Elizabeth I And The Stinking Peasants
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.
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.