The present-day Maundy ceremony has evolved over the centuries and bears little relationship to the original rites to which it owes its origins. A fundamental aspect of the original Maundy service was the washing of the feet of the poor, which has its origins in Jesus' washing of the feet of the Disciples at the Last Supper. In early ceremonies, senior clergymen would wash the feet of lower clergy, while in other ceremonies, the washing would be done by someone higher up the hierarchical order.
The Maundy ceremony has been known in England since about 600 AD, but there is some disagreement among scholars as to first recorded instance of the Maundy ceremony. King Edward II (1307–1327) is often cited as the first English monarch to have actively taken part in the ceremony, although no dates are given. The first recorded occasion when the sovereign distributed alms at a Maundy service was in 1210, when King John (1199–1216) donating garments, forks, food, and other gifts to the poor of Knaresborough, Yorkshire. King Edward III (1327–1377) is also said to have washed feet and given gifts including money to the poor; the practice continued regularly, with the participation of the monarch, until 1698.
Although the monarch did not participate personally, later ceremonies continued in which a selection of people were given Maundy money consisting of silver pennies totalling, in pence, the current age of the monarch. The washing of feet ended after the 1736 ceremony, until it was re-instated in the 2003 ceremony, when it was performed by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams.
In 1932, King George V agreed to take part personally in the distribution of the Maundy money. The 1936 set was distributed by King Edward VIII, although the coins bore George V's effigy. By 1953 it had become normal practice for the monarch to distribute the Maundy money, a practice which continues to this day.
On 20 March 2008, Queen Elizabeth II made history by holding the ceremony in St. Patrick's Church of Ireland Cathedral Armagh, Northern Ireland. During the service Her Majesty distributed Maundy money to 82 men and 82 women representing the number of years of the Sovereign’s life. It's the first time this historic ceremony has been conducted in Ireland and only the second time outside England.
The original composition of the coins was Sterling (0.925) silver. In common with all circulating British silver coins, the fineness was reduced to 0.500 in 1921. In 1947, silver was removed from all circulating British coins in favour of cupronickel, but it was felt to be inappropriate to strike Maundy money in such debased metal, so unusually the fineness was restored to 0.925, where it remains to the present day.
In 1971, British currency was decimalised, with 100 new pence instead of 20 shillings of 12 pence (240 pence) in a pound. The design of the Maundy money was not changed at all, so instead of being worth 1, 2, 3, or 4 old pence, the coins are now worth 1, 2, 3, or 4 new pence, each one being worth 2.4 times its former value. As there is no difference in the design or weight between pre- and post-1971 coins, it was uniquely decided to revalue all pre-decimal Maundy coins back to 1822 at the equivalent value in new pence, i.e. the face value of each coin was increased by a factor of 2.4 overnight. All Maundy coins, back to 1822, remain legal tender in Britain at their stated value in new pence.
Maundy coins, in proof condition, were sold as part of a special silver proof set of all United Kingdom coins in 2000 and in 2006. They were also sold in gold as part of a special gold proof set of all United Kingdom coins in 2002, as part of the Golden Jubilee observances.
While Maundy recipients have long sold the coins to dealers at a premium, in recent years, individual recipients have taken to selling them on eBay.
Note that the "young head" of Queen Elizabeth (by Mary Gillick) has been used on all Maundy coins of her reign, despite it not having been used on regular circulation coins since decimalization.