The noun Maundy denotes a public ceremony taking place in the United Kingdom on the Thursday before Easter, at which the monarch distributes specially minted coins.
Attested around 1325, it originally denoted the ceremony of washing the feet of a number of poor people, performed by royal or other eminent people, or by ecclesiastics, on the day before Good Friday, which is observed as a commemoration of the Last Supper; this ceremony was commonly followed by the distribution of clothing, food or money. The Thursday before Easter came therefore to be called Maundy Thursday.
This ceremony was mentioned for example in the Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587 edition*); the following passage is about the English statesman and cardinal Thomas Wolsey (circa 1474-1530) in the final year of his life:
Upon Maundie thursdaie he made his maundie, there hauing nine and fiftie poore men, whose féet he washed, and gaue euerie one twelue pence in monie, three els of good canuas, a paire of shoes, a cast of red herrings, and three white herrings, and one of them had two shillings.
(* full title: The Third volume of Chronicles, beginning at duke William the Norman, commonlie called the Conqueror; and descending by degrees of yeeres to all the kings and queenes of England in their orderlie successions: First compiled by Raphaell Holinshed, and by him extended to the yeare 1577. Now newlie recognised, augmented, and continued (with occurrences and accidents of fresh memorie) to the yeare 1586 – London, 1587)
The English naval administrator Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) also mentioned the ceremony in his diary on 4th April 1667:
So home by coach, and there took up my wife and Mercer, who had been to-day at White Hall to the Maundy, it being Maundy Thursday; but the King did not wash the poor people’s feet himself, but the Bishop of London did it for him, but I did not see it.
This ceremony was instituted as a way of recalling and following the example of humble service given by Jesus who, at the Last Supper, washed the feet of his disciples and exhorted them to wash one another’s feet; this is recounted in the gospel of John, 13:4–15:
(King James Version – 1611)
4 Hee riseth from supper, and layed aside his garments, and tooke a towell, and girded himselfe.
5 After that, he powreth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples feet, and to wipe them with the towell wherewith he was girded.
6 Then commeth he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith vnto him, Lord, doest thou wash my feet?
7 Jesus answered and said vnto him, What I doe thou knowest not now: but thou shalt know hereafter.
8 Peter saith vnto him, Thou shalt neuer wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.
9 Simon Peter saith vnto him, Lord, not my feet onely, but also my hands and my head.
10 Jesus saith to him, Hee that is washed, needeth not, saue to wash his feet, but is cleane euery whit: and yee are cleane, but not all.
11 For hee knew who should betray him, therefore said hee, Yee are not all cleane.
12 So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set downe againe, hee said vnto them, Know ye what I have done to you?
13 Ye call me Master, and Lord, and ye say well: for so I am.
14 If I then your Lord and Master haue washed your feete, yee also ought to wash one anothers feet.
15 For I haue giuen you an example, that yee should doe, as I haue done to you.
The word Maundy appeared in Middle English in forms such as mande and mandee; it is from Anglo-Norman forms such as mandet and maundé, and from Old and Middle French mandé, from classical Latin mandātum, which meant mandate. These English, Anglo-Norman and French words refer to the ecclesiastical Latin phrase mandatum novum, a new commandment, from the discourse which followed the washing of the disciples’ feet in the gospel of John, 13-34:
– in the Latin text of the Vulgate:
mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos ut et vos diligatis invicem
– in the King James Version – 1611:
A new commandement I giue vnto you, That yee loue one another, as I have loued you, that yee also loue one another.
As the first antiphon sung at the ceremony began with the words mandatum novum do vobis, the ceremony itself acquired the name of mandatum.
The distribution of gifts of money has been part of the Royal Maundy ceremony in England since the 13th century. By the 16th century a specific amount of money and a purse to hold it had become part of the ceremony, and by the 18th century the Maundy distribution was made up of the four smallest silver coins, the 4, 3, 2, and 1 penny denominations. Maundy coins are still struck in silver in these denominations, and are presented alongside a gift in ordinary coinage.
The Royal Mint gives the following details:
Henry IV (reigned 1399-1413) 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. In the 18th century the act of washing the feet of the poor was discontinued and in the 19th century money allowances were substituted for the various gifts of food and clothing.
Maundy money as such started in the reign (1660-85) of Charles II with an undated issue of hammered coins in 1662. The coins were a four-penny, three-penny, two-penny and one-penny piece but it was not until 1670 that a dated set of all four coins appeared. Prior to this, ordinary coinage was used for Maundy gifts, silver pennies alone being used by the Tudors and Stuarts for the ceremony.
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. At the ceremony which takes place annually on Maundy Thursday, the sovereign hands to each recipient two small leather string purses. One, a red purse, contains – in ordinary coinage – money in lieu of food and clothing; the other, a white purse, contains silver Maundy coins consisting of the same number of pence as the years of the sovereign’s age.
The effigy of The Queen on ordinary circulating coinage has undergone four changes, but Maundy coins still bear the same portrait prepared by Mary Gillick for the first coins issued in the year of her coronation in 1953.