Why trying to map out history can be confusing

September 6, 2021

by Martin Odoni

Time for a quick round of QI: Quite Interesting. Tell me, and beware of the klaxon; –

In what year did Queen Elizabeth I die?

I can imagine a few readers rushing to Google to double-check. That is absolutely fine, Google is a handy research tool, at least once you have mastered the art of telling honest sites from the duff ones. I encourage people to make use of it. In any event, I have no way of knowing who has looked it up and who knows off the tops of their heads. And there is no prize at stake anyway.

One or two cannier readers, especially from north of the border, may have noticed the precise wording of the question and answered, “She’s still alive!” That is a legitimate correct answer; the current Queen of Great Britain is called Elizabeth, and she is the first monarch of Scotland to be so-named, even though she is Elizabeth II in England. But no, I do mean Elizabeth I of England, of Spanish Armada, “Heart-and-stomach-of-a-King” speech at Tilbury, and executing-twice-as-many-subjects-as-even-her-father-managed fame. (Am I implying that I think Queen Bess was an over-rated ruler? Yes, definitely. She was still one of England’s best monarchs, but that says more about how terrible most of the others were.)

The answer you are probably thinking is not quite correct

So, what is your answer? If you said, 1603, then congratulations. You get a really loud klaxon and a loss of 10 points.

That answer was just a few hours away from being the truth, but the correct answer is in fact 1602.

1602? RUBBISH!

Now I know some of you are already writing up a furious comment pointing to almost every source under the sun that says Elizabeth I of England died on the 24th of March 1603. In a manner of speaking, that is sort of correct. It kind of depends on where you are in the world, for reasons I shall explain shortly. But as Elizabeth died in England, the date of her death is assessed initially in English terms. And believe it or not, on the day she died, if you had asked many an English man or woman in the street what year it was, they would probably have told you, “The year of our Lord 1602.”

Mind you, if you had happened to be in Scotland on the exact same day, perhaps waiting to hear news of the King of Scots, James VI, succeeding to the English throne, and asked people in the street there what year it was, they would indeed have answered, “The year of our Lord 1603.”

What is going on here? It is a difficulty I have increasingly been confused by as a history buff of well over twenty years. It is that we are dealing with two different calendars, and the aggravation that different countries across Europe could not agree which one, if either, was correct, until as late as the 20th Century.

The Julian Calendar

The calendar that was still in effect in England in 1602 was called the Julian calendar. It was established in Roman times in the name of Julius Caesar in 46BC. By the standards of the era of the Roman Empire, it was based on a very respectable calculation of the movements of the planets and stars, and the Earth in relation to them. (No, people at the time largely did not think the Earth was flat, despite what is often assumed today, although they frequently thought the universe revolved around the Earth, rather than the Earth orbiting a star.) By the calculations of Caesar and his scholars, they had concluded that the exact length of a year was 365-and-one-quarter days.

For most purposes, this was precise enough. Of course, the quarter day meant that after four years, the solar year would have fallen a day behind, but they compensated for that by simply allocating an extra day to every fourth calendar year (a “leap year”).

This was well and good around the time of the supposed birth of Christ, and it was certainly far more accurate than the previous Roman calendar, which had concluded that the year was only 355 days, with an entire extra month clumsily slotted in once every few years to try and compensate for the wild drift of the calendar out of alignment with the seasons.

But for all that the Julian calendar was a big step forward, it had not completely alleviated the problem. Caesar’s scholars appear to have rounded upwards slightly when concluding that the solar year was exactly 365-and-one-quarter days. The reality was that it was very slightly shorter than that – about 11 minutes shorter. This may sound like an insignificant difference. Indeed it had no appreciable impact for many, many decades afterwards. But these tiny flaws when allowed to linger do start to pile up.

The gradual drift

So there was another drift effect, and while it was far less dramatic, eventually it became large enough that people in the church in particular, especially when assessing the date of Easter, began to notice that calendar time was not advancing at the same speed as solar time. Easter is meant to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the ecclesiastical full moon, on or after the 21st of March, which was the spring equinox in Caesar’s day. But by the start of the Medieval period, the 21st of March was instead arriving after the equinox had visibly passed.

