Years only occurred in the last year of the century if their first two digits could be divided by four (ie/ only in 1600 and 2000).

Religious politics now came into play. Catholic states generally fell into line using the new calendar. Protestant countries such as Britain and Ireland and its colonies (such as the USA) resisted – they did not wish to follow any Papal edict. But gradually, given its obvious agricultural, commercial, legal and international relationship benefits (for instance by the 18th century what was 20 June in France would be 9 June in England), uptake increased.

By the time England came round to accepting that the benefits of the Gregorian calendar outweighed any religious reluctance, it was 11 days out of sync. Hence the missing 11 September days in 1752.

img_0596

But even with the 1751 Act things aren’t straightforward as far as the New Year is concerned. I’ll use some West Yorkshire parishes associated with my family history to illustrate this.

Leeds Parish Church complied with the Act and entries on 1 January displayed the New Style year of 1752. This also applied to Kirkburton All Hallows and Mirfield St Mary’s.

However it wasn’t universal. Some parishes were behind the pace.

One such example is St Peter’s Birstall. The combined baptism, marriage and burial register acknowledged the September change. An entry at the beginning of September 1752 stated:

September hath 19 days this year

Then, after a baptism entry on 2 September:

According to an Act of Parliament passed in 24th year of his Majesty’s Reign in the year of our Lord 1751 the Old Style ceases here and the new takes place and consequently the next Day which in the old account would have been the 3rd is now to be called the 14th so that all the intermediate Days from the 2nd to the 14th are omitted or rather annihilated this year and the month contains no more than 19th Days as the Title at the Head expresses”.

Birstall St Peter’s Parish Register Explanation for September 1752 Calendar Changes

No similar note mentioning the New Style calendar affected the start date of the year. This part of the Act wasn’t implemented on 1 January 1752 in Birstall. The New Year in this parish register did not start until Lady Day in March. In other words no difference.

1 January 1753 came and there was a tiny entry, a mere nod at the change. Almost imperceptibly tucked away in miniscule script. Certainly no fanfare announcement along the lines of the September change.

Birstall St Peter’s Parish Register Low-Key Entry for January 1753

Contrast that with the shouty heading marking the first post-Lady Day christening of 1753. By 1754 though they were fully towing the line.

Birstall St Peter’s Parish Register Fanfare Entry Post-Lady Day 1753

The neighbouring Parish of Batley similarly adopted the New Style from 1 January 1753 rather than 1752. The register does briefly explain the September 1752 issue, but without the pointed remarks about “annihilation” of days.

So some parishes implemented the Act with the year starting on 1 January from 1752. And from my unscientific example others didn’t adopt the change until 1 January 1753, seemingly grudgingly. Others, however, even went beyond this.

Wakefield All Saints’ register retained the Old Style up up to and including 1755, with the change only made from 1756. There may be examples of other variations if I delve deeper. And there may even be instances of it pre-January 1752, as acknowledgement of the difference did occur in documents prior to the official change.

To sum up even knowing the year change was supposed to take place on 1 January 1752, it still pays to check the register if at all possible to ensure the switch did indeed take place on the prescribed date. And accurately record the year to indicate whether the date is Old Style (O.S.) pre-calendar change or New Style (N.S.) post-change. I use a “double dating” format for those 1 January to 24 March days prior to the calendar change. So, for example, I record 23 March 1747 O.S. as  23 March 1747/48. This indicates the event took place in 1747 according to the O.S. calendar, but 1748 in the N.S.

After all that year could make a big difference to your family tree and subsequent research.

Sadly (?) I don’t think I’ll progress my family history to pre-12th century to concern myself with any calendar in use then.

Footnote:
I’m not going as far as adding in the “annihilated” 11 days to my Family Historian package à la George Washington’s Birthday though! Born on 11 February 1731 according to the then-used Julian calendar, with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar the corrected date celebrated is 22 February 1732. But that this may have happened is worth noting too.

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