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N.B.: this essay originally formed part of the much longer piece But Snape is just nasty, right?, but I decided to split it away into its own file because side arguments of this kind were making the main essay unwieldy and hard to follow, and because it's an interesting topic in its own right.
In the scene in The Three Broomsticks in PoA, Fudge says that during Vold War One Dumbledore had "a number of useful spies", one of whom (Snape, in fact) warned him that You-Know-Who was after the Potters. Dumbledore alerted James and Lily at once and advised them to go into hiding, and recommended the Fidelius Charm. They performed the Fidelius, and "barely a week" later they were betrayed by their Secret Keeper.
Although we don't know exactly when Peter first betrayed the Potters, Fudge doesn't know either, so when he refers to this betrayal he must be talking about the date of the Potters' actual death, which therefore took place seven or eight days after they were placed under the Fidelius. It doesn't sound as if there was a very long delay between the warning and the casting of the Fidelius, either: so on the face of it this makes it seem that Snape passed on his warning (and perhaps defected) only about ten days before the Potters were killed, and they were only in hiding for a week. That would mean that Snape's warning was given round about 20th October 1981.
However, this clashes with the scene in DH where we see Snape defecting to Dumbledore against a wintry landscape which cannot be earlier than mid to late November. In Scotland late October/early November is the time for viewing the autumn leaves in situ on the trees, as you can see in this series of photographs of Scottish scenes taken during the final week of October 2013 - and this in a year in which the leaf-fall was expected to be early, due to an unusually dry summer. And yet when Snape goes to defect to Dumbledore the trees are bare. This is not totally impossible, since there are one or two species of trees which do shed their leaves by the end of October, but it requires the wood to be a monoculture and is quite unlikely.
If we assume that the tress are a natural, mixed woodland then this scene is set no earlier than mid-November. At the same time there are still leaves blowing around and not yet turned to mulch, so judging by this scene Snape must have defected, and passed on his initial warning about Voldemort targetting the Potters, probably between mid November 1980 and January 1981, and certainly no later than March 1981 (by April there would start to be obvious buds on the trees, and in fact in PS we see a beech tree in the Forbidden Forest already in full leaf at the end of March). This must have been followed by a second, more urgent warning in October 1981.
Does the information we have on when the Potters went into hiding indeed bear out the idea that Snape defected nearly a year before the end of the war? If it does, did they only go into hiding for the first time just before they died; or did they in fact hide when Snape first warned Albus that they were targets, apparently months before their deaths, but only apply the Fidelius when the situation became more urgent?
Sirius accuses Peter of passing information for a year before the Potters died, i.e. since October/November 1980, and the warning that there was a leak in the Order probably came from Snape, the Order's spy. Sirius didn't know at the time that Peter was the year-long leak (assuming that he was), and evidently Snape didn't either - he was desperate to protect Lily, so if he'd known who the leak was, he would have said - but Sirius knew there was a leak.
It's possible Snape only became the Order's spy much later and then told them "there has been a leak going on for n months which you didn't know about". But JKR said at one point that the Potters already knew they might have to go into hiding by Harry's christening:
The average age for a baby being christened in Britain seems to be about seven months (judging from a quick survey of fourteen examples mentioned on Google!), so if she means that the christening was "hurried" in the sense of being rushed into that means it was prior to February 1981, and Snape had already warned them about the security leak and the threat from Voldemort by that point.
In addition, Dumbledore tells the Wizengamot that Snape turned spy "at great personal risk", which sounds as if he'd been spying for a substantial period before Voldemort fell.
It's possible that Snape himself was the Order's year-long leak - that he defected about a year before Voldemort fell, and that then, as later, Dumbledore fed titbits of information about the Order to Tom via Snape to make him look convincing. As far as we know Tom knew from the first that Dumbledore thought Snape was working for him, Dumbledore, so he would have expected Snape to come up with at least some information to prove that he had "fooled" Albus.
At any rate, Sirius's knowledge of the year-long leak and JK's comment about the christening tend to confirm that Snape defected in late 1980 or very early 1981, not October 1981, and we see that he warned Dumbledore that the Potters were in danger at that time - whether or not they then went into hiding. That would mean that his warning must have been given in two stages: the initial message to Dumbledore about Voldemort thinking that the prophecy referred to Lily and her son, and then a later, more urgent word, given in mid October 1981, that Voldemort was about to attack.
