Queen Mary I of England Washes the Feet of the Poor

Portrait of Queen Mary I of England by Hans Eworth

Queen Mary I of England was known for her piety and religious fervor. During her reign, there were about sixty religious processions and celebrations which allowed the ordinary citizens to make evident their piety as well as their devotion to their sovereign. On Mary’s part, it allowed her to create a connection to her subjects and demonstrate a unity of purpose. Although Mary exhibited a shyness and reticence to making public appearances, she knew her desire to make known her message would be reinforced by her personal participation in these type of rites.

One of these particular celebrations occurred on Maundy Thursday, April 3, 1556 in the Great Hall of Greenwich Palace. Mary entered the hall along with Cardinal Reginald Pole, her Council and her chaplains. The chaplains joined the bishop of Ely, the dean of the chapel at the end of the hall where the choristers also stood. Assembled near the entrance were Mary’s chief ladies and gentlewomen wearing long linen aprons that reached to the ground and towels around their necks. The ladies held in their hands silver ewers and bunches of spring flowers. Mary was wearing a gown of fine purple velvet lined with martens’ fur, the sleeves so long they touched the ground.

Along each side of the hall, seated on benches, were forty-one poor women with their right foot bare, resting on stools. Each woman represented one year of the queen’s life. Before the ceremony began, the women’s right feet had been washed first by a servant, then by the under almoner and finally by the grand almoner, the bishop of Chichester. A noblewoman would attend Mary with a basin and towel as Mary kneeled before each woman, taking the right foot into her hand, washing it and drying it thoroughly. She would then make the sign of the cross on the foot and kiss it with reverence and solemnity.

She did this for all forty-one women, going down both sides of the hall, always on her knees. Once this was done, Mary rose to her feet and went again to each woman. She carried a large wooden platter covered with pieces of salted fish and two large loaves of bread. She then returned with wooden bowls filled with either hippocras or wine. Each woman was given a piece of rich cloth for new clothes, shoes and stockings and a leather purse filled with forty-one pennies. Lastly, she gave each woman the apron and towel that had been worn by the noblewomen.

Mary left the hall to remove her purple gown and a half an hour later, she returned with the servant carrying the gown before her. Choristers sang as Mary walked around the room examining each of the women. She did this twice and on the third go round, she chose the woman she considered the poorest and most in need and gave her fine purple gown. It must have been a remarkable and inspiring sight. The Venetian ambassador Michiel witnessed the entire ceremony and was exceedingly impressed by Mary’s devout seriousness. He wrote of the scene:

“In all her movements and gestures, she seemed to act thus not merely out of ceremony, but from great feeling and devotion”.

Further reading: “The Myth of Bloody Mary” by Linda Porter, “Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen” by Anna Whitelock, “Bloody Mary” by Carolly Erickson

9 thoughts on “Queen Mary I of England Washes the Feet of the Poor

    • For most royals, it was probably a disgusting task. However, Mary was extremely pious, and I’m quite sure she rejoiced in washing the feet. Remember, she thought many times that she would be executed. She was exceedingly grateful to God for her miraculous deliverance. She reveled in pious activities!

      Think of the shame & rejection she endured. The terror. Her mother torn from her, never to be seen again. She was only too happy to give God every honor

      The ceremony surrounding the act was built up from centuries of Maundy rites. Likely the bishops & clergy long designated how the washings should proceed.
      I’m certain Mary would have done it in on the public green, washing BOTH feet, dressed in humble rags. And she would have been grateful!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’v always held the opinion that if Mary had been treated kindly all her life, she might have left a remarkable, and much different legacy. Mary and her mother, Catherine, were at heart generous, pious & compassionate. Much was changed when Henry VIII repudiated his marriage & his daughter’s legitimacy.

    As a devoted daughter who desperately wanted to believe the best of her father, it was natural for her to see his court as a den of vipers ready to strike her down. She believed so strongly that if only she had enough private time with Henry, she could help him see that he was being manipulated. This was especially true when Anne Boelyn was ascendant. She fared better when Anne was gone, but due to her strong adherence to the Roman Church, could never rest easy. She was very much alone and vulnerable. She could trust only a few, and if she made a misstep, could send any or all to the executioner.

    Perhaps if she were able to reign longer, bore a child, and could trust more, she might have been “Mary the Great”. But the lines were drawn in blood on both sides, and there was no returning to the old ways. “Bloody Mary’ she is now remembered. Many of her predecessors were far bloodier.

    Mary’s personal tragedies made it possible for English queens to reign in their own right. No other paid so high a price for the crown.

    Mary truly believed that her Maundy duties were ordained by God, and was service she gladly offered. She believed she owed all to God, who delivered her from certain death & the stain of bastardy. No one probably got more of a spiritual lift from the ceremony than Mary!

    Thank you for highlighting a portion of her reign kept from the history books!

    Liked by 1 person

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