Few people would have remarked upon it at the time, but as the clock struck midnight on Sunday 5 February 2012, it ushered in a landmark in the life of Queen Elizabeth II: the completion of 60 years of her reign.
For most of us, that may sound strange: the Queen’s diamond jubilee will forever be associated with ‘twenty-twelve’, the neat calendar year running from 1 January to 31 December. Yet when the nation gathers to mark this rarest of royal anniversaries this month, it will, in fact, be in her 61st regnal year, which runs from the date of her accession, 6 February, through to 5 February.
King George VI died in the early hours of 6 February 1952 and so it was later on the same day that “the lords spiritual and temporal of the realm… with one voice and consent of tongue and heart” published and proclaimed “that the High and Mighty Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary… is now Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God queen of this realm and all her other realms”.
I am myself the possessor of a letter patent issued by the Queen in which she confirmed the grant of a doctorate to my father. The letter, bearing her great seal, concludes with the statement that she witnessed it “at Westminster the fifth day of November in the twenty-eighth year of our reign”, which means it was witnessed on 5 November 1979.
You might think that the use of regnal years goes back deep into the medieval past. Not so. The Norman kings after 1066, like their immediate Anglo-Saxon predecessors, rarely referred to regnal years. They certainly did not use them, in the fashion of the present queen, to date their charters and letters. Indeed they did not date their charters and letters at all, which has given later historians great fun trying to do so.
All this changed with the accession of Richard I in 1189, and it is with him that the history of the regnal year really begins. From the start of his reign, Richard’s charters and letters all ended with a clause stating where and when they were issued. Thus a typical charter of Richard the Lionheart ends with the statement that it has been given by his chancellor at “Winchester on the 23 day of April in the fifth year of our reign”, which means it was issued on 23 April 1194.
There was here, however, a major difference from modern practice. Richard’s regnal year began not on the day of his father’s death – as our current queen’s does – but on the day of his coronation. Henry II had died on 6 July 1189, but Richard was not crowned until 3 September 1189, and it was only then that he called himself king and his regnal year began. In the intervening period Richard, like his successor John, styled himself merely ‘lord of England’.
The reason for choosing the coronation as the moment when the reign began was twofold. Firstly, there was papal practice. It was from the pope that Richard had borrowed the new method of dating royal documents, and the pope dated his reign from the day of his enthronement.
Secondly, there was a powerful sense that it was the ritual of the coronation that made the king. The oaths the king swore during the ceremony affirmed the contract between him and his people, while his anointing with holy oil poured into him all the blessings of the Holy Spirit and meant he ruled by the grace of God. So strong was this feeling that the practice of starting the reign with the coronation persisted even when political imperatives suggested it should be abandoned. No one challenged Richard’s right to succeed and the delay of several months before his coronation hardly mattered.
It was quite different after King John’s death in 1216, for half the kingdom was controlled by the eldest son of the king of France, to whom the rebel barons had offered the crown, and John’s heir, his son Henry, was only nine. Surely Henry’s supporters should have proclaimed him king at once. But they did not do so. Henry’s reign did not start until his coronation on 28 October 1216, ten days after John’s death.
When Henry III himself died on 16 November 1272, Edward, his son and heir, was away on crusade. The danger of a vacuum, with the kingdom still recovering from a civil war, at last overturned the previous practice. Edward was proclaimed king on 20 November 1216, the day of his father’s funeral. Since then all reigns have begun on the day of the death of the previous monarch.
Outside of her jubilees, few people today would probably know which year of the current queen’s reign they are in. The situation in the medieval period was different – once, that is, the kings started to date their documents. This in turn reflects the different way in which monarchy governed the realm. A letter patent of the present queen, or any other document bearing her regnal year, is not exactly common currency. From the start of Richard’s reign in 1189, by contrast, the king’s charters, letters and writs, all dated by the regnal year, were in countless hands.
It was through such documents that the king distributed patronage, made proclamations, issued orders and generally ruled the realm. Every year he issued thousands of writs enabling people to initiate and further legal actions according to the common law.
Knowledge of the king’s regnal year became so widespread that individuals adopted it to date their own charters. This knowledge was also the background to a curious episode in the reign of King John. In 1212, a “simple rustic”, Peter of Wakefield, who lived on bread and water, prophesied that John would not reign beyond Ascension Day 1213, this because he had learnt in a vision that John would only reign 14 years. Peter thus knew that John’s regnal years dated from Ascension Day 1199, the day of his coronation.
