This is my first post in a series of blogs on monarchy in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust archives. In the year of the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations it seems like a good time to take a look at our own royal records. The archive spans the reigns of 33 Kings and Queens of England (as well as many of Wales, Ireland and Scotland) with documents dating from the 12th to 21st centuries. The last 900 years have seen many changes in monarchy, at times testing the institution to the brink; Monarchy in the Archives will explore how monarchs and monarchy have left a documentary trail in our collections.
These monthly posts will be rather diverse, looking at documents, events and subjects, such as signatures, patronage, visits, coronations and, of course, jubilees! It doesn’t promise to be comprehensive, but aims to look into the archives with a royal hat on – or should that be crown?
This first post is not, as the title may suggest, about candle lit dinners with Prince Harry, but rather the role of monarchs in dating historical documents. A common element of dating records in parish, manorial and legal documents, from the 12th century onwards was to identify the date by the regnal year, i.e. the number of years a monarch had been on the throne. There is something in this convention that gives a sense of authority and authenticity to the record, and the preference wasn’t dropped in British Acts of Parliament until the 1960s, and then only because of the confusion it could cause, as, and I’ll try to clarify this below, regnal years run separately from calendar years and differ for each monarch.
A regnal year is calculated from the date of ascension to the throne. To use Elizabeth II as an example, her 1st regnal year ran from 6 February 1952 to 5 February 1953. This means a document dated 25th of December in the sixtieth year of the reign of Elizabeth II is 25 December 2011 and another dated 3rd of February in the sixtieth year of the reign of Elizabeth II is 3 February 2012. So far so straightforward, but prior to the mid-1700s dating was further complicated by the legal/administrative year changing on 25 March, as well as (presumably as it would have been too undemanding otherwise) the habit of indentifying dates in relation to the nearest religious feast day, which were often moveable, i.e. on a different date each year. For those whose wish to learn more, The National Archives has a useful starters’ guide on dating historical documents.
Returning to monarchy, the sensational lives of the royalty have been a source of interest and dramatic inspiration for playwrights, such as Stratford’s own William Shakespeare, but it’s also interesting to consider how ordinary people experienced such events. The custom of dating documents via regnal years means that power struggles on the national stage can be alluded to in the most everyday documents. For example, I have photographed a lease for land, from the Stoneleigh Collection, which is dated “1st March in the eighteen year of Charles II” (Archive Ref: DR18/1/1195). In modern dating this translates as 1 March 1666 and is calculated on the basis that Charles II ascended the throne on 30 January 1649. However, that was actually the date of Charles I’s execution and what followed this was not the accession of Charles II, but rather a 12 year interregnum. During this period, known as The Commonwealth, Oliver Cromwell, and later his son Richard, took on a king-like role of Lord Protector. However, with the return of the monarchy, in May 1560, also came the return of dating by regnal years and calculating Charles II’s accession from January 1649 points to a nation that wished to embrace the return to kingship and perhaps brush the interregnum under the carpet. In this way, national power struggles and politics can leave a documentary footprint in ordinary legal and administrative records.
Detail from lease of land, showing the regnal date.
I don’t think it’s farfetched to suggest that every one of the last 33 British monarchs is named in our archives, because of the regnal year dating convention, never mind appearing in correspondence, scrapbooks, newspaper cuttings, photographs, visitors’ books and more – some of which I will endeavour to spotlight in future posts. There is certainly plenty of Monarchy in the Archives!