It’s a “must attend” engagement on the Queen’s calendar—and the only time Prince Philip will voluntarily carry a posy of flowers—yet most people have never heard of Maundy Thursday. It’s the only occasion, which commemorates the Last Supper, when the sovereign “serves” her people.
In medieval times, the monarch would wash the feet of his subjects, just as Jesus did for his apostles that day. (The fragrant flowers in the posy were to keep the rank aromas at bay.) The Queen, however, has exchanged cleaning smelly feet for handing out purses filled with specially minted coins to 86 men and 86 women (representing the Queen’s age.) Each of the 172 recipients will receive both a white purse containing 86p in Maundy coins and a red purse containing £5 coin and a 50p piece. The coins, which have grown in heft as the has Queen aged, are now so heavy that the tradition of the Yeoman Warders carrying gold platters filled with the purses on their heads has to be abandoned. The Crown jeweller actually feared that as the Warders awkwardly lifted the priceless trays, they would snap under the weight. So, for the rest of her reign, they’ll have to hold the platters out in front.
The Queen, a deeply religious woman, has actually expanded the role of Maundy Thursday. What was once just a repetitive service at Westminster Abbey in London is now a road show. Each year she travels to a different cathedral in Britain for the service and the elderly recipients of the purses are from that diocese. Still, the service returns to Westminster Abbey once a decade. And this year, there were more changes than usual, which should come as no surprise considering it’s the Diamond Jubilee: the recipients came from each of Britain’s 44 Anglican dioceses and, on a more personal level, the Queen and Philip were joined by their granddaughter Princess Beatrice at the beautiful minster in the historic centre of York.