On the face of it, the scene on the hillside clinches the idea that Snape defected no later than March 1981. However, JKR is rather vague about both times and seasons (that beech tree in PS really should not be in full leaf in March), so we have to consider the possibility that she simply hadn't taken in the fact that the vast majority of the autumn leaves in Scotland don't fall until well after Hallowe'en. Did Rowling herself intend Snape to have defected only a few weeks before the end of the war, whether or not that fits with the scene on the bare hillside? What other information do we have that would bear on when Snape first passed on the warning, and when JKR herself intended him to have done so?
Independent evidence as to when the Potters actually went into hiding comes from the letter which Lily wrote to Sirius following Harry's first birthday party. The Potters were certainly already in hiding when this letter was written, because Lily complains of being "shut up here" and implies that James cannot leave the house (or possibly the village) without his Invisibility Cloak. If the Potters only went into hiding at the point that the Fidelius was cast, the letter would have to have been written in the last week of October 1981.
It certainly sounds as if the birthday party happened not long before the letter was written. It is unlikely that Harry's party was held months after his birthday, and Lily says that "James is getting a bit frustrated shut up here, he tries not to show it but I can tell -- also, Dumbledore's still got his Invisibility Cloak, so no chance of a little excursion", which suggests that they have been "shut up" for considerably more than a week. Nor does she sound as nervous and excited as you would expect if they had been forced to flee and go under Fidelius only days beforehand.
Lily also says that "Wormy was here last weekend, I thought he seemed down, but that was probably the news about the McKinnons; I cried all evening when I heard." James and Lily seem to have regular contact with the Order, since they have at least heard from Sirius (they knew he wouldn't be able to make the birthday party due to Order business) and Peter in the last couple of weeks. This means that they would have heard about the murder of the McKinnons soon after it happened - and they expect it still to be fresh enough news to Peter that he would still be depressed about it as recently as the previous weekend. Ergo, the letter was written not long after the McKinnons died.
In OotP Moody shows Harry a group photograph of the Order and says "that's Marlene McKinnon, she was killed two weeks after this was taken, they got her whole family." There is no suggestion that it took a long time to discover that the McKinnons were dead, so we can assume that this photograph was taken three or four weeks before Lily's letter was written. If the letter was written after the Potters went under Fidelius, then the photograph was taken around the first week of October 1981.
So, we know that the group photograph of the Order was taken three or four weeks before Lily wrote her letter. If her letter was indeed written in that final week when the family were under the Fidelius, and that was the first time they had gone into hiding, it would have to have been written towards the end of their week in hiding, just before she died: since she speaks of having been cooped up for long enough for James to get very bored and frustrated. Therefore, the photograph would have to have been taken only about four weeks before the end of the war, and all the deaths of Order members which Moody lists as taking place after that photograph was taken would have to have happened either in those four weeks, or after the end of the war.
Moody goes on to list four other Order members - Benjy Fenwick, Edgar Bones (and family), Gideon Prewett (and brother), Dorcas Meadowes (killed by Voldemort himself) - who were all killed in Vold War One, plus Caradoc Dearborn, who vanished six months after the photo' was taken, and whose body was never found. If Lily's letter was written at the end of October, that would mean either that Voldemort's forces managed to kill four Order members in the last month before his downfall, or that some of these people were killed after Voldemort's downfall.
We know that Antonin Dolohov was convicted of being one of the five Death Eaters who murdered the Prewett brothers - it's in OotP, in the Prophet's report on his escape from Azkaban. In the Pensieve scene in GoF, Crouch Snr tells Karkaroff that Dolohov was captured and Rosier killed shortly after Karkaroff's own capture, which means the capture of Dolohov and the death of Rosier happened at about the same time - that is, they both happened soon after Karkaroff was captured.
