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Why no British Subject was born between the 3rd and 13th of September, 1752
(This article was published in the Black Country Bugle 03 04 2008) (© Clack Country Bugle)

'GIVE us back our eleven days!' was the cry that could be heard ringing out on the morning of Thursday 14th September 1752, when millions of British subjects both here and throughout the colonies, innocently believed that overnight their lives had been cut short by eleven days. In historical terms it became known as the night of the big sleep, but what really happened in 1752 to create such a storm of protest?

In the fast-paced modern world of today we seem to take for granted almost everything we come into contact with; electricity at the flick of a switch; fresh, clean water at the turn of a tap; live TV pictures from across the world beamed into our living rooms at the push of a button on the remote-control; the list is endless. We even take for granted the type of calendar we use for 365 days (366 every leap year) from New Year's Day through to the end of the year - but it was when the old Julian calendar that had been around for nigh on 1600 years was changed to the modern Gregorian calendar, mid-way through the 18th century, that the great fuss came about.


In 1751 the British Calendar Act was passed in Parliament, confirming the introduction of the Gregorian calendar the following year. For 170 years up to that point total confusion had ensued in many parts of Europe. For example, if you boarded a boat at a Channel port in England and left for France on September 2nd, you would have arrived several hours later on September 13th, a difference of eleven days. This was because in 1582 most Catholic countries (England was Protestant at the time and ignored the papal bull, but France was Catholic and had accepted the change) adopted the new calendar introduced by Pope Gregory XIII, a task that took 37 years to complete under the mathematical and astronomical supervision of Father Christopher Clavius. Advised by Clavius and ordered by Pope Gregory, Thursday 4th October 1582 became the last day of the Julian calendar, and the following day, Friday 15th October 1582, the first day of the new Gregorian calendar which is still in use today.


When the Roman empire was at its height, they had a stab at creating a calendar. But it proved too complicated because of a Roman superstition about even numbers being unlucky. Months were therefore either 29 or 31 days long, except for February which had 28 days. But when all the days were added together (355) they fell well short of a full year. To compensate for this shortfall an extra month called Mercedonius (22 or 23 days in length) was added every second year. Imagine this system being employed today with all the Bank holidays to fit in; there would be utter chaos. Julius Caesar realised the pitfalls of such a complicated calendar and ordered sweeping reforms. By imperial decree the year 46 BC was officially made 445 days long in order to bring the calendar back in step with the seasons and the solar cycle. (From the time of the Ancient Egyptians a calendar had been based on either the lunar cycle of 12 lunations = 354.3671 days, or the solar cycle of 365.242216 days). Caesar made the months 30 or 31 days in length, and the extra 6 hours which accrued every year were made into an extra day every fourth or leap year. He also decreed that the year began on January 1st and not at the time of the vernal equinox in March.

Julius Caesar, the man who created the Julian calendar in 46 BC


The Julian calendar was good but not perfect and still ran over by 11.5 minutes every year, and after a number of centuries these minutes began to mount up. Pope Gregory XIII therefore introduced more accuracy into his calendar. Every fourth year was a leap year unless it was a century year like 1700 or 1800 that was not divisible by 400, as 1600 or the year 2000 were. This important rule eliminated three leap years in four centuries, making the Gregorian calendar as accurate as is possible under the circumstances. The accumulation of Julian calendar minutes were therefore eliminated when the eleven days were lost at the moment the calendars were changed over in 1582, and subsequently here in Britain in 1752. You may be bemused and bewildered by the mathematical calculations used to describe the history of the calendar. But perhaps the humble ready-reckoner that hangs upon many an office and kitchen wall can now be appreciated in a different light. And when you look at the calendar to check on the date of the next Bank Holiday, or a relative's forthcoming birthday to celebrate, spare a thought for the folk who lived through the changes 250 years ago, our own ancestors, the majority of whom were simple, God fearing village people content on working on the land and not venturing far from home. To them the change of calendars meant their lives had been cut short by eleven days, their world turned upside down by a decision they barely understood. It must have felt like the end of the world.
Pope Gregory XIII, who reformed the calendar in 1582 to the one we use today
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