This problem was noticed as early as the 8th Century, and was commented on by Saint Bede the Venerable, the Anglo-Saxon monk, widely considered to be the first great storyteller of the English language. He wrote in c.723AD of how he had calculated that the equinox had fallen on the 18th of March, possibly even the 17th. It meant that the calendar year was now fully three or four days behind the solar year.

In the 13th century, Roger Bacon AKA ‘Dr Mirabilis‘ found that the drift had by this stage extended to a full week. It was already very clear that the calendar needed reforming again, but it would still take three more centuries before it would happen properly.

One of the difficulties was establishing and getting consensus on what the correct length of the year was, down to the exact second if possible. (Our current understanding of it is that it is 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds – 365.2425 days.) Another was to decide which corrective action was preferable. On the one hand, they could continue the date as it was and reset the key dates on the calendar to re-align with the new reality i.e. accept that the equinox falls on the 14th of March ever after. On the other, they could change the date itself to catch up with solar time by ‘skipping over’ dates i.e. if the calendar was a week behind, then on the day of moving to the revised calendar, say the 15th of September, the date would officially become the 23rd of September once the clock turned midnight, instead of the 16th. This would re-align the 21st of March with the spring equinox, among other things.

Other decisions had to be made and agreed; the Catholic Church realised that the leap year system was inadequate for ‘cushioning’ the calendar against drift, and much calculation needed to be done to decide how to implement it more precisely.

The Gregorian Calendar

It was not until as late as 1582 that the Roman Catholic Church finally produced a new calendar. By this time, the drift behind solar time in terms of days had extended into double-figures, with the equinox now arriving as early as the 11th of March. Church scholars had by this point calculated that the Julian calendar drifted a full day behind the solar year every one hundred and twenty-eight years. The effect of leap years was, as it were, too ‘strong’ i.e. it took back more time than just the cumulative extra fractions of a day missed by other years. Something needed to be deducted therefore from the leap year effect to keep forcing the calendar year back into alignment with the solar year.

What the scholars recommended, thanks chiefly to the skills of German mathematician Christopher Clavius, was to drop the leap year at the next point in the four-year cycle each time the calendar year had drifted a day behind the solar year. This meant that, instead of 100 leap years in every four centuries, as was the case under the Julian calendar, the new calendar needed to have 97 leap years every four centuries instead. The same four-year cycle of leap years should continue therefore, but now with occasional new interruptions at the end of most centuries.

To achieve this. the new rule was introduced that a leap year could no longer apply in any year whose number was divisible by 100, unless it was also divisible by 400. This simple but clever algorithm removed exactly three leap years from every four centuries at a stroke, leaving the 97 the new system was seeking.

(This is why there were non-leap years in 1700, 1800 and 1900, but 1600 and 2000 did each retain the extra day. 2100, 2200, and 2300 will also not be leap years, but 2400 will be. Although I do not recommend bothering to note these in your diaries.)

The decision was also made to realign the date with solar events and not the other way around. This is to say, the number of days of delay created by the drift of the old calendar would simply be ‘skipped over’. So when the new calendar – the Gregorian calendar named after Pope Gregory XIII who introduced it – came into force at the end of Thursday the 4th of October 1582, at midnight the date became Friday the 15th of October 1582. It was as if much of Catholic Europe had leapt into a giant Delorean, whizzed up to 88 miles per hour, and then leapt forward ten days.

It is quicker to build a time machine than get the Catholic Church to put together a new calendar

But more importantly, key annual events were restored to their correct days, like the spring equinox now happening on the 21st of March every year again.

Other churches slow to co-operate

And yet it was not so for anyone outside of Catholic Europe. England had of course converted to a (somewhat half-hearted) Protestantism under King Henry VIII, and Scotland had also converted in the 1560’s to a somewhat extreme Calvinist-Presbyterian form of Protestantism. Since that time, Rome had become the implacable foe of both countries. Indeed, just twelve years before the new calendar was introduced, Gregory’s immediate predecessor, Pope Pius V had issued a Papal Bull excommunicating Queen Elizabeth I, and calling on Catholics in England to overthrow her. The Government in England was therefore, to put it politely, deeply unwilling to co-operate with any initiatives from Rome.

