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Lady Day, quarter days and fiscal years

Posted by on March 23, 2013

A Will made in 1808 by one John Bradley of Newhouse, Huddersfield, stipulated payments to his wife Jane (nee Burnley) ‘on the four most usual feasts or days of payment in the year, that is to say the feasts of the nativity of Saint John the Baptist, Saint Michael the Archangel, the birth of our Lord Christ and the annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary‘.  Wonderfully quaint language but legal scribes, paid by the word, were tempted to use lengthy expressions.

The Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci.  It takes place on Lady Day

The Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci. It took place on Lady Day

These ‘quarter days’ are usually known as Midsummer (24 June), Michaelmas (29 September), Christmas (25 December) and Lady Day (25 March).  They were the dates on which servants were hired, rents due or leases begun. It used to be said that harvest had to be completed by Michaelmas, marking of the end of the productive season and the beginning of the new cycle of farming.  Michaelmas became the time for electing magistrates and the beginning of university terms.   For many the new year began on Lady Day, 25 March, and the year changed then too.  It was considered to be New Year’s Day, because the year’s measuring system, AD (Anno Domini – year of our Lord), is technically supposed to be measured from the day Christ was first incarnated inside Mary.  So, for example, in England the day after 24 March 1750 could be 25 March 1751 although the practice of starting the new date on 1 January was also used and some people used both, to avoid confusion!

The switch from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar in 1752 changed this, so that the day after 31 December 1751 was 1 January 1752. As a consequence, 1751 was a short year – it ran only from 25 March to 31 December.  There was a further complication.  In the switch of calendars 11 days were ‘lost’ and the date jumped forward, so the day following 2 September became 14 September 1752.   This move was unpopular with the general public who took to the streets in fury, shouting that they had been robbed of 11 days of their lives. In such a climate the Government felt that they could not start the next tax year on 25 March as usual, as the already irate taxpayers would effectively be paying a full year’s tax for only 354 days. The solution was to move the start of the following tax year back 11 days to 6 April, where it has remained ever since.  Thereafter 6 April became  known as ‘Old Lady Day’.


One Response to Lady Day, quarter days and fiscal years

  1. Susie Gutch

    I was interested to read your piece about dates and calendars. I was familiar with the terms for the quarter days,but had often wondered why the tax year begins on the 6th April, so thank you for the explanation. It reminds us that time itself is a construct, a way to organise society based on solar and lunar cycles and the agriculture that depended on them.
    The changes to the calendar that happened in the mid 18th C. show us how careful we have to be when researching family history in that period – and why there may appear to be more than one date for a particular event.

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