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Welcome to Episode 153 of That Shakespeare Life, the show that takes you behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare.

In Henry IV Part II, Shakespeare writes the earliest known reference to a Galloway Nag when Pistol he says “Know we not Galloway Nags?” That comes from Act II Scene 4. If you are not a 16th century Scotsman, however, the assumption that you know what a galloway nag is, or what it is suitable for Pistol in that scene, may not be as obvious as the character suggests. Turns out, in the 16th century, a Galloway nag was a highly reputable horse from the Galloway region of Scotland. The term “galloway nag” is still used in parts of Scotland, England, and Australia to describe a horse of smaller stature that is fast, reliable, and what we call an “easy keeper” here in the US. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, the galloway nag was a source of contention between England and Scotland, who would not be united until the coronation of James I in 1603. As our guest this week writes about in her publication From North to South: the Galloway Nag as an Elite Gift in the 16 th Century, prior to the unification of England and Scotland, Border laws were enacted under Henry VII and again under Henry VIII, to try and stop the trade of horses entirely. By the time James comes to the throne when Shakespeare was 39 years old, the galloway nag is sought after all along the Irish Sea, as well as into the islands and coasts of Scotland, and down into the coast of Cumbria with a strong reputation as a highly valuable, reliable, and trustworthy steed that people were going to get their hands on, regardless of what the law said! Here today to share her research into the Galloway Nag and to present evidence of a reference to Galloway nags that predates Shakespeare’s use of it in Henry IV part II, is our guest, Miriam Bibby.

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Miriam A. Bibby gained her BA Joint Honours degree in Archaeology and Geography, specialising in British prehistory, at the University of Nottingham. Obtaining her MPhil in 2000 on the topic of the Horse in Ancient Egypt, that year Miriam also founded Ancient Egypt Magazine, and edited the magazine for four years. She has curated and worked on various museum projects with the Manchester Museum, the Clan Armstrong Trust Museum, Beamish Museum and Gilnockie Tower. She has also worked in heritage management, being responsible for the delivery of two historic trails in south west Scotland, the Eskdale Prehistoric Trail and the Border Reiver Trail. Her work has been published in numerous journals and magazines and she has presented at many conferences and day schools. She is former editor of the equestrian magazine Hoofprint and was involved at senior regional level in endurance riding in the 1980s. She is currently completing her PhD at the University of Glasgow on the influence of the Galloway horse, and is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Miriam is co-editor of the newly launched international journal Cheiron, which focuses on equine and equestrian history:


In this episode, I’ll be asking Miriam A. Bibby about:

  • Miriam, please describe the physical appearance of a galloway nag for us.
  • Were Galloway nags illegal to have in England prior to James I taking the throne?
  • As James I was trying to unify England and Scotland under the banner of “British” there was significant resistance on all sides. Miriam writes that “Between the two nations was the border, which was viewed by the elite in a similar way to the region of Galloway, as a remote, mostly upland area, a place on the margins of civility.“ Miriam, if Galloway as a location was viewed with, let’s say skepticism, in terms of the value they produced, why was the Galloway nag given this reputation for being so highly prized?

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    Quote: Thrust him down stairs! Know we not Galloway nags?


    Henry IV Part II (II.4)

    witch feeding familiars 1604

    “Galloway Pony” | sculpture by Stephen Charnock | 2008 | Part of the Irwell Sculpture Trail | Clifton Country Park | Image used under CCBYA2.0

    Nag is a Scottish Term for Horse

    The word “nag” comes from Scotland and the attribution of the word nag to a horse has a different etymology from the term we think of to mean “annoy” or “bother.” Instead, the term “nag” just means “horse” in Scots. Miriam explains,

    In Scotland they have different terms [for horses]. Pownie (form of pony), Sheltie, for both a pony and a Shetland pony, and simply “horse” or “nag” and did not specifically call [a horse by the name] Galloway nag. [Nag is] not a rude term, it’s just a term for a horse. Galloway nag means an exceptionally good kind of horse….where I come from, in Newcastle, [ they have a phrase] “That’s a canny gallower” it means its a really nice horse. 

    The physical appearance of a Galloway nag was similar to a small pony in stature, but they were very stocky and quite sturdy. Miriam describes them this way:

    [Galloway nags were] technically extinct before photography [so there are no pictures of Galloway nags today] Closest relative [are the] Dales ponies of Northern England and the Highland ponies of Scotland. [There is] little evidence in terms of skeletal remains, nothing in museums or drawings, [but there is one] description from the 19th century [that describes them pretty well]. 

