Monday, August 26, 2013

Dogs: Royal, Common and Uncommon

by Katherine Ashe


“I am His Majesty’s Dog at Kew. Pray, tell me Sir, whose dog are you?” The Hanoverians, like many kings, were fond of their dogs and fond of a jest; the poet Alexander Pope proposed this inscription for one of their royal dog’s collars.

Both King Charles I and II had a weakness for little spaniels, with two modern breeds named for them. Spaniel breeds range from thirty pounds to two pounds, with long noses or noses reduced to mere buttons shorter than the jaws and sunk between the eyes. No creature bred by mankind shows more variety of form than the dog; goldfish are probably the closest runners-up.

Mary Queen of Scots found solace in her many dogs and had them about her even when she was imprisoned. Unwilling to be parted from them, when they died she had them stuffed.

The king perhaps most obsessed with dogs was Henri III of France. His passion for toy spaniels was such that his subjects took to hiding their pets lest he see and confiscate them for his ever growing court of canines. The breed now called Papillon, of the strain distinguished as Phalene, was his particular obsession. Papillons were so thoroughly associated with the Court that during the French Revolution there were little guillotines for little pups and the lineage was nearly annihilated. At least in France.

One characteristic of the dog does seem to date from the time of the Revolution: the Phalene was the proper form with drooping ears heavily fringed with silky hair. After the Revolution the ears became erect, the profuse, hanging hair forming the broad headdress that gives the breed its modern name, Papillon, as its head seems framed with butterfly wings.

The Papillon is tiny, properly two to seven pounds, and will sit silently for hours on m’lady’s lap but, set down, becomes gallantly playful, with a high-held head and high stepping action that mimics the gait of the most noble horse. The breed can be traced back at least to the 1500s and was as popular in Spain as in France. In appearance the modern short-haired Chihuahua seems a blend of the stocky yellow dog depicted in Central American artifacts and the much lighter bodied Papillon. And the long-haired Chihuahua is practically indistinguishable from the Papillon. It would seem the darling of Europe’s courtiers must have been carried by Spanish officials to the New World.

Of course, long prior to the 1500s there were tiny dogs favored by high-born ladies. Carved in stone on tombs, the portraits of medieval dead often include a small, pug-like dog curled under the deceased’s feet, giving rise to questions: did the dog die of a broken heart? Was it buried with its mistress in a sort of canine sutee? Or is the image merely figurative, a sentimental reference to loyalty, as in the painting John Ruskin so praised, “The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner,” the mourner being a grief-stricken Collie.

But for the real antiquity of tiny pups we must look to the Maltese. While he can be seen in medieval tapestries (note the little dog about to be crushed by the rearing unicorn), he’s far more ancient. The earliest depiction of the breed is on an amphora dating to about 500 B.C., and the little fellow is described there as Melitaei. Hence he’s believed to have come from the islands of Malta or Miletus. Or was that his name, derived from the Greek word for honey — very apt for the breed’s disposition? It’s Strabo, writing in the First Century A.D., who opts for Malta, actually a bit late in the breed’s history, so we may never know.

Aristocrats, certainly by the 16th century in Europe, bought their little pets from dog trainers who presented their offerings at m’lady’s levee. It was then in the day’s schedule that petitioners and salesmen were allowed into a lady’s presence as she dressed and her hair was arranged — a time-consuming process well paired with other practical activity. The dogs were offered fully trained so there would be no danger to the carpets or the legs of fine furniture. Collars studded with real jewels, and tasseled satin cushions or miniature tented pavilions enabled the pup to flaunt his wealth and high position, a mirror of his mistress. Costumes too were not uncommon, with little skirts and ruffles.

While the ladies, and many gentlemen, favored tiny dogs, the hunting dog was the most numerous of canine breeds in aristocratic circles.

King Henry II of France bred a variety of hound that was all white and extraordinary for beauty as well as coursing skills. While his dogs no doubt were derived from earlier French lines, the Talbot was quite different, though also a white hound used for hunting through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Depicted in the dining room at Haddon Hall in the 1400s, to commemorate the marriage of Sir Henry Vernon to Ann Talbot, the dog has a shorter snout that most hounds. There are some efforts to recreate this extinct breed.

