The Royal Maundy is an ancient ceremony, inspired by The Bible. On the day before Good Friday, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and commanded them to ‘Love one another’. By the thirteenth century the Royal Family was taking part in similar ceremonies. By washing the feet of the poor and giving money and gifts, they were showing humility and compassion.
When Henry IV became king, he introduced a new tradition, deciding to give the same number of gifts as his age. So, for instance, when the monarch was forty, he gave forty of his subjects Maundy gifts. It became the custom for the sovereign to perform the ceremony, and the event became known as the Royal Maundy.
The origins of Maundy money
The first Maundy money ceremony took place in the reign of Charles II, when the king gave people undated hammered coins in 1662. The coins were a four penny, three penny, two penny and one penny piece. By 1670 the king started giving out a dated set of all four coins.
The tradition of the king or queen washing the feet of the poor faded out in the eighteenth century, but the monarch still gave people food and clothing. By the nineteenth century the tradition had changed again, and the monarch simply gave people the Maundy money.
Maundy money today
Maundy money has traditionally been made of sterling silver, apart from the brief interruptions of Henry VIII’s debasement of the coinage and the general change to 50% silver coins in 1020. The use of sterling silver resumed following the Coinage Act of 1971 and after decimalation in 1971, the face values of the coins were increased from old to new pence.
During Her Majesty The Queen’s reign, her portrait on ordinary circulating coinage has been updated four times. However, Maundy money still bears the same portrait of Her Majesty created by Mary Gillick that appeared on the first coins of her reign in 1953.
Today’s recipients of Royal Maundy are elderly men and women, chosen because of the Christian service they have given to the Church and the community. The ceremony takes place every Maundy Thursday. There are as many recipients as there are years in the sovereign’s age.
At the ceremony, the monarch hands each recipient two small leather string purses. A red purse contains ordinary coins, while a white one contains silver Maundy coins, amounting to the same number of pence as the years of the sovereign’s age.