It’s a great pleasure to be with you here this morning and to have the honour of addressing you. I’m here in my rather esoteric role as Lord High Almoner – it sounds like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan, doesn’t it, but it goes back much farther than them, as I’ll tell you later. In it I have overall responsibility, as the member of the Queen’s Household for the organisation of the Royal Maundy Service. Fortunately, I am extremely ably assisted by others. These include Paul Leddington Wright, the Secretary to the Royal Almonry, who has been hard at work since last summer, as have the Assistant Secretary, Peter Hartley and Melissa Morris, the indefatigable secretary in the Lord Chamberlain’s Office at Buckingham Palace. They have been liaising with the Dean and Chapter here and the Bishop of Leicester’s Office on all the enormous amounts of detailled preparation that is needed for an occasion such as this.
I am sure those of you who are here in the Cathedral on Maundy Thursday are delighted by the Queen’s personal decision to distribute the Royal Maundy here in Leicester Cathedral. Each Royal Maundy service is always a memorable occasion; and I have every confidence that 13th April will be a wonderful and historic day. It will certainly be memorable for those of you who are recipients. This morning, as well as introducing the people to whom I have already made reference, it is my privilege to talk to you about the background to the Royal Maundy ceremony. I also hope that this morning we shall be able, in this lecture and during the questions which follow, to put those of you who will be receiving the Maundy Money at your ease.
The most important background to the service, its origin, is to be found in the Bible and to the actions of our Lord recorded in it on the night before he was betrayed. In the 13th chapter of St John’s Gospel we read of the Last Supper in the Upper Room on the night that Jesus was betrayed: “Jesus knew that His hour was come and He must leave the world and go to the Father . . . During supper . . . Jesus rose from the table, laid aside his garments and taking a towel, tied it round Him. Then He poured water into a basin and began to wash His disciples’ feet and to wipe them with a towel.” Later, when Judas had gone out, Jesus said: “I give to you a new commandment: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you are to love one another.” With those words, said by me from the front of the Altar in the Cathedral, the Royal Maundy Service for 2017 will begin.
The Latin words meaning “new commandment” are “mandatum novum”; and it is from the word “mandatum” (commandment/mandate) that we derive the word Maundy. Elsewhere Jesus tells his disciples that ‘the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them and their great ones are tyrants over them, It must not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant … just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. (Matthew 11.25-28)
On this coming Maundy Thursday the Queen will be present in person to take part in an abbreviated form of an ancient ceremony commemorating Jesus’s words and actions that was being followed in Northern Italy and Spain at least as early as the 4th century. In England it has taken place since at least the 6th century (though not always on the Maundy Thursday itself). There is written reference to a Maundy ceremony during the time when Augustine was Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Maundy ceremony’s connection with the royal court in this country goes back a very long way – though the royal acts of symbolism within the liturgy did not come till later. Until 1985 it was accepted that the first known Royal Maundy service was in 1213 at Rochester. However, it has since been discovered that King John took part in the Maundy Ceremony in 1210 at Knaresborough Castle in Yorkshire three years earlier. Almost certainly the first involvement of the sovereign with the Royal Maundy goes back even before Knaresborough but at the moment 1210 remains the earliest year for which there is a record.
However, it is from the Rochester account that we get the earliest known details about what happened. At that time the Royal Maundy was celebrated by the sovereign wherever he or she happened to be staying on that day. The Roll of the Wardrobe Expenses of the 14th year of King John records the expenditure of fourteen shillings and one penny for “alms to poor persons, every one of whom received 13 pence at Rochester on Holy Thursday”.
There are differing possibilities about why the number was 13 – but we do know that by then John had reigned 13 complete years; so either by intention or coincidentally, the number of recipients of the Maundy gifts in 1210 equalled the number of years the sovereign had reigned; and that seems to have become the established custom certainly for a while. Continuous records of each Royal Maundy service have been kept for every year since the reign of Edward the First. So we discover it was Henry IV at the turn of the 14th century who established the practice we still follow of relating the number of recipients to the Sovereign’s age, with the result that the number gradually increases during each reign.
