Okay well technically her majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, didn’t put her hands into her own pockets when she handed out Maundy money at Windsor Castle recently. This in an age old tradition that sees the nation’s longest serving monarch hand out cash on an annual basis to those deemed needy and worthy enough.
In the Maundy ceremony it is left to the King or Queen of the country to splash the cash during proceedings that tend to take place in a church of their choice virtually anywhere in England. Although that kind of use of words, ‘splash the cash’ would probably have her royal highness exclaiming, “We are not amused!”
Colloquialisms aside, Queen Elizabeth II looking splendid all in blue, recently celebrated Holy Thursday by handing out Maundy money in a ceremony held at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, continuing a centuries-old Christian tradition and marking the first time a Royal Maundy Service was held there since 1959. The previous time at Windsor was approximately 600 years ago in the reign of King Henry VI.
It was certainly a long time ago that the service took place in the Queen’s back yard of Windsor. But the origins of Maundy money certainly go back way longer than that.
In fact, the Royal Maundy is an ancient ceremony which has its origin in the commandment Christ gave after washing the feet of his disciples on the day before Good Friday.
The commandment (also known as a ‘mandatum’ from which the word Maundy is derived) ‘that ye love one another’ (John XIII 34) is still recalled regularly by Christian churches throughout the world. The ceremony of washing the feet of the poor which was accompanied by gifts of food and clothing can be traced back to the fourth century.
Royal Maundy can be traced back in England to the thirteenth century. Edward I (1274 to 1307) started the traditional Maundy Thursday act of giving alms to the poor.
Now whilst her majesty didn’t get down on her knees and wash the feet of those brought before her, she certainly left an impression on all of those gathered in the Windsor church as she handed out Red and white leather purses were handed out to 90 men and 90 women. Inside the red purse was a 2016 UK £5 coin commemorating the Queen’s 90th birthday and a 2016 UK 50p coin memorializing the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. The white purse included the Maundy coins (silver pennies, twopences, threepences and fourpences) with their face values adding up to 90 pence. All the coins were struck by Britain’s 1100-year old Royal Mint.
Henry IV began the practice of relating the number of recipients of gifts to the sovereign’s age, and as it became the custom of the sovereign to perform the ceremony, the event became known as the Royal Maundy.
Maundy money has remained in much the same form since 1670, and the coins used for the Maundy ceremony have traditionally been struck in sterling silver, save for the brief interruptions of Henry VIII’s debasement of the coinage and the general change to 50% silver coins in 1920.
The sterling silver standard (92.5%) was resumed following the Coinage Act of 1946 and in 1971, when decimalisation took place; the face values of the coins were increased from old to new pence.
The effigy of The Queen on ordinary circulating coinage has undergone four changes, but Maundy coins still bear the same portrait of Her Majesty prepared by Mary Gillick for the first coins issued in the year of her coronation in 1953.
Today’s recipients of Royal Maundy, as many elderly men and women as there are years in the sovereign’s age, are chosen because of the Christian service they have given to the Church and community
Some of the specifics of the tradition have changed, but it still involves individuals receiving gifts from the monarch. In more recent times, the number of recipients has changed annually to equal the monarch’s age. With Queen Elizabeth II on April 21 celebrating her 90th birthday, an equal number of men and women were chosen to receive the Maundy money. They were selected from across the country, not the local diocese as is usual, in recognition of their service to the community and the Church.