Henry Peel OP recounts the story of the gradual adoption throughout Europe of Pope Gregory XIII’s new calendar, a replacement for the inaccurate Julian calendar.
Norman Davies, a distinguished British historian, wrote that the Reformation “cut off England from the main body of Christendom which had been its spiritual home for the previous millennium”. He added that this forced England “to develop along isolated, eccentric lines”. One of these “eccentric” lines of development was that England continued to use the old Julian Calendar long after it had been abandoned by the main body of Christendom.
Eleven days out of step
The Gregorian Calendar, which is the one which we continue to use, was promulgated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. It was only adopted by England, and wherever England ruled, by act of parliament in March 1751. By that time England was eleven days out of step with the rest of Europe.
The reform of the Julian Calendar promulgated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 had been long overdue. By the sixteenth century the existing system of calculating the time of the year was ten days out of harmony with the reality of the solar system and, if continued, would inevitably become increasingly erroneous. The new system promulgated by the Pope was devised by Luigi Giglio, a Neapolitan astronomer and physician. A papal commission held widespread consultations with scholars throughout Europe before the pope finally approved what we now call the Gregorian Calendar.
When Pope Gregory promulgated the revised calendar, Christendom was in the process of being divided into Catholic and Protestant countries. Astronomers and scholars, including the distinguished Protestant astronomers Johan Kepler and Tycho Brahe, welcomed the revision.
Protestant preachers, however, raised objections to the papal initiative, and where Protestants were in the majority the Calendar was initially rejected. Among the more fanciful of the objections was the assertion that the Gregorian Calendar was a device of Antichrist to subject the world to himself and that it was an interference with the divine order of the universe. From the fact that there was a dragon on the coat of arms of Pope Gregory XIII it was deduced that the great dragon of the Apocalypse would deluge Europe in blood if the device of Antichrist was adopted. The University of Tubingen declared that those who accepted the new calendar were reconciling themselves with Antichrist.
England under the first Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) was on the way to becoming the greatest of Protestant states. Elizabeth had been excommunicated by Pope Pius V in 1570, and her subjects were declared to be released from the duty to obey her. All this helps us to understand why the Gregorian calendar had to await parliamentary sanction in March 1751, before it became the standard calendar in England. The Dublin Parliament sanctioned the calendar for Ireland at the same period. Papal initiatives, even when scientifically well grounded and demonstrably advantageous, had become associated with Antichrist. The Pope had become a bogey man. The mythology still lingers in the minds of some people and in some places.
Lord Chesterfield, who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland for a brief period between 1745 and 1746, is credited with the honour of bringing the English Calendar usage into harmony with the rest of Europe and with the solar system. The eighteenth century is called the Age of Enlightenment and Lord Chesterfield was representative of the spirit of the age. When he was in Dublin there were rumours that the Irish Papists might rise out in sympathy with the 1745 Jacobite Rising in Scotland. Chesterfield remarked that Miss Ambrose, the reigning beauty in Dublin society, was the only dangerous papist that he knew of. The Phoenix monument in Dublin’s Phoenix Park was long known as Chesterfield’s Column since it was he who was responsible for its erection.
When he was staying in Paris, Chesterfield realised the inconvenience of having to use two calendars to conduct his correspondence and it was he who led the campaign in the House of Lords for the reform of the Calendar. However he disclaimed the honour of being the author of the Bill. He wrote that Lord Macclesfield was virtually its author and described him as “one of the greatest mathematicians and astronomers in Europe”. He added that he “spoke with infinite knowledge and all the clearness that so intricate a matter could admit of; but as his words, his periods and his utterances, were not near so good as mine, the preference was most unanimously, though most unjustly given to me”. The bill passed both Houses of Parliament without opposition.
Bringing England into line
The changeover to the Gregorian calendar came into effect in 1752 when what would have been September 3 by the old reckoning became September 14. The act also established that January 1, 1752 would be the first day of the New Year, again bringing England in line with continental practice. The English practice had been to reckon March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation as New Year’s Day. Changes were also made in the reckoning of Leap Years to prevent errors which occurred under the old system of reckoning.
There are reports that there was popular opposition to the changeover. One of these describe a mob at an election campaign for Lord Macclesfield’s son shouting “give us back the eleven days we have been robbed of”. A ballad of the time commences;
In seventeen hundred and fifty three
The style it was changed to Popery.
Dating according to the abandoned Calendar was referred to as Old Style. Dating according to the revised Calendar was referred to as New Style.
Two Christmas Days
A minister of the Church of England reported: “Some folk in my parish have been fools enough to give their servants and cattle a holiday upon the old Christmas day; who I suppose observed the festival as they usually do in most country places, by getting heavily drunk; the parish in general came to Church and the sacrament upon the new day; but not being satisfied with this, the old day was observed too, as far as ringing of bells and carousing is thought to be proper celebration of it”.
A feature of the reform which might have proved more controversial had it been noticed was that the celebration of Easter in the Anglican Communion was brought into line with the date of the Roman celebration. The Orthodox Eastern Churches have never accepted the Gregorian Calendar in ordering their liturgical celebrations.
This article first appeared in The St Martin Magazine (May 2000), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.