An Extract of Two Letters (from Dr John Wallis Professor
of Geometry in Oxford;) The One to his Grace the Lord Arch-Bishop
of Canterbury; The Other to the Lord Bishop of Worcester;
The Change (suggested) of our Julian Account for the Gregorian

To the Most Reverend Father in God, Thomas Lord
Arch-Bishop of Canterbury, his Grace; at Lambeth

Oxford June 13. 1699

May it please your Grace,

As to what your Grace mentions (in the Close of your Letter which I had the honour to receive) About Altering the Annual Stile: I am at a loss what to say. That there is, in our Ecclesiastical Computation of our Paschal Tables, somewhat of Disorder, is not to be denyed. But I am very doubtful that, if we go to alter that, it will be attended with greater Mischief than the present Inconvenience. It is dangerous removing the Old Land-marks. Καχὸν εὖ χείμενον ὀυ κινητέον. A thing (of Moment) when once settled (though with some Inconvenience should not rashly be altered. Such changes may have a further Prospect than men at first sight are aware of; & may be attended with those Evils, which are not presently apprehended.

In the business of Geography; upon removing the First-Meridian (in some plausible pretence) from where Ptolomy had placed it (though a thing at first arbitrary it is now come to pass, that we have no First-Meridian, at all; that is, none fixed; but every New Map-maker placeth his First-Meridian where he pleaseth, which hath brought a great Confusion in Geography.

And as to the point in Question; the Disorder in the Paschal Tables, was a thing noted & complained of, for three or four hundred years, before Pope Gregory did (unhappily) attempt the Correction of the Calendar: But it was, all that time, thought adviseable, rather to suffer that Inconvenience, than, by Correcting it, to run the hazard of a greater Mischief. And it had been much better if it had so continued to this Day, rather than Pope Gregory (upon his own Single Authority) should take upon him to impose a Law on all the Churches, Kingdoms, & States of Christendom, to alter both their Ecclesiastical & Civil year, for a worse form, than what before we had.

Or, if merely upon account of the Paschal Tables (for he made no other pretense) it were thought reasonable to make a Change; he might have corrected the Pascal Tables (or given us the new Paschal Tables instead of those of Dionysius,) without altering the Civil year: which hath introduced the confusion (which we now complain of) of the Old and New Stile. And which now can never be remedied; unless All Nations should, at once, agree upon One; which is not to be supposed.

I say, at once, for if some sooner & some later do alter their Stile, the Confusion (in History) will yet be greater than now it is.

'Tis true, that, upon pretense of the Popes (usurped) Supremacy in Spirituals (and in Temporals also in order to Spirituals) most Popish Countries (but I think, not all) have submitted their Civil year (as well as their Ecclesiastical) to the Single Authority of the Pope's Bull.

But your Grace knows very well, that the Church of England had (long before this pretended Correction) renounced the Pope's Supremacy; and (that being supposed) there is no pretense for the Pope of Rome's imposing a Law on the Church and Kingdome of England (to change our Ecclesiastical & Civil year,) more than, in Us, for that in Rome.

And, upon this account, the Church & Kingdome of England, did, at first, not admit of that change; & have, hitherto, retained our O{ld Con}stitution of the Julian year, notwithstanding the Pope's pretended Supremacy. And I see {not wh}y we should now admit it, after having so long {r}enounced it.


And really (though it may not yet appear & be owned above board; and those who now press for alteration, be not aware of it, & be far from any Popish design;) I cannot but think there is, at the bottom, a latent Popish interest, which (under other specious Pretenses) sets it on foot; in order to obtain (in practise) a kind of tacit submission to the Pope's Supremacy, or owning his Authority. And though they be so wise as to say nothing of it at present (for the Bait is to hide the Hook, till the Fish be caught;) they will please themselves to have gained de Facto, what in words we disclaim.

For there is nothing but the Pope's Bull , which should induce the Change of the (Civil) Julian year (which is much better) for the New Gregorian. For, the Equinox going backward, (for ten or eleven Minutes each year,) is very inconsiderable: and which, in Celestial Computations, is easily rectified; as are many other Inequalities of much greater concernment.

And, I think, it was never pretended that the Civil year must needs agree (exactly to a minute) with the Celestial. And, if never so much affected, it is impossible to be had: For the Solar year, & the Sidereal year, differ more from each other, than the Julian from either, which is a Middle betwixt them.

And the Seat of Easter (which only concerns the Ecclesiastical, not the Civil year;) may easily be rectified, if need be, without affecting the Civil year at all.

Or, if not Rectified; the Celebration of Easter a Week or a Month sooner or later, doth not influence at all our solemn Commemoration of Christ's Resurrection. We celebrate the Birth of Christ, on December 25, (and as well on that day as any other.) For which I know no other reason, but, that the Roman Saturnalia were celebrated around that time; and it was tought convenient to exchange That, for a Christian Solemnity. For we have no assurance whether Christ were born in Winter or in Summer.