Scotland too, ruled by Elizabeth’s distant cousin, the Stewart King James VI, regarded anything Papal with deep suspicion. James knew that the Catholic Church wanted to force Scotland back into the fold just as much as it wanted to undo the English Reformation. James had been raised as a Protestant, and while he often showed fondness for Catholics, he liked not being answerable to the Pope.

Neither country therefore was prepared to adopt the new calendar.

New Year’s Day confusion

And there was another complication. By the Julian calendar, New Year’s Day did not fall on the 1st of January. Indeed New Year was not the first day of any month. Instead, New Year’s Day was considered to be the date of The Feast of the Annunciation, or Lady Day. This fell on the 25th of March – three months after Christmas Day, and shortly after the equinox. The new calendar moved the start of the year to the 1st of January instead.

NOTE: In Back To The Future, ‘Doc’ Emmett L Brown was incorrect to key this into the time circuits for the date of Jesus’ birth. There was no year 0 AD, and Jesus’ birthday of 25th of December was made up by the early Church to help ‘blot out’ recall of the Pagan festival of Yule. Jesus’ real birthdate, if he existed at all, is unknown under any calendar. Given the Biblical texts for the Nativity make no reference to winter or wintry weather, December is in fact an unlikely candidate

James seems to have seen a bit of sense on this point, realising that in all respects, the 1st of January was clearly a much better date to start the year from. It was during the Christmas period, with the date of Jesus’ birth supposedly the starting point where years were numbered from, and just days after the shortest day of the year.

It also would be less confusing when written down. Under the Julian Calendar, the date 25th of March 1550 still appears to be a year-and-a-day after the 24th of March 1549. But it is not. It is in fact only one day later, which, even when people are used to looking at dates in this way, is still counter-intuitive. But this confusion gets even worse when looking in the opposite direction. Under the Julian Calendar, the 24th of March 1549 might appear to be one day before the 25th of March 1549. But again it is not; it is actually 364 days later, in the next month of March. The day before the 25th of March 1549 by the Julian Calendar was in fact the 24th of March 1548.

The below image may help to visualise this, by showing what would have happened in the year after 1752 in the UK had the country not changed calendars. It shows two months of March a year apart. The dates in green are in 1752, the dates in blue are in 1753, and the dates in yellow are in 1754. Note how the first blue date is the 25th of March 1753. Then in the March of twelve months later, the final blue date is the 24th of March 1753. So the 24th of March each year is after the 25th of March of the same year, under the Julian system.

Note in the ringed text how, by the Julian Calendar, the 24th of March 1753 is almost a year after the 25th of March 1753, and not the day before.

The confusion was caused by the needless complication of having a month overlapping two different calendar years. The Gregorian Calendar did away with that.

England and Scotland fail to see eye-to-eye as usual

James therefore implemented a changeover for the date of New Year for 1599-1600. At the end of the 31st of December 1599 (Julian Calendar), with the year still only nine months old, it turned midnight, and suddenly it was the year 1600 in Scotland. But it would still be 1599 in England for another three months. Think of the confusion this must have caused traders crossing the border in the years that followed!

(During all this, despite being overwhelmingly a Catholic country, Ireland also remained stuck on the Julian calendar. Elizabeth was Queen of Ireland as well as England, and she was never going to let the Irish go their own way on any matter.)

A little under three years later, on 24th March 1602, Elizabeth I breathed her last. In England, although the term was not used at the time, the day was effectively ‘New Year’s Eve.’ Had she lived a few more hours, and got beyond midnight, she would have died in 1603. But as it was not yet the 25th of March, she officially died in 1602. Had she been in Scotland, it would have been 1603. Had she been anywhere in the Catholic states, it would have been about eleven days further into 1603. But she was in England. James travelled south to take over from Elizabeth, and found himself ruling over a kingdom still using late-March as New Year, while he still ruled over the other one that held New Year three months earlier.

