Did the introduction of the Gregorian calendar spark riots?

What was England's reaction to the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in the 18th century and what many saw as the loss of 11 days of their lives?

How did England react to the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1751? (Illustration for BBC History Magazine)

The people of Britain and its empire went to sleep on 2 September 1752 and woke up on the 14th. No, they hadn’t all needed a super-long lie-in. The Gregorian calendar had been adopted the previous year, replacing the astronomically flawed Julian calendar, and a discrepancy between the two meant 11 days had to be lost.

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There’s a long-standing belief that when Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar, our ancestors rioted over the loss of 11 days of their lives. Well, not quite.

When Pope Gregory XIII had decreed the change in 1582 most western European states, Catholic and Protestant, quickly fell into line with what was simply an accurate astronomical adjustment. Protestant England resisted this papist necromancy for 170 years.

When, at last, legislation was introduced to change the calendar, it wasn’t contentious. The new calendar changed the beginning of the year in England to 1 January (rather than 25 March, as previously; Scotland had already changed). In England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales that year, as well as the colonies, the day following 2 September 1752 would be 14 September 1752.

There’s almost no evidence of riots over the loss of the 11 days, although there was clearly widespread annoyance when the change became a pretext for early demands for payment and for delaying the settlement of bills, wages or debts.

Much of the legend seems to be based on William Hogarth’s 1755 picture An Election Entertainment which shows a placard with the words “Give us our eleven days”. Several reliable authorities claim that many country folk insisted on celebrating Christmas Day on what was now 5 January, and continued to do so for a long time afterwards.

Just because there weren’t riots doesn’t mean the change was welcome, though. The Gregorian calendar had been introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 and Protestant England resisted it for nearly two centuries. When it was finally accepted, it affected when taxes were due and changed religious dates, such as saints days and Easter.

Answered by Eugene Byrne, author and journalist

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This Q&A was first published in September 2011