It’s about Time

Paul Constantine


We take it for granted that we live in 1953 or 1998 or 2014 or 2022, but these dates are based on the birth of Christ. This is a relatively ‘new’ system compared with man’s time on earth. It is scarcely a few hundred years old, so what system was used if we look back at the historic period before Jesus was born, and indeed for many years after he was born? What system might have been used in the Anglo-Saxon era?


In general, in this land, time before our ‘Christian’ time was taken from the ‘beginning’ of Rome. For us, this happened in the year 754BC. This is an easy year for us to remember because Julius Caesar arrived here in 55 & 54BC, so Rome 'began' exactly 700 years earlier. We can also think that it was roughly 750 years Before Christ … 750BC. Years after the birth of Christ are referred to as AD Anno Domini, or sometimes as CE Common or Christian Era.


The use of AD may need a little explanation                                                          Old Cornish Sundial

Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Little) 470-544AD was a translator based in Rome. He was involved with making calculations relating to the date of Easter. This was and is, a very important event within the Christian year. Whilst he was about this, he undertook to recalibrate and unify different calendars used in the Christian world. The main system was based upon the Roman Emperor Diocletian 244-316 - AD and those initials stood for Anno Diocletian (or Diocletiani) – ‘the year of Diocletion’. Unfortunately, this emperor had organised the last great persecution of the Christians, so the monk Dionysius took the opportunity to reuse the initials AD to mean Anno Domini which loosely translated as ‘in the year of our Lord’ to indicate the year of Christ’s birth. In his many calculations he thought that Jesus was born 753 years after the foundation of Rome, but he did not give an absolutely exact year for this transition from BC (Before Christ) to AD. He wasn’t quite right, but he left it open to debate and clarification. The transition is a problem anyway, as historians move directly from 1BC to 1AD, whereas astronomers use 1BC - Year 0 - 1AD. There is therefore a mismatch with BC years between historians and astronomers, though they agree on AD years.

Astronomical mathematics can be used to correct Dionysius’ calculations, for according to Bible references we know that Jesus was born while Herod the Great was still alive. We are informed that he died in a year, ‘after a lunar eclipse, shortly before Passover’ and this situation occurred in 4BC. This part of the Bible in Matthew could not have been written until at least 70 years after the event, so even here there is some imprecision. AD was not immediately accepted, but gradually came to be used by different groups of people after periods of time had elapsed. In Britain different dates for observing Easter were fundamentally agreed at the Synod of Whitby in 664AD, but some institutions continued to use older systems even later than that. 

Time in the seventh century

Some of our understanding about events surrounding the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in this country comes from the writings of the monk Bede who was born in 673 AD roughly 50 years after the burial of the Sutton Hoo ship. He was writing a ‘religious’ history of the English people. Lengthy writings by the Anglo-Saxons do not survive, but writings in Latin by people within the Christian church do. Bede was often copying from other writers, so sometimes his dates are accurate and sometimes not, but the system he used was understood in its day.


The established church in Bede’s days was what we might call ‘Roman’ Catholic, as Christianity had been accepted and promoted by the Roman Emperors after the time of the Emperor Constantine (roughly 325AD) and the Church was closely associated with their political system. Roman time calculations that Bede uses were based on beginning with the reign of the Emperor Augustus. This means that in Chapter 5 of Bede, to specify a date he says: Severus, an African born at Leptis in the province of Tripolitania, became seventeenth Emperor from Augustus and ruled seventeen years. Bede also says this was AD 189. In another place Bede says: ‘In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 286, Diocletian, the thirty-third from Augustus …’ This is a way of recording years, but Bede’s calculation for the birth year of Christ doesn’t exactly coincide with what we understand and use today, as is explained above.


An indication

An additional dating method called the ‘indication’, was also used by Bede. In Chapter 23 Pope Gregory sends a man called Augustus to England (we are about to talk about 3 separate Augustuses) to try to convert the English in 596AD (very close to our Sutton Hoo date). The letter Gregory sent to Augustus was dated July 23rd in the fourteenth reign of the most pious Maurice Tiberius Augustus, who ruled for twenty-one years, fifty-fourth in succession from Augustus, in the thirteenth year of his Consulship: the fourteenth indication. Indications were cycles of fifteen years used by Roman and papal administrations in dating. Bede explained that to find the indication: take the year of our Lord, add three and divide by fifteen; the remainder gives the indication for the current year. This sounds really complicated doesn’t it and surely not as easy as our twelve months in each year?


The beginnings of our calendar were invented by the Romans and there were 10 months in the year - Sept, Oct, Nov and Dec should be the 7th-10th months of the year as suggested by their names. Julius Caesar wanted a calendar across the whole empire, so he got a Greek, some say an Egyptian astrologer, to make a calendar that contained extra months, one of which he had named after himself, Julius or July. Another emperor Augustus introduced another month August after himself. Up until the 1700s the first day of the year was March 25th.