Incidentally, at one time recipients had to be the same gender as the sovereign but since the 18th century there have been equal numbers of men and women. This year the ceremony is in Her Majesty’s 91st year (she will be 91 on 21st April), so there will be 91 men and women who will receive the Royal Maundy gifts. As you know, recipients are selected because of the Christian service they’ve rendered to the church and community – and for which they would not otherwise be honoured. And I am delighted that some of you are to be so honoured this year. How wonderful it will be for you to receive this honour for Christian service from our monarch who has taken to heart the words and actions of Jesus and given such unstinting Christian service herself.
There are a number of descriptions in court annals of exactly what happened in the Royal Maundy services of old. The most fascinating and detailed account is for the year 1572 when the sovereign was Queen Elizabeth I. This was in the days when the feet of each recipient were washed. Listen to how many times their feet had to be washed! – and, in describing this, I draw on a document of that time:
A cushion was placed in front of each person for Elizabeth to kneel upon, and her chaplain conducted the service. First the laundress, who was provided with a silver basin containing warm water and sweet flowers, washed and kissed the feet of the poor people, and then, after the singing of a hymn, the Sub-Almoner did the same: and then the Lord High Almoner similarly. Next, the chaplain read the lesson describing Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet.
And then the Queen entered the hall, attended by her “gentle-folks” –and thirty-nine ladies and gentlemen (She was then 39 years old). The “gentlefolks” put on aprons, and bearing towels and basins of water and sweet flowers, waited on the Queen, who washed, crossed and kissed the feet of the poor women. So now you can understand why the feet were washed so many times before!
The Queen, having washed the feet, then distributed the gifts – and before your expectations about what recipients this year will receive are raised too high, I have to point out that this is how it used to be! – broadcloth with which to make gowns, a pair of sleeves, (which in those days was a separate article of dress worn over a body garment), a wooden platter upon which was held a side of salmon, the same amount of ling (a sea fish), six red herrings, and six loaves of “cheat-bread” (a good quality of wheaten bread), together with a white wooden dish of claret wine. The Queen also bestowed on the poor women the towels she had used and the aprons worn by the attendants. The long ceremonial was then at an end, and The Queen took her departure. The contemporary account concludes “By now the sun was setting”.
Indeed, it is recorded that in one such very long Maundy ceremony at which St Oswald, Archbishop of York (and also Bishop of Worcester) , was present: “whilst according to the usual custom he was observing the usual Maundy before the feet of the poor” he “passed to the Lord”. Nowadays, however, the service lasts one hour.
The present Queen Elizabeth regards the Maundy Service as one of the great occasions of the royal year and always takes a special interest in it, and in the recipients – and beside each name will be a brief description of why they have been nominated.
Just in case you are wondering (or if you are to be a recipient, worrying) about having feet washed, it won’t happen. It’s a long time since the service included a foot-washing ceremony. The practice lapsed in the 18th century. In fact around that time, the presenting of the Royal Maundy gifts personally by the King or Queen seems to have disappeared from the sovereign’s list of engagements, and to have been left to my predecessors as Lord High Almoner, and to the officers of the Royal Almonry, to administer. It was only as recently as 1932 that King George V restored the ancient custom, after 200 years, by appearing in person to distribute the Maundy in Westminster Abbey. Since that time the uncrowned King Edward VIII did so once in 1936 and King George VI attended seven times during the course of his 15 year reign. But the present Queen has performed the ceremony every year except for three occasions when she was unavoidably prevented from attending because of a long overseas visit or giving birth.
Although the foot-washing has been dis-continued since about 1730, the Lord High Almoner and his assistants are still girded with linen towels in remembrance of that event. Some of the linen we will use this year has been worn annually since 1883. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, together with the Royal Almonry team, the Bishop and the Dean, carry the traditional nosegays of sweet herbs.
Given that the number of recipients in total each year comes to twice the age of the sovereign (91 men and 91 women) it simply would not be practical to expect The Queen to wash the feet of 182 people. In any case, the service is not meant to be a replica of that act of Jesus – but rather an echo: a symbolic act rendered in the context of the biblical story.
