Known for her love of animals, the Queen held a special place in her heart for one breed in particular: Corgis. Penny Junor explores Her Majesty's relationship with her wonderful dogs.
The Queen’s love of dogs was legendary. And hardly surprising. Monarchs of the past have all been great dog lovers. Queen Victoria had more than a hundred dogs during her life, and 28 different breeds. She started the fashion of keeping dogs as pets in the house - as opposed to keeping them kennelled to hunt or work.
Queen Alexandra, Edward VII’s wife, had even more and was a great exhibitor at Crufts. And so on down the generations.
But, what was surprising, was Queen Elizabeth II’s loyalty to a single breed. She fell in love with Corgis at the age of seven and that love never wavered in nearly ninety years.
As a child, before the abdication of Edward VIII, the York family lived at 145 Piccadilly and Elizabeth and Margaret would play with the neighbour’s children who had a Corgi. The princesses found this little dog was so much more fun than the family’s own collection of breeds, and so Elizabeth begged her father to buy one. A breeder duly arrived at the house with three puppies for the family to choose from. They chose the only one that had a stump of a tail. "We must have the one that has something to wag," announced the Duchess, "otherwise, how are we going to know whether he’s pleased or not?"
And so, Dookie came into their lives. Although he was prone to nipping family and strangers alike, he won the future Queen's heart and it was the start of a lifelong love affair with the breed. Meanwhile, photographs in the press of the Princess with Dookie sent the popularity of these Welsh herding dogs soaring.
But Dookie was the family’s dog, as was the next Corgi that arrived two years later called Jane. Elizabeth had to wait until her eighteenth birthday to get one of her own.
Upon entering adulthood, Elizabeth received Susan as a gift from her father. She was red and white - Elizabeth’s favourite colours - and altogether better-tempered than Dookie. She became a companion for the Royal: every dog that the Queen bred in the course of more than seven decades thereafter was related to Susan.
But they were not all pure breeds. In the late Sixties a particularly small Corgi, called Tiny, had a fling with Pipkin — Princess Margaret’s smooth-haired miniature dachshund. They called the puppies ‘Dorgis’ and the Queen was so pleased with the result that she bred several other of her dogs this way. When Pipkin became too old, she used stud dachshunds from other breeders.
For many years, the mating and whelping of the puppies took place under the expert eye of Nancy Fenwick, wife of the Head Gamekeeper at Windsor, in the kitchen of their grace and favour bungalow near the Castle. The Queen was a regular visitor. Nancy also looked after the dogs when the Queen was away — there would often be a handover on the tarmac when the Queen was either flying abroad or returning home — and the two women became close friends.
But, while Corgis and Dorgis are the breeds with which most people associated the Queen, she was also an experienced breeder and expert handler of gundogs. She had inherited kennels at Sandringham, built by Edward VII, which housed a hundred dogs. Sadly, it was uneconomic to restore them and in the Sixties they were replaced with modern kennels. Here, she bred Labradors and spaniels, several of which became Field Trial Champions — the highest accolade in testing the working ability of gundogs.
The Royal Family have taken part in shoots throughout the centuries and Elizabeth grew up watching her father and his friends take part in this. She never shot game herself, because at that time not many women did, but she would go out with them in all weathers and was particularly fascinated by the skill with which the dogs worked to pick up fallen birds. She would have loved to have a go herself but her father had thought it not fitting for princesses to pick-up on shoots. So, it wasn’t until her first gundog trainer suggested she have a go at handling a Labrador in the Sixties, that she tried. It turned out she had a real talent for it. What’s more, she learned to control and direct a dog from a remarkable distance.
People in the gundog world still talk about the time her Labrador, Sherry, successfully retrieved a grouse from 800 yards. It was this skill that won her the respect and admiration of a group of people whose love of dogs trumps all else. As Elizabeth took to the fields, wrapped up against whatever weather she was faced with, she appeared in her element.
Dogs were a key part of the Queen's life and, like every other dog lover, it is believed she would have agreed with the late American actor, Will Rogers, who famously said: "If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went."
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