Regnal years

If you’ve looked at legal documents or official government documents from previous centuries you probably noticed the use of regnal years instead of the usual calendar system.

Regnal years work like this: the month and day of the month are just as we use them, so this post is publishing on 1st August. However, instead of the year 2022, we write the year of the monarch’s reign. So today is 1st August 71 Elizabeth 2. In other words, 1st August in the 71st year of the Reign of Elizabeth II. Elizabeth’s reign commenced on 6th February 1952, so that’s the date her regnal year changes, hence 5th February of this year was 5th February 70 Elizabeth 2, and the following day was 6th February 71 Elizabeth 2.

Fortunately we no longer use this system, but believe it or not, its use in parliamentary documents was not brought to an end until 1962! (Acts of Parliament Numbering and Citation Act 1962)

Here’s a seventeenth century example from my own research:

Text of legal document written in Secretary Hand from the year 1689.
Memorand[um] that the first day of May in the first yeare of the Raigne of our Sovaryne Lord and
Lady William and Mary by the grace of god over England Scotland France and Ireland King & Queene
defenders of the Faith I John Lucas of great Woodhouse in the County of yorke Clothier and Anne […]
Click this image for a bigger view.

Obviously there is a problem with all this: we have to know the date of accession of the named monarch. To help with this here’s a handy Regnal Calendar Table. Scroll down a little to the second section.

Working with my example above, we can see that William and Mary reigned together for six years. They acceded to the throne on 13th February 1689, so this is the date on which each new regnal year will start. The last day of their reign was 27th December 1694, and the reign of the following monarch, William III (this is the same William, following Mary’s death) commences the following day: 28th December 1694. This will be the date each new year of his reign commences.

If you get your genealogy research back as far as the very end of the 12th century you’re in for a special treat: King John’s regnal year was based on the date of his coronation rather than his accession. However, his coronation took place on Ascension Day – a moveable feast. Go back to the Regnal Calendar link and this time scroll down to the notes at the bottom. There, you’ll find a list of the commencement dates of the eighteen years of John’s reign. You’ll see, for example, that Year 3 commenced on 3 May 1201, while Year 4 started 23 May 1202. In other words, the regnal year John 3 had two x 3rd May, two x 4th May, and so on, right up until two x 22nd May. (Horrors!)

In my own example, the calculation is very easy: the document was written on the first day of May in the first year of William and Mary’s reign, so 1st May 1689. However, even setting aside King John, it isn’t always that easy; and since a long reign can involve a bit of mental gymnastics, you can find Regnal Years Calculators like this one online. If you input ‘William and Mary’, the ‘1st of May’, and year of reign ‘1’, you’ll be told that these monarchs reigned from 13 February 1689 to 27 December 1694, and the year of your query is 1689 AD. [Note: the Wikipedia entry gives an explanatory note about the transition from William & Mary to just William. Some sources state that William continued using the same regnal years as previously; others say not.]

We now have another complicating factor to throw into the mix, and one with which I know most of you will be very familiar. Prior to 1751-1752, the Christian year began on 25th March, this being the Feast of the Annunciation. Until then, this was the changeover date for the new year in all parish records. So 24th March 1688 was followed by 25th March 1689. For clarification, historians and genealogists use ‘double-dating’ for the days prior to 25th March in each year, and luckily the Regnal Calculator takes this into account too. Look again at William and Mary on the calculator, and this time input ‘1st of January’ and year of reign ‘1’. This time you’ll be told the year of your enquiry is 1689/90 AD. To clarify: the 1st of January William and Mary 1 comes *after* the 1st of May of that same regnal year. You can try this for any monarch prior to 1751 (the changeover came in the 25th year of the reign of George II): input a date before 25th March and another one in the same year after that date, and you’ll see the year change.

To conclude, here’s another example…

What we might think of as 1st January 1727 would be 1st January 1726 in the parish registers and 1st January 13 George 1 in legal and parliamentary documentation. We would record it as 1st January 1726/27.

Six months later, 1st July 1727 would be recorded just so in the parish registers but in legal and parliamentary documents would be 1 George 2.

We genealogists have to keep our wits about us, don’t we!

