This post contains spoilers for Bridgerton Season 2.
Some people notice anachronistic hairstyles or costume choices in period dramas — I notice the animals. This is probably because I’m a lecturer in animal history, and my Ph.D. was about lapdogs in 18th-century Britain (no, really). So to me, the breakout star of Bridgerton Season 2, heroine Kate Sharma’s dog, Newton (played endearingly by Austin the corgi), looked out of place. I realized I’d never come across a corgi in my research. Bridgerton is not supposed to be accurate. But I wondered—would people living during the Regency period (1811–20), when the show is loosely set, even recognize a Welsh herding dog with shortened legs as a distinct type of dog? Would they have called it a “corgi”? Would a dog owner ever keep a corgi as a companion rather than as a working animal? Until very recently, most of what I knew about corgis could be summed up in a phrase: extremely cute Welsh cattle-dogs beloved by Queen Elizabeth II. But, intrigued by Newton’s appearance in Bridgerton, I’ve pursued the corgi, trotting through the historical archive.
According to corgi breeders’ lore, corgis have been bred in Wales since the medieval period. (There’s speculation they descend from short continental European dogs, brought to the country by the Vikings or by Flemish immigrants, but today’s corgis are most closely genetically related to other British herding dogs, like collies.) The problem with such breed histories is that they work like a game of telephone. One writer makes a claim (usually without citing their sources), and all subsequent histories repeat it, perhaps with slight variations, until it becomes accepted as fact. A corgi enthusiast in 1946 writes a poem in the style of Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha about fairies riding corgis, and several decades later it has mutated into an ancient Welsh “legend.” Lots of what someone with a casual-to-intense interest in dogs might know about the history of individual breeds isn’t supported by historical evidence—pugs, for example, probably did not come from China. An unshakable belief in the importance of breed history can result in harm to actual dogs, as when breeders dock dogs’ tails and crop their ears or breed in physical features that affect their animals’ quality of life in pursuit of their idea of what the breed is. In this case, it just makes it harder to find concrete answers to my corgi questions.
The corgi is a beloved Welsh national symbol, and corgi as a Welsh word for a dog is certainly several centuries old, but it’s not necessarily certain that the word was exclusively used to refer to dogs with shortened legs. (Today’s corgis all carry at least one copy of a gene that causes a form of dwarfism.) Nor is there agreement about how the word developed. Although both countries are part of the United Kingdom, historically the English have marginalized the Welsh people and persecuted speakers of the indigenous Welsh language, which complicates the etymology. (I should note here that I am English, and monolingual.) William Salesbury’s 1574 English-Welsh dictionary translates korgi as “cur dog.” Dictionaries from the Georgian period (circa 1714–1837) also present corgi as a direct translation of “cur dog.” But they don’t make distinctions between the corgi and other curs (including sheepdogs). Until relatively recently, this was the accepted English translation of the word. As late as 1913, Welsh corgi owners were exhibiting their dogs at agricultural shows under the title of “Cur (Corgi).”
Cur is quite a difficult word to define. Essentially, it means a dog of indiscriminate and/or indeterminate breeding. It was also a popular insult, for men and dogs alike. Of all dogs, curs had the lowest monetary worth, although they did perform important tasks, not least guarding and herding. In the case of the corgi, the word was used for so long and persistently that people ended up attaching it to a developing breed.
There are a couple of tantalizing hints of the word corgi attaching itself to the short-legged corgi we know today. A Welsh-Latin dictionary from the 1600s translates corgi as “caniculus,” meaning puppy or small dog. In 1824, an etymologist suggested that corgi actually derives from corr plus ci—literally, “dwarf dog.” Sadly, however, there’s no further description of these dogs as a group.
I began to look for other evidence of corgis during the period in which Bridgerton is set: the 1810s. When dogs went missing in Georgian London (as they frequently did), owners would post advertisements, appealing for their return, in newspapers. These ads list identifying features of the dogs, giving historians a good guide as to how Londoners grouped types of dogs and indicating a period’s latest canine trends. Hot dogs in the “lost” ads of the 1810s: Newfoundlands, Dalmatians, poodles—but not a corgi to be seen. Nor could I find any reliable image of a Welsh corgi from the 18th or early 19th centuries.
In 1768, Welsh natural historian Thomas Pennant mentioned corgis in his study of British animals. But Pennant’s “corgi” isn’t a dog! He identifies the corgi as the “cur fox”—a small variety of fox with a black-tipped tail. According to Pennant, this corgi “lurks about hedges, out-houses” and is more dangerous to poultry than any other fox. If these corgis weren’t regularly culled, he writes, “the number of these animals would soon become intolerable.” This description was accepted well into the 1810s. Perhaps the corgi fox was named after a similar-looking dog it shared its territory with, but if this was the case no one mentions it. Cur foxes aside, corgis don’t make any appearances in books about animals and dogs during this period. It seems safe to say you probably wouldn’t find one as a pet in London’s West End, where the Sharmas are the guests of Lady Danbury in the course of Bridgerton Season 2; the only “corgi” an educated woman living in London would have been familiar with was Pennant’s corgi fox.
