Cavalier King Charles Spaniels Breed Column
AKC Gazette - December, 2000

The history of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is inextricably bound to the life of its benefactor, Great Britain's King Charles II. The breed's name alone reminds us of the deep and abiding affection the 17th-century "Merry Monarch" had for our little spaniels. Held in such high royal favor, the dogs were frequently included in portraiture and mentioned in the writings of the time.

Early evidence of the family affinity for the breed is Van Dyck's painting of Charles and his siblings as youngsters. They are flanked by two leggy but elegant spaniels with flat skulls, round eyes, long noses and high-set ears. The spaniels appear to be of sporting and sturdy frame. It is possible that the young children received the dogs as gifts from their father, Charles I, who was also a great fancier of the breed.

Charles I's black and white spaniel, Rogue, was with him at his execution in 1649 and was actually stolen by the enemy and auctioned as a great prize. Charles I was killed when his son, Charles II, was just a boy. From the age of 9, Charles II was treated as ruler of a troubled and divided realm, even when it seemed there was little left to rule. He was in exile for many years and returned in 1660 after Oliver Cromwell's defeat to reclaim the throne.

As a king, Charles II's talent lay in calming and charming the various warring religious factions, luring their financial and military support while never actually promising his own allegiance in return. The little spaniels must have been sweet solace and a welcome distraction to a young man with the responsibility of so much political juggling.

Samuel Pepys, the diarist, wrote of the good yet sometimes flamboyant king "playing with his dogs all the while, and not minding his business." Royal writer John Evelyn further noted in 1685: "He took great delight in having a number of little spaniels follow him and lie in his bedchamber, where he often suffer'd the bitches to puppy and give suck, which render'd it very offensive, and indeed made the whole Court nasty and stinking."

From all indications, these litters whelped by Charles II probably contained the same variation in type that persists today. Plausible conjecture suggests that the larger, sturdier spaniels with nose to hunt with were the ones chosen to go to battle and on long royal missions with Charles. Their heartiness suited them well for the long rides in smoky carriages or even for running behind the horses as the troops faced lack of food or comfort. Many of the dogs often sailed with Charles on his ship The Royal Charles and, according to reports, none were housebroken.

The smaller, finer-boned dogs with Papillon-type heads were probably presented to ladies of the court. These dogs are the silky eared, beribboned little jewels that we see depicted on silk cushions and in the laps of the royal family. In a painting circa 1665, Charles II's beloved sister, Henrietta, is shown with her long, tapering fingers caressing an impossibly tiny spaniel. This canine accessory gives her a look of delicacy that otherwise would be lacking for the girl who some described as plain. Henrietta kept a number of the very small spaniels and, upon her death, her lady-in-waiting returned them to her brother's court.

During his years in exile, Charles II depended upon his relatives, his wits, and past royalists to provide for him. During this time, he was only able to bring a few of his precious spaniels with him, and I am sure they were not always greeted with the welcome that they enjoyed on their home turf. Little did his hosts realize the great comfort that he took from having the dogs by him during the gravest of times.

- John D. Gammon, AKC Parent Club President & Gazette Breed Columnist

 

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