And 'tis agreed by most (if not All) Chronologers, that, as to the Year of our Lord, the Annus Vulgaris is not the Annus Verus (though it be not agreed, how much it differ:) But it would be a horrible Confusion in History, if we should now go about to alter the Vulgar Account.

All the pretense that I can understand for altering our Stile, is onely, that in so doing, we should agree with some of our Neighbours with whom we now Differ: But it will then be as true, that we shall Differ from others with whom we do now Agree. We should agree with France, but differ from Scotland (which, as to us, is more considerable) & with all others who yet follow the Old Stile.

If it be said, that They, in time, may come so to do by Our Example. This would but make the Confusion yet Greater. For then we must be obliged not only to know what places use the new Stile; but, from what time they began so to do; if we would understand their Dates.

And, if we should, by a new Law alter our Stile in England; this would not comprehend Scotland: And we cannot promise our Selves that they would presently comply also. For (according to the present Constitution of that Church) they are not so Pliable to comply with the Modes of Rome, as some in England are.

And the business of Easter (which has the sole pretense of the first Alteration) would, to them, signifie nothing; who (according to their Constitution) observe no Easter at all; but do rather declare against it.

And, when all is done, there will still be a necessity of keeping up the Distinction of Old-Stile and New-Stile, (which Pope Gregory's pretended Correction hath made necessary;) And, with that Distinction, things may be now as well adjusted, as if we should now Change our Stile.

I forbear to discourse at large (that I bee not too tedious,) how much a better Constitution the Julian Year is, & more advisable, than the new Gregorian. Which is a thing so notorious, that no Astronomer (who understands the Methods of Astronomical calculations) though a Papist, can be ignorant of, however they may please to Dissemble it. Insomuch that (in their Astronomical Calculations) they are fain first to adjust their Calculations to the Julian Year, and thence transfer them to their new Gregorian. And, consequently, how unreasonable it is for us to exchange our Better Julian Year for one that is so much worse.

It would be much more advis reasonable (save that they will never be induce to part with ought, which may favour their Usurpations, how absurd so ever,) that the Papists should quit their New Gregorian, and return to their Old Julian Year.

But I forbear to enlarge on this, (and many other things which might be alleged:) And humbly <2r> beg your Graces Pardon for having already given the trouble of so long a Letter. And am,

My Lord,

Your Graces most humble & Obedient Servant,

John Wallis.

To the Right Reverend Father in God, William Lord Bishop
of Worcester; at       White-hall

Oxford June 30. 1699.

May it please your Lordship,

In a late Letter which I had the honour to receive from my Lord Arch-Bishop's Grace of Canterbury; His Grace was pleased to intimate, as a thing under consideration, about changing the Stile of our Civil Year.

It may perhaps be Presumption in me to interpose my thoughts with your Lordship, in a business of that nature. But I must needs it think a tender point to touch upon and which, if we attempt it, may be attended with greater Mischiefs, than we may at first be aware of, I adventured to say somewhat to that purpose, in a Letter to his Grace; But much more may be sayd.

That the Difference of Stiles doth create some Confusion in History, is not to be denyed. (And it was very unhappy that Pope Gregory XIII did, in the last Century, attempt it.) But it is now unavoidable, & cannot be Remedyed.

For it is not England onely, that useth the Julian Year; But all the Three Kingdoms, of England, Scotland, & Ireland; And all our Foreign Plantations, (which are not a few;) And the Two Kingdomes of Denmark and Sweden; the Protestant Cantons of Switzerland; and Four of the Seven United Provinces; And, how many more of the Protestants in Germany, I cannot presently say. And, if we should now change our Stile, in compliance with some of our Popish Neighbours from whom we Differ; we should then vary from the Protestants with whom we now Agree.

And particularly from Scotland (with whom we are more concerned to agree than with France.) For we are not to presume that they will presently change, at the same time with Us. It is happy that they did comply with us in the late Revolution; (to be under the same King with us:) we cannot presume they will be so fond of Compliance in all the Modes of Rome. As is very evident in their not admitting Episcopacy, nor the Observation of Easter. (which latter, was the onely Pretense of first introducing the Gregorian year.)

So that there will still be as great a necessity of SV. and SN. (Old-Stile and New-Stile) as now there is. Without which we shall be at loss, in History, to judge distinctly of Dates: and, with it, we are now as easy as if we change.

If it be said, that other Protestants may, in time, be induced to follow our Example: Perhaps some may, (not All:) But this would make the Confusion yet Greater. For, thenceforth, we must be obliged (if we would be at a certainty in History) not onely to know what Countreys do use this or that Stile; but from what Time they began so to do.

It would be much more advisable (if the Papists would be as compliant as they would have us to be,) for the Papists to return to their Old Julian year, than for us to imbrace their New Gregorian. And it might be much easyer effected. For, if the Pope could be persuaded to grant a Bull to that purpose; all the Papists would, at once, be as much obliged so to do, as, by Pope Gregorie's Bull, at first to vary from it. If it be sayd, There is no Hope of that: Then the Argument stands thus; If the Pope will not leave his pretended Supremacy, then we must Admit it.

