Thursday, October 27, 2016

Understanding Regnal Years

"1576. the Eightenth yeer of our Raigne" 

The designation of a regnal year is a way to count the years of a monarch's reign. The first regnal year began on the day of the monarch's accession to the throne, the day on which they were formally crowned. For example, Queen Elizabeth I was crowned on November 17, 1558. Her first regnal year spanned the dates November 17, 1558 - November 16, 1559. Her second regnal year began on November 17, 1559.

We might wonder why it might be important to associate a date with the regnal year of a monarch.  Sometimes when transcribing older documents, we might have to borrow Sherlock Holmes' deerstalker hat, and become a manuscript detective, following the clues in the document. Often, documents sustain damage over time, and the date may be blurred or truncated. We could even possibly find a document with no date, and only a reference to the year in the reign of the monarch in which the document was written.

There was a convention used in documents that designated the regnal year of the monarch as a form of dating the documents. Very often, both an actual date and a regnal year were used. For example, Queen Elizabeth I (who ruled from 1558 - 1603) might have written a document dated "December 1, 1568, in the eleventh year of our reign". However, a document might only have the regnal year, and no date, e.g., "in the eleventh year of our reign".  Consulting a regnal year chart could narrow down the possible date of the document in question.

An interesting example of a monarch's regnal year designation being out of sync with his actual years of reign is the example of King Charles II. King Charles I, father of Charles II, was executed on January 30, 1649. The monarchy was overthrown, and a Council of State was established in February, 1649. After Charles was defeated by Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, he left England and went to the Continent. When he came back to England, he was proclaimed king on May 5, 1660, and came to London on May 29, 1660.  Instead of declaring that date as the start of his first regnal year, he dated the beginning of his first regnal year to January 30, 1649, the date of the execution of his father, King Charles I. He always considered his reign to have begun then, even though he did not take the throne until May, 1660, in his 12th regnal year. For example, if you see a document signed by King Charles II on May 1, 1663, it will say "in the 15th year of our reign".

A Handbook of Dates, regnal year chart

A regnal year chart is an invaluable tool in any document detective's toolkit. It can allow the transcriber to place the creation of the document within a more narrow timeframe, allowing historians to better interpret the piece within the framework of known historical events.

A Handbook of Dates, regnal year chart
Morristown National Historical Park has in its collection a document signed by Queen Elizabeth I in June of 1576. The document concerns the importation of gold bullion into England. Although the document doesn't appear to be written by Queen Elizabeth I, it was signed by her. Court scribes usually wrote the body of official documents. The document ends with "in this the eightenth yeer of our Raign", which would date her first regnal year to the year 1558. After the death of her sister, Queen Mary (often referred to as "Bloody Mary"), Elizabeth ascended the throne on November 17, 1558.

Guide to Regnal Years

Jones, Michael. A Handbook of Dates: For Students of British History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2004 reprint.


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This blog post by Morristown NHP volunteer researcher and transcriptionist, Cynthia N. 

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