Traditionally observed on 25 March each year, Lady Day marked the end of a financial and legal quarter. As the first ‘settlement day’ of a new calendar year, it was auspicious for several reasons.
The Gregorian calendar was adopted late by the English – only in 1752, so by the time the Regency era rolled around, the 1 January had only been England’s new year’s day for around 50 years. Prior to this change, the English followed the Julian calendar, placing their new year on March 25th. In the Regency era, this day is known as Lady Day and it retained its significance throughout this period.
Lady Day is still used as the start of the legal and tax year in the UK (Ireland excepted). It’s the only quarter day that does not fall within a ploughing or harvesting season. This is why it’s the perfect day to settle all outstanding debts and other contracts. The arrangements between landowners and tenant farmers were settled on 25 March. Leases were either renewed, renegotiated, or terminated, on Lady Day each year. Payments and bonds were finalised and changed hands before the clock struck midnight, and honourable businessmen ensured no monies remained unpaid.
Any new leasing arrangements began with property access on Lady Day. It was a day of great management and movement. Tenant farmers taking on another lease may move to a new farm for example. Their removal from their old lease, and onto their new one, would need to be completed on or by Lady Day. There would be financial penalties imposed for leaving too late, or occupying a new lease too early (though these arrangements were very much at the discretion of the landowners).
In terms of debts, all outstanding amounts were required to be settled by Lady Day. The opening of my novel Always a Princess features a card game where the hero has been staked by his absent brother. He wins his brother the horses they were after, and agrees the animals may be delivered ‘by Lady Day’. This was a common occurrence at the time.
Likewise, any creditors may hold their demands for late payments until after Lady Day, but not beyond. Once the day came and went, the penalties for unsettled debts became severe. Fleet Debtor’s Prison was notoriously crowded during the Regency era. It’s worth noting that gambling became something of an epidemic in the late 1700s, contributing to the declining fortunes of many.
There is a lag of eleven days between the Gregorian calendar and the Julian calendar, which is why 5 April is sometimes referred to as ‘Old Lady Day’. This reference appears in contemporary novels such as Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy).