What Does It Mean?

Quarter Days and Courts

by Mike Fitton

Mike Fitton is a resident of Bracebridge and an honorary member of the MPSGG. He is very knowledgeable on English research and has spoken at many of the club meetings.

You are reading some old documents from Carlisle in Northern England. In Hilary Term in 1680, a lease was filed in Court, showing rent payable at Pentecost and at the Feast of St Martin the Bishop in winter. What does this mean?

Four hundred years ago, much of the knowledge, social organization and habit, and education depended on the Church. The Church itself had adapted centuries before to a number of local ceremonials, related to the solstices (longest and shortest days), the equinoxes, and harvest and other times so important to the lives of agricultural people. The most important day of the year was Easter, which celebrated the events most centrally important to Christianity, Easter, however, was a movable feast, being set for the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox (that is, after March 21).

Most land was rented in some fashion. Those owning land were usually rich enough to let others do the work. By tradition, rent was payable either twice per year or quarterly, that is, four times per year. In order to fix the days so that people would know when to pay, certain definite church days were picked for rent payments. Often, other debts were made payable on the same days, so that a debt for buying a cow, or a bequest under a will, would be payable on such a day. These days were known as Quarter Days, or Gale (i.e. Rent) Days.

In the southern part of England, in Ireland and in Wales, the four Quarter Days were:
Lady Day – March 25, Feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary
Midsummer Day – June 24, Feast of St John the Baptist
Michaelmas Day – September 29, Feast of St. Michael the Archangel
Christmas Day – December 25, Feast of the Birth of Jesus.

In the northern part of England, and in Scotland, the four quarter Days were:
Candlemas – February 2, Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary
Whitsunday – May 15, Feast of the Holy Spirit
Lammas – August 1, Feast of St Peter’s Deliverance from Prison
Martinmas – November 11, Feast of St Martin the Bishop.

You may remember my article on the elimination of eleven days from the calendar in September 1752. As you can imagine, most working people were furious as they felt they had lost eleven days’ income, and also the next rent payment day had moved eleven days closer.

It is necessary to be careful with fixed and movable days. Church days were sometimes fixed, sometimes movable. The Church’s Whit Sunday, also known as Pentecost Sunday, is the seventh Sunday after Easter, and is movable. Ascension Day is the 40th day after Easter, and so movable. Rogation Days are April 25 and the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before Ascension Day, so part fixed, and part movable. Quarter Days were always fixed. The Quarter Day called Whitsunday or Pentecost, even though close to the Church day of the same name, was always fixed at May 15.

The major courts had official terms, when they would be open for business no matter what. These terms seem to have been named after the University terms at Oxford and Cambridge. The University terms were of reasonable length, but the Court Terms seem to have been brief:

Hilary Term – January 11 to January 31
Easter Term – April 15 to May 8
Trinity Term – May 22 to June 12
Michaelmas Term – November 2 to November25

Now that’s what I call a long summer vacation! During Court Terms, land documents were often filed as a matter of public record, there being no land registration offices. For example, one of my ancestors acquired land on January 1st 1580, but the deed was not filed in court until Trinity Term later that year. It was pretty cold up on the moors in January, and much easier to drop in at the court office in May while selling his wool at the market in the County Town.

Now, back to our lease. It was filed in what we call January 1681 (remember the Julian Calendar), and the rent was payable twice per year on May 15 and November 11.

This article first appeared in the April 1994 newsletter, Volume 10 - Number 1