Cavalier King Charles Spaniel History


History of the Breed

There is little doubt that toy spaniels were known in European Court circles as early as the 15th Century, particularly in countries such as Italy, France, Holland and Spain. These charming little dogs we now call the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel have been immortalized in many early master paintings and wall hanging tapestries. Possibly the earliest may be Titian's painting of the Duchess of Urbino (c.1477 - 1576) and is thought to have been painted in Venice. Seemingly there is a fine 15th Century Arras Tapestry called "The Offering of the Heart" in the Louvre depicting in the foreground a toy spaniel comparable to the present day Cavaliers. In Woburn Abbey a painting by Antonio Moro dated 1554 shows 2 toy spaniels lying at the feet of Queen Mary I and Philip of Spain, her husband. In Holland, exhibited at the Hague, we can see a mid-17th Century painting by A. Cuyp called "Landscape" with a horseman with a Blenheim toy spaniel lying in the foreground. Wonderful artists such as Van Dyck, Watteau, Gainsborough and Landseer all in turn contributed in their work and artistry to the history of the breed. Finally, whilst there are many other paintings by artists too numerous to mention, the glorious painting by Monet in the National Gallery in Washington of the head of a Blenheim Cavalier is memorable and is not to be missed when visiting the USA.

The ladies of the court of King Henry VIII would carry these toy spaniels on their laps when traveling as "comforters" for warmth and hopefully as flea hosts as washing and bathing were not thought to be needed! Seemingly legend has it that a little black and white spaniel was found underneath the petticoats of Mary Queen of Scots after she was executed. But it is generally recognized that it was Charles I and particularly Charles II who favoured these little dogs in some numbers: indeed, the latter was accompanied on his duties by many of them and this was not always popular with his advisors in the Houses of Parliament due to lack of hygiene. It is also known that James II, brother of Charles II, carried on with the family devotion to these charming dogs.

The first Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, was himself a fancier of the breed, in particular of the red and white variety known either as the Marlborough or Blenheim Spaniel. It would seem that his spaniels developed sporting instincts and even in some of our modern day toy spaniels their love of hunting, water and quartering of virgin ground is very apparent and a far cry from their "comforter" days. It is said that Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough while awaiting news of her husband at the Battle of Blenheim kept pressing her thumb on the forehead of a bitch in her lap - subsequent puppies born to this bitch had red thumbprints on their foreheads. This mark even today is highly prized although not attributable just to Cavaliers.

Many portraits of 18th Century court ladies are shown with their favourite Toy spaniels on their laps or gamboling at their feet but with the coming of William and Mary the Toy Spaniel's popularity was displaced by the Pug.

The early part of the 19th Century saw changes in the Toy Spaniel, breeding for short noses which the fashion of the day demanded: this was carried on right through to the Victorian and Edwardian eras, when the Cavalier as we know it today became a very rare sight. Queen Victoria's Dash, a Tricolour of the old, nosy type was much loved by her as a young girl and was subsequently painted many times by Landseer and other fashionable artists of the day. Also, many embroideries of tapestry and fine silk works depicted this famous dog.

In the late Victorian age and early 20th Century The Toy Spaniel Club recognized 4 colours in the toy spaniel. Black and Tans were called King Charles, all red were called Rubys, Tricolours were known as Prince Charles and the red and white spaniels as Blenheims. At this time the Kennel Club wanted to drop the Royal name and classify them all as just "Toy Spaniels". The intervention of King Edward VII meant that the King Charles Spaniel name was retained because of their historic Royal connections over many centuries.

It took an American, Mr Roswell Eldridge, visiting our shores in 1926, to find that our little King Charles Spaniel with the tapered muzzle had virtually disappeared. He offered prizes amounting to £25 to be awarded annually at Cruft's for the dog and bitch most closely resembling the old type of toy spaniel. The Cruft's catalogue states "as shown in the pictures of Charles II's time, ie a long face, no stop, flat skull not inclined to be domed and the spot in the centre of the skull". Naturally enough interest was aroused; £25 was a lot of money and a band of enthusiasts including Mrs Amice Pitt, a past President of our Club, together with other experienced breeders brought their knowledge and experience to this challenge. They drew up a standard and took long-nosed stock from King Charles Spaniel breeders, perhaps crossing with a Papilion here and there. Eventually a Club was founded at Cruft's in 1928, calling itself the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club to distinguish the long-nosed spaniel from the flat-faced King Charles. Mrs Pitt was the Club's first secretary and is commonly known as our founder breeder and is universally referred to as such, worldwide, whenever Cavaliers are spoken about. At that time the Kennel Club refused to allow a separate registration and the two types were shown in the same classes until 1945 when separate Registrations and Classifications were granted by the Kennel Club. August 1945 saw the first Championship Show for the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, held at Stratford-upon-Avon, and the re-birth of these now famous little toy spaniels.

Today, ambassadors the world over, Cavalier enjoy huge popularity with their gentle disposition and carefree nature - a joy to live with and a sight to behold. That is the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel - past Royalty would have been proud of them.

©Virginia Barwell