How to determine Easter Sunday

The stone at Hertford Castle marking the Synod of 673AD
The stone at Hertford Castle marking the Synod of 673AD

The Synod of 673AD

On which date will Easter Sunday fall this year?

We can be absolutely certain that Christmas Day will fall on December 25 and New Years Day on January 1; but confusion sets in when we want to know when the Easter break occurs.

Is it in March? Is it April this year? Is it early or late? The reason for this is that the calculations for determining Easter were set long ago in the seventh century.

It is recorded by the Venerable Bede that a meeting of the five bishops of the Kingdoms of England was called by Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury.

The meeting was held in Hertford. Amongst ten canons governing the duties of clerics, marriage and divorce the church leaders issued instructions for deciding upon the date for celebrating Easter Sunday.

It was agreed that Easter was to be held on the first Sunday following the first full moon after March 21st.

Which is why Easter always falls on a different date each year; sometimes in late March, sometimes in mid-April. The blame for any of us never knowing when the schools will break up for the Spring term can be fairly and squarely laid on the shoulders of the Bishops who attended the first Synod in 673 AD.

It was the first time that the representatives of the various churches had deliberated and acted as one body. It laid the foundation for a united church and for ending the disputes between the old Celtic traditions introduced by missionaries from Ireland and the form of Christianity such as introduced by St Augustine and Rome.

Just as importantly the convention for determining Easter was later universally accepted by all Western Christianity.

Such a significant event was not officially commemorated until the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1934 a stone was laid in the grounds of Hertford Castle, which stands in the middle of the county town.

The stone reads: Near this spot was held the first General Synod of the English Church on 24 September 673 AD under the presidency of Theodore, Seventh Archbishop of Canterbury and first Primate of All England. There was present Bisi, Bishop of East Anglia, Putta, Bishop of Rochester, Eleutherius, Bishop of Wessex, Winfred, Bishop of Mercia, Wilfred, Bishop of Northumbria.

It is not thought that the commemorative stone is on the exact spot that the Synod was held but it is now generally agreed that is was certainly in the area on which Hertford Castle now stands.

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Hertford Castle

Hertford Castle did not exist at this time. It was built on earthworks established by King Edward the Elder (son of Alfred the Great) in 912 AD.

Hertford was always a welcome respite from London and many monarchs used it a base from which to hunt in the surrounding countryside. Edward 111 granted it to his third son John of Gaunt in 1360 but he also made it a prison for King John of France and King David 11 of Scotland.

Henry VIII was never too struck on Hertford Castle although he paid for the improvements to the living quarters and stayed there with his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. His daughter Elizabeth 1 spent many of her younger years there in the care of a governess.

A book of prayers in the British Museum, written by Elizabeth when nine years old is inscribed ‘ Hertford 1535’. Her Privy Council, the Law Courts and possibly her Parliament met there during the times when London was ravaged by plague.

The years of royal association came to an end in 1628. Following Elizabeth’s death the Castle fell into decay and King Charles 1 granted the Town and Castle to William Cecil, 2nd Earl of Salisbury, whose descendants own the castle to this day.

It remained a private residence although the Salisbury’s subsequently leased it to many different tenants. In 1911 Lord Salisbury leased the Castle to the Town Council, who now have their offices in the building. The grounds are maintained for anyone to enjoy; the robing rooms and other ceremonial offices are occasionally opened for public tours, often on Bank Holidays.

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Bank Holidays

At one time the Bank of England was closed on no less than 40 Saints Days and anniversaries.

These were steadfastly pruned throughout the nineteenth century. However we have to thank Maidstone MP Sir John Lubbock for introducing the Bank Holiday Act in 1871. It firmly proclaimed December 26 (if a weekday), Easter Monday and Whit Monday to be officially called Bank Holidays.

At least now when this Easter Holiday comes round, you will understand why it is in late April and not in wet and windy March.

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