In Britain, the tax year runs from the 6th April to the following 5th April, which seems a rather arbitrary date. I knew there had to be a reason for this, so I did some research. As usual, it goes back to the Middle Ages, but the April date is relatively recent – and we should be celebrating the 250th anniversary of its introduction this year!
It all began in 1582 when Pope Gregory X111 ordered a change of calendar from the Julian, which had been in use since 42 BC. (That was when Julius Caesar added two months at the beginning of the year, which up till then had consisted of only ten months, and explains why September, October, November and December are so named. How the ancient Romans coped with such short years is another story.)
The Julian calendar, which consisted of eleven months of 30 or 31 days and a 28-day February (extended to 29 days every fourth year), was actually quite accurate. It differed from the real solar calendar by only 11½ minutes a year. After centuries, though, even a small inaccuracy like this adds up. By the 1500s it had put the Julian calendar behind the solar calendar by 10 days.
However, the British did not make the change in 1582, because they did not want a “popish” calendar so there was a difference of 10 days between the calendar in Britain and most of the rest of Europe. I mentioned this in a previous post.
By 1752 the difference had increased to 11 days (one calendar had a leap year in 1600, the other did not). Even the British realised that something must be done and they changed to the Gregorian calendar in that year. The general public was not happy with the change, however, and there were riots and uproar throughout the country over the “lost eleven days* between 4th and 14th September.
Until 1752 the tax year in Great Britain started on 25th March, old New Year’s Day. In order to ensure no loss of tax revenue, the Treasury decided that the taxation year which started on 25th March 1752 would be of the usual length (365 days) and therefore it would end on 4th April, the following tax year beginning on 5th April.
The next difficulty was that 1800 was not a leap year in the new Gregorian calendar but would have been in the old Julian system. Therefore the Treasury moved the year start again from 5th to 6th of April, and this date has remained unchanged ever since.
But why did the old New Year not begin on 1st January? This reflects the old ecclesiastical calendar. The church considered the Julian calendar, which began on 1st January, as pagan and therefore preferred to reckon from the first quarter day, 25th March (Lady Day), traditionally the date of the Annunciation and considered to be the date of conception of Jesus Christ. This date also had the advantage that it fell in a season between ploughing, sowing and harvesting, allowing leisure time for farmers and landlords to settle their annual accounts and agree contracts. It thus became the traditional day for tenant farmers to move onto their new premises.
In British and Irish tradition, the quarter days were the four dates in each year on which servants were hired, and rents were due. They fell on four religious festivals roughly three months apart and close to the two solstices and two equinoxes.
The significance of quarter days is now limited, although leasehold payments and rents for business premises in England are often still due on the old English quarter days.
The quarter days have been observed at least since the Middle Ages, and they ensured that debts and unresolved lawsuits were not allowed to linger on. Accounts had to be settled, a reckoning had to be made and publicly recorded on these days. And Her Majesty’s Treasury still observes “Old Lady Day” as the start of the new fiscal year.