Anyone regularly having business on both sides of the border over the next century and more must have found it a nightmare.

The problems of two calendars

This issue of parallel calendars in different parts of Europe caused a lot of confusion, and continues to do so even today for people studying the past. Some of this confusion can be amusing or diverting, but every so often, it has been disastrous.

As an example of amusement, consider William of Orange, the ruler of the Dutch Republic (which had been forced when ruled over by the Spanish Empire to switch to the new calendar). He would also become King of England, Scotland and Ireland. He and his army set off from the Low Countries on his enterprise to conquer Britain on the 11th of November 1688. After a voyage of around five days, he landed on the coast of Devon… on the 5th of November 1688. Well it almost sounds like an episode of Red Dwarf, right?

Bizarrely, William of Orange was William I of Ireland, William II of Scotland, William III of England, and William IV of the Netherlands. Between this and the fact he was from the Low Countries, you could almost call him “The Low Straight Monarch.”

In the 20th Century, the Russian Empire contingent competing at the 1908 Olympic Games arrived twelve days after the Olympiad began, because the Russian Orthodox Church refused to switch over to the Gregorian Calendar. (The Russian Government only made the shift after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and even then, the Russian Church refused to follow suit). It seems no one had thought to mention it to Tsar Nicholas II before he despatched the team to London.

Darker is the confusion the calendar-clash caused during the Napoleonic Wars, creating one of the most startling blunders in military history. Early during the War of the Third Coalition in 1805, Habsburg Austria was heavily dependent on the support of a Russian Army when confronting French forces in Bavaria. The Austrian and Russian leaders agreed their main armies would join up in the Danube Valley and move together against Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops on the 20th of October.

But the Russian Empire, as mentioned above, was still using the Julian Calendar, whereas Austria had switched to the Gregorian Calendar in 1583-84. Somehow, this was never taken into account at any stage in the planning process.

The Julian Calendar by now had drifted to twelve days behind solar time, and so there followed a critical failure of co-ordination. When the Russians promised to have troops by the Danube on 20th of October, they effectively meant the 1st of November from the Austrian perspective. But during negotiations, the Austrian ambassadors failed almost comedically to pick up on this massive divergence. So the Habsburg army started its move on 20th October, Gregorian Calendar time, which to the Russian army was only the 8th of October. The Russians moved to make the rendezvous on the 20th of October Julian Calendar time – 1st of November to almost everyone else.

The upshot of all this was that Napoleon had been handed a priceless window of almost two weeks to neutralise one opponent before having to confront the other, instead of having to fight them both at once. In a brilliant series of manoeuvres, the French soon had the Habsburg army surrounded, and forced their surrender. The decisive Battle of Austerlitz followed, forcing Austria and Russia to drop out of the war altogether, while Napoleon’s position in eastern Europe was now at its zenith.

The most boring two weeks in English history

Now consider this; –

It is a temporal paradox of mind-mangling complexity!

The answer is that, in British history, there has never been such a date as the 9th of September 1752. This was because Britain, Ireland, and the colonies of the British Empire finally conceded to the reality that the Gregorian Calendar, in every respect, made more sense than the Julian Calendar. The Calendar New Style Act of 1750 was voted through Parliament (really in 1751), committing to switch over to what Protestant nations grudgingly called, “The Improved Calendar.” Due to ongoing anti-Catholic feeling, there was no formal acknowledgement that the new calendar had been pieced together by Rome, but the Act committed to switching over to the Gregorian system in September 1752. It also committed to centennial years no longer being treated as leap years unless divisible by 400.

The Gregorian Calendar came into effect in England, Scotland and Wales at the end of the 2nd of September, Julian time. At midnight, the date became the 14th of September, precisely one week prior to the autumn equinox. All the days in between the 2nd and the 14th were ‘skipped’ and officially never happened*. This is why literally nothing happened at all in England on the 9th of September 1752, because the date itself never arrived. The dates skipped over can therefore be seen, sardonically, as the two most boring weeks in the nation’s history.

