Plaque between St William’s College and York Minster
The Queen’s Path plaque commemorates the distribution of the Royal Maundy by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in York Minster on 30 March 1972 and again in her Diamond Jubilee Year on 5 April 2012. Carried out on the Thursday of Holy Week – Maundy Thursday – the ceremony of the distribution of alms and the washing of the feet of beggars, in imitation of Christ washing the feet of His disciples, by the Sovereign is of great antiquity. It can be traced back in England with certainty to the thirteenth century and there are continuous records of the Distribution having been made from the reign of King Edward 1 (1239-1307). The first recorded Royal Distribution was at Knaresborough, North Yorkshire by King John in 1210. The Service derives its name from the Latin word mandatum (a commandment) when Christ at the Last Supper commanded his followers to love one another. Though the act of washing the feet seems to have been discontinued in 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.
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 sex as the Sovereign but since the eighteenth century they have numbered as many men and women as the Sovereign has years of age. Recipients are now pensioners selected because of the Christian duty they have rendered to the Church and the community.
In Diamond Jubilee Year of 2012 the Royal Maundy Recipients – 86 men and 86 women, the number reflecting the age in years of Her Majesty – were chosen from each of the 43 Dioceses of England plus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, thus drawing together members of the Christian congregations from every part of the United Kingdom during the very special occasion of Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee Year. Usually Maundy recipients are drawn from one diocese each year.
The gifts which are handed to recipients are symbolic. There are two purses: the red purse contains a nominal allowance for clothing and provisions, formerly given in kind and a payment for the redemption of the royal gown; the white purse contains, in Maundy coins, silver pennies, twopences, threepences and fourpences, as many pence as the Sovereign has years of age. Maundy coins are legal tender. The Sovereign walks round to hand the gifts to each recipient individually as they remain in their allotted places as part of the symbolic act of duty rather than recipients walking towards the Sovereign at the front of the church. The Queen’s Body Guard of the Yeoman of the Guard also plays an important part in the Service, carrying the six alms dishes dating from the reign of King Charles II. This is the oldest Military Corps existing, having been created in 1495 by King Henry VII.
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 in Whitehall but from 1890 to 1952 the Service was held at Westminster Abbey except for the Coronation year of 1937 when it was held at St Paul’s Cathedral. Apart from Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral, Canterbury and York are the only places to hold the Service on more than one occasion.
Office for The Royal Maundy, 5 April 2012, York Minster, (London, 2012)
© Pat Hill