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.
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”
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
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
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.
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.