    A horse between thirteen and fourteen hands in height is called a GALLOWAY, from a beautiful breed of little horses once found in the south of Scotland, on the shore of the Solway Firth, but now sadly degenerated, and almost lost, through the attempts of the farmer to obtain a larger kind, and better adapted for the purposes of agriculture. There is a tradition in that country, that the breed is of Spanish extraction, some horses having escaped from one of the vessels of the Grand Armada, that was wrecked on the neighbouring coast. This district, however, so early as the time of Edward I, supplied that monarch with a great number of horses. The pure galloway was said to be nearly fourteen hands high, and sometimes more; of a bright bay, or brown, with black legs, small head and neck, and peculiarly deep and clean legs. Its qualities were speed, stoutness, and sure footedness over a very rugged and mountainous country.” – from William Youhatt, 1831 

    Miriam points out, importantly, that not all of this description is accurate, however, pointing out that,

    [There were] no horses on the ships of the Spanish Armada. There were pack animals and mules, most lost overboard in the storm. By the 19th century, ROmantic beautiful horse. They have significantly known for speed and endurance. Easy keeper. Inexpensive. 

    Yea, but ’tis like that they will know us by our

    horses, by our habits and by every other

    appointment, to be ourselves.

    Henry V

    Henry IV Part I (I.2)

    william strachey mermaid tavern group

    Image used under CCBYA4.0

    Galloway Nags Were Technically Illegal under James I

    Galloway nags were considered illegal before the unification of England and Scotland. Miriam explains that this law about importing Galloway nags was not specific to Galloway, but extended to all horses crossing the borders of England.

    Dates back to Edward I trying to conquer Scotland, on the border between England and Scotland border laws specific to that area. It was a thorn in Edward’s side, because he was annoyed there was a section of England that didn’t follow England laws. Passed legislation to try and stop horses being imported either way. Laws particularly interested in Shakespeare’s day start around 1495 under Henry VII banned export of any horses from England into anywhere else without a special license from the King. H8 brought in a new law in 1530, law not working because horses going everywhere. Stronger law, can’t take horses into Scotland. Finally repealed in James’ day, but only after he’d united Scotland and England about 3 years after his coronation. Practically legally it was not legal, but in actuality, there was a great deal of trading going on. 

    As James I was trying to unify England and Scotland under the banner of “British” there was significant resistance on all sides. Miriam writes that “Between the two nations
    was the border, which was viewed by the elite in a similar way to the region of Galloway, as a
    remote, mostly upland area, a place on the margins of civility.“ Despite the region’s reputation for incivility, the Galloway nag was known far and wide as a gentleman’s steed. Miriam explains,

    Galloway nag was a quality horse, but references to it shows up as humor. Comes back to Galloway knowing horses and knowing what makes a good horse. True for Britain and throughout Europe, there were semi feral horses throughout Europe. Definitely to Medieval times but we don’t know so much about it. Local resources, run freely, people would grab one and use it when they needed a horse. They would be improved by stallions that were owned by local monasteries, local aristocracy, and breed these stallions with wild horses to create the kind of horse they wanted. Medieval horse breeding was extremely practical. Called after what they did. Destriers, a KNight’s horse, etc Concept of breeds only comes in much later on. Galloway like Upland in Wales, Exmoor, Dartmoor, there were semi feral herds of breeds, and they are still there in England today as a resource. Galloway was one of those places, but they’ve gone extinct there now. Not only did they go out of fashion, but a lot of them were used in creating the Clydesdale breed. Bred to larger stallions and at one time called a galloway clydesdale. Some of the people who took care of horses would have lived a feral existence themselves. The horses could be sold on to aristocratic agents and only when they are into these households that we have records of them because that’s when they get names and inventoried. 

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    Go thy ways: let my horses be well

    looked to, without any tricks.

