Margot Lawrence finds that a study of royal pets offers some splendidly bizarre historical vignettes
Reigning Cats and Dogs: A History of Pets at Court since the Renaissance by Katharine MacDonogh, Fourth Estate £15
4 A NIMALS ARE SUCH agreeable friends,"
wrote George Eliot. "They ask no questions, they pass no criticisms." One might add that they know nothing of the concepts of rank or wealth; and therein, no doubt, lies their charm for royal personages, who from their birth are so often the target of selfseeking flatterers, devious schemers, fawning placemen or would-be usurpers.
We must forgive Katharine MacDonogh the appalling pun in her book's title for the sake of her wide-ranging and meticulous scholarship, which offers fascinating insights into the love that royalty has often lavished on its pets. Queen Victoria, on the day of her coronation, immediately on returning from the Abbey, disrobed from her finery, donned an apron and proceeded to give her dog, Dash, its bath.
The present Queen makes a point of feeding her dogs every day herself and has done so since girlhood. (Well, Louis XIV did the same, says MacDonogh.) Edward VII regularly broke the quarantine laws to take his favourite terrier, Jack, with him on visits to Europe, as did the Duke of Windsor. Jack's successor, a roughhaired terrier called Caesar, lived beside Edward VII day and night and, when the King died in 1911, walked immediately after the gun-carriage in the funeral procession, ahead of mounted emperors, kings and princes, a sight which moved spectators to tears.
Palaces in past eras were often unhappy places where forced dynastic marriages left royal wives so miserable that their dogs were their only consolation, says MacDonogh. Pets "helped reduce the strain of office and filled the vacuum at the heart of monarchy". Empress Elizabeth of Austria adored her dogs and was inconsolable when Shadow, her Irish wolfhound, died. The last words of Frederick the Great were to ask for a quilt to be thrown over the pet dog which lay close to him. Queen Victoria also asked for her dog when on her death-bed.
Earlier, a vital function of pet dogs was to warn of intruders. The life of Edward
VI was saved when in 1549 his uncle Lord Seymour planned to kidnap him and seize power. The King's dog barked furiously; Seymour shot it dead, but the guard had been alerted, and two months later Seymour paid with his own life.
Dogs and cats also acted as food-tasters to royalty at a time when ignorance of the causes of disease often led important people to suspect attempts at poisoning. The deposed Empress Carlotta of Mexico had her pet cat taste all her food before she would touch it.
The unhappy Mary Queen of Scots found consolation in her pet dogs. She brought Maltese from France and kept some all her life. Most touchingly, her last little dog was hidden under her gown at her execution and refused to be parted from her body until forcibly removed. Her grandson, Charles I, took his spaniel with him into imprisonment at Carisbrooke and kept it to the end of his life. Marie Antoinette similarly derived comfort in imprisonment from her little dog, while the Russian Imperial family after 1917 found real solace in their dogs Joy and Jimmy. Poor Jimmy was killed by a rifle butt at the time the Tsar's family was assassinated, but Joy had formed the habit of wandering away into the town of Ekaterinburg, escaped death and after the family's murder lived on locally as a stray.
Amazingly, when Colonel Rodzianko, a Tsarist officer, entered the town with the White army in 1919, he recognised Joy in the street. Called by name, the dog, though by now blind, came to him, and he was later able to bring it with him to England where it lived on well into the 1920s at his home in Windsor.
Touching as such stories are, MacDonogh's theme is rather larger. She deals with attitudes to animals: in the earlier centuries, cats were demonised by the Church, believed to be associated with witchcraft and ritually slaughtered on saints' days. Cardinal Wolsey had a cat, and was accused of having bewitched Henry VIII.
It is related that Pope Clement VII would have been happy to grant Henry his divorce from Catherine of Aragon but for the fact that the English envoy's dog, entering with its master, knocked over a stool upon the Pope's gouty foot. Maddened with pain, Clement threw aside the papers awaiting his signature and refused any further discussion.
Dogs were also sometimes believed to be possessed by the devil. Prince Rupert of the Rhine had a pet poodle, Boy, declared by the Puritans to be a "familiar spirit", who was killed by a Roundhead bullet at Marston Moor in 1644. Princes had long defied the Church and buried their pets with quasi-religious ceremony, but Montaigne was now denounced as a heretic for opposing cruelty to animals and claiming that man and beast were equal in the sight of heaven.
But the cruelty that was tolerated was indeed sickening. Queen Elizabeth I was entertained at Kenilworth with a huge show of bearbaiting by mastiffs, while James I employed the actormanager Edward Alleyn to supervise his bears, bulls and mastiffs in Southwark.
Monarchs exchanged prestigious gifts of hounds and hunting dogs, and those bred in the British Isles were highly regarded. (As early as the days of the Roman Empire, Strabo mentioned Britain as producing "dogs of a superior breed" for the chase.) VICTORIA'S sentimentality to animals, though, says MacDonogh, was "the single most important factor in transforming the British into a nation renowned for kindness to animals, a reputation they never previously enjoyed". The Queen even interfered in the legislation forbidding cruelty, to make sure it was tough enough. It was also royal interest which largely prompted the success of the big dog shows which developed in the 19th century.
There are scores of charming illustrations in Reigning Cats and Dogs. Painters as distinguished as Van Dyck, Gainsborough, Reynolds and Landseer were more than happy to include pet dogs in their royal portraits. Landseer also painted Daechel, a dachsund and champion ratter owned by Victoria for 15 years; another of the Queen's dogs painted on its own was the Pekinese Looty, so called because it had been looted from the Summer Palace in Peking and presented to the Queen by an army officer. As for Velazquez's rendition of the Infante of Spain, and Gainsborough's of Queen Charlotte with her spaniel, they are splendid illustrations of the fact that even royal owners grow to look like their dogs.