Pope Gregory XIII

Pope Gregory XIII is remembered for one reason only, namely his reform of the calendar which has subsequently borne his name. Had it not been for that, he would only have gone down in history for his vigorous attacks on Protestantism and for virtually bankrupting the Papacy.

Ugo Boncompagni was born in Bologna in 1502 and was nearly 70 when he was elected to the papacy in 1572. His immediate goal was to turn back the Protestant tide and to promote the counter-Reformation that was initiated by the Council of Trent (1545-63).

One consequence of the counter-Reformation was violence meted out to Protestants throughout Catholic Europe, and one of the worst atrocities was the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France in August 1572, when as many as 30,000 French Huguenot Protestants may have been killed. Pope Gregory celebrated this event by attending a mass of thanksgiving.

In order to further the reforms agreed at the Council of Trent, Pope Gregory needed a well-educated priesthood, and to this end he established several colleges, including an English seminary in Rome, from which priests were sent to England on the dangerous mission of supporting Catholics during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The Jesuit College at Rome was enlarged to become the Gregorian University. This extensive building programme, together with Gregory’s generous subsidies to Catholic rulers to bolster their anti-Protestant activities, was what led to the coffers being emptied.

Gregory’s reform of the calendar came about in 1582. The old calendar had been instigated by Julius Caesar in 46 BC, and the problem was that the length of the year as measured by the calendar was not the same as the time taken for Planet Earth to complete one orbit of the Sun. Indeed, by 1582 it was ten days out. The solution declared by Pope Gregory was simply to cut ten days out of October in that year, so that the 4th was followed by the 15th. The error would have recurred in time had not Gregory also made it known that leap years (of 366 days) would not take place in the years that marked the turn of a century, so that 1700, which should have been a leap year, would not be. A further adjustment was that every fourth centenary year would still be a leap year. This is why the year 2000 was a leap year, although 2100 will not be.

Although this reform was timely and necessary, it was hardly going to go down well in those countries that had embraced Protestantism, or in those that practiced Orthodox Christianity. The result was that Europe was split for centuries to come. Great Britain and her colonies only adopted the new calendar in 1752, when there were vigorous protests about the “ten lost days” (it was actually eleven by the time of the change), and Russia only did so after the 1917 Revolution (which is why the “October Revolution” actually took place in November!)

Pope Gregory reigned for thirteen years and died in 1585 at the age of 83. Towards the end of his reign he had tried to restore the Papacy’s fortunes by confiscating property in the Papal territories for which the owners could not provide cast-iron title. This led to considerable unrest and, at his death, Rome was not only broke but in a state of near-anarchy. But at least the date was correct.


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    • Is there irony here? He was always going to be hated in Protestant Europe, so it should be no surprise that the latter was slow to adopt a calendar that was only mandatory in Catholic countries when first announced.

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