Galley-foists, Lord Mayors' Shows, and Early Modern English Drama


  • David Carnegie Victoria University of Wellington



This paper argues that the OED’s mistaken definition of a ‘galley-foist’ as ‘a stage barge, esp. that of the lord mayor of London’ has significantly misled readers, editors of Jonson and other early modern drama, and writers on London civic pageantry. Evidence from chronicles, eyewitness accounts, livery company records, and the pictorial record demonstrates that the galley-foist was indeed a central feature of lord mayor's show in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but despite what early lexicographers say, it was not the light, elegant row-barge in which the new lord mayor was carried by water to take his oath at Westminster each year. It was, rather, his armed escort: a small square-rigged ship (unusual above London Bridge), painted and highly decorated with coats of arms, flags, pennons, and ribbons, and full of noise from trumpets, drums, musketeers, fireworks, and cannon. If we understand its role and characteristics, a number of passages from early modern drama become more comprehensible, depending as they do on the reader’s or spectator’s understanding of the galley-foist as the spectacular centrepiece of the entire lord mayor’s show, as a mocking reference to a vessel (or, figuratively, a person) of diminutive size or armament, or as satirical reference to elaborately painted or beribboned women.