King Charles Cavalier Spaniels
The little spaniel that was to become known as the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel was popular with English royalty for centuries, but it was not until King Charles I that they became an integral part of royal family life. Charles I was devoted to Cavaliers and expressed “a deep affection for the exquisite qualities of the dogs”. This charming portrait of a very young Charles II with one on his lap suggests that son might follow father in complete devotion to the breed. And indeed he did.
Imagine the life of a youthful Charles: After living the life of an heir to the throne of England for eighteen years, he was sent to France for safety at the outbreak of the English civil war. Forced to live in relative poverty in a foreign country for a number of years and traumatized by the beheading of his father, King Charles I (who had remained in England), one can only imagine how Charles’s spaniels brought comfort and solace. The dogs were his constant companions, and would have brought a sense of continuity and cheer to a young man living in exile, in tumultuous and often dangerous times.
Charles was particularly fond of his older sister, Henrietta Maria, known as “Minette”, who had lived in France for many years as wife of the brother of the French king, Louis XIV. A gracious and cultured person, Minette adored her Cavaliers. It may safely be assumed the spaniels Charles had while in France were sisterly gifts to her lonely brother.
After the British monarchy was restored, Charles returned to England to be crowned King Charles II. Shortly afterwards, Minette suddenly and unexpectedly died. Charles made arrangements to have all her Cavaliers transported to England, and again, one can only imagine his feelings as he held the dogs his beloved sister had treasured so much. Minette’s spaniels joined those Charles had brought back from France, and the royal palaces rang with joyful barking and the general unruliness that go with a group of gregarious, affectionate Cavaliers.
The dogs went everywhere Charles went-by the dozen; to court, council rooms, royal bedchambers and even to church. Legend reveals how Cavaliers were allowed, by Charles’s royal decree, to enter any court of law unchallenged. The fact that he “might be seen before the dew was off the grass in St. James’ Park, striding through the trees, playing with his spaniels and flinging corn to his ducks”, also endeared Charles greatly to his subjects, who referred to him affectionately as “The Merrie Monarch”.
To some, however, the coddling of Charles numerous dogs became a symbol of the royal inanity, and ridicule often ensued. Samuel Pepyes roasted Charles and his court regularly in his journals, and nothing seemed to irk the man more than the King’s ubiquitous pets and the distractions they caused. “All I observed was the silliness of the King playing with his dogs all the while, and not minding his business”. Another diarist, John Evelyn, joined the chorus of grumbles, also focusing on Charles and his companions: “The King took delight in having a number of little spaniels follow him and lie in his bedchamber, which rendered it offensive, and indeed, the whole court was nasty and stinking”.
For the besieged Charles, living in a world swirling with murder and treachery, his dogs became an oasis in an ever-increasing desert of duplicity. In gratitude, they were rewarded with the kind of unrestrained pampering only a king could offer. Coiffed by the royal hairdressers and bedecked in collars of silk ribbon, precious metals or gold embroidered velvet, they had the run of all royal properties. Their diet included dove breast, venison and grain-fattened beef. While such “excesses” may have seemed decadent to some, to Charles they were simply his dogs’ birthright.
Despite the showiness of Charles attention to his pets, to conclude his affection was shallow or silly would be quite wrong. A great many reports exist to this day of the deep-rooted devotion Charles had for his Cavaliers.
Even as he lay on his deathbed, he sought the comfort only they could give. The King bristled when the dogs were removed from his death-chamber, and with nearly his last breath, demanded they be returned to his side, to be with him in his final moments.