          Galileo was born in Pisa on 15 February 1564, but the year was recorded as 1563 because New Year's Day was on the Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March. A Pope later moved the date 11 days forward to April 5th - which is still used as the first day of the financial year.             A Roman calendar before the Julian reform dated about 60BC


The Julian Calendar (from Wikipedia)

Up until 1753, the calendar we used in Britain was the Julian calendar. It was based on the solar year, the time it takes for the Earth to rotate around the Sun and thus was less accurate than the Gregorian calendar that came after it. The Julian calendar was 365.25 days long, which was fractionally too long, and the calendar, over time, fell out of line with the seasons.                                                                                    

Gregorian calendar

The Gregorian calendar is the one most used in our times. It was named after Pope Gregory XIII when it was introduced in 1582. There is a leap year every four years (or more precisely, 97 leap years every 400 years). This means that the year corresponds closely with the astronomical year (365.24219 days) so that it is just one day out every 3,300 years. In 1752 Britain decided to correct the problems by belatedly adopting the Gregorian calendar instead of the Julian. By doing so, 2 September instantly became 14 September and as a result nothing whatsoever happened in British history between these dates. Many people thought that the government had stolen eleven days of their lives. They protested in the streets.

              Even today the island of Foula in Shetland celebrates the New Year on a completely different day from the rest of us. The island is 3½  miles long by 2½ miles wide. The community has a strong Norse tradition of folklore, music and special festivities. Scotland took on the Gregorian calendar in 1582, but Foula stayed with the Julian calendar. This means Foula is 12 days behind, putting Christmas (called ‘Yule’) on January 6 instead of December 25 and New Year’s Day (called ‘Newerday’) on January 13 instead of January 1. Great Britain's change to the Gregorian calendar in 1752 was made because the Gregorian has that 0.002% correction on the length of the year. At one time the Foula calendar was 13 days behind the rest of Britain, but this changed to 12 when the island didn't have a leap year in 1900.

12 days

Before the calendar was changed, England celebrated Christmas on the equivalent of the 6th of January by our modern Gregorian reckoning. That is why some people still call the 6th January, Old Christmas Day and this is known as the end of the 12 days of Christmas.


An Anglo-Saxon sundial

The Saxon sundial at St Gregory's Minster, Kirkdale, North Yorkshire, England is an ancient canonical sundial which dates to the mid-11th century. The panel containing the actual sundial above the church doors is flanked by two panels, bearing a rare inscription in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons. The sundial commemorates the rebuilding of the ruined church, about the year 1055, by Orm, son of Gamal, whose Scandinavian name suggests that he may have been a descendant of Vikings who overran and settled this region in the late 9th century.


Other systems

Information and image from Wikipedia 

There have been and still are several systems of keeping and recording time.

The Greeks used to take their time from one Olympic Games to another.

This is a Greek sundial (left)

The Greeks used letters for numerals

and the letters: 1 Zeta, 2 Eta, 3 Theta, 4 Iota,

spell the word LIVE in Greek 

The Maya in South America took their time from a mythical starting point over 3,000 years ago. Other religions have different starting dates. A year may have different lengths and so, go faster or slower than the one that we are using. Islam calculates from 622AD (close to the Sutton Hoo date), Hindu from 3102BC, Jewish from 3761 BC, and the Chinese from 2698BC.


The many issues of time, of calendars, of hours, of ways of recording, of where and when we are living, are very, very complicated - but very interesting. There is a great deal to be discovered by digging deeper, because the information above has explained only a very simple outline.

If you are interested in this subject there are some basic problemfor you to solve, like this one:     

Did You Know?

Since the length of daylight varies with the seasons, this also means that the length of an hour could change if you divide the sunlight time into even sections. There would be shorter hours in winter (about 45mins) and longer hours in summer (about 1hr 15 mins or more) if daylight was divided evenly. But the problem gets worse. A daylight hour will have a different length if you live in Spain from the hour that you will get in England, or in the North of Norway on the same day. It depends on your latitude, how far up or down the world you are. Sundials won’t tell the same time in every place if they are all made to exactly the same pattern. How can these problems be solved?                                                                                                                                                                                       

Many thanks to Ben Jones for his expert guidance.

Visit his website to see many innovative designs.                                                    A sundial being used to check a digital clock for accuracy!

And finally

Did You Know?

From where you are now, you can actually see the seventh century - the time of the Anglo-Saxons.

You need good eyesight to look into the night sky to the famous constellation of Orion where three stars make a distinct line. Just below them are three more stars that represent Orion's sword. The middle star (it's a nebula) is 1,344 light years away from us. A light year is 186,282 miles per second, so the light left the star in 676 AD. You will be looking at some seventh century light from about 50 years after the ship, when young Bede was having his third birthday.