Encyclopedia Britannica – Maundy Thursday


(through O.Fr. mandé from Lat. mandatum, commandment, in allusion to Christ’s words: “A new commandment give I unto you,” after he had washed the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper), the Thursday before Easter. Maundy Thursday is sometimes known as Sheer or Chare Thursday, either in allusion, it is thought, to the “shearing” of heads and beards in preparation for Easter, or more probably in the word’s Middle English sense of “pure,” in allusion to the ablutions of the day. The chief ceremony, as kept from the early middle ages onwards—the washing of the feet of twelve or more poor men or beggars—was in the early Church almost unknown. Of Chrysostom and Saint Augustine, who both speak of Maundy Thursday as being marked by a solemn celebration of the Sacrament, the former does not mention the foot-washing, and the latter merely alludes to it. Perhaps an indication of it may be discerned as early as the 4th century in a custom, current in Spain, northern Italy and elsewhere, of washing the feet of the catechumens towards the end of Lent before their baptism. It was not, however, universal, and in the 48th canon of the synod of Elvira (a.d. 306) it is expressly prohibited (cf. Corp. Jur. Can., c. 104, caus. i. qu. 1). From the 4th century ceremonial foot-washing became yearly more common, till it was regarded as a necessary rite, to be performed by the pope, all Catholic sovereigns, prelates, priests and nobles. In England the king washed the feet of as many poor men as he was years old, and then distributed to them meat, money and clothes. At Durham Cathedral, until the 16th century, every charity-boy had a monk to wash his feet. At Peterborough Abbey, in 1530, Wolsey made “his maund in Our Lady’s Chapel, having fifty-nine poor men whose feet he washed and kissed; and after he had wiped them he gave every of the said poor men twelve pence in money, three ells of good canvas to make them shirts, a pair of new shoes, a cast of red herrings and three white herrings.” Queen Elizabeth performed the ceremony, the paupers’ feet, however, being first washed by the yeomen of the laundry with warm water and sweet herbs. James II was the last English monarch to perform the rite. William III. delegated the washing to his almoner, and this was usual until the middle of the 18th century. Since 1754 the foot-washing has been abandoned, and the ceremony now consists of the presentation of Maundy money, officially called Maundy Pennies. These were first coined in the reign of Charles II. They come straight from the Mint, and have their edges unmilled. The service which formerly took place in the Chapel Royal, Whitehall, is now held in Westminster Abbey. A procession is formed in the nave, consisting of the lord high almoner representing the sovereign, the clergy and the yeomen of the guard, the latter carrying white and red purses in baskets. The clothes formerly given are now commuted for in cash. The full ritual is gone through by the Roman Catholic archbishop of Westminster, and abroad it survives in all Catholic countries, a notable example being that of the Austrian emperor. In the Greek Church the rite survives notably at Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Constantinople. It is on Maundy Thursday that in the Church of Rome the sacred oil is blessed, and the chrism prepared according to an elaborate ritual which is given in the Pontificale.

MLA Citation

  • “Maundy Thursday”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911. CatholicSaints.Info. 15 March 2015. Web. 21 January 2022. <>