That the Julian Year is, in itself, a Better Form, & more Advisable, than the Gregorian, is undeniable: And, all Astronomers, even Papists themselves, (if not otherwise Bigoted, in favour of the Pope's Supremacy, and the Infallibility of the Roman Church) cannot but know it. Insomuch that, in many cases, they are fain (or find it advisable) first to adjust their Calculations to the Julian Year, & thence transfer them to the Gregorian.

And there is no Inducement for our changing our Better Year, for a Worse, but onely in Compliance with the Pope's pretended Supremacy; not onely over all Churches and Kingdomes, but even the Celestial Motions; (as Pope Gregory, in his Bull, doth wisely pretend.)

Now it is well known, that, long before Pope Gregorie's Bull, England had renounced the Pope's Supremacy (and are therefore unconcerned in that Bull:) And I see no <2v> reason why (after so long a Disclai{mer) we} should be now fond to Re-admit it. But, what greater Evidence (of our owning that Authority) can (in practise) be expected, than, Obeying their Commands, in things (otherwise) Unadvisable? Hoc Ithacus velit et magno mercentur Atridae And no doubt but the hand of Joab is in the matter, though perhaps we do not see it.

As to our selves: this cannot be done without Altering the Act of Uniformity, and Altering the Common-Prayer-Book. (For, at least, all the Calendar must be {new} framed.) And your Lordship knows, how warm some were a while since, against Touching that in the least; or, so much as considering (on the King's Commission to that purpose) whether ought in it might be Changed for the Better.

If yet your Lordship think it necessary, that the Seat of Easter should be Rectifyed: that may easily be done, without Altering the Civil year. For if, in the Rule for Easter, instead of saying Next after the One and Twentieth of March, you say, Next after the Vernal Equinox, the work is done. (And we might be excused the trouble of Paschal Tables; and, the intricate Perplexities of Gregorian Epacts.) For, then, every Almanack will tell you, when it is Equinox, and when it is Full Moon, for the present year, (without disturbing the Civil Account.) And this Pope Gregory might as well done, without disturbing the Account of Christendome.

But, if he would needs disturb the Civil Year; he should have Rectified it; (not to the time of the Nicene Council, but) to the time of our Saviour's Birth. For our Epocha, is not from the Nicene Council, but, from the Birth of Christ. We do not say, Anno Niceni Consilii, but Anno Domini. And most certain it is, that, at our Saviour's Birth, the Vernal Equinox, was not on the One and twentieth of March, (as this New Account would suppose,) but nearer to the Five and twentieth.

It is alleged as an Argument, why Now to change; because the Difference, which, this Year, is but Ten days, will, Next year, be Eleven days.

But, my Lord, we must be very weak Disputants, to be caught by such a Fallacy; (which is barely Begging the Question.) The Point in Question, is not Why Now, but Why at all. It is not We that have departed from Them; but They from Us. The Julian year was Their year, as well as Ours, till the year 1585; (when a Fancy took Pope Gregory to Exchange a Better year for a Worse, and disturb the Christian World.) And then the Argument (if it signify any thing) stands thus; The farther They be gone astray, the more reason there is that we should follow them. I should rather argue, The more Reason there is why They should Return (to that from whence they went astray.) We are as we were, (and as They were till that time.) And the Reason why We did not Then change; remains still good, why we should not make that change at all.

If this Point had been started in our late King James's time; I desire your Lordship to consider, with what face it would have looked. And, if the Mask be taken off, the Face is still the same.

I find, it was started, during the time of our Civil Wars (about the year 1644,) by those about the King, when Oxford was the King's Head-quarters; But the Project did not then succeed, by reason that the King's Party (in that contest) were not Prevalent. And your Lordship knows very well, how much it was to the Prejudice of the King's Cause, that those on the other side would suppose him to be too much influenced by Popish Counsels: Of which, this was a great Instance.

And no doubt they will be as ready to push it forward (upon any the least pretense) whenever they find us soft enough to receive the impression. Not perhaps under the Names of Julian and Gregorian, (for the word Gregorian speaks too plain;) But under the softer Terms of Old-Stile & New Stile.

Otherwise; so much weight would not be layd upon so slight a Pretense. For the Addition of Old-Stile or New-Stile, will certainly Determine the Difference of Eleven days in the Next Century, as of Ten days in this; if nothing else were in the wind. We have been too often caught in such Snares.

I forbear to say more (though more might be sayd) that I may not too much presume on your Lordship's Leisure. But am,

My Lord,

Your Lordship's very humble Servant,

John Wallis.

© 2019 The Newton Project

Professor Rob Iliffe
Director, AHRC Newton Papers Project

Scott Mandelbrote,
Fellow & Perne librarian, Peterhouse, Cambridge

Faculty of History, George Street, Oxford, OX1 2RL - newtonproject@history.ox.ac.uk

Privacy Statement

  • University of Oxford
  • Arts and Humanities Research Council
  • JISC