John scoffed at the prophesy, set up his tent in a great field, and spent Ascension Day 1213 in celebrations with his nobles. The danger, however, was not quite over, which raises an odd point about John’s regnal years. Ascension Day is a feast which falls on a different day each year, according to the date of Easter. In deference to the feast, John’s regnal years were dated from Ascension Day each year (23 May in 1213), rather than from the actual date of his coronation in 1199, which was 27 May. The result was that his regnal years were of unequal length.
Peter’s believers (and there were many of them) now claimed that the meaning of the vision was that John would cease to reign after the date of Ascension Day as it had been in 1199 – so after 27 May. John waited till both dates were passed and then ordered Peter and his son to be tied to horses’ tails, and dragged from their prison at Corfe Castle to Wareham, where they were hanged. Yet many still said Peter had been proved right. On 15 May 1213 John had submitted to the pope and made England a papal fief. Had he not thereby lost his realm?
Only two medieval monarchs reigned long enough to celebrate jubilees of 50 years: Henry III and Edward III. Neither managed 60 years, although Henry did rule for 56. Henry’s jubilee year ran from 28 October 1265 to 27 October 1266 and there is no sign that it was celebrated – hardly a surprise given the kingdom was at war.
Edward III was different. The hero of Crecy, the model of the chivalric king, his jubilee year was 25 January 1376 to 24 January 1377, and celebrated it certainly was. Prisoners were freed, sermons preached, speeches made in parliament, and on Shrove Tuesday 1377 Edward was conveyed up the Thames from Havering to Sheen in a royal barge, accompanied by the nobility in their own boats. The epitaph on Edward’s tomb in Westminster Abbey took up the theme:
“Here the glory of the English; the flower of past kings; the form of future kings; a merciful king; the peace of his peoples; Edward the third, completing the jubilee of his reign; an unconquered leopard; victorious in battle like a Macabee;… he ruled mighty in arms; now in heaven let him be a king.”
Yet the celebrations of Edward’s jubilee had a hollow ring, for by January 1377 he was far into his dotage. He died only five months later.
Much more effective in enhancing the glory of monarchy were the anniversaries celebrated throughout the year: those of Christ and his saints. Medieval monarchs frequently combined their celebration of such feasts with the holding of parliaments, hoping that those who had enjoyed their regal hospitality, and witnessed their earnest piety, would obey all the more readily their commands. At Westminster on 13 October 1260, the anniversary of his patron saint, Edward the Confessor, King Henry III, in a gigantic act of almsgiving, fed 5,016 paupers. He spent approaching £229 on a great feast, this at a time when the annual income of a knight might be £15 a year. At the same time the Cinque Ports were ordered to send boats with trumpeters up the Thames to play water music for the guests’ entertainment.
For the parliament itself, Henry set up in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey a gilded iron lectern from which he intended to address the realm. He would do so in a building he had specially designed as a suitable setting for such addresses. Either side of his lectern, in the great floor which still survives, ran bands of tiles depicting the royal arms of England. The leopards are placed within shields supported by centaurs, each coat consisting of four tiles so that 248 were needed to make up the 60 shields in the two bands.
From where he spoke, Henry looked up at statues either side of the Chapter House doorway, the Angel Gabriel on the left announcing to Mary on the right, the news that as a virgin she would give birth to Christ. Inspired by this view of the most significant speech in history, and supported on either side by the tiles bearing his coat of arms, surely Henry’s word would be law.
For medieval monarchs such rituals functioned very differently from the rituals of monarchy today. Medieval monarchs had actually to rule. Their rituals were vital aids in enabling them to do so. Modern monarchs do not rule. Their rituals are still designed to win hearts and minds, but that is to validate the monarchy’s largely ceremonial role.
This does not make the rituals any the less significant. Indeed, stripped of power, and left only with the ceremonial, it becomes all the more important to get them right. Being a monarch today is every bit as difficult as it was when Richard I first began to date his documents and make people aware of regnal years back in 1189.
Committing the regnal year to paper
From the 12th century onwards, the change-over to a new regnal year involved a considerable labour for the clerks of the royal chancery, since the rolls for the previous year had to be closed and a new set opened. By the 1230s there were five sets of chancery rolls: those for charters, letters patent, letters close, letters close dealing with money, and a roll for other financial matters including fines (offers of money for concessions and favours). The clerks sometimes wrote large headings in capital letters proclaiming the start of a new roll.
You can see the first of Henry III’s fine rolls – reading “Rotulus Finium Anni Regis Henrici Primi” (Roll of fines of the year of King Henry the First) – here. This was an act of defiance because Henry acceded, as a nine-year-old, in the middle of a civil war and there was every chance his first year might be his last.
David Carpenter is professor of medieval history at King’s College, London and author of The Struggle for Mastery: Britain 1066–1284 (Penguin, 2004)