Another aspect of the humility of Jesus’ action in washing his disciples’ feet is reflected in a moving and symbolic way. For this must be the one occasion when, instead of those upon whom she confers her honours having to come to her to receive them, the Queen comes to Leicester Cathedral and then leaves her seat beside the altar and walks through the nave to the recipients to give them her Maundy gifts. It is my role to hand the purses to Her Majesty. A moment’s thought about the long years of devoted Christian service which each recipient represents is a reminder of the accumulation of good works being recognised in this simple action.
As Lord High Almoner, in former years I would have been responsible for controlling all the Sovereign’s charities. It was customary for the King or Queen in mediaeval times to provide enormous feasts for the poor. And every day, food was distributed at the Palace gates, doles were given out on Good Friday, and money was thrown to the crowds on royal journeys, sometimes to quieten potential hostility. For this reason, quantities of small coins were necessary, and this is probably the origin of the distinctive little Maundy coins of specially minted silver pennies, twopences, threepences and fourpences which will be given to the recipients on Maundy Thursday. The cost of having the coins minted – now the responsibility of the department at Buckingham Palace known as the Privy Purse – used to be covered by raising money from the sale of the goods of convicted felons and from what were known as deodands: that is to say, the sale of objects (such as weapons) which had caused injury and especially a person’s death. These had to be given, as it were, to God (Deo danda) in payment, expiation, for the death; and the proceeds (in the late 17th century about £700-800 p.a.) were administered for the Crown by the Royal Almonry, which also used some of the money to compensate the person injured or, in the event of a murder, the next of kin. The present practice in this country of legal compensation for injury (which replaced the deodands system) therefore has its roots in the Royal Almonry and the Maundy money.
It was the railways that, partly, were the cause of the system being changed by the Deodands Act of 1846. Seven years earlier there had been a celebrated case in which two steam engines of the Grand Junction Railway Company, names Merlin and Basilisk were “propelled and driven and forced with great violence at and against each other” causing the death of the unfortunate fireman. The Royal Almonry saw the chance of increasing its coffers considerably – by taking possession of the engines that had caused the death, selling them and, after a small compensation to the next-of-kin, taking the profits and using them to mint little coins for the sovereign to distribute. The prospect of both locomotives being declared deodand was devastating for the Railway Company, though, and it successfully lobbied for abolition of the law of deodand.
Now to some of those who will have particular roles to play in supporting The Queen for this year’s Royal Maundy service. My predecessors can be traced back to the beginning of the 12th century when in 1103-1130 William the Almoner served King Henry I. Many important families at the time had their Almoner who looked after their charitable giving. In England, since the 12th century, about ninety men have held the office of Royal Almoner, and we have a complete list of them since 1450. Among them, and perhaps the most celebrated, was Thomas Wolsey. He was Lord High Almoner from 1509-14 – subsequently Archbishop of York and Cardinal.
Through the centuries, rather a distressing number of Almoners have died within a few years of taking office. Others have summarily been dismissed. Queen Anne sacked Bishop William Lloyd, Bishop of Worcester, probably because he was a great friend of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Tenison, whom she disliked. She preferred the Archbishop of York, John Sharp, whom, to the dismay of the Archbishop of Canterbury, she invited to preach at her coronation. George I who succeeded her in 1714 quickly dismissed from office Bishop Smalridge of Bristol for refusing to sign a declaration against Anne’s half brother.
I hope to be still in office for the coming Royal Maundy service! The blue cope I will wear – given to my predecessor, Bishop Nigel McCulloch by the Diocese of Wakefield for use at the Royal Maundy service, and which he handed on for the use of his successors – bears on its hood a gold thread tracing of the emblem of the Royal Almonry. Since the 15th century that has been a ship – and since 1511 the great ship built by my earlier predecessor, Cardinal Wolsey.
