Elizabeth I And The Stinking Peasants

Cast your imaginations back 436 years, folks, to Maundy Thursday 1572, and picture the scene.

Good Queen Bess sits upon the throne at Greenwich Palace, chuckling to herself, enjoying the fact that there are only a couple of days of tedious Lenten fasting to go. And yet even as she dreams of Sucking Pig and Greate Pye, an unfortunate courtier is very gingerly making his way towards the Royal Ear, knowing that as soon as he whispers in it, his own will be somewhat thicker. But someone’s got to do it; someone’s got to remind the sovereign of one of the less enjoyable of her regal duties…

All the way back to at least Edward II, it had been the tradition for the monarch to wash the feet of the same number of poor people as their age. What’s worse, they had to kiss said feet afterwards, to prove their humility before God. The tradition went all the way back to the 8th Century, when monks started washing grubby-old dark-age plebs’ tootsies in memory of Christ washing those of the disciples, and Elizabeth knew there was no getting out of it. The very word ‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin “mandatum.”

It wasn’t so much the rest of the ceremony that bothered her. She didn’t care about the money – twenty shillings in alms given to each pauper, wrapped in a red leather purse. She didn’t mind the food – a gift of half a side of salmon, the same again of lyng (presumably some other fish) six red herrings and a cheat loafe, which the fabulous Old Foodie blog tells me was bread made with leaven saved from an earlier batch of baking, and, as far as I understand, kneaded with the feet, which makes sense considering what the whole Maundy gig was about.

Elizabeth didn’t even care about having to fork our for other gifts – “certain yards of broadcloth to make a gown,” a pair of shoes and a wooden platter. But those feet…

There was only one thing for it. To have a minion carefully select the least-smelly peasants, and have them thoroughly pre-washed. Three times.

The Yeoman of the Laundry copped the least desirable chore – the initial scrub to tackle the worst of the grime, fleas, worms, whatever. The Sub-Almoner then got to try to polish them up a bit, and mask the pong with sweet herbs before the Almoner did the final tweaking of the toes. Only then did the Queen, presumably from the furthest distance possible, dip her own pinkies into nice-smelling water and splash a few drops onto the rustic appendages thrust before her and pucker up to bestow the lightest of pecks from the royal lips.

The irony is, that I doubt the peasants much cared whether their feet were clean anyway – after all they were only going to step in the usual animal crap, discarded cabbage leaves, ‘nightsoil’ etc. as soon as they left the palace and stepped into the filthy Greenwich streets anyway. They would have been just as happy to forgo the washing-and kissing and cut straight to the cash.

Which is what eventually happened. Today, Elizabeth II merely gives specially-minted coins to the sum of her years to the same number of ‘poor people,’ though in a typically British throwback, she’s still followed around by a lackey with a towel. I can only assume that no one’s had the heart to tell him that his job’s a bit redundant these days. I have no idea how you get to be one of the lucky recipients, given the number of below-poverty-line candidates there are to choose from.
Even less do I know why The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, reinstated the foot-washing thing for himself in 2003. Surely they have websites for that kind of thing…

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