Most hounds that ran, coursing game as swift as deer and flying far ahead of the huntsmen’s horses, were large and long of leg. The modern English hound raised for the hunt is tall and rangy, unlike the familiar Beagle used for hunting smaller game on foot. Once, when I was living in New Jersey, the Essex Hounds came streaming around our house in full cry. They were surprisingly big; one doesn’t want to be in their way. Those handsome hunt prints are of tall men on tall horses with tall dogs.

Coursing hounds usually live their lives in kennels, bonding with the members of their pack and their trainer, and they are not pets. But there certainly were exceptions. George Washington kept some of his coursing hounds around him whenever he was at home, feeding his favorite bitch, Sweet Lips, from his own plate at the dinner table.

But before the sleek, spotted white hound of the hunting prints, there was the Allaunt, a large, fierce beast that could hurl himself at stag or boar. The lordly household of the 13th century was incomplete without its Allaunts, and Eleanor de Montfort, Countess of Leicester, in her account roll surviving from the year 1265 makes monetary allowance for her own Allaunts and their keeper.

The rough coated medieval Allaunt looks something like a Schnauzer who’s drunk Alice’s enlarging potion, and its nearest surviving relatives may be the Irish Wolfhounds and Scottish Deerhounds. When I was young and living in New York and had my first dog, a Basset Hound, I used to meet another young woman walking her pup, a scruffy gray fellow who had a certain raggedy charm. In a few months my friend was to be seen flying down the street behind a romping whiskery animal the size of a pony. She had no idea when she bought her pup just how big an Irish Wolfhound would be.

There was also in medieval times the smooth-coated Allaunt, and this breed has been reconstructed as the American Allaunt, somewhat like a Great Dane with a more Mastiff-like head.

Not all aristocratic dog were tiny or were hunters. Notably there was the dog King Louis XIV called “the gentleman in the fur coat.” A Great Pyrenees. This breed, brought to Gaul and the Pyrenees by Roman legions, is descended from the Italian Maremma, also a giant breed. All white, or with a slight pastel spotting of brown, the Great Pyrenees has a very thick double coat — good protection on snowy mountain tops, and from wolves’ claws and teeth.

For hundreds of years the Great Pyrenees has guarded sheep, and it was to guard our sheep that I acquired one some years ago to protect against Eastern Coyotes. (Our local coyotes are a new wild breed of canine believed to be a blend of Western Coyote, Canadian Timber Wolf and assorted domestic dogs. In appearance they look like ill-bred German Shepherds, but they practice choruses of howling like any other coyotes.)

Our Pyrenees, Thibaut, with a bark that was basso profundo, kept the coyotes away solely by the impressiveness of his voice. He took his sheep guarding seriously. But when the sheep were safely in the barn for the night, he and I would dance a waltz, his forefeet gently placed on my shoulders and his head reaching seven feet high. When he rode in our station wagon for his yearned-for visits to the ice cream shop his hind feet were on the back seat, his forefeet on the front seat and his head up against the windshield.

Aristocrats and royalty, as well as common folk like me, continue to be dog lovers. The hunt has dwindled as the sport par excellence, but the comforting pet remains a mainstay. Charles de Gaulle is quoted as saying “The better I know men the more I love dogs.” Queen Elizabeth II, when at leisure, can be seen ankle-deep in Corgies. Her Majesty has had them always, since she was a child.


Those burdened with power and position may well find relief in the companionship of dogs for, from the dog’s point of view, life is simple: love and loyalty are what really count.

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Katherine Ashe is the author of the acclaimed four volume Montfort series on the life of Simon de Montfort, the founder of England's Parliament in 1258. Montfort is available in soft cover and Kindle e-book format from Amazon. Her animal population, formerly including horses, sheep, goats, geese, peacocks, and of course dogs, in now reduced to just three dogs, three cats and two Koi.












1 comment:

  1. Great post, Katharine. Unless I miss my guess, the large standing dog is a Leonberger. Though I have a preference for Great Danes, I can see how having one around expensive materials would not work well. Tweeted and shared.

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