Assisting the Lord High Almoner will be the Sub-Almoner the Reverend Prebendary Paul Wright, who is also Sub-Dean of Her Majesty’s Chapels Royal, Deputy Clerk of the Closet, and Domestic Chaplain to The Queen – making him effectively the Vicar of Buckingham Palace, St James’s Palace and Kensington Palace. His role as Sub-Almoner is of historic significance, and its holders can be traced back to 1382. One sub-almoner had the unusual distinction of having an island named after him. He was Sir Richard Kaye Bt, who was Sub-Almoner from 1773-1784. He was a great friend of Captain Cook, the famous seafarer. As Sub-Almoner, Kaye had supplied Captain Cook with bottles containing Maundy coins. It was a way, in those days, of claiming territory for the Crown. The sovereign’s image on the coin was taken to mean that wherever the coin rested, the monarch was there too. So, following this custom, Captain Cook buried a bottle of the Maundy coins on an island off the coast of Alaska. This was recorded by a notary public (who was always taken by Cook on his voyages of discovery, chiefly for this purpose) and the island was named Kaye Island after the Sub-Almoner. Disappointingly it was later named Kayak Island, as it is to this day.
It’s an interesting little story – a glimpse into 18th century history colonial expansion. Fascinating too to discover the part played by the Royal Almonry and the Maundy coins in building up the British Empire (just as it was intriguing a moment ago to learn of the Royal Almonry’s role, through the use of Maundy money, in the history of legal compensation).
The third and in many ways most important office of the Royal Almonry is its Secretary, currently Paul Leddington-Wright – who is, by profession, a distinguished musician whom many of you will recognise as a regular director and conductor of the music on BBC Television’s Songs of Praise. Paul will be much in evidence on the great day and with me will be escorting The Queen to the various parts of the Cathedral where the recipients will be. He’s here and will be able to answer any difficult questions you may have after this lecture. I’ll stick to the easy ones!
The service on Maundy Thursday is The Queen’s service and follows a standard form of hymns, prayers, readings, anthems and the two perambulations when, as I’ve explained, Her Majesty goes into the congregation to give out her Maundy gifts. Because it is a royal service, rather than simply a cathedral or diocesan occasion, The Queen is attended by her own choir: the Gentlemen and Choristers of the Chapel Royal. They can be seen every year on television at the Remembrance Day service at the Cenotaph in London.
The title Chapel Royal is not so much a description of a building (even though there are chapel buildings with that designation) as the description of a congregation and choir drawn together in worship for a special purpose at the behest of the Monarch. King John happened to be in Knaresborough for Maundy Thursday in 1210 – and so the service held specially there on that day became a service of the Chapel Royal. In 2017 what is happening is that Her Majesty is borrowing the Cathedral for a service of Her Chapel Royal. But, as always, Her Majesty will want this to be a team effort – and so the choirs of the Chapel Royal and Leicester Cathedral will sing together. I have little doubt that the sound will be wonderful.
The Chapel Royal Choir itself has a notable musical history and remains a distinctive part of the royal establishment. It sang at the Battle of Agincourt. It was present at “The Field of the Cloth of Gold”. And it has always had an important place in the royal entourage – its boys wearing the distinctive navy, gold and scarlet uniform of their royal foundation.
Adding further colour to the occasion will be The Queen’s bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard, a detachment of whom attend the ceremony. They are not to be called Beefeaters and they are nothing to do with the Tower of London. The Yeomen are a select company of ex-servicemen, also known as the London Guard, drawn from senior non-commissioned ranks of the Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Marines – but not the Royal Navy. The reason for that omission is that when recruits to the other services join up they swear allegiance to the Sovereign. The Navy do not swear allegiance; and therefore members of the Royal Navy can never be in the Bodyguard.
The usual duties of the bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard, apart from the Royal Maundy, include attending The Queen at garden parties, banquets for heads of state, the state opening of Parliament, and Garter services. They are the oldest military corps still in existence and their origin goes back to 1485, when they were created by Henry VII as his personal staff. This is still reflected in some of their ranks. For instead of corporals and sergeants, their NCOs are called Yeoman Bedhanger and Yeoman Bedgoer, from a time when they were the personal servants and valets of the sovereign.
