Category: anniversaries

The Queen’s Maundy Money: Silver for the Poor on Maundy Thursday

By , April 2, 2010 2:22 am

The Day Before the Easter Holiday Starts

Every year, the Royal Mint makes special coins, of pure silver, with different values from normal coins.

The Queen then takes these coins, placed in specially-made leather purses, and gives her age in pence to a number of men and women equal to her age in a Cathedral ceremony, every Maundy Thursday.

Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, is in many ways the start of the Easter holiday in England.

The Queen's Maundy Money, especially minted, comes in red and white leather purses

The Queen's Maundy Money, especially minted, comes in red and white leather purses

Although it’s a working day, it’s rather like Christmas Eve – lots of people will either take the day off, or make an early get-away for the 4-day Easter weekend. (There is a holiday on Good Friday and a bank holiday on Easter Monday, so it’s a nice break from the regular working routine).

There is a centuries-old tradition of a Maundy ceremony (from c.600 AD) and more recently (since the time of King John or so) a ceremony on Maundy Thursday involving the King or Queen, in which coins are given to the deserving poor.

This post is about the history and practice of the Queen’s Maundy Money.

Origin of the phrase “Maundy Thursday”

The Queen's Maundy Money ceremony in 1898, at Westminster Abbey

The Queen's Maundy Money ceremony in 1898, at Westminster Abbey

There is not a united view about the origin of the phrase.  The most popular idea is that it comes from the phrase Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos in the Latin Vulgate Bible, where Christ said to his apostles, A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another, as I have loved you. (Gospel according to St. John, 13.34). 

Mandatum, which is also the origin of the words “mandatory”, “mandamus” and “mandate”, is thought to be the origin of the “Maundy” part of the phrase, and the “Thursday” part is rather self-explanatory.

Early Maundy Ceremonies

An important part of early Maundy Thursday celebrations was the washing of poor people’s feet, in imitation of Christ, and to show essential humility and the equal-before-God idea (a concept that most medieval bishops honoured more in the breach than the observance, as a general rule).

Foot washing was done by bishops and other important clergymen, and also by the King or Queen, until the mid 17th century – King James II was the last monarch to wash feet personally. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, does it each Maundy Thursday now.

The washing of feet comes from the Last Supper, where Christ washed the feet of his disciples during the Passover celebrations.

Giving To the Poor

The Queen at the Maundy Money ceremony in 1952, her first public engagement as Queen

The Queen at the Maundy Money ceremony in 1952, her first public engagement as Queen

Anglo-Norman Kings certainly appear to have given alms to the poor on Maundy Thursday.

King John is recorded as having given alms to the poor in Knaresborough, in Yorkshire, when he happened to be there for Holy Week in 1210 AD. He gave knives, clothes and food. (There are lots of references to his giving forks, too. That strikes me as inherently unlikely, because people didn’t use forks for eating until several centuries later).

It is unlikely that King John was the first English King to give alms on this day.

Medieval Maundy Money

The first recorded giving of money to commemorate Maundy Thursday is during the reign of Edward I, who ruled from 1272 (and was King John’s grandson).

The process became more formalised, and more important after the Reformation, as the King or Queen was then not only the ruler of the secular country, but head of the Church of England, too.

Queen Elizabeth II’s Maundy Money

A 3d coin, or thruppeny bit, showing the "young" Queen's head which still appears on Maundy money today

A 3d coin, or thruppeny bit, showing the "young" Queen's head which still appears on Maundy money today

The process has been pretty similar for some decades, now.

Each Maundy Thursday, the Queen gives out Maundy purses at one of England’s Cathedrals. The only exception was in 2008, where the ceremony was held in St. Patrick’s Church of Ireland cathedral, in Armagh, Northern Ireland.

The red and white Maundy purses are given to a number of elderly men and women, chosen now from the local area for charitable and other good works. There is one man and one woman for each of the Queen’s years – so as she is now 84 years old, on 1st April 2010 she gave Maundy money to 84 men and 84 women, in Derby Cathedral.