1752: the year the calendar changed

The Julian calendar was introduced in 45BC by Julius Caesar.  Based on a solar year, it had twelve months, but a miscalculation of 11 minutes resulted in a leap year formula that overcompensated to the extent that every 128 years, a whole day was added.  By the 16th century, astronomical events such as the equinoxes and solstices were falling ten days early, and since the timing of Easter was linked to the vernal equinox, it was increasingly becoming removed from its proper season.  To overcome these problems, in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced the ‘Gregorian’ or ‘New Style’ Calendar.  Not all countries followed suit immediately.  In fact it wasn’t until 1927 when Turkey finally made the switch, that everyone was on board.  However, since the change-over involved cutting ten days from one month in the first year of adoption of the new calendar, countries that didn’t change over were ten days ahead of those that did.

It was in 1751-52, following the Calendar (New Style) Act of 1750, that the UK (and British dominions) adopted the Gregorian calendar.  By this time the UK calendar was eleven days out of sync with the astronomical events and seasons, and these days were removed in one fell swoop in September 1752.  In that year, September 2nd was followed by September 14th.  Many of our ancestors were distinctly unhappy about the loss of eleven days.  There was a genuine fear that their lives would be shortened by that number of days.  They were also concerned at the interference with the Church calendar, particularly with the moving of Easter, and on top of all that they objected to the imposition of what they viewed as the ‘popish’ calendar.  This may or may not have resulted in the ‘English Calendar Riots’ of 1752.  Many historians today view them as a sort of Georgian urban myth.

However, the removal of the eleven days was not the only important change to flow from the Act of 1750, and it is this other aspect that impacts upon us as genealogists.  Prior to 1752 the English year began on 25th March.  This was Lady Day, one of the four Quarter Days, the others being Midsummers Day (24th June), Michaelmas Day (29th September) and Christmas Day (25th December).  I first learned of Lady Day while studying Tess of the d’Urbervilles for English Literature A-level – it was the day tenancies changed and rents were due; and Tess, with her recently widowed mother and siblings, were evicted from their cottage.

Before 1752, then, December 31st and the next day, January 1st were in the same year.  The year continued until March 24th after which, on March 25th, the new year would begin.
The 1750 Act provided for a changeover involving the following series of steps:

  • 31st December 1750 was followed (as usual) by 1st January 1750, and 24th March 1750 was followed by 25th March 1751.
  • 1751 was a short year, running from 25th March to 31st December, then December 31st 1751 was followed by January 1st 1752.
  • Finally, with the removal of the eleven days in September 1752, September 2nd of that year was followed by September 14th.

For us as genealogists it’s the period between 1st January and 31st March in each year before 1752 that can confuse.  If you look at any parish register before this time you’ll see for yourself that the recording year did indeed start on 25th March and end on the 24th.  So if your ancestors married on 1st April 1632 and their first child was born on 1st February 1632, that child was born ten months after the marriage, not two months before it!  You might also have come across unlikely coincidences in record sets such as the birth of Elizabeth to parents James and Mary on 15th January 1732, and another Elizabeth to the same parents on 15th January 1733.  What really happened is that one transcriber amended the date to the Gregorian calendar and the other didn’t.

Historians and genealogists can get around this confusion by using a technique called ‘double dating’.  Any date after 25th March is recorded as usual (e.g. 1st April 1632).  However, any date from 1st January to 24th March is recorded in a way that recognises its position both within the Julian and the Gregorian calendars: e.g. 1st February 1632-33, or 1st February 1632/3.  If you’ve already got your research back to these earlier parish registers, you may decide to use this system.  However!!!! the online trees find it difficult to cope with.  After asking you repeatedly if you’re sure this date is correct, it will accept it but only show the earlier of the two years in the person’s profile.  Be strong!  It’s your tree!  😀

One final aside….
There’s another important side-effect of these changes, and one that remains with us today.  Formerly, being the start of the year as well as the first Quarter Day on which rents were due, Lady Day was also the start of the English tax year.  However, with the loss of the eleven days in September 1752, it was deemed appropriate to delay the collection of taxes to April 5th, thereby avoiding the loss of eleven days of tax revenue. That’s why, following another tweak to the calendar in 1800, the UK tax year starts on the surprising date of 6th April.  And after a quick revision online, I now see that the date in Tess of the d’Urbevilles is ‘Old Lady Day’: 6th April.  Is this an indication that a hundred years after the event, rural England hadn’t fully embraced the new calendar, or did landlords move the day rents were due to coincide with the new tax year…?