Whatever their titles though, they are all mighty men of valour and look resplendent with their pikes and scarlet uniforms. Six of them have the unenviable task of carrying the magnificent silver-gilt dishes, bearing the purses of money, which are withdrawn from the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London and will be brought to the Cathedral especially for the occasion. On these dishes are placed purses containing the Maundy gifts. The dishes themselves are heavy enough to carry, but when bearing 364 filled purses between them, I assure you they are very heavy indeed. The weight on these plates is in danger of bending them – which is why we now have six plates. (They used to be carried on the Yeoman’s head but I think that’s been ruled a health and safety risk!)
What of the gifts themselves? Each of the 182 recipients will receive a pair of purses, one of read leather and the other of white. In the red purse will be £5.50, normally in ordinary coinage, and representing the cash equivalent of what used to be given to the mediaeval recipients in kind: £3.00 for clothing, £1.50 for food and £1.00 for the redemption of the royal gown which was originally given to the poor after the ceremony.
In the white purse will be the special Maundy money itself: 88 pence this year to each recipient, consisting of sealed units (in plastic to preserve their mint condition) each containing a mixture of four tiny coins – penny, twopence, threepence and fourpence. They are legal currency, newly minted each year. When decimal currency was introduced, the face value of the set of four coins became 10 new pence instead of 10d in the old £sd system – though of course they are in reality worth much more than that.
Also with the Royal Almonry party on Maundy Thursday will be four local school pupils who will be known for the day as “the children of the Royal Almonry” who will be chosen from four different primary schools. The children symbolically represent the assistants who, in the old days, helped with the foot-washing; and they also wear the symbolic towels, cut down to size for them. Centuries ago the assistants were a team of elderly people – but at some stage long ago they were replaced by a team of children. They have the privilege of escorting The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh and of being presented to them at the West End of the Abbey at the end of the service.
Now to the team of the Wandsmen of the Royal Almonry. They also represent those who used to attend the Chapels Royal in earlier centuries to assist with the practicalities of getting the elderly recipients ready to have their feet washed. Today their duties are still of a practical nature – but more in the realm of ensuring the physical comfort of the recipients; and they will be helped this year by twelve young people chosen from local schools.
In earlier times the Royal Maundy ceremony was observed, as I noted earlier, wherever the sovereign happened to be in residence. Often, of course, that was London – and so, for many years, the Maundy money was distributed in the old Chapel Royal at Whitehall. From 1890 to 1952 the service was held at Westminster Abbey. During the present reign, the service has been held at Westminster Abbey on fifteen occasions. The present practice is to be there once in each decade – and we were last there in 2011.
On the Wednesday of Holy Week, those of us from the Royal Almonry who are responsible for the smooth running of the service will join your Bishop and Dean in the Cathedral for a very important dress rehearsal. This does not include the recipients – but it does include all others whom I have mentioned plus some others.
But when the rehearsal is taking place on the Wednesday afternoon, the full nosegays have hardly started being made by the nosegay team. Eight volunteers come faithfully each year from across the country; and thanks to their patience and skill the nosegays of purple, yellow and white spring flowers and herbs such as rosemary are made ready in the evening – and guaranteed to remain fresh until after the service is over the next day. Appropriately, the leader of the nosegay team is called Rosemary – and she has become the holder of the Royal Warrant: “By appointment, purveyor of nosegays to Her Majesty The Queen”.
On Maundy Thursday all I’ve been telling you about will be transformed into a great spectacle of tradition and pageantry, in which some of you will have your special part. But of course it is much more than tradition and pageantry. It is, as I have explained, an act of humility on the part of The Queen in which she honours a representative number of people from across the British Isles who have lived a life of service to their church and community, just as she has done to Commonwealth and nation. Most especially, she gives honour to the Lord Jesus who on the day that He was betrayed gave His disciples that new commandment, or mandate: “Love one another as I have loved you”.
I wish all of you, from whatever diocese, denomination (or country), who will have the privilege of being in the Minster on Maundy Thursday, a wonderful and moving day – as we worship with Her Majesty in a unique and unforgettable way.