Additionally, Dolohov must obviously have been captured after he killed the Prewetts. We do not know how long after their deaths he was captured, but we know that Rosier was killed round about the same time that Dolohov was captured, i.e. close in time to an indefinite point after the Prewetts' deaths, and hence Rosier cannot possibly have pre-deceased the Prewetts by much, and more probably outlived them a bit. That means Rosier probably died after the photograph was taken, because the Prewetts were alive at that point: and if he did die before it was taken it wasn't more than a couple of weeks before, and probably only a few days.
In GoF, Sirius says that Rosier and Wilkes were "killed by Aurors the year before Voldemort fell", i.e. Rosier died before the Potters did. Karkaroff offers Crouch evidence against Travers who "helped murder the McKinnons", which implies that his own capture was after the death of the McKinnons, since he doesn't seem to know anything about events after his own arrest. And we know that his capture occurred before the death of Rosier, which in turn was before the fall of Voldemort. If the death of Rosier was after the capture of Karkaroff which was after the death of the McKinnons which was two weeks after the photo', then Rosier definitely died at least a few weeks after the photograph was taken.
In summation: two weeks after the Order photograph was taken, the McKinnons were killed, and a week or two after that Lily wrote her letter. At some point after the letter was written, the Potters were killed. In between the murders of the McKinnons and of the Potters, Karkaroff was captured, then Dolohov was captured and Rosier killed. The death of the Prewetts occurred some time between the taking of the photograph and the capture of Dolohov.
Since the McKinnons apparently died a week or two before Lily wrote her letter, if it had been written in the last week of October the McKinnons would have to have been killed in mid October, and the capture of Karkaroff and the death of Rosier would have to have happened in the few weeks between mid October and Voldemort's disembodiment on 31st October. But Sirius's comment about Rosier dying "the year before Voldemort fell" doesn't sound as if Rosier was killed only a few weeks before that fall. It sounds much more as though Rosier died some months before Voldemort fell - and Lily therefore died months after her letter was written.
It is of course possible that Sirius was speaking extremely loosely when he said that Rosier died the year before Voldemort's fall. If Rosier died only a few days before the Potters, then the murders of the Prewetts and McKinnons, of Dorcas Meadowes and probably of Bones and Fenwick, Karkaroff's capture, Dolohov's capture and Rosier's death could all have occurred in October 1981. But if Order members have been dropping like flies in recent weeks, why would Lily single out the McKinnons as a cause of sorrow, rather than saying "all the deaths in the Order"? And why would Moody specify that the McKinnons were killed only two weeks after the photograph was taken, as if it was, literally, remarkable, and yet not say that Meadowes and the Prewetts were killed only a week or two after that? It certainly sounds as if JKR meant the Order photograph to have been taken a substantial period before the end of the war, and we know that Lily wrote her letter only three or four weeks after the photo' was taken, and had been in hiding for some time at that point.
What is more, Moody says that in the Order photograph Sirius "still" had short hair. It's unlikely he means "compared with the long hair he grew in Azkaban", since Moody didn't learn about that until twelve or fourteen years later - if that was what he meant, he'd have said "he had short hair in those days". So he's refering to a sartorial choice which Sirius made to grow his hair long, prior to his arrest.
Since Sirius was arrested the day after the Potters were killed, if the photograph had been taken only four weeks before their deaths Sirius would only have had four weeks to grow his hair long. He could have done so by magic, but it would have been a flash-in-the-pan, something seen only for a few days or weeks. And again, Moody probably wouldn't phrase it as Sirius "still" having short hair in the photo', implying that long-haired later became his normal or characteristic state.
To allow Sirius time to have grown his hair and for Moody to have seen that as his normal state, we need to set the taking of the photograph as early as we can get it and still have Lily find out about the Mackinnons' deaths round about the time of Harry's birthday party, or just before it. That sets the photograph in early to mid July 1981, and confirms that Lily wrote the letter soon after Harry's birthday, by which point the Potters were already in hiding.
Almost everything about the letter indicates that it was written in early August 1981, shortly after Harry's birthday. The only thing about it which might indicate that it really was written in the last week of October is that Dumbledore will later tell Harry, in the King's Cross scene in DH, that he borrowed the Cloak only a matter of days before James's death; but we must assume that he is confused (he was already a hundred years old when he borrowed that Cloak, after all), or outright lying, because even if by some strange chance the letter had been written in late October, Lily would hardly complain that Albus "still" had the Cloak if he had borrowed it only a few days beforehand. Therefore, we know that Dumbledore's statement about when he borrowed the Cloak is untrue, and we can discount it as evidence of when the letter was written. Everything else points to it having been written in early August.
