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By July 9, 2014July 25th, 2017Maritime history, Religious history, War history

This article was originally published on my WordPress blog July 2014.


Monument to Edmund Norton, gentleman, who received a pension for ‘his good service by seae in Anno Domini 1588’ (St Bartholemew’s Church, Hyde, Winchester, Hants).  

Edmund died on 10th July 1600.  And on 20th July (see below).


426 years ago today, 29th July 1588, the Spanish Armada appeared off the coast of Cornwall. It also appeared in the same place, on the same day, on 19th July 1588.

So, as well as having surprise, ruthless efficiency, a fanatical devotion to the Pope and nice uniforms on its side (to paraphrase Monty Python), could the Armada actually break the time barrier? Or was this just an idea from a discarded Dr Whoscript?

Ah, no.

I don’t normally write blog posts in a hurry, but a series of  ‘anniversaries’ posted on Twitter has got rather annoying, and I think it’s worth pointing out a problem. The problem relates most immediately to the commemorations of the Spanish Armada campaign, which fall this July and August, but it affects some other anniversaries as well.

The day on which I am posting this is 29th July 2014, the 426th anniversary of the Spanish Armada arriving off the Cornish coast.   The Armada, a force of over 130 ships packed with sailors, soldiers and weapons, was sent by the Catholic King Philip II of Spain to invade England and topple the Protestant Queen Elizabeth (1). The Spanish plan failed, due in no small part to the English fleet.

To the Spanish, they sighted the Cornish coast on 29th July. To the English, it was 19th July.   The reason for this apparently bizarre difference was of course that the two sides were using different calendars.   Until 1582, all of Europe used the Julian Calendar, established in Roman times.   The flaw with the Calendar was that the Julian year was estimated at 365¼ days, which was slightly too long. Over time the Julian year became increasingly out of sync with the solar year. By the 16th century the difference between the two was as much as ten days.

The problem was dealt with by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, who decreed that ten calendar days would be cut out of one month in that year, with 4th October being followed by 15th October (the dates followed as normal thereafter, and subsequent Octobers were all their original length). This brought the calendar back in line with the rotation of the Earth. The difficulty here was that the Gregorian Calendar only applied to Catholic Europe: England and the rest of Protestant Europe did not adopt it until the 18th century, with Russia and Orthodox Christian Europe following in the 20th century (2).

Educated people in Elizabethan England were well aware of the new dating system, which they called ‘New Style’ or novo stilo. They sometimes used it, but most written documents in England were dated according to the Julian Calendar for the next 170 years. This is why the Armada seemingly arrived ten days before it actually did, in what would have been one of the greatest surprise attacks of all time. If it had happened.

There’s absolutely no problem in using the Julian Calendar for dates in England before 1752, but if your subject touches on international events, you can’t avoid using the Gregorian Calendar as well, because most of England’s foreign neighbours did. Some of the people who post the ‘anniversaries’ don’t appear to have picked up on the difference, or they are basing what they say on sources that either use the Julian Calendar without qualification or aren’t clear enough about the ten-day gap between the calendars.

At this point, I should declare an interest. I was part of the team that researched and staged the 1988 blockbuster Armada Exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. We stuck firmly to the Gregorian Calendar when it came to the course of the campaign.

Getting the dates mixed up is not just confined to people today, nor perhaps just to individuals.  The National Trust set off its national Fire Over England beacons on 19th July 1988, which was 400 years to the day since… the Armada was sitting in the port of La Coruña, awaiting a favourable wind. The reason given for this was that it was ‘only right’ to base the programme on the calendar used in England in 1588. This may have been so, but it does make me wonder (3).  The great pity about not using the Gregorian Calendar for all of the 1988 commemorations was that the days and the dates in that year and 1588 were the same. It could have given more of a sense of immediacy to the events.

This all might be dismissed as academic nitpicking, but I think if you’re going to declare this or that day as an anniversary, it’s better to be accurate than to be out by over a week.

Any way, I must go now. Some sails have just appeared on the horizon…

Blog and photo © Ian Friel 2014

(1) There are umpteen books on the Spanish Armada, but people interested in knowing more could read Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker, The Spanish Armada, London (various editions 1988 on) or Armada 1588-1988 (Penguin 1988), the catalogue of the 1988 National Maritime Museum exhibition

(2) C R Cheney, Handbook of Dates for Students of History, London 1981, pp 10-11.

(3) ‘All at sea over when we duffed up the Dons’, The Guardian, 1988 (sadly my press-cutting doesn’t have an exact date!).

Ian Friel

Author Ian Friel

Ian Friel is a historian, researcher and author with over 40 years experience and an international reputation in the field of maritime history.

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