When British History Lost Eleven Days

For 11 days in September 1752, no one was born and no one died in the British Isles or in any of the English colonies. In fact, nothing happened at all. This wasn’t due to a cosmic wrinkle in time or some other such phenomenon but because a calendar was rearranged. Yes, in 1752 the days of September 3–13 were omitted from British history when the country switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. Those days simply don’t exist.

As we might imagine, the adoption of a new calendar caused a bit of disorder and not all were happy about making the switch. According to some accounts (although these tales might be exaggerated), villagers even rioted in the streets with complaints that the government was stealing days of their lives. Not only did the citizens have to give up 11 days in 1752, the year 1751 was also about three months short. This was because, in preparation for taking on the Gregorian calendar, England also had to change its New Year’s from March 25 to January 1. So, December 31, 1751 was followed by January 1, 1752 (instead of remaining 1751 until March 25, as usual).

Despite all the complaints and the hassle of getting rid of their old calendar, the Parliament felt it had no choice but to make the change, as the British were quite literally falling behind in time from neighboring countries.

Britain’s lag in time was due to the fact that most of Western Europe had accepted the Gregorian calendar 170 years earlier, when Pope Gregory XIII declared that all Catholic countries should use his new calendar. The problem with the Julian version was that it calculated a year as being 365 days and six hours long, when in actuality it’s closer to 365 days, five hours and 49 minutes. While that 11-minute difference might not seem like a big deal, over time it really started throwing things off. Most importantly, at least to the Pope, Easter had drifted 10 days too far away from the spring equinox, an error that was unacceptable to the Catholic Church. So, in 1582 the Pope eliminated 10 days from the year and decreed that all should use the Gregorian calendar.

The English of 1582, however, felt they were too powerful to yield to the wishes of the Pope, and on top of that, they weren’t on the best terms with the Catholics considering they had just broken off from them around 50 years prior when they formed the Church of England. It took another 170 years before they finally succumbed to the Gregorian calendar, after they were thoroughly fed up with using two calendars, double-dating documents, and having two New Year’s Days.

Still, getting their dates in line with the rest of Western Europe didn’t totally eliminate the confusion. Even today, historians and genealogists have to pay careful attention to what system was used when a document was recorded, and double-dating still persists when it’s unclear whether a date was under the “Old Style” or “New Style.” Some people at the time even took the liberty of converting documented dates to the New Style. For example, George Washington was technically born on February 11, 1731, but, after the calendar change, he amended his birthday to February 22, 1732. This also had the side benefit of making him seem a year younger than he really was (at least on paper).

Nowadays, the only chance we have to manipulate days in time is on a leap year when we add a day onto February. Of course, leap years only happen every four years—assuming the number of the year is divisible by four and not divisible by 100 (unless it can also be evenly divided by 400). The bottom line: Time is confusing and always relative.

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