The white purse contains a £5 coin and a 50p coin, and the red purse contains 1p, 2p, 3p and 4p coins, adding up to the Queen’s age again. So the 84 men and 84 women get 84 pence in coins in their red leather purses.

A 50 pence piece in general circulation, showing the Queen's most recent portrait

A 50 pence piece in general circulation, showing the Queen's most recent portrait

The coins are not normal coins. 1p, 2p and 50p coins are in general circulations, but 3p, 4p and £5 coins are not. These coins are all legal tender, for their face value, but are obviously worth a great deal more than 3p or whatever.

Unlike modern coins, which are struck from alloys, the Maundy Money coins are minted each year, from sterling silver, so the coins are 92.5% silver.

In addition, the specially-minted coins feature the first portrait of Elizabeth II, issued on her coins from 1953. This “young portrait” was replaced on normal coins in 1962, but remains on each year’s Maundy Money.

Until 1909, extra sets of Maundy coins were struck and could be purchased. Edward VIII decided to abolish this, and since 1909, the only sets of Maundy coins issued have been to the recipients at the annual ceremony.

Obviously, the number of coins increases each year as the Queen gets older, and the number of pennies issued rises by one, as does the number of men and women who receive them.

The BBC’s article about 2010′s ceremony in Derby can be read here, and the Monarchy’s official article about the ceremony is here.

Fireworks, Bonfires and Guys – celebrating Guy Fawkes’ Night

By , November 6, 2009 2:53 am

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

Contemporary picture of Guy Fawkes being arrested

Contemporary picture of Guy Fawkes being arrested

Guy Fawkes and his group of Catholic fellow-conspirators did their best to blow up Parliament on the 5th November 1605, on the day of the State Opening of Parliament.

Their conspiracy, and the 36 barrels of gunpowder stashed in a cellar under the House of Lords, was discovered hours before the explosion was due.

The “gunpowder plot” and the rebellion that was supposed to follow failed, and James I kept his throne, and the Members of Parliament and Lords stayed alive.

For more about the history and aims of the gunpowder plot, see the previous post on this site.

The defeat of the plot – and the subsequent torture and execution of the plotters – is celebrated annually with great enthusiasm to this day. This post is about the bangs, fires and whimpers of Bonfire Night / Firework Night  Guy Fawkes’ Night in England – fireworks, bonfires, burning effigies, and special grub.

The Times has an article about good public displays and events in 2009 here.

Family parties and public events

Guy Fawkes' Night at Windsor Castle, 1776

Guy Fawkes' Night at Windsor Castle, 1776

Lots of people go to big public firework displays, held on commons, heaths and in parks all over the place.

These tend to be on the nearest Saturday to the 5th November, rather than on the actual day (if the 5th November isn’t a Saturday anyway).

Similarly, people often choose to have private parties in their own back gardens, more often on the actual day, whatever day of the week that happens to be.

That way they can also attend a grand display locally, should they choose to do so!


Fireworks are a big part of Guy Fawkes’ Night. It’s perfectly legal to buy fireworks (other than the really big kind) and set them off in your own back garden, and many families do. Mine always did as a child, and we loved it. Bangs and stars in the sky are therefore a common feature of the week or two around the 5th November. Newsagents, supermarkets and other shops usually sell boxes of a selection of fireworks and rockets, and also packets off sparklers, around the start of November.


Bonfires are a big part of the evening. It’s a handy time of year (lots of dead leaves and fallen branches) and helps to keep people warm as well, if it’s chilly. Public celebrations also often have them – in my parents’ village in Kent, they have an enormous bonfire lit on the village green before the fireworks start – it’s usually about 20 – 30 feet tall, and people are cheerfully invited to contribute suitable burning material.

Burning Guys, and “penny for the Guy!”