Studying the past requires great care

The Gregorian Calendar was not enforced in the UK until the mid-18th Century, and recognisably-Scottish history started about 850 years before that, while recognisably-English history over a hundred years earlier still. So studying British history can be irksome. This is because the great bulk of our most firmly recorded history happened under the Julian Calendar, whereas only a little over 250 years of it has happened since the changeover. This means the majority of history needs to be adjusted.

Our perceptions of some of the most important events in British history are thus distorted by this. The modern historian’s habit is to correct dates retroactively; even when the day-and-month remain Julian, the calendar year is by convention adjusted to Gregorian time, with New Year invariably taken as 1st of January. But it can come as a shock to realise what dates, supposedly written indelibly in stone, have been subject to this revision.

For instance, Mary Queen of Scots is widely recognised as having been beheaded on the 8th of February 1587. But according to documents at the time, in both Scotland and England, it happened on the 8th of February 1586.

In official documents of the English Government (but not Scotland’s Government) from the mid-17th Century, the Execution of Mary’s grandson, King Charles I, is recorded as happening on the 30th of January 1648, and not 1649, as we are all taught today.

George Washington was born on the 11th of February 1731 officially, which may come as something of a shock to any Americans who might be reading. Washington’s birthdate was fully ‘Gregorianised’ after 1752, and is now given as 22nd of February 1732 in all modern history books about the American War of Independence.

That sort of thing. You add in other complications like it sometimes being unclear which calendar system some sources used, especially between the 16th and 18th Centuries, and you start to realise just what a headache historical research can be.

And because of the complications embellished by having New Year happen during a month rather than at the beginning of it, it can be all-too-easy to foul up calculating the dates of some events, especially when working backwards from New Year’s Day. The instinct, when seeing the 24th of March and 25th March for the same year, to assume they are one day apart, and not separated by fifty-two weeks, is incredibly frustrating. It is almost the mental equivalent of rubbing your tummy with one hand at the same time as patting your head with the other.

What of the Julian Calendar now?

The Julian Calendar is still alive, believe it or not, but only really used by tiny numbers of people, mainly adherents to the Orthdox Churches of eastern Europe and western Asia, who generally refused to switch to the new calendar, even if their countries’ Governments did. Gardeners also find it handy for calculating planting times more easily too.

But the “old style” calendar continues slowly to drift ever further behind solar time, which by now has advanced over 11 minutes per year for approximately two thousand and sixty-seven years. As I am typing this, the date is Monday the 6th of September 2021, “new style”. (I hope that will be the publishing date too.) “Old style” however, the date is still only the 24th of August 2021. On the old calendar that is a Monday, but on the new calendar, the 24th of August was a couple of Tuesdays ago.

The gap, in short, has now drifted past 13 days, and will only carry on growing.

Maybe I just sound frustrated because of the complications it has caused from time-to-time when researching, but I have to say it; there must surely come a point soon when everyone stops using the Julian Calendar, and just treats it as an historical curiosity. It is no more useful in modern society than the pike is in modern warfare.

* APPENDIX: How to skip a day without sleep or changes of calendar

The strange thing about ‘skipping days’ is, we can do something similar today without switching between calendars, or even being unconscious. I struggle to think of any positive purpose for which the following technique will be of use, but nonetheless, here is how; –

If you are on board an aircraft taking off from Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean, heading west, you will of course soon cross the International Date Line. Now, say you started the journey at 9:30pm Hawaiian time i.e. 2 hours, 10 minutes before midnight on the 2nd of September. As you cross the Date Line westwards, local time switches forwards 23 hours. The day that is just about to start east of the Date Line has already passed and is ending immediately west of it. So, say it takes about three hours to fly to the Date Line. Your watch leaps forward 23 hours. You then deduct a couple of hours for the other time zones you have crossed. So after crossing the Date Line, you will find it is not long after midnight on the 4th of September. Although you will have spent a little bit of flight time on the 3rd of September in reality, by the time you land in Japan, or Kamchatkan Russia, or wherever, in the small hours, you will find you have, in effect, ‘skipped over’ the 3rd of September. No flux-capacitor-equipped Deloreans or blue police telephone boxes required.

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