Public performances of blackness: The ‘King of Moors’ pageant in the 1616 Lord Mayor’s Show

Lord Mayor's Show pageant
Colored plate by Henry Shaw (1844), based on a seventeenth-century manuscript drawing of a pageant used in the 1616 Lord Mayor’s Show. [Call # DA681 .N4 (flat)]. Photograph by Maria Shmygol, from the Folger Shakespeare Library collection.
The performance of blackness and racial difference on the professional stage is well documented in scholarship on early modern drama (Hall, Loomba, and Vaughan). Elizabethan and Jacobean theatergoers encountered ‘Moor’ figures in plays such as Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice, to name a few. However, it was also possible to see blackness performed beyond the playhouse stage, publicly on the streets of London.

Emblematic representations of Moors frequently featured in the annual Lord Mayor’s Day festivities, which celebrated the inauguration of the new mayor-elect of London every October, with processions on the river Thames and in the City of London (Barthelemy, chapter 3). The mayoral shows were put on by the livery company (that is, trade association or guild) from whose ranks the mayor was elected. The poetic and dramatic content of these shows was devised by dramatists such as Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Middleton, and Anthony Munday, working in collaboration with craftsmen who created pageant devices that would feature in the processions. The earliest surviving printed account of a mayoral show from 1585 indicates that a Moor pageant was performed by an actor in blackface, and other such pageant devices and dark-skinned personages (variously described as ‘Moors’ and ‘black Indians’) featured in subsequent mayoral inauguration celebrations, such as: Munday’s 1602 show (no printed text survives), Chruso-Thriambos (1611), Chrysanaleia (1616), The Triumphs of the Golden Fleece (1623), Middleton’s The Triumphs of Truth (1613), The Tryumphs of Honor and Industry (1617), Triumphs of Honour and Virtue (1622), John Squire’s Tes Irenes Tropaea (1620), and John Webster’s Monuments of Honour (1624).

Much of what we know about the content of these shows comes from surviving printed textual accounts (normally prepared by the dramatist in charge of organizing the event) as well as company records and accounts detailing expenses associated with preparations for the event. Contemporary eye-witness accounts offer valuable insights into particular shows, but these are relatively scarce. Pictorial representations of the pageant devices used in the shows are also much rarer in comparison to the relative wealth of textual material. Fortunately, a detailed set of contemporary drawings for the pageant devices used in the Fishmongers’ 1616 mayoral show are preserved in a set of twelve coloured manuscript drawings in the company’s archives. These rare manuscript illustrations were copied by the antiquarian Henry Shaw into two sets of plates (colored and uncolored) for publication in John Gough Nichols’s The Fishmongers’ Pageant, on Lord Mayor’s Day, 1616: Chrysanaleia, the Golden Fishing, devised by Anthony Munday; represented in twelve plates by Henry Shaw (London, 1844). Nichols’s book is now itself somewhat of a rare item and not widely available at university libraries, so I was delighted to be able to consult the Folger Shakespeare Library’s copy of it in 2019.

Black and white version of Shaw’s plate of the ‘King of Moors’ pageant. [Call # DA681 .N4 (flat)]. Photograph by Maria Shmygol, from the collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
One of the pageant devices used in the 1616 show was the ‘King of Moors’:

Then commeth the King of Moores, gallantly mounted on a golden Leopard, he hurling gold and siluer euery way about him. Before, on either side, and behinde him, ride sixe other his tributarie Kings on horse-backe, gorgeously attired in faire guilt Armours, and apt furniture thereto belonging. They carry Ingots of golde and siluer, and each one his dart, and in this order they attend on him: shewing thereby, that the Fishmongers are not unmindfull of their combined brethren, the worthy Company of Golde-Smithes, in this solemne day of triumph. (Chrysanaleia, sig. B1v)

Shaw’s copy of the original drawing largely confirms this description, depicting an actor riding atop a leopard (an allusion to the leopard’s heads that featured on the Goldsmiths’ coat of arms). It is likely that the original manuscript drawings were anticipatory, drafted as an idealized conception of the pageant’s design before the event took place, since the handwritten annotation above the drawing notes that the tributary figures were on horseback, not on foot. Nevertheless, the illustration offers a fascinating glimpse into how this pageant device might have looked, and preserves a valuable visual trace of a public performance of blackness in early modern London. The ‘Moor’ figures in this pageant were undoubtedly performed in blackface, either by means of cosmetic tinting of the skin or through the use of cloth masks, stockings, and gloves (see Smith).

The emblematic device of the ‘King of Moors’ alludes to the coat of arms and the materials that lie at the heart of the Goldsmiths’ trade, but it also speaks more widely to contemporary fantasies of international trade by conflating the exoticized foreign figures and the free-flowing supply of precious metals that they willingly distribute. Acts of munificence, whereby the fruits of trade and labor of the trading companies were distributed to onlookers from pageant devices, were a typical feature of mayoral shows. They served as a material and visually powerful means of idealizing and imaginatively projecting the economic ambitions and power of London’s livery companies. Yet the racial dynamics of the ‘King of Moors’ pageant problematize this emblematic act of munificence, since the pageant serves to construct an artificial vision of blackness—literally, through blackface—which enacts in imaginative terms the desire to have foreign powers, bodies, and wealth freely and unreservedly serving the needs and interests of London’s economic institutions. The verse speech addressed to the Mayor Elect verbally reinforces the apparent material generosity of the King:

The King of Moores thus mounted, and his traine,
Shewes your affection to that Company [i.e. the Goldsmiths],
Which league with you in loue, and doth containe
On either side, to hold inseperably.
His Indian treasure liberally is throwne:
To make his bounteous heart the better knowne. (Chrysanaleia, sig. C2v)

While the term ‘Moor’ was frequently invoked in relation to black Africans (as well as Arab or Berber North Africans) in the period, contemporary usage also encompassed many other non-white peoples, as is the case with descriptions of non-white personages in other shows that conflate ‘Indian’, ‘black Indian’ and ‘Moor’. Here, the 1616 pageant likewise associates the figure of the Moor with India, whereby his ‘Indian treasure’ aligns the pageant device more specifically with the interests and aspirations of the East India Company, for which the Mayor Elect, John Leman, held joint stocks.

The 1616 ‘King of Moors’ pageant is but one example of a much larger body of pageant devices that staged racial difference publicly on the streets of London, co-opting depictions of blackness for the purposes of celebrating the endeavors and values of London’s trading companies. It illustrates how the conventions of the Lord Mayors’ Shows, with their emphasis on harmony and unity, necessitate a different sort of dramatic configuration of the Moor than the villainous stock types found on the playhouse stage, privileging fantasies of willing cooperation, pliability, and amiability to be exploited for national economic interests.

This blog post belongs to a series with Medieval and Early Modern Orients (MEMOs). For citations and bibliography, please see the full version of this post on the MEMOs blog.