The Pets of Queens

The lives of queens through history are often so overwhelmed by politics and court ritual that it can be difficult to sense their personalities as individuals. Finding the small details that provide a spark of illumination into a queen’s hobbies and penchants are thrilling, especially for a historical author. During my research for my forthcoming novel, The Wardrobe Mistress, I remember the surge of excitement I felt when I discovered that Marie Antoinette preferred purple and disliked orange, that she loved children to the extent that she’d often call out to them in a crowd, that she liked dogs and some of hers had been gifts from friends. These are all things that brought her to life for me, showed me why my protagonist, Giselle, who worked for the queen, would be sympathetic to her.

In her fondness for pets, Marie Antoinette was not alone. Many queens enjoyed the company of their pets, especially dogs, which many modern people can relate to as well. Historical figures weren’t always so different from us as we think. From dogs to parrots, here are some famous queens through history and their beloved pets.

From the 2006 film, Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette with Mops.

Marie Antoinette had a pug named Mops, whom she brought with her to France from Austria. Nervous to be leaving her home and going to a foreign court, she clung to Mops and was said to be extremely fond of him. Sadly, he had to be sent back to Austria with most of her other belongings, in order for her to start fresh as a new French dauphine at Versailles. Thankfully, she was later able to send for him, and princess and pug were reunited.

She also received a dog as a gift from Count Axel von Fersen, the courtier often believed to be her lover. While it’s difficult to find absolute proof of this, it’s undeniable that the two were quite close. Little is known now about this dog, but it’s was likely a Swedish dog, similar to Fersen’s own, which was called Odin. Marie Antoinette also had a red and white spaniel named Mignon, a gift from her dearest friend, the Princesse de Lamballe. The spaniel was called Thisbée originally, but Marie Antoinette’s affectionate nickname of Mignon eventually stuck. Mignon was left behind at the Tuileries after the chaos of the invasion of the Parisian palace during the revolution, but was later reunited with the queen at her imprisoned lodgings within the Tower.

Anne Boleyn was also fond of dogs. There are records of her greyhound, Urian, as well as a little lap dog called Purkoy. His name is thought to be derived from the French word ‘Pourquoi’, meaning ‘why’, so it’s easy to imagine that Purkoy must have been an inquisitive looking little canine. His exact breed isn’t known. Purkoy came to a tragic end, falling out of a high window. It’s said that all the courtiers were afraid to tell Anne, knowing how distraught she would be, and it fell to Henry VIII himself to break the bad news. Anne also had a songbird that was sent to her by Lady Lisle, wife of the Governor of Calais. She found great pleasure in listening to it sing.

Mary, Queen of Scots is another queen who could usually be found in the company of one of her beloved lap dogs. In fact, her Skye terrier, usually recorded as being called Geddon, was found huddled, frightened and blood-spattered, under her skirt after her execution by beheading. I don’t know what happened to poor Geddon after this, but I hope someone gave him a kind home. It’s nice to think that these three doomed queens – each of them executed – found some comfort in their last days through the company of their pets.

Catherine and Zemira

Fortunately, many other queens through history found joy in their animal companions, without the executions. Catherine de’ Medici is said to have possessed a long-tailed monkey from the Indies. Queen Isabella of Spain had a pair of Cuban Amazon parrots, brought back to her by Columbus. Catherine the Great of Russia was extremely attached to her little greyhound called Zemira. The dog slept in the queen’s room in a pink silk-lined cradle. She was also painted with her mistress, since one of Catherine’s favourite activities was walking with her little dog. Zemira’s likeness lives on in various sculptures as well, since the queen’s affection for her meant she became something of a muse for artists seeking the queen’s patronage.

In China, Empress Dowager Cixi apparently owned over a hundred Pekingese dogs and was so fond of them that she supervised their daily baths. Pekingese dogs were quite exclusive, and for a period of time in history, they could only be owned by members of the Chinese Imperial Palace. With their unique lion-like appearance, the little dogs were believed to bring luck and protection against evil spirits.

Imperial ladies holding pekingese dogs

In Egypt, gazelles were common pets through history. Queen Isiemkheb loved her pet gazelle so much that she couldn’t bear to be parted from it after death. Unfortunately, the gazelle’s name is unknown to us today, but it’s custom made sarcophagus still exists, carved with the image of the gazelle. The mummified gazelle was found with Isiemkheb in her tomb, both preserved in such a way and possessing amulets to ensure that they would someday be united again.

And of course, in more modern history, Queen Elizabeth II is famous for her pack of corgis, as well as for being an excellent rider, even venturing out on horseback at ninety years of age. That’s dedication to spending time with animals!

Plenty of writers have pets too, so if you enjoy linking up adorable or eccentric pets to famous faces, I’ve blogged about the pets of writers, too.

 


The Wardrobe Mistress, a novel of one of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe women who casually spies on the queen during the French Revolution and finds herself torn between her loyalty to the queen and her sympathy for the revolution, publishes on August 15th.

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