the Queen’s four-legged companions
When historians look back over the long reign of Queen Elizabeth II, they will marvel, not that she had so many dogs … but at her loyalty to a single breed. Since the age of seven, Elizabeth has not been without the companionship of a Pembroke Welsh corgi. In April 2018, she lost Willow, the last of her own corgis. She was said to have been hit “extremely hard” by the dog’s death. As a Palace source was quoted saying, “It is probably because Willow was the last link to her parents and a pastime that goes back to her own childhood.”
Gradually, and intentionally, the Queen has been whittling down the number of dogs she has. She was concerned about what would happen to her dogs when she is no longer around. Her children all have dogs of their own and, with the possible exception of the Princess Royal [Princess Anne] there are no great lovers of corgis.
Over the years, the Queen’s little dogs have travelled with her by car, boat, helicopter, plane and train; they have announced her arrival in any roomful of people; and they have put countless guests, including the entire New Zealand rugby team, at their ease.
She has used the dogs not just to put others at their ease, but to ease her own discomfort. Her family refers to it as “the dog mechanism”. If there is an awkward lull, she will turn her attention to one of the dogs to fill the silence, or bend down to give them titbits from her plate at the table.
It all began in 1933 when Princess Elizabeth and her little sister, Margaret Rose, fell in love with a neighbour’s young corgi. Their father was then Duke of York, and they lived in a grand, five-storey Georgian town house at
And so it was that Mrs Thelma
Gray came into the Queen’s life. She was one of the first people to breed corgis outside Wales.
She arrived with three young red and white puppies for the York family to choose from. Two of the litter were tailless, and the third had a tiny stump of a tail.
It was the Duchess of York, Princess Elizabeth’s mother, who decided which of the three they would keep. “We must have the one which has something to wag,” she said. “Otherwise, how are we going to know whether he is pleased or not?”
The tiny stump of a tail belonged to Rozavel Golden Eagle, better known as Dookie. The nickname came from the kennel maids. He was so pleased with himself that he was refusing to eat from the same dish as his siblings. And so they started to call him “The Duke” and eventually Dookie.
On Princess Elizabeth’s 18th birthday on 21 April 1944, her father gave her a corgi of her very own. The dog had the official name Hickathrift Pippa but she was known first as Sue, and finally as Susan.
Every corgi that the Queen has had in her very long life can be traced back to Susan … and Willow, the corgi who died in April 2018, was the 14th generation of Susan’s descendants.
Susan was not much better tempered than Dookie – and nor were her offspring. In June 1954, Alfred Edge, a 23-year-old National Serviceman in the Grenadier Guards, was on sentry duty outside Buckingham Palace. A footman came round the corner with a couple of corgis on leads. Susan was one of them. Edge spotted his relief approaching and stood to attention with a loud military stamp, whereupon a startled Susan sank her teeth into his left ankle.
In 1955 Susan’s daughter, Sugar, was sent off to Thelma’s kennels to be mated. In due course, Thelma took the litter to Windsor to show them to the Queen.
Charles and Anne were with the Queen when she met the puppies and although she had every intention of keeping just one, she could not make up her mind. “Don’t tell your father we’ve got two puppies. Two new puppies!” She named them Whisky and Sherry, and gave them as Christmas presents to Prince Charles and Princess Anne.
Princess Margaret never truly caught the corgi bug. But the dog she most famously owned was a smooth-coated miniature dachshund called Pipkin.
Vertically challenged though he may have been, Pipkin was not put off by taller women: one fine day in the late 1960s, he and the Queen’s corgi, Tiny, had an illicit moment together behind the shrubbery … and a new crossbreed was born.
The Queen and Princess Margaret called their creation “dorgis”. It was the beginning of a new royal era. When royal photographer Norman Parkinson once asked the Queen how the corgis and dachshunds were able to mate, given their rather different heights, she replied: “It’s very simple. We have a little brick.”
The Queen’s dogs do not eat out of shiny sterling silver dishes – the Queen is nothing if not practical; their bowls are a motley collection of metal and porcelain.
Whenever possible, she feeds them herself and it is an afternoon ritual; but not an unruly frantic free-for-all. A footman brings the food and the bowls on a silver tray and lays out a plastic sheet to protect the carpet. The Queen then sits them in a semi-circle around her and does the rest.
In addition, the dogs get titbits from the Queen’s own plate at mealtimes – toast at breakfast, scones in the afternoon and chicken, fish or whatever else she is eating at lunch and supper. They cluster around the table, even when she has guests, and attend all the best parties.
They are not only an immediate and easy topic of conversation, they are invaluable at helping visitors, who can be completely and sometimes irrationally tongue-tied on meeting the sovereign, to relax.
One such person was David Nott, a saint of a surgeon from Wales, who for two months volunteers his expertise in conflict surgery in the world’s most dangerous war zones. The day he went to lunch with the Queen he had just come back from Aleppo, centre of the fiercest fighting in the Syrian civil war.
When she turned to talk to him he could not speak. “I was thinking about the day when seven children from one family were brought into the hospital,” he told Frances Hardy in the Daily Mail. “Their mother was dead and one of her sons had his buttocks blown off. He was still alive and he had white blobs on his face. These were his sister’s brains. It was the most pitiful sight I’d seen in 20 years operating in war zones.
“When the Queen turned to me and said, ‘I hear you’ve just been in Aleppo,’ I could feel my bottom lip quivering. I couldn’t say a word. There’s no doubt I was suffering from post-traumatic stress. All I could do was stare long and hard at the wall.
“She realised something was terribly wrong and said she’d try to help me. Then she started talking about her dogs and asked if I’d like to see them. I said I would. I was trying not to cry, to hold it all together, and suddenly a courtier appeared with the corgis, who went under the table. Then a silver tin with a screw-top lid labelled ‘dog biscuits’ was brought to the table. The Queen opened it, broke a biscuit in two and gave half to me, and she said, ‘Why don’t we feed the dogs?’
“The humanity of what she did was unbelievable. She was really so kind to me. And afterwards when everyone asked what I’d done at the palace they couldn’t believe what I told them. She was so warm and so wonderful I will never forget it.”
The Queen atRoyal Windsor Horse Show in 1973 with her faithful and constant four-legged companions.
Clockwise from above: The Queen and Queen Mother on her birthday with her corgis outside Clarence House; Princess Elizabeth aged 11 years old with her corgi, Dookie, as Tatler cover stars; the Royal Family in 1937 as a happy group of dog lovers.
Above, left: The Queen Mother’s corgis arriving at Heathrow airport after a summer visit to Balmoral. Above, right: The Queen’s corgis were present when she met members of the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team at Buckingham Palace in 2002.