Monday, 10 July 2017

Servus servorum Dei

The estimable Michelle Beer, whose forthcoming book on the courts of Queens Catherine of Aragon (in England) and Margaret Tudor (in Scotland) I’m overseeing for the Royal Historical Society’s Studies in History series, draws my attention to a telling little detail from 1535.

By then Catherine of Aragon, her marriage to Henry VIII now unilaterally annulled by an English court, was fighting a rearguard action for every scrap of the royal status she refused to relinquish; and Henry VIII was working hard to thwart her at every turn. This much I knew. I did not know about the skirmish in this battle that took place around Maundy Thursday 1535, that date being a traditional occasion for a public display of queenly charity and almsgiving. Catherine made it known that she wanted to hold her Maundy in the traditional way.

Incidentally, this appears to have included washing poor women’s feet herself. It’s well established that English and Scottish kings washed male paupers’ feet on Maundy Thursday: by a lovely piece of detective work, Beer has shown it’s very likely that their wives did so too. We’ve no direct testimony of the fact, but she shows that both Catherine and Margaret’s households were ordering towels exactly like those their husbands were ordering in advance of the ceremony. Didn’t I say this was going to be a good book?

Anyway, the king gave a clear and direct reply to Catherine’s demand, conveyed to Cromwell in a now-damaged letter. He insisted that she celebrate her Maundy as a royal widow (that is, the widow of Henry VIII’s older brother Prince Arthur), not as queen, and that she do it in private in her chamber. If she did it as the queen she still claimed to be, she was to be told that not only she herself, but ‘all such poore people, as shulde receyve her maundy’ would incur the danger of high treason.*

So Henry VIII was proposing to treat paupers as traitors for accepting alms. Always classy.

*BL Cotton MS Otho C/X (LP 8:435).

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