British Ceremonies and Pageantry
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Every Maundy Thursday, the British Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II, distributes Maundy Money at the Ceremony of the Royal Maundy. This ancient custom dates back to the 13th century when the Sovereign gave gifts of food and clothing to the poor. As an act of humility, the Monarch would even wash the feet pf the recipients - as Christ washed the feet of his disciples before the Last Supper - although the last King to actually do this was James II, who died in 1701.
Maundy Money consists of sets of small silver coins which are specially minted for the occasion. The Queen presents them to local deserving pensioners who are chosen because of their outstanding services to their church and community. During her reign, the ceremony has taken place each year in a different cathedral or abbey around the country. In 1986, it took place at Chichester Cathedral and I seem to remember that we were all let out of our offices to line the route and wave to the Queen!
At the ceremony, each person receives two purses from the Queen, one red and one white. The white purse contains one silver Maundy coin for each year of the monarch's reign. The red purse contains ordinary money in place of the other gifts which used to be given to the poor. The silver Maundy coins originally consisted of a penny and a groat (4 pence). In 1551, a threepence was added and in 1667, a twopence.
It was Henry IV (ruled 1399-1413) who instigated the practice of relating the number of people receiving maundy money to the sovereign's age and sex. This custom was revised under Queen Elizabeth II and now equal numbers of sets are presented to both male and female recipients. As the Queen is 79 this year, this means that 79 men and 79 women will be presented with Maundy sets at today's ceremony in Wakefield Cathedral. [For a chuckle, also view this news item!]
Victorian maundy money is fairly common as the general public could order sets from a bank. This changed, from 1908, when King Edward VII instructed that only recipients involved in the ceremony were entitled to receive the sets. So after this date, Maundy coin sets became one of the most collectible and sought after numismatic items.