Among the many viral Tweets generated by the news of Queen Elizabeth’s illness on Thursday was writer Ashley Feinberg’s joking interpretation of the Queen’s wish, reported in 2015, that she not survive any of her dogs. Feinberg stretched the idea to its logical extreme, creating an imaginary parallel universe in which the few remaining corgis in Elizabeth’s pack are regretfully dispatched by firing squad, and generating many inspired follow-up tweets.
Now that the Queen has died, it really should go without saying that the corgis that remain—there are two (Muick and Sandy), as well as two other dogs, a dorgi (dachshund/corgi mix) named Candy, and Lissy the cocker spaniel—were never in any danger. The British aristocracy has a long history of leaving their pets to trusted servants or friends, often with a handsome annuity to keep their animals in the manner to which they have become accustomed. Perhaps one of the other members of the Royal Family will adopt the dogs—although none of her family have shown a similar passion for corgis to date.
But it’s no surprise that the international public’s thoughts (and jokes) drifted immediately to the corgis. They are an integral part of the iconography of the Queen’s 70-year reign, and indelibly tied to her popular image. She’s had over 30 in total, many descending from Susan, who was given to her as an 18th birthday present in 1944. The corgis have had funny names, to American eyes—Mint, Pundit, Dagger, Myth—as well as simple ones: Heather, Martin, Flora. They had starring roles in the short sketch, in which the Queen acted alongside Daniel Craig as James Bond, that screened during the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. And in the course of the Queen’s 70th Jubilee celebrations this June, the UK was awash with a wave of corgi memorabilia—Brits could celebrate with Corgi Juice (actually Pale Ale), a Clarence the Corgi cake, or the ever-so-slightly Cronenbergian “Platinum Corgi” mincemeat balls.
2022 sees the end not only of the corgi as royal mascot, but perhaps of a dog breed as a personal emblem for a monarch—at least, for the time being. The Royal Family has long included dog lovers (most famously Queen Victoria, the Queen’s great-great grandmother), but no single breed has been so closely entwined with one of its personalities since the reign of Charles II and his toy spaniels in the seventeenth century. While the Queen’s heirs are, by all accounts, fond of animals, it is hard to imagine the cocker spaniel, for instance, becoming an icon of Prince William’s reign in the same way the corgis have been for his grandmother.
The corgi’s relative obscurity outside of its native home in South Wales in the decades before it found favor with the Royal Family may have aided it in gaining this singular connection with the Queen. At the time of her birth in 1926, the corgi might not have seemed an entirely obvious choice for a princess’s canine companion. Just a decade previously, the corgi was known as the “cur” dog, a name associated with dogs of uncertain or unknown breeding. In 1907, a Welsh magistrate’s court debated whether the corgi was a distinct dog breed at all, or just another name for an English cur or a sheepdog mix.
The corgi’s roots are far from well-established—although there are lots of theories that date Welsh dogs bred for their small legs to prior to the 19th century, there are none with much in the way of supporting evidence, and lots of different proposed etymologies of the word “corgi”. However, we know the corgi gained a local reputation in Wales as a herding dog during the Victorian period. Although they were not particularly numerous, corgis were in demand as all-purpose farm dogs, respected not only for their ability to drive cattle (while dodging cows’ kicks), but also for going after rabbits and rats.
Dog “fanciers” outside of Wales discovered the corgi during the boom in pedigree dog breeding which followed the end of the First World War. The Welsh Corgi was accepted into Britain’s Kennel Club in 1925, just a year before the birth of the Princess Elizabeth. (The dog was later split into two separate breeds: the Pembroke Welsh Corgis, beloved by the Queen, and the Cardigan Welsh Corgi).
Elder Welsh newspaper readers at the time observed that the corgis of the 1930s were noticeably changed from the dogs of their youth—not to mention shorter. “In fact,” wrote one J. Evans in 1934, “very few of the old types of Corgi are to be seen today.” (These changes in the breed have continued—corgis today are shorter in the legs and longer in the body than they were when the queen first owned them.) While “corgi” had once been widely synonymous with “cur dog,” the new well-heeled corgi breeders began to distance themselves from that term. One of the Welsh Corgi’s greatest proponents in the interwar years was a breeder named Thelma Evans (later Gray), who lived in one of the most prosperous areas of southeast England. It was one of Evans’s puppies, Rozavel Golden Eagle (a.k.a. Dookie), who was presented to the then-seven-year-old Princess Elizabeth in 1933 as a gift from her father, the Duke of York, and who got her interested in the breed.
