A Note on Dates and Why You Shouldn’t Trust Them

The dates of birth, marriage, and death of the women in A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, along with the life dates of their parents, husbands, and children, should all be treated with caution, especially birth dates. Often people did not know how old they were. In addition, records from the sixteenth century, other than parish registers, are notoriously unreliable when it comes to dates. A date may be literally carved in stone on someone’s tomb and still be wrong. Genealogists have added to the problem over the years by guessing at dates. Genealogist #1 estimates a birth date between 1530 and 1550. Genealogist #2 puts the date down as 1530. Genealogist #3 goes with 1550. Nobody gives sources. The result is a lot of confusion and not much accuracy. All too often, online genealogies blithely list children as being born before their mothers were or years after the death of their fathers. Sadly, scholarly sources can be just as inconsistent. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is generally accurate, but the dates in some of their entries disagree with those offered by biographers who have done more in-depth research on the subject. Part of the problem is that source material isn’t always dated. Even if it is, past scholars sometimes misinterpreted what they read. Considering what sixteenth century writing looked like, it isn’t hard to understand how mistakes could happen!

Dates can be confusing for other reasons as well. In 1582, in order to ensure that church holidays occurred in the proper seasons, Pope Gregory XIII issued a decree dropping ten days from the calendar. By 1583, Italy, Portugal, Spain, France, and the Roman Catholic German States were all using “New Style” dates. England, however, as a Protestant nation, continued to use the “Old Style” Julian Calendar until 1752. Thus, English reports on the Spanish Armada of 1588 record events as taking place ten days earlier than Spanish reports do. The day of the week also differed. May 1, 1593, for example, was a Tuesday in the Julian calendar but a Saturday in the Gregorian calendar.

Then there’s the matter of double dating, as in February 2, 1555/6. In England, the new year began on Lady Day, March 25, although the holiday called New Year’s Day, on which gifts were presented to the monarch, was celebrated on January 1. Dates for events which took place between January 1 and March 24, therefore, may be found written with the earlier year, with the later year, or with both years. If someone finds a date written with the later year and puts it into a family tree program, the program may automatically change it into a double date. Unfortunately, that double date will be a year off. I have no explanation for a date like October 20, 1555/6. Anything from March 25 to December 31 should only have one year attached to it.

Law and university terms were fixed according to the church calendar even after the Reformation. They were Hilary Term (beginning in January), Easter Term (beginning after Easter), Trinity Term (beginning after Whitsunday), and Michaelmas Term (beginning in October).

Just to make matters more confusing, if you delve into transcriptions of original documents you will often find dates based on the reign of a particular monarch. You’ll find a handy guide to this at TudorHistory.org. A date written as “12 April 3 Elizabeth” translates to April 12 in the third year of Elizabeth’s reign. Her reign started on November 17, 1558, so the third year ran from November 17, 1560 until November 16, 1561. April 12 in the third year would therefore mean April 1561. Henry VII’s reign started on August 22, 1485, Henry VIII’s on April 22, 1509, Edward VI’s on January 28, 1547, and Queen Mary’s on July 19, 1553. These days could also be written out, as in “the xxvjth day off Februarie yn the xxxijth yere of the reyng of our souerayng lord kyng Henry the eight.” Translated, that’s February 26, 1540/1 (32 Henry). j was substituted for i in Roman numerals when it was the last numeral. In other words, iiij would be used to represent the number four.

Complicating matters when dates are given in numerals only is the difference between the way the British write dates and the way Americans do. Is 5/8/1567 August 5 or May 8? Dates in A Who’s Who of Tudor Women are written out with the month first, then the day, then the year, but if you’re looking at a genealogy online make sure you know which system is in use.

Finally, there is one more reason to treat all dates with caution . . . typos. I know there are dates in A Who’s Who of Tudor Women that are wrong because I typed 1583 when I meant 1483 or 1555 when it should have been 1535. I fix these errors as I find them. Meanwhile, use extreme caution regarding all dates.