Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with the Apostles. The name Maundy is derived from the Latin word ‘mandatum’, meaning commandment. As written in John 13.34, Christ told his followers, ‘mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos ut et vos diligatis invicem’ or, in English, ‘A new commandment I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.’
Master of the Housebook, Christ washing the Apostles’ feet, c. 1480, Berlin, Gemäldegalerie
In the Chamber Books of Henry VII and Henry VIII, the day itself is known not as Maundy Thursday but at Shirethursday or, in modern English, Sheer Thursday. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, sheer, meaning clean or absolved, is likely an allusion to the purification of the soul through confession and perhaps also to the practice of the washing of the church altars which was commonly undertaken on this day (OED, Sheer Thursday, n.).
In England, up until 1689, it was customary for the monarch to wash the feet of the poor on Maundy Thursday, in imitation of Christ washing the feet of his disciples during the Last Supper. The act not only demonstrated the humility of the ruler but also served as a reminder that the ruler’s main purpose was to serve his or her subjects. Food and clothing were also handed out to the poor. This practice was also carried out in a similar fashion by the kings of France.
Louis IX washes the feet of the poor, 13th century.
Another custom, still observed to this day, is the monarch’s distribution of Maundy coins to the poor (or to pensioners in modern times). This tradition is thought to date from the reign of Edward I in the 13th century. In 1382, the future Henry IV, then aged 15, decided to give 15d each to 15 poor men, rather than the more usual 13d to 13 poor men, representing the number present at the Last Supper(Mortimer, p. 365). From that time forward it became customary for the ruler’s age to determine both the number of poor to be rewarded and the amount of money to be given to each.
Henry VII and Henry VIII certainly followed both traditions throughout their respective reigns. Although the Chamber Books themselves contain no reference to the washing of feet by the kings, in 1499 the Milanese ambassador to England noted that he ‘returned to court on Maunday Thursday, when the King was washing the poor people’s feet’ (CSP Venice, no. 791). Similarly, in 1485 Henry VII commemorated Maundy Thursday as follows:
And on Sherethursday he had in the bishops hall xxix pore men, to whom he humly cristenly for Christez love, with his noble hands, did wesshe ther fete and yave as great almes like as other his noble progenitours, kings of England, have been accustomed aforetyme (Heralds’ Memoir, pp. 69-70).
The Chamber Books do, however, provide numerous examples of both kings giving Maundy coins to as many poor men as they had years in their lives, as in the above description in which Henry VII, then being 29 years of age, gave 2s 5d (or 29d) each to 29 poor men. The Chamber Books relating to Payments made by Henry VII and Henry VII survive for the period 1496-1521: every year without exception includes an entry describing both the amount of Maundy money given by the king and the number of poor men who received it, with both numbers coinciding with the king’s age that year.
The earliest surviving reference shows that on Shire Thursday 1496 Henry VII gave 3s 4d (or 40d) to 40 poor men (TNA, E101/414/6, fol. 25r). This practice continued until the final year of his reign when, in 1509, less than 3 weeks before his death, he gave 4s 5d (or 53d) to 53 poor men (TNA, E36/214, fol. 165v). Henry VIII followed suit, giving 20d each to 20 poor men on the first Shire Thursday of his reign (TNA, E36/215, p. 50) and 2s 7d (or 31d) in 1521, his 31st year and the last year for which the Chamber Books survive (TNA, E36/216, fol. 126v). Similarly, Queens also followed this tradition: the surviving Queen’s Chamber Book of Elizabeth of York records her giving ‘xxxvij pore women euery woman iijs jd for hir maundy vpon Shire Thursday’, as given in her thirty-seventh year. (TNA, E36/210, p. 29). She died on her thirty-seventh birthday.
Maundy coins, then as today, were always presented to their recipients in a purse, and the Chamber Book entries relating to Maundy money are always followed by an accompanying entry for purses, such as the ‘smale purses to putt in the money for the foresaid poer men’ noted in 1503 (BL Add.MS 59899, fol. 19r). Today, money given in lieu of food and clothing is placed in red purses, while the Maundy coins themselves are put in white purses. The purses in the Chamber Books are almost always described as being small, but colour is rarely mentioned. The two exceptions occur in 1511 and 1515 when red purses were specified (TNA, E36/215, pp. 113, 371).
Lisa Liddy, Project Researcher.
10 April, 2017
Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Vol. 1, 1202-1509 (London, 1864)
The Heralds’ Memoir 1486-1490: Court Ceremony, Royal Progress and Rebellion, ed. Emma Cavell (Donington, 2009)
Mandy Barrow, ‘Maundy Thursday’ (2014), projectbritain.com/easter/maundythursday.htm, accessed 9 April 2017
Ian Mortimer, The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England’s Self-Made King (London, 2013)
Brian Robinson, The Royal Maundy (London, 1977)
Joanne Thomas, ‘Maundy Money – A rare Monetary gift from the Monarch’ (2014), blog.royalmint.com/maundy-money-history-2014, accessed 9 April 2017