Saturday, 3 September 2011

When Britain Lost 11 Days

We’ve all had days when we’re a day ahead or behind the rest of the world, but imagine what it was like for the British in 1752 when they woke up and found they had lost 11 days overnight, and while yesterday was September 2, today was September 14, which was pretty tough on anyone due to celebrate a birthday during the missing period – and, presumably, on working people who would not have been paid for days which no longer existed.

The reason, in case you are wondering, is that this was when Britain and its colonies changed the calendar, replacing the Julian system introduced by Julius Caesar with the more accurate Gregorian arrangement established by Pope Gregory XIII. I’ve always found the concept a little difficult to grasp, but essentially the astronomical year is 365.24219 days long, and the Julian Year is 365.25 days long, which may not sound much of a difference, but over hundreds of years a discrepancy built up, so the calendar was out of kilter with real time.

Pope Gregory XIII, portrait by Lavinia Fontana

There’s still a very slight discrepancy between the Solar Year and the Gregorian Year, but there are Leap Years to be taken into account as well: an extra day every four years on February 29, as we all know. However, it’s not quite as simple as that, because if the fourth year falls in a centennial year which can’t be divided by 400 then it can’t be a Leap Year... Personally I’m thoroughly confused, but the end result is that we gain a day every 3,300 years, which is pretty good going really.

Even more confusingly, history books always used to claim that the ‘Calendar Act’ sparked rioting in the streets from angry residents demanding the return of their lost days, but there is no contemporary evidence for any kind of civil unrest and the tale seems to be the 18th century equivalent of an urban myth. The story may have been prompted by a misinterpretation of a Hogarth painting, An Election Entertainment, which shows a placard carrying the slogan ‘Give us our Eleven Days’.

Hogarth's An Election Entertainment

Britain was one of the last places to reform the calendar, as Pope Gregory XIII issued a Papal Bull calling for the change in 1587: he was concerned that even allowing for the fact that Easter is a moveable feast, the drift in dates meant it could no longer be celebrated at the right time, but the alteration also ensured correct timing for the spring and autumn equinoxes.

It’s sometimes forgotten, British ‘Calendar Act’ also changed the first day of the year to January 1st from March 25th, when contracts were drawn up and payments made. After the loss of 13 days from the calendar March 25th became April 6th (or old Lady Day), which is the start of our tax year.

I was going to suggest your commemorated this historic occasion by buying a new calendar for next year, but I've left it a bit lte to post this, and I guess most of the shops will be shut, so you'll have to force yourself to fall back on celebratory cakes and wine... or biscuits and tea... or anything else you fancy.


  1. This was so well written!! I thoroughly enjoyed the great read...I am a history lover. Great blog, by the way!! I look forward to perusing through your site and reading your future postings!!! Thank you for sharing ~alice

  2. I was trying to post on your book blog, but for some reason it wasn't working. The book on London Down Under sounds so interesting - I was enjoying every bit of what you wrote. You do realize you are brilliant, right? I should have been reading blogs from the UK a long time ago. What a fulfilling, rewarding experience to have found your blogs. Thank you much!!


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