The Gunpowder plot conspirators, including Guy Fawkes

The Gunpowder plot conspirators, including Guy Fawkes

Traditionally, a figure is burned on the bonfire – a rough model of a man, often about or nearly life-size. This “guy” is supposed to represent Guy Fawkes himself, although in real life, Fawkes was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, rather than burned.

Until the end of the 19th century, effigies of the Pope and Devil were often burned as well, but such overt anti-Catholicism is rather unfashionable, now.

Unpopular politicians and so forth can find themselves being modelled for bonfires to this day. This year, for example, the Bonfire Society in Edenbridge in Kent intends to burn a 30 foot guy modelled on Jordan, AKA Katie Price (a model).  The BBC has written about the plans here.

In my family, when I was a child, we made a guy every year from sacks or similar, and clothed him in ragged old jumpers unfit for anything else. A face was drawn on with pen, and chunks of wool for hair. Not great works of art, but fun to make.

Just before the bonfire is lit, the effigy is slung on the top, to burn with the fire.

It used to be much more common for children to make a guy, and trundle it round the streets in a pushchair or trolley, shouting, “penny for the guy” in order to collect funds for fireworks. The more impressively-created the guy, the more money could be expected. It happens less now, especially because children aren’t allowed to buy fireworks any more – a buyer has to be over 18. It’s still pretty common for a guy for a village event to be left out with a collecting tin, to gather funds for a firework display.


There are certain foods which are traditionally-eaten on Bonfire Night – some are traditional nationally, others only in one region or county.

Common across the country is a meal of sausages, jacket potatoes, and baked beans, or similar. The potatoes can be wrapped in foil and put at the edge of the bonfire to cook.

Treacle toffee (darker and much less sweet than normal toffee) and toffee apples are common.

“Parkin” is a common Bonfire Night all over the country, but the actual recipe for this varies hugely. Same name, rather different food! Mostly, it’s a type of soft, treacle-based cake, made with both oats and flour.

Famous Bonfire Night Celebrations

Burning crosses symbolising 17 protestant martyrs in Lewes

Burning crosses symbolising 17 protestant martyrs in Lewes

There are many local traditions and societies, so I’ll only mention a couple of the biggest and best-known.

Lewes, a town in East Sussex, has a particularly enthusiastic group of Bonfire Societies.

Each of the 7 main societies creates at least one elaborate effigy – Guy Fawkes predominates, local and national politicians often also feature.

There are also models of people’s heads on pikes (a type of spear), often modelled after unpopular members of the town council, or those who opposed the Lewes festivities.

Societies, each with mottos and caps, parade their effigies and heads through the streets, carrying fire torches and similar.

Smugglers in the Cliffe Bonfire Society's parade in Lewes

Smugglers in the Cliffe Bonfire Society's parade in Lewes

Many people in the parades are dressed up – Zulus, smugglers and Elizabethans are particularly common.

The parades end in bonfires and firework displays. Lewes is a small town, but crowds of up to 80,000 are common, and roads, car parks etc are closed down for the evening.

You can find the Lewes Bonfire Council’s website here.

I’ve been to the Lewes event a couple of times – my uncle lives near by. It’s awe-inspiring, mad, and fantastic fun.

Ottery St Mary in Devon is a small town with a very odd Guy Fawkes tradition.  The first part of the Carnival consists of costume parades and fireworks (so far, so normal).

The second part is made up of men, women and children carrying tar barrels through the streets, while those barrels are on fire.

A man carrying a flaming tar barrel in Ottery St Mary

A man carrying a flaming tar barrel in Ottery St Mary

There are 17 barrels, all lovingly-coated with coal tar over some months, and then filled with hay or paper.

Each is lit outside a traditional pub, shop, or hotel, throughout the afternoon and evening, and then people take it in turns to run through the streets, carrying the flaming barrels.

It’s a family-based tradition – people in the same families tend to carry barrels from the same pubs down the years.

The Ottery St Mary tar barrel site is to be found here.

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