Dookie was just the first in a very long list of Pembroke Welsh Corgis and dorgis kept by the Queen, who became an active breeder of corgis. Willow, the 12x great-grand daughter of Susan, the Queen’s 18th birthday present, only died in 2018. Why the Queen had such a specific love of the corgi is anyone’s guess. She may have been, as other corgi fans are, entranced by their foxy faces, little legs, and stubborn intelligence. And of course, people often remain loyal to the kinds of dogs they had as children out of familiarity and nostalgia. Whatever the reason, the Queen was in. Princess Diana is reported to have described the pack of corgis swarming around her as a “moving carpet.”
This extended royal patronage thrust the corgi into the spotlight and led to a sharp increase in popularity. Photographs of the royal corgis soon graced the pages of newspapers and magazines. While, as one royal canine observer noted, in 1933 hardly anyone outside of rural south Wales had even heard of a corgi, just 25 years later the Pembroke Welsh Corgi was the second most popular pedigree dog breed in the United Kingdom. Although they remain iconic of the British monarchy and the UK internationally, this corgi enthusiasm on the part of the British public has waned in recent decades. Almost 9,000 corgi puppies were registered with the British Kennel Club in 1960, compared to 1223 last year—a number that’s up from a low of just 274 puppies in 2014.
Although the Queen’s corgis are unusual today in the amount of media interest they generate, this is not the first time the eyes of the world have fallen on a royal dog dealing with the aftermath of losing his or her owner. In 1910, the funeral cortege of the Queen’s great-grandfather, Edward VII, included his beloved dog in a prominent role. Caesar, a wire fox terrier, followed the king’s hearse at the widowed Alexandra of Denmark’s suggestion. The days and weeks ahead will see some tasteless and mawkish tributes, but surely none of them will rival Where’s Master?, a children’s book which recounted the King’s illness and death from the perspective of the grieving terrier. The book ends with Caesar resolving to join the funeral procession for his “last journey with Master”:
We’ve come to the end of the journey. They say I can’t follow Master any further. They say there are no little dogs where Master has gone.
But I know better.
We’re unlikely to see the corgis or dorgis joining any funeral procession, as the Queen’s pack is not known for its great behavior, but there are other ways to commemorate the Queen’s famous love of her loyal corgis. The Royal Family could, for instance, follow the lead of Bertram Mackennal, sculptor of Edward VII’s tomb in Windsor, which features the faithful Caesar lying at his master’s feet. Eagle-eyed television viewers have already noticed the corgis on the silver vase Charles III had beside him in his first address to his subjects as king, on Friday.
It’s not hard to see why the image of Caesar walking behind his master’s funerary procession was so powerful. There is something accessible and deeply humanizing about people’s relationships with their pets—such stories give us a glimpse into the private inner life of a very public person. We recognize in them aspects of our own relationships (or that of our friends or family members) with pets. Perhaps this is why the corgis have figured so heavily in the images shared on social media over the last day.
This humanizing aspect to the Queen’s relationship with the corgis is front-and-center in one of the most-shared anecdotes about the monarch following Elizabeth II’s death. In his 2020 memoirs of his work as a war trauma surgeon, David Nott recounts attending a lunch at Buckingham Palace, soon after returning from Aleppo, Syria. According to Nott, the Queen asked the doctor (who was grieving his mother and traumatized by his experiences) about his work in Syria. The Queen noticed his distress and asked for a silver box of dog biscuits to be brought forward.
“We fed the biscuits to the corgis under the table, and for the rest of lunch she took the lead and chatted about her dogs, how many she had, what their names were, how old they were,” Nott wrote. “All the while we were stroking and petting them, and my anxiety and distress drained away.”
“’There,’ the Queen said. ‘That’s so much better than talking, isn’t it?’”