Post-classical history


Henry’s Date of Birth and the Royal Maundy

When I began the research for this book, Henry was the only Plantagenet king whose date of birth was in doubt.1 As a consequence, and because of the importance of ascertaining his age in relation to Richard II, a considerable amount of time was devoted to this problem at the outset. The result is a short essay entitled ‘Henry IV’s date of birth and the royal Maundy’ which will appear in the journal Historical Research. Readers wishing to check the methodology and sources used should refer to that article. What follows here is simply an explanatory note on the complications of the date of birth itself and the establishment of the part of the royal Maundy custom which relates to the sovereign’s age.

Henry was almost certainly born on Maundy Thursday 1367. Because it was such an important day in the Christian calendar, he commemorated his birthday on Maundy Thursday, not on the calendar day (15 April). In itself there was nothing unusual in this, for medieval people expressed their birthdays in terms of a saint’s feast day (i.e. Edward II spoke of his birthday as St Mark’s Day, not 25 April, and Edward III spoke of his as St Brice’s Day, not 13 November). What is unusual in Henry’s case was that the feast on which he was born was a moveable one. Thus he celebrated his birthday on a different day each year. This seems very strange to us, but it was not that uncommon in the middles ages; King John even started his regnal year on a different day each year (having been crowned on Ascension Day), with the result that his administrative or financial years were all of different lengths.

As a result of this, it is likely that Henry did not know the calendar date of his birth. If he had asked to know the exact date, he may have been told that no significant saint was celebrated on that day. So there was a good reason to continue celebrating it on Maundy Thursday. In addition, Richard II was very proud of his birth on the Epiphany; so Henry, by drawing attention to the fact that he was born on Maundy Thursday, could demonstrate that Richard was not the only member of the royal family to be so favoured by God. Indeed, by performing the traditional pedilavium (feet-washing) ritual, Henry was able to contrast his own royal humility with Richard’s style of self-interested absolutism.

An interesting by-product of this research has been the identification of the origin of the current Maundy tradition of giving alms according to the sovereign’s age next birthday. Henry himself started this tradition, on Maundy Thursday 1382, which he celebrated as his fifteenth birthday. Previously kings and other members of the royal family had made Maundy Thursday donations to thirteen, fifty or two hundred paupers (thirteen being the number of men present at the Last Supper). But in 1382, when his father gave him the money to make the usual donations of alms to thirteen paupers, Henry added the money to spread his donations among fifteen, the same number as years in his age. In later years he gave money, clothes and shoes, but the number always corresponded with either his age last birthday or his age next birthday. By 1388 the tradition had been taken up by his wife, Mary, who made a donation that year relating to her own age (eighteen), and his sons did likewise. Thus, when Henry V ascended the throne, Maundy Thursday became a sort of ‘official birthday’ for the king. The Yorkist kings dropped this custom, perhaps remembering it as Henry IV’s birthday, but even if its origins had been forgotten, it had already become a potent Lancastrian custom. Henry VII resurrected it shortly after his accession, and there is plenty of evidence that it was being adopted by many Lancastrian sympathisers in the early sixteenth century (following a similar pattern to the wearing of Lancastrian livery collars). The later Tudor monarchs perpetuated the ceremony and added to it, and thus handed it down to modern times.2

It is somewhat ironic that the one royal date of birth which has been unknown to historians for so many years is actually the one still commemorated by the sovereign to this day.

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