[We know incidentally that James and Lily attended an Order meeting three or four weeks before the letter was written, since they are in the group photograph: so either they didn't go into hiding until after the photograph was taken, perhaps because of the McKinnons' deaths, or a trip to an Order meeting was one of the "excursions" for which they needed the Cloak. Since Lily speaks as though they have been cooped up for quite some time, it's more likely that they were already in hiding and used the Cloak to attend the Order meeting, than that they only went into hiding after the photograph was taken. Assuming that the letter was written a week or two after Harry's birthday, this gives us at least a hint that Dumbledore borrowed the Cloak towards the end of July, rather than earlier.]
When combined with Lily's implication that the Potters had been cooped up for a long time before she wrote the letter, the mention of Harry's birthday party as a recent event, all the evidence from the Order photograph, Sirius's knowledge of how long there had been a leak in the Order and JKR's interview statement that the Potters already knew they might have to go into hiding before Harry's christening, which was rushed into early, it seems clear that they went into hiding in two stages.
Snape defected some time between mid November 1980 and (at the latest) March 1981 and warned them that Voldemort was interested in them. This warning was given before (probably only just before) Harry's christening, and JKR implies that that christening was rushed. The mode for christenings in the UK seems to be when the child is seven months old, so to be considered rushed, Harry's christening must have taken place substantially earlier than February 1981. This confirms that Snape probably defected between the middle of November and the end of December and was a spy for the best part of a year prior to Voldemort's fall, at what we know was a time of great activity and danger when Order members were being killed freely, and Death Eater suspects were likewise being tortured and killed. Dumbledore's statement that he spied at great personal risk is clearly justified.
At some point after receiving Snape's initial warning, and well before August 1981, the Potters confined themselves to the house in Godric's Hollow, but continued to receive visitors fairly freely. This happened at some point long enough before Harry's first birthday that by August 1981 James was thoroughly fed up with the restrictions. Then in mid to late October 1981 Snape relayed the news that Voldemort was about to strike, the Fidelius Charm was cast and the Potters went under deep cover, only to be betrayed and killed a week later.
That would mean that the murder of the McKinnons occurred in mid to late July 1981. The group photograph of the Order was taken in early to mid July 1981, Dumbledore borrowed the Cloak shortly afterwards, and the various other killings and captures which Moody and Crouch listed occurred between then and the end of October - except for the disappearance of Caradoc Dearborn, who disappeared some time in January 1982. Given that his body was never found, one wonders whether he really was abducted and killed by stray Death Eaters, had some personal and private reason to disappear, or simply got smashed at a New Year party and fell in the river. Or perhaps he was the long-term spy in the Order, and chose to vanish.
Not only is this the only scenario which fits the books, but it is evidently what JK Rowling intends. The winter background to the defection scene; Dumbledore's statement about the risks Snape ran; her own statement that the Potters went into hiding just after Harry was christened; the fact that Lily apparently wrote the letter just after Harry's first birthday party, at which point the Potters had already been in hiding for some time; and the fact that the letter was written a few weeks after the taking of the Order photograph, which itself was clearly some months before the end of the war, all indicate that Rowling was thinking of the Potters' first going into hiding, and hence Snape's defection which preceded it, as taking place well before the end of the war. And given the bare trees etc. Snape's defection can only have taken place the previous winter.
As to why she then showed Dumbledore claiming to have borrowed the Cloak only a few days before the Potters were killed, she may just have forgotten that she had had Lily saying that Dumbledore had borrowed the Cloak some time prior to her letter, since it's a very minor plot-point - or she may have deliberately intended him to be lying. In Beedle she shows Dumbledore lying by omission by pretending not to believe that the Deathly Hallows are real, and then in her own annotations she comments on this and quotes his speech from the first book: "[The truth] is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution." In effect, she's saying to her readers "Nyah nyah, I told you he was a liar from the outset and you didn't notice."