Though Her Majesty wasn't accompanied by her husbandPrince Philip at this year's Maundy Thursday celebration, she stepped out to uphold the historical tradition on Thursday (Mar. 29). The Queen handed out silver coins - known as Maundy Money - to 92 women and 92 men from the local community at St George's Chapel, where her grandson Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will wed in seven weeks. But what is the tradition of Maundy Thursday, and why do people receive special coins? The occasion takes place each year on the Thursday before Easter Sunday, which is the day when Christians celebrate Jesus' Last Supper. The Queen marks it by handing out the special coins to pensioners, this year in celebration of women getting the right to vote.
The number of recipients reflects the monarch's age, and she travels to a different cathedral or abbey nearly every year to distribute the coins. The people who are chosen to receive the money have been recommended by clergy or ministers in recognition for the services to the church or local community. Each recipient receives two purses – one red and one white. This year, the red purse contained a £5 coin, marking four generations of royalty, and a 50p coin commemorating the Representation of the People Act of 1918, which for the first time gave some women the right to vote. The white purse held uniquely minted money in one, two, three and four penny pieces, which equals 92 pence for the monarch's age. While the money is legal tender, recipients usually prefer to hold on to the coins as a souvenir.
According to the Royal Mint, the custom of members of the royal family taking part in Maundy services dates back as early as the 13th century, when they gave out gifts and money, and even took part in foot-washing ceremonies to symbolize Jesus’ display of humility when he washed the feet of his disciples.
"Henry IV began the practice of relating the number of recipients of gifts to the sovereign's age, and as it became the custom of the sovereign to perform the ceremony, the event became known as the Royal Maundy," the website explains. "In the eighteenth century the act of washing the feet of the poor was discontinued and in the nineteenth century money allowances were substituted for the various gifts of food and clothing.
"Maundy Money as such started in the reign of Charles II with an undated issue of hammered coins in 1662. The coins were a four penny, three penny, two penny and one penny piece but it was not until 1670 that a dated set of all four coins appeared. Prior to this, ordinary coinage was used for Maundy gifts, silver pennies alone being used by the Tudors and Stuarts for the ceremony."