In the 1973 Disney cartoon film Robin Hood, King John is depicted as a lion surrounded by sacks of gold coins. Those money bags represent the king’s excessive taxation of his people, an unjust burden Robin Hood seeks to redress. In historical reality, King John is associated with the special coins known as Maundy Money, their annual distribution by the monarch to certain poor folk being known as the Royal Maundy.
In 1213, two years before barons and bishops forced him to consent to Magna Carta, King John observed Maundy Thursday by giving thirteen pence to thirteen poor men in Rochester. As Brian Robinson pointed out in his history of the Royal Maundy, Silver Pennies and Linen Towels (1992), King John was in the thirteenth year of his reign, but the thirteen pence for thirteen poor men in the king’s thirteenth year of reigning was a happy coincidence of thirteens: in 1210, King John marked Maundy Thursday by giving gifts of knives and belts to thirteen poor men in Yorkshire. The number thirteen, then, symbolized the thirteen who were at the Last Supper, the Twelve Apostles and Christ himself.
Whatever else can be said about medieval English kings, they were Christians. Their coronation liturgy included a bishop anointing them with holy oil, and their regalia, from crown to sceptre to coat of arms, all bore crosses and lions and other Christian symbols. These kings seem to have taken seriously Christ’s mandatum, given on the first Holy Thursday, that His disciples must serve others just as He has served them. For that reason, several medieval and early modern kings observed Maundy Thursday by washing the feet of selected poor people.
As King John understood, however profound the symbolism may be of a Christian king imitating Christ the King by kneeling down in what today is called “servant leadership” to wash other men’s feet, people appreciate tangible reminders of a great occasion. Gifts of knives or clothing soon became more portable in the form of coins. Even royal generosity has its limits, and more than a century after King John, in 1363, King Edward III began a custom still followed, that the number of coins handed out by the king was equal to the number of years he had been alive.
Initially, the coins given by the king at the Royal Maundy were ordinary coins of the realm, but in 1662, King Charles II, “the merry monarch,” ordered the minting of special silver coins just for the Royal Maundy. To look at it another way, beginning when William Penn was eighteen, English monarchs have issued special coins for the Royal Maundy. From that day to the present, Maundy coins have been collector’s items.
Medieval kings were itinerant, riding an annual circuit around their kingdoms. King John’s Royal Maundy ceremonies took place at various locations, but more often than not, the Royal Maundy ceremony occurred in London, usually at Westminster Abbey or Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Under the current monarch, the older practice has returned, the Royal Maundy having become again a moveable commemoration, perambulating year by year from one cathedral to another.
In terms of its traditional choreography, the Royal Maundy ritual contains certain essential elements. In addition to the monarch, there is the Lord High Almoner, who is a bishop, and there is the local bishop. Needless to say, all these dignitaries have assistants and entourages, and Yeomen of the Guard carry the coins in special red or white leather pouches. Meanwhile, a choir from the hosting cathedral sings Handel’s “Zadok the Priest” and the national anthem. Everyone is in his or her finery, and at every turn people, including the king or queen, carry small bouquets of flowers, called nosegays.
Christopher Howse, writing in The Daily Telegraph (2 April, 2015), noted the archaic and even pompous aspects of the ritual surrounding Maundy Money, but weighed in the balance, he found it all worthwhile. “There may be an air about the Royal Maundy service,” he wrote, “of prelates and posies, copes and choristers, but it seems to me a welcome change from personalised rituals like Red Nose Day.” He explained: “The Queen and Yeomen and Almoner will go about their arcane tasks solemnly, not joshing to the camera.”
When a numismatist collects or catalogues Maundy Money, each coin is like the top of a pyramid. Part of the pleasure of collecting coins, or any other man-made thing, is the contemplative practice of becoming aware of the vast network of people and the continuity of millennia that array behind every single coin. To mine the silver, to transport it, to design the coins, to mint them, to guard them, to schedule the Royal Maundy event, from the florists to the tailors, from the chauffeurs to the person who makes sure there is plenty of tea on hand, all that and more gleams back at someone who is admiring one of those little silver coins.
What remains to be considered is a spiritual commemoration being famous for its money. A cynic could complain that once again grubby materialism spoils a religious occasion, or more to the point, that in the end, religion is all about money. Even a religious person must note the uncomfortable fact that among Christ and His disciples, the money box was kept by Judas.
In itself, money is neither good nor bad; it is greed for gain that brings the ruin of sin. Like the pagan Roman emperors before him, Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome, issued coins bearing his image. During those early centuries of her history, the Church in a sense baptized numerous features of ancient culture from before the time of Christ, whether architecture or literature or coinage. Coins and Christianity have long gone hand in hand.
This Christian adaptation of an existing culture relates directly to the Incarnation and Christ being fully human and fully divine. He knew well the use of coins, whether a coin of Caesar used by Pharisees to test Him, or a Temple coin used by a poor widow. He used coins to pay His taxes, and, without intending any irreverence, when He told Saint Peter to catch a fish and take the coin out of it, Christ seems to be saying what every coin collector knows, that often the coin one has been looking for turns up in the unlikeliest place.