Did you know that Charles III will preside over his first Royal Maundy ceremony as king on 6 April 2023? He will personally distribute specially minted ‘Maundy money’ to elderly people at York Minster.
Coining the ‘Maundy Money’ Tradition
The Royal Maundy originally served as a way for the monarch to give alms to the poor. Now the recipients are chosen for their service to their church and/or community.
Charles III’s distribution continues a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages. The earliest known account of an English monarch distributing coins on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, dates to 1213. This saw King John (r.1199-1216) gift thirteen pence each to thirteen men at Rochester. Since then, the ceremony has undergone many changes to arrive at today’s practice.
Henry IV (r.1399-1413) ordained that the number of Maundy recipients and the total pence gifted to each of them should be determined by the monarch’s age. This has mostly been adhered to since the Tudor era, but how the exact number is calculated has differed over the centuries. Charles III, being 74 years old, will distribute 74 pence to 74 men and 74 women. This defies a custom that’s been almost continuously followed, with some exceptions, from the reign of Elizabeth I (r.1558-1603) to Elizabeth II (r.1952-2022).
The previous convention was to calculate the number based upon the monarch’s age at the time of the service plus one to account for the year that they are currently living. For example, Elizabeth II was 95 years old during the last Maundy service of her reign, held on 14 April 2022, 96 pence was distributed to 96 men and 96 women. This is not the only numismatic tradition to be broken during Charles III’s reign.
Originally, monarchs only distributed money to recipients of their own gender, but from George I’s reign (r.1714-1727) onwards, this changed. Coins have since been gifted to an equal number of men and women.
Scottish monarchs also carried out the ceremony and other forms of almsgiving, but it is not as well documented as that of their English counterparts. The earliest identifiable Maundy coin was distributed by James IV (r.1488-1513) in 1512.
A developing design
These silver Maundy coins of Elizabeth II, which she distributed at Salisbury Cathedral on 11 April 1974, typify the designs of current Maundy money. A complete set of Maundy money is comprised of a fourpence, threepence, twopence and penny, amounting to ten pence in total.
The Maundy penny is miniscule, measuring just 11.2mm in diameter, nearly half the size of a regular penny. The obverse depicts the reigning sovereign surrounded by their titles. The reverse displays the coins’ value with a crowned Arabic numeral surrounded by an oak wreath. This reverse design, excepting some small stylistic changes, has remained the same since the reign of George IV (r.1820-1830).
Elizabeth II, then Princess Elizabeth of York, first attended the Royal Maundy ceremony as an observer in 1935. This was the last Maundy service of her grandfather’s reign, George V (r.1910-1936). As queen, she presided over more Royal Maundy ceremonies than any of her predecessors. From 1952 to 2019, with four exceptions, she personally distributed Maundy money at every annual service. The 2020 and 2021 ceremonies were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and she was represented by Prince Charles at the 2022 ceremony.
Golden Years: The Rarer Maundy Coins
The Hunterian’s numismatic collection contains exceedingly rare examples of gold Maundy money. Throughout British history, Maundy money has only been struck in gold on five occasions. The gold coins are dated 1795, 1831, 1838, 1953 and 2002. All, excepting the 2002 coins, were issued in extremely low quantities, with the 1795 coins being unique.
The Hunterian collection holds the only known specimens of gold Maundy money of George III (r.1760-1820). It’s not the full four-coin set, just a gold threepence and twopence. Unusually, the threepence is struck on a half guinea blank and the twopence is struck on a third guinea blank. These fractional guineas were gold coins that the mint issued for general circulation. The use of oversized blanks has resulted in a ring of plain metal between the edge of the coin and the beginning of the die impression.
George III, Great Britain, gold Maundy coins, 1795, Coats Collection, from left to right: threepence, twopence.
It’s not clear why these unique gold coins were struck. They wouldn’t have been distributed at the Royal Maundy service. They were most likely struck after 1797 rather than in 1795 as the date on the coins indicate. This is because the Royal Mint did not produce third guineas until 1797. A production date after 1795, when the reverse designs of the Maundy money were altered, makes it unlikely that they were intended as trial pieces to review the new design.
Instead, they could have been made, perhaps illicitly by an errant mint worker, as unique curios for an influential collector. The fact that they were made using easily obtainable blanks, rather than specially prepared gold ones of appropriate size, further suggests that their production was clandestine in nature.
The earliest complete set of gold Maundy money was struck in 1831 during the reign of William IV (r.1830-1837). The minting of this gold set was authorised in a letter dated 23 March 1831. The letter doesn’t record the reason behind their creation. Like the 1795 gold coins, they wouldn’t have been distributed at the Maundy ceremony. Instead, they might have been gifted to prominent individuals, possibly in connection with William IV’s coronation on 8 September of that year.
They may have also been offered for sale to wealthy collectors. Such occurrences were not uncommon. William Hunter (1718-1783), whose bequest forms the foundation of The Hunterian museum, would frequently buy special coins directly from the Royal Mint.
William IV, United Kingdom, gold Maundy set, 1831, Coats Collection, from left to right: fourpence, threepence, twopence, penny.
If you want to find out more about The Hunterian’s numismatics collection, why not explore our online catalogue?