The Queen's Body Guard
of the Yeomen of the Guar

Maundy Service
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A detachment of The Yeomen of the Body Guard escorting the Maundy Money across the Abbots Courtyard in Westminster Abbey in 1901. Image courtesy of National Monuments Records (English Heritage).The Distribution of Alms and the washing of the feet on the Thursday of Holy Week are of great antiquity.  The Maundy can be traced back in England with certainty to the twelfth century, and there are continuous records of the Distribution having been made on Maundy Thursday from the reign of King Edward I.  The Service derives its name from the Latin word 'mandatum' meaning a commandment, and its opening words are 'Jesus said: "I give you a new commandment".

From the fifteenth century the number of recipients has been related to the years of the Sovereign's life.  At one time recipients were required to be of the same gender as the Sovereign, but since the eighteenth century they have numbered as many men and women as the Sovereign's has years of age; in 2008 this was 82.  Recipients are now pensioners selected because of the Christian service they have rendered to the Church and their community.  The Distribution is in two parts, the gifts which are handed to the recipients are symbolic and highly prized.

The red purse contains an allowance for clothing and provisions formerly given in kind and a payment for the redemption of the royal gown.  The white purse contains Maundy coinage; a quantity of silver pennies in denominations one-pence, two-pence, three-pence and four-pence, to as many pence as the Sovereign has years of age.  Maundy coins are legal tender, and when the United Kingdom changed to decimal currency in 1971, the face value of a set of four coins became 10 new pence, instead of 10d (pence) in the £sd system

The Six Alms Dishes, used for the distribution of the coins, date from the reign of King Charles II.  The traditional Maundy Dish is part of the Regalia, and bears the cypher of William and Mary.  A pair of Dishes known as the Fish Dishes, one seawater the other freshwater, were once part of the Chapel Royal Plate.  The Fish Dishes were first used in a Maundy service at Tewkesbury in 1971.  The fourth dish was first used at Bristol in 1999 and has a crowned rose in the centre and a wide border within a flower and leafage motif, a horse, a bull, a boar and a stag.  The fifth dish, used for the first time at Canterbury Cathedral in 2002, has a central sun motif, engraved with the Royal Stuart Arms in garter motto with Prince's coronet at the top.  The sixth dish, used for the first time at Guildford in 2006, comes from The Royal Collection and is by John Bodington and engraved I.H.S.

The four children of Royal Almonry are today selected from schools within the City where the Maundy Service is being held.  They represent men who used to attend the Chapels Royal in earlier centuries to assist in the feet washing ceremony.  In 2008 the children were selected from a Church of Ireland School, a Roman Catholic School, an Intergrated School and a Controlled School all within the City of Armagh. 

The Chapel Royal Choir which takes part in the Service has a notable musical history and remains a distinctive part of the Royal establishment. It sang at Agincourt and was present at The Field of the Cloth of Gold indicating the place it took in the Royal entourage.

Though the act of washing the feet seems to have been discontinued about 1730, the Lord High Almoner and his assistants are still girded with linen towels in remembrance, and carry the traditional nosegays of sweet herbs.  Some of the linen worn in the Service has been used annually since 1883, with new towels which were made in 1993 and 2003. 

The Queen's Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard (the "Indoor Guard") plays an important part in the Maundy Service, ceremonially protecting the Royal Body and guarding the Maundy monies.  They carry the solid-silver, gold-plated dishes above their heads.  The Alms Dishes are heavy but when laden with the Maundy coinage they become uncomfortably so. Several weeks of upper body training are carried out by each Yeoman Guard so that the embarrassment of dropping one of these priceless dishes doesn't become an issue.   

In earlier times the Ceremony was observed wherever the Sovereign was in residence.  For many years the Maundy Gifts were distributed in the old Chapel Royal (now the Banqueting Hall) in Whitehall, but from 1890-1952 the Service was held at Westminster Abbey. During the present Reign the Service has been held at Westminster Abbey on fourteen occasions, 2011 will be the fifteenth. In the intervening years it has been held at the following Cathedrals:

1953 St Paul's 1992 Chester
1955 Southwark 1993 Wells
1957 St Albans 1994 Truro
1959 Windsor Castle 1995 Coventry
1961 Rochester 1996 Norwich
1963 Chelmsford 1997 Bradford
1965 Canterbury 1998 Portsmouth
1967 Durham 1999 Bristol
1969 Selby 2000 Lincoln
1971 Tewksbury 2002 Canterbury
1972 York Minster 2003 Gloucester
1974 Salisbury 2004 Liverpool
1975 Peterborough 2005 Wakefield
1976 Hereford 2006 Guildford
1978 Carlisle 2007 Manchester
1979 Winchester 2008 Co Armagh
1980 Worcester 2009 Bury St Edmunds
1982 St David's 2010 Derby
1983 Exeter 2012 York Minster
1984 Southwell 2013 Oxford
1985 Ripon 2014 Blackburn
1986 Chichester 2015 Sheffield
1987 Ely 2016 Windsor Castle
1988 Lichfield 2017 Leicester
1989 Birmingham 2018 Windsor Castle
1990 Newcastle upon Tyne 2019 Windsor Castle

Black and white image reproduced courtesy of National Monuments Records (English Heritage)
Write-up edited from the Order of Service St Patrick's Church of Ireland Cathedral Armagh 20 March 2008

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Last modified: Tuesday, 01 October 2019 22:42