- Steff Boulton
God Save The Corgis
Updated: Mar 8, 2021
In the depths of the Sandringham estate in Norfolk lies a small walled cemetery for the loyalest of the royals: the dogs.
[Credit: Anwar Hussein]
Dogs for the royal family, like with presidents, prime ministers or other figures of this calibre, serve not only as 'faithful companions' but as vehicles to humanise these leaders and make them feel - just like us.* You walk your dog twice a day and deal with urine on your carpets? So does Queenie!
But for Queen Elizabeth II her infatuation with dogs (most notably corgis) has become so uniquely part of her image and public persona. It really is less queen and country and more queen and corgi with our dear Lizzie. They’ve not just been instruments to humanise her but to convey her affections in a way that couldn't be conveyed with her own birthed children. It’s bizarre and heartbreaking to contrast the image of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh giving little adoring five-year-old Prince Charles a handshake after spending 6 months touring the commonwealth** with the Queen’s 90th birthday Vanity Fair cover featuring the corgis gathering around her feet like toddlers - more intimate and loving than any official royal photo.
[Left: The Queen's 90th Birthday portrait with Prince Charles, Right: The Queen's 90th Birthday cover of Vanity Fair with her corgis...]
Her love for her dogs feels authentic and far less staged than that of her family and it is this love that she has chosen to fuse with her image for now and for eternity.
Ok, so we understand the perhaps PR-related attraction of dogs but why the obsession with corgis? The story goes that the Queen and her sister Margaret took a huge liking to Thomas Henry Thyne's (The Marquess of Bath) corgis when visiting the family and in 1933 their father (King George VI) brought home the Windsor's first corgi, Dookie, starting the Queen’s lifelong infatuation with the short-legged sweethearts.
Then on her 18th birthday Queen Elizabeth received a corgi of her very own who she youthfully named…Susan. Susan would go on to be the origin breeding dog of the Queen’s corgi dynasty with all 30 owned across her lifetime linking back to dear old Susan. Susan and the Queen had an incredibly close relationship, little Susan is known to have accompanied her Highness and the Duke of Edinburgh during their honeymoon - allegedly hidden under rugs in the open-air wedding day carriage. However, Susan was also known to have a bit of a teethy temper biting four people in her time at Buckingham Palace; a policeman, a sentry, a detective and even a royal clock winder (yes that is a thing).
Susan died almost aged 15 at Sandringham Palace and was the catalyst for the Queen’s revival of the royal pet cemetery on the estate, first established in 1887 by Queen Victoria after the death of her border collie: Noble. The Queen in mourning began sketching ideas for what she wanted her little Susan’s grave to look like to send to Robert Marrington, the superintendent of works of the Sandringham Estate. The initial plan for the inscription was SUSAN / DIED 26 JAN 1956 / FOR 15 YEARS THE FAITHFUL COMPANION OF THE QUEEN. Although discrepancies around when Susan was actually born resulting in the epitaph reading something a bit less exact:
[Credit: Tim Graham]
In 2004, it was reported by The Guardian that an auctioneer in Shropshire was selling the sketches of Susan’s headstone with a guide price of £300 (but starting offers of more than £1000 were thought to have been discussed with some buyers). Upon hearing this, the palace intervened in the sale and stopped the auction on the basis that the sketches were employee correspondence and therefore property of the Queen. Nonetheless the headstone now sits amongst other departed corgis in the Sandringham cemetery. Unfortunately there is no public documentation as to whether any ceremony was held for the burials of Susan et al. We are forced to make do with the funeral scene for Rex the corgi (spoiler alert) from 2019 animated film 'The Queen's Corgi' - note the corgi shaped topiary:
[The Queens Corgi (2019) - 37:56 - 37:02 for those interested in animated corgi funerals]
It is often remarked that the Queen leans so much on her corgis as they are far better for the image of the royal family than the royal family themselves. And although I am happy to write that the corgis have not been involved in tax scandals or developed friendships with Jeffrey Epstein there have been a few dramatic and even deadly encounters between them! Two of the Queen’s beloved corgis were actually killed by other members of the royal family’s furry friends. In 1989, The Queen Mother’s corgi Ranger killed Queen Elizabeth’s dear Chipper and in 2003 when Princess Anne was being greeted to Sandringham for Christmas her bull-terrier killed the Queen’s corgi Pharos resulting in Princess Anne’s dog also being put down. Not quite the Christmas they had planned I’m sure.
In 2015 the Queen stopped breeding her corgis and made the decision that she did not want any of them to outlive her. In April 2018, the last of Susan’s dynasty, Willow, was sadly put down due to a cancer related illness. The Telegraph reported that the Queen had been hit ‘extremely hard’ by the death of Willow and when Buckingham Palace were asked to comment they said it was a private matter.
The Queen has from the very beginning of her reign established these dear affectionate short-legged dogs as a part of her image. It’s