    La Feu

    Alls Well That Ends Well, (IV.5)

    Southampton portrait wriothesley

    Horses near Darsalloch, Kells, Kirkcudbrightshire | Sept 30, 2011 | Taken by Bob Peace | Image used under CCBYA2.0

    The WS on Locrine isn’t Shakespeare

    Miriam writes about the earliest reference to the galloway nag being the reference Pistol uses in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II but points out that one other contemporary to Shakespeare, Thomas Dekker also tells us about the cultural place of the galloway nag when she says “Thomas Dekker’s satirical “how-to” manual for the young London blade,

    The Gull’s Hornbook, published in 1609,…recommends the Galloway nag as a mount for a fashionable young man.” When it comes to questioning whether including the Galloway nag in a satirical book meant that Dekker was serious in his recommendation, Miriam quickly confirms:

    [He is] absolutely serious about the quality of the galloway nag, but his work is a satirical hornbook. Hornbook was a religious book in a frame with very thin horn put in front of it (equivalent of glass) right from the start, he’s playing around with words here. The Gull’s Hornbook was about “gulling” which was tricking someone, confidence trick to talk someone out of tricking someone out of money. [Cassidy Note: I believe this is where we get the term “gullible” today for someone who is easy to trick.] The book’s title tells you that’s tricking you. These tricks are alive and well today, updated for the internet. A young man “where to go, what to wear, what to do, how to do it, who to be seen with” easily upgraded for the 21 st century, [only with] cars in place of horses.

    Miriam quotes the Gull Hornbook’s description: 

    First, having diligently inquired out an ordinary of the largest reckoning, whither most of your courtly gallants do resort, let it be your use to repair thither some half hour after eleven; for then you shall find most of your fashion-mongers planted in the room waiting for meat. Ride thither upon your Galloway nag, or your Spanish jennet, a swift ambling pace, in your hose and doublet (gilt rapier and poniard bestowed in their places), and your French lackey carrying your cloak, and running before you; or rather in a coach, for that will both hide you from the basilisk eyes of your creditors, and outrun a whole kennel of bitter-mouthed sergeants. – from Thomas Dekker’s Gull’s Hornbook, 1609 


    Galloway nags must have had a serious reputation for speed as well as reliability, because it was a Galloway mare that founded the modern Thoroughbred. Miriam explains, 

    Very early records of racing, prior to the foundation of the Thoroughbred, galloway racing was very popular….[the] whole organized form of racing started earlier than that. Matches between horses, different heats, winner gets a silver or gold bell/plate. The Galloway was being used right into the foundation of the general stud book in the 18-19th centuries but we don’t know for sure what that means genetically. We do know they were fast and used for racing [and we know that] the speed gene [in a modern thoroughbred] came from a galloway mare.” 

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    A Dales Pony on the fells in England | Darren Copley | Image used under CCBYA2.0

    Galloway Nag Connected to Shakespeare

    General scholarship considered the earliest reference to the Galloway nag to be from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II. However, Miriam’s work suggests that that conclusion may have been arrived at, in part, because the Scottish side of the history of Galloway Nags has gone overlooked. In her work, she cited specifically the correspondence between Patrick Adamson, Archbishop of St. Andrews, Scotland and John Whitgift, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1583. In this correspondence, she finds a reference to Galloway nags which predates the reference by Shakespeare. 


    Both of these men are episcopalian bishops, in conversation trying to create a relationship between England and Scotland that will endure through Elizabethan and afterwards. Adamson comes down from Scotland riding an ambling nag, spends time with Whitgif, owns lots of horses and rides in and out of places on a huge train of horses. Adamson gives his horse away and borrows one from Whitgif, and offers to send him a better one, a GAlloway nag. Offers a Galloway nag to Walsigham, one of the most important men in England. Galloway nag was an elite gift.


    In 1599, The Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, and the Bishop of London, Richard Bancroft, would issue a ban on all satire in England that impacted the theater industry at the time. This same John Whitgift is the man who signed the marriage license for William Shakespeare to marry his wife, then Anne Whatley of Temple Grafton. The written correspondence between Whitgift and Adamson included a discussion of Galloway nags, and may have a personal connection for Shakespeare. Miriam shares that Shakespeare’s reference to Galloway nags might be an industry joke among himself and his contemporaries about the ban on satire. 


    It is an in-joke because it shows up in Dekker and in Jonson as well. These little clusters of Galloway nag references in the plays, are satirical comments. There is a little injoke going on between this group of playwrights who all knew each other, fell in and out with one another, and this reference has an injoke and a meaning for them. 

    Books & Resources Miriam Bibby Recommends

    Miriam Bibby’s Papers on Galloway nag:

    From North to South: the Galloway Nag as an Elite Gift in the 16 th Century

    How northern was Pistol? The Galloway nag as self-identity and satire in an age of supra-national horse trading

    Cheiron: The International Journal of Equine and Equestrian History

    The (Galloway) Horse and His Boy: Le Roman Des Aventures De Fregus and “The Best Breed in the North”?

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