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Queen Camilla will create history when she represents her husband at the ancient Maundy Thursday ceremony today

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When Queen Camilla arrives at Worcester Cathedral today for the royal ceremony of distributing gifts on Maundy Thursday, she will be both carrying out an ancient custom and doing it in a unique way. 

For while the Maundy tradition can be traced back to medieval times, it is unheard of for a monarch to be represented by a spouse at this church service.

King Charles is unable to attend as he continues with his treatment for an unspecified form of cancer, but he has released a special video message ahead of the service urging the nation to extend the hand of friendship to those in need.

The Maundy ceremony was created hundreds of years ago as a way of commemorating Jesus’s example of service the night before he was crucified. 

Last year was the first time that King Charles had distributed Maundy money as King. He gave the coins to 74 men and 74 women, matching his years, in York Minster, on April 6 to thank them for their outstanding Christian service and for making a difference to the lives of people in their local communities.

Last year was the first time that King Charles had distributed Maundy money as King. He gave the coins to 74 men and 74 women, matching his years, in York Minster, on April 6 to thank them for their outstanding Christian service and for making a difference to the lives of people in their local communities.

There are echoes of the Coronation in the Maundy Thursday service, with Handel's Zadok The Priest featuring in both

There are echoes of the Coronation in the Maundy Thursday service, with Handel’s Zadok The Priest featuring in both

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby performs the Washing of The Feet ceremony during last year's  Maundy Thursday service at Canterbury Cathedral

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby performs the Washing of The Feet ceremony during last year’s  Maundy Thursday service at Canterbury Cathedral

Bible accounts describe how Jesus gathered with his disciples for a Jewish Passover meal – the Last Supper – and showed great humility by washing their feet. 

A medieval ritual developed with the king washing the feet of 12 old men – the same number as Jesus’ apostles, to denote that he was the servant of his people. 

Later, it also became the custom for the monarch to give the poor alms on Maundy Thursday, while Henry IV decreed that the number of coins given should reflect the monarch’s own age.

Some took the ceremony very seriously. Mary I is recorded as washing the feet of 41 women in 1556, the year of her 41st birthday. She also gave them 41 pence each plus other gifts of food and clothes. 

Later monarchs declined to attend when there was plague or got officials to wash the stinking feet of poor peasants. 

By the end of the 17th century, the Lord High Almoner was set out instead to do it.

And so it fell into abeyance as a royal event.

It was not until 1931 that a King got personally involved again, after Princess Marie Louise (a grand-daughter of Queen Victoria) suggested to her cousin, George V, that he might do so. 

Marie Louise, daughter of Princess Helena,  had already been a great devotee of the ceremony, attending regularly despite the lack of a regal presence.

The following year, 1932, she saw George V himself attend Westminster Abbey to distribute Maundy coins – special currency minted and given to people thought to deserve public recognition for their own service. 

Some of the Maundy money distributed by the Queen as part of the Royal Maundy Service at Gloucester Cathedral in 2003

Some of the Maundy money distributed by the Queen as part of the Royal Maundy Service at Gloucester Cathedral in 2003

The late Queen Elizabeth at the Royal Maundy Service in St George's Chapel, Windsor, in 2019

The late Queen Elizabeth at the Royal Maundy Service in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, in 2019

He did not himself wash any feet – which has remained the duty of clerics since medieval times.

But George recognised what an historic moment it was, stating that ‘James II was the last King who performed the rite in 1685’.

Although it was the only time that George V did so, the House of Windsor found it an appealing ceremony, perhaps because it was an event that expressed the monarch’s connection as Supreme Governor with the Church of England but also with the people. 

And in a visual age where the press and later broadcasters were looking for ceremonial to convey to their readers and viewers, it made for interesting pictures.

Even Edward VIII carried out the Maundy ceremony during the only year of his reign, while George VI was involved intermittently, his attendance often interrupted by wartime commitments.

But it was Elizabeth II, one of the most deeply religious monarchs that this country has had, who made it a high point of the monarch’s reign. 

She attended the Maundy service for almost every year of her reign, and decided that it should no longer take place in a church convenient for the monarch – St George’s chapel, Windsor, say, or Westminster Abbey – but took it round Britain to different cathedrals, so that people in different regions of Britain would be recognised through Maundy gifts for the service they gave. 

Just as her grandfather, uncle and father did before her, she gave each man and woman chosen for each year of her age two little red and white leather bags, filled with Maundy coins. 

They are carried on special silver dishes, made in the reign of Charles II, and kept with the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London. 

Every year, as a link to the Coronation and its ideas of service, Handel’s great anthem, Zadok the Priest, is played as the gifts are handed out.

In 2022, the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, deputised for his elderly and unwell mother, Elizabeth II. 

Worcester Cathedral, where this year's Royal Maundy Service takes place

Worcester Cathedral, where this year’s Royal Maundy Service takes place 

Queen Camilla arrives at Westminster Abbey for this year's Commonwealth Service

Queen Camilla arrives at Westminster Abbey for this year’s Commonwealth Service

Queen Camilla is given flowers by school children as she leaves the annual Commonwealth Day Service at Westminster Abbey

Queen Camilla is given flowers by school children as she leaves the annual Commonwealth Day Service at Westminster Abbey i

Last year as King, he made his first Maundy distribution at York Minster, with Camilla by his side. 

Now, Camilla will take the helm at the service at Worcester, while the King steps back from public engagements due to his cancer treatment.

With Prince William , the heir to the throne,  focusing on Kate and their children as she undergoes chemotherapy, the great Maundy ceremony, as so much else at the moment, will rest on the shoulders of the Queen.



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