That’s not to say the ancestors of today’s corgis weren’t living and herding in Wales during this period. By the 1870s, you do begin to find descriptions of the sorts of dogs we recognize today—for instance, a report from a Welsh dog show that describes the “blue-mottled, wall-eyed Welsh cattle dog or ‘corgi,’ a breed indigenous to Wales” but in danger of extinction. Corgis eventually became an accepted pedigree dog breed in 1925, in the wake of the late-19th- and early-20th-century craze for classifying dog types into breeds. The British Kennel Club later recognized there were two separate corgi breeds: the Pembroke and the Cardigan. The popularity of Pembroke Welsh corgis was soon boosted when one was presented to the young Princess Elizabeth, the future queen. (Although many of the queen’s corgis have actually been dachshund-corgi crosses, aka dorgis, most people seem to think of them as “corgis.”) And so, a working animal that in one century had only hyperregional associations to the point of being essentially unknown outside of its place of origin—and bore a name that most people understood to mean “ill-bred”—became an icon of the monarch of the whole of the United Kingdom in the next.
So, although corgis did eventually end up as fixtures of high society, it happened more than 100 years after the Regency period, the inspiration for Bridgerton. But it doesn’t matter that no self-respecting member of the ton would, in reality, ever dream of owning a corgi. Bridgerton is, of course, a fantasy take on the world of the Regency romance, and it deliberately plays with anachronism. The author of the Bridgerton book series, Julia Quinn, herself acknowledges that corgis weren’t officially recognised as a breed until a century after the books’ timeline. (Newton, apparently, was inspired by a neighbor’s corgi, along with Elizabeth II’s pets).
Even if someone wanted to cast a “historically accurate” type of dog, in a show that’s more of a stickler for the truth than this one, it’d be difficult; almost all dog “breeds” have changed dramatically in the past 200 years. Dr. Alison Skipper, a practicing veterinarian with a Ph.D. in the history of pedigree dog health (and whose mother bred corgis in the 1950s), tells me that today’s corgis have much longer backs and shorter legs than their ancestors from even a century ago. Similarly, today’s purebred Pomeranians aren’t the same as the dogs of the same name once kept by Queen Charlotte, who was a lover of dogs in real life—this is one of the places in which the 1810s of Bridgerton and of our own world intersect. The novelist Frances Burney, Charlotte’s “Keeper of the Robes” in the 1780s, recorded the queen’s orders to look after her retinue of lap dogs in her diaries.
As a dog historian, I find it more interesting that dogs appear in this TV series playing roles that people from the 1810s would recognize and understand. Queen Charlotte’s bevy of pampered Pomeranians indicate wealth, luxury, and elite femininity. But they also represent her emotional isolation and stunted personal relationships. (In the series, her marriage is suffering as the mental health of her husband, George III, continues to decline.) Eighteenth- and early-19th-century novels are littered with other lap dogs performing exactly the same work.
Because corgis are a smaller working breed, they aren’t too big to be cute, and they are free from the implications of overeffeminacy that taint lap dogs (even in the 21st century), and make them unsuitable companions for an “unconventional,” straight-talking, fast-riding heroine like Kate Sharma (or Kate Sheffield, her counterpart in the books).We still associate toy dogs (like Queen Charlotte’s Pomeranians) with women who frivolously lavish their money, time, and attention on their dogs to the exclusion of other people; these associations were firmly established back in the 18th century.
But Kate’s affectionate relationship with Newton would also seem familiar to people living during the real Regency period for a variety of reasons. As a much-loved dog, Newton is pampered by his owner—he is a rather chunky corgi in both the Bridgerton books and the Netflix adaptation—something for which female dog owners were often criticized. However, this was also a period in which people were beginning to look upon pet ownership in a more positive light. Kindness to animals was increasingly considered to be an important attribute in people—even an indication of their humanity—and close, companionate relationships between dog owners and their pets were frequently celebrated.
Early-19th-century dog owners also recognized and praised the “sagacity” (natural intelligence) of their dogs, just as Kate respects Newton’s judgments about a person’s character. In the show, he’s not a fan of the hero, Anthony Bridgerton—at least, not at first. Contemporary writers often joked that a suitor had to win the affection of a lady’s favorite pet if they were to win her heart. And so the last scene of Bridgerton Season 2, in which Anthony, Kate, and Newton—the living anachronism—enjoy a game of pall-mall together, is accurate to the spirit, if not the letter, of the historical record. By Bridgerton standards, that’s perfect.