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
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
||Bury St Edmunds
||Newcastle upon Tyne
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