Maundy Thursday: Royal Regrets and Reflection

By: Matthew Groves, BMS Blogger-in-Residence

The newspapers have reported on a rare an in-depth observation of Her Majesty’s thoughts and feelings about a subject near and dear to her heart. During Holy Week 2020, the Queen was particularly saddened not to take part in the Maundy Thursday rituals of the Monarch, who is the head of the Church in England. Maundy Thursday is named Maundy after the Latin word for “command” (also the etymological root of our word “mandate”). The command given on that Thursday, before Easter Sunday, by Christ was to love one another as He has loved us. This was the Thursday when Christ instituted the Eucharist and washed the disciples’ feet. From Medieval times, both Monarchs and aristocrats acted out a ritual known as pedilavium.

Many will be familiar with the pedilavium, either through seeing the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury wash the feet of the poor, or by partaking in the ritual with their parish priests during Holy Week. It was a ritual also carried out by kings and nobles, whereby they washed the feet of the poor. This ritual evolved over time and is the origin of the famous distribution of the Maundy Penny. The physical act of washing was gradually replaced by giving alms.  The ceremony began to decline in importance in the rationalist century of the Enlightenment – the 1700s, as our Hanoverian monarchs settled in to English customs. It was restored fully as a distribution of money by King George V, although for a period the distribution of Maundy Money was carried out by the Lord High Almoner.

Over the Centuries the ritual evolved considerably. The gifts and money that were ancillary to the foot washing became the only part of the ceremony to survive. Nonetheless there are deep undertones of the sacred symbolism of Monarchy very much like the ritual of the Royal touch, whereby the King of England would cure victims of scrofula (tuberculosis) in particular.  This ritual also involved the giving of a penny, known as an angel. There is a clear family resemblance then between the rituals. Only the English and French monarchies made this claim to a vicarious role for Christ. After the union of the English and Scottish Crown the ritual entered Scotland too. This practice of the Royal Touch, which went back to Edward the Confessor, died out in the Seventeenth Century at the very point when it had become more popular than ever – a victim of scrutiny and suspicion due to its increasing prominence.

Now of course the modern rituals of Royal Maundy have a different origin from the Royal Touch and furthermore, differ from the more physical role of the original pedilavium in earlier times.  It is now simply a ritual almsgiving and no longer to the poor, but to those identified from within the diocese of the cathedral chosen for the year who have carried out special service to the church and community. What is important about these rituals is that it shows the symbolic view of the English monarch as in some sense Christ’s vicar was not a new idea of the Carolingian court.  It had ancient precedents and in our own modern and scientific age the Queen continues this symbolism in a modern way.  It is highly relevant that the Queen is herself a devout Christian, who relies upon her own faith as a sustaining force.

What we can understand from Maundy Thursday, is that the presence of the Queen on this day, encompasses a very special role for the English Monarch in terms of England’s Christian faith.  In Her Majesty’s distribution of alms, there is a symbolic and subliminal reference to the Queen’s vicarious role for her people. This role outlines a spiritual relationship that exists between Crown and people, in the very person of the anointed Monarch. We understand the deep sense of spiritual duty the Queen feels ever since the sacramental anointing at her coronation. It is no wonder that she is particularly saddened not to be able to carry out this physical act of closeness to her people in 2020. The Queen has only missed the Maundy Thursday ceremony four times in her long reign, either due to childbirth or Commonwealth visits.

Today’s ceremony was given extra life by the Queen. The ritual, which is combined with a Maundy Thursday service of the Anglican tradition, was often officiated at by the Lord High Almoner or another Royal before George V readopted the role in the ceremony directly. Edward VIII also fulfilled this Royal vocation, but the Queen’s beloved father, George VI, only attended in 1940 and 1944 (understandably given his need to be focused upon the national crisis of imminent invasion and keeping us together during the Blitz).

It was Her Majesty, the Queen, who ensured that this was an annual event attended by her own person. For the Queen, this is also about an idea of pilgrimage as since her reign, rather than only taking place in Westminster Abbey, all the cathedrals of England have now hosted the ceremony. This is a very particular form of the Queen’s interaction with her subjects. For awards her subjects normally attend on her, rather than that she goes out to them. In its peripatetic journey across all the dioceses it also brings the kingdom together through the personage of the Queen.

Thus, this ancient and much-evolved ritual is both about the Queen’s personal faith and bringing the nation together. It is therefore an incredibly special moment in her annual rota of official engagements.  Today for modern times, the recipients of the Maundy Penny are no longer lifelong recipients. Only money is received in the form of unique maundy money minted by the Royal Mint.  The design of the coin was not changed with decimalization and continues to remain as legal tender post-decimalization. The coin unlike all other British coins today still retains an element of real silver (0.925 fineness). Also, unlike other British coins, the obverse side retains the original portrait of Her Majesty by Mary Gillick (since frequently updated on other British coinage).

One man and one woman is chosen for each year of the Queen’s life and they attend the Maundy service where they each receive the Maundy Penny at stages in the service.  The Yeoman of the Guard are in attendance, carrying the purses with the pennies on six silver dishes dating from the reign of Charles II. Six Wandsmen act as ushers but carry the towels that would once have been used to dry the feet of the poor.  The key reading from John’s Gospel for Maundy Thursday is heard (John:13) and two hymns are sung. The Choir of the Chapel Royal attends and sings the anthem, Zadok the Priest, composed by Handel for the coronation of George II.  Just like their sovereign, the Maundy recipients are usually deeply moved by the service and receiving the coin from their Queen. There is also the opportunity for the recipients to meet and interact with the Queen informally.

In this year of Covid-19, everything that brings us together from the public house, sporting events through to religious services and contact between Sovereign and people is in suspense. It is a sad thing that the ceremony cannot take place this year. In these times for the sake of community we are isolating. Nonetheless, it must be hoped that this period of physical isolation might bring us closer to one another and to our Monarch.  This will make such rituals all the more meaningful next year.