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