Tuesday, April 3, 2012

For Contrast: Two Royal Attitudes to Washing the Feet of the Poor

King Philip II of Spain washed the feet of the poor every Holy Thursday. Painting by a follower of Alonso Sanchez Coello.

In February, he returned to Castile, arriving in time to observe Holy Week at San Lorenzo, and to wash the feet of the poor on Holy Thursday “with his usual great tenderness and humility.” On Good Friday he adored the wood of the True Cross and pardoned several men who had been condemned to death, bowing down to adore “the sacred wood where our Redemption was accomplished, and begging the King of Kings Who placed Himself there for our good, to pardon him his sins, as he forgave those deaths.” Then he confessed. On Easter Sunday he received Holy Communion with great devotion, and gained the plenary indulgence granted by Pope Gregory XIII. He then went back to Madrid to attend to his ordinary business.

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Maundy Thursday Royal washing of beggars feet

So Elizabeth continued, every Maundy Thursday, to wash the feet of beggars, as her sister had done. It was symbolic of that shriveling of the Catholic spirit under the outer husk of the new political Church of England that she disdained to touch the feet of the poor wretches until they had first been scrubbed with hot water and soap and well sprinkled with sweet-smelling herbs by yeomen of the laundry. Philip II continued to abase himself before the common human clay, as Christ had done. So long as Spain had kings, there would be such reminders of the unchanging truth of Christianity. The kings of England would end by not washing the feet at all, dolling out a few coins instead. It was only an imaginary Christianity, a travesty, that Elizabeth clung to, half-despisingly.

William Thomas Walsh, Philip II (Rockford, Ill.: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1987), pp.  615, 295.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 165

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