As Easter weekend – late this year – approaches, Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in the House of Lords 1660-1832 section, discusses the timing of Easter and the 18th century change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar…
On 25 February 1751 Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th earl of Chesterfield, introduced into the House of Lords a bill for amending the calendar after he had, as he put it, ‘consulted the best lawyers, and the most skilful astronomers, and… cooked up a bill for that purpose’. At that point Britain still retained the Julian calendar, having avoided adoption of the revised calendar introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, which was employed by the majority of western Europe. The situation was further complicated by the use of 25 March rather than 1 January in England as the beginning of the year. By 1752 dating in Britain was out of step with the continent by eleven days, an inconvenience which Chesterfield, a man who had acted as ambassador at the Hague twice and served as one of the secretaries of state dealing extensively with foreign affairs, was eager to do away with. While the two systems were in operation, correspondents in Britain and much of Europe needed to give two dates to each letter or indicate which system was being used with the addition of O.S. (Old Style for the Julian) or N.S. (New Style for the Gregorian) after their heading. While much of Chesterfield’s focus was on the annoyance this caused in terms of diplomatic and commercial traffic, a further consequence of Britain’s separate dating system was that the country was also out of step in the calculation of Easter.
Easter, unlike Christmas, and to the intense confusion of some, is a moveable feast. Whereas 25 December was fairly early on adopted as the day of Christ’s birth in the western church, thanks to the different systems of dating in operation when Jesus was alive (and ongoing uncertainty regarding the years in which he was born and died) establishing the day when Easter should be celebrated can be worked out in a number of different ways. Rules for establishing the dating of Easter were laid down in late antiquity and subsequently reformed in the 16th century by Pope Gregory XIII as part of his general reformation of both civil and ecclesiastical calendars. However, as not everyone adopted the Pope’s reforms, not all churches observed the festival of Easter at the same time. The most obvious disparity lay between the western (Catholic) and eastern (Orthodox) churches, but before Easter 1753 Britain, too, was distinct from the majority of western Europe thanks to its continued use of its own system of calculating Easter based on ‘golden rules’ laid down in the Book of Common Prayer. The vagaries of these were such that in some years Easter in Britain did coincide with Easter as celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church, but as often as not the two occurred at different times.
Reform of the calendar in England proved long in coming. Within a few years of the Gregorian calendar being introduced Elizabeth I indicated her support for England adopting the new system, but although a bill was presented to the House of Lords on 16 March 1584/5 it fell after its second reading, thwarted by the bishops. Another century was to pass before discussion of reform of the dating of Easter was again raised with any degree of seriousness. In 1699 Dr John Wallis, professor of Geometry at Oxford, responded to the latter by warning:
That there is, in our Ecclesiastical Computation of the Paschal Tables, somewhat of Disorder, is not to be deny’d. But I am very doubtful, that, if we go to alter that, it will be attended with greater Mischief, than the present Inconvenience. It is dangerous removing the Old Land-Marks. A Thing of Moment, when once settled… should not be rashly alter’d. [Wallis to Archbishop Tenison, 13 June 1699]
It was, thus, not until the middle of the eighteenth century that reform of the calendar finally arrived on the political agenda with any expectation of success. Even then, Chesterfield’s 1751 proposal had to contend with opposition from one of the chief ministers of the day, Thomas Pelham Holles, duke of Newcastle, who declared his reluctance to ‘stir matters that had long been quiet’. Chesterfield was himself far from a technical expert, as he was only too willing to confess. Writing to his son he admitted having been obliged in the course of proceedings, ‘to talk some astronomical jargon, of which I did not understand one word’, in which he seems to have been joined by the majority of his colleagues: ‘I could just as soon have talked Celtic or Sclavonian to them, as astronomy, and they would have understood me full as well.’ If Chesterfield’s grasp of the finer points of the issue were in doubt, however, the same could not be said of his associate in pressing the changes, George Parker, 2nd earl of Macclesfield, whose coruscating denunciation of the drawbacks of the older systems appear to have left the rest of the Lords unwilling to say one word against it: ‘how perfect soever this method was at first believed to be; time, that great discoverer of truth and falsehood, has shewn it to be very erroneous’ [Cobbett, Parliamentary History, xiv. 989]. Despite this, it seems to have been Chesterfield’s performance rather than Macclesfield’s that swayed the chamber. This, at least, was Chesterfield’s take on the matter as he was convinced that he had spoken so much more clearly than his more erudite ally:
This will ever be the case; every numerous assembly is mob, let the individuals who compose it be what they will, Mere reason and good sense is never to be talked to a mob; their passions, their sentiments, their senses, and their seeming interests, are alone to be applied to…
Whichever was the case, whether through Macclesfield’s scholarly delivery or Chesterfield’s oratory, the consequence was that the people of Britain went to bed on Wednesday 2 September 1752 and woke up ‘eleven days later’ on Thursday 14 September. In popular memory the confusion gave rise to riots with people demanding the return of their eleven days, though doubt has since been cast on the extent to which there was truly any popular disturbance over the adoption of the measure at all. At most it may have been confined to a few examples, principal among them the Oxfordshire election of 1754 when Macclesfield’s son, Thomas Parker, Viscount Parker, was opposed by some Tory supporters apparently bearing placards with the legend ‘Give us our Eleven Days’ – evidence for which is based largely on Hogarth’s famous series celebrating the poll.
The ’11 days’ banner is in the bottom right
If 1752 brought Britain at last into line with Europe and resulted in Easter 1753 being celebrated in Canterbury and Rome at the same time, disputes about the moveable nature of the feast have continued to cause dissension. In the 1920s the matter was raised in the League of Nations and in 1928 an act for settling the date of Easter passed both Houses of Parliament, but failed to be enforced. Subsequent efforts to have the 1928 Act adopted in 1948 (when Henry Wilson Harris, MP for Cambridge University, urged adopting the measure ‘to arrest the vagrant tendency of Easter’) 1970, 1984 and 1999 all met with similar lack of success. Perhaps the most optimistic aspiration of the planned harmonization was expressed by Lord Airedale when the question of activating the 1928 Act was debated in 1984. By locating Easter permanently to a date in April, he argued, one might avoid March, a month which was notorious for being ‘too fickle and can never make up its mind whether it is a lamb or a lion’ and be better assured of fine weather for what ‘is regarded by many people as the first outdoor holiday of the year’.
- Cobbett, Parliamentary History, XIV
- Hansard Online
- Lord Chesterfield’s Letters, ed. David Roberts (Oxford 1992)
- Malcolm Freiberg, ‘Going Gregorian, 1582-1752’, Catholic Historical Review, 86:1 (2000)
- Robert Poole, ‘ “Give us our Eleven Days!”: Calendar Reform in 18th-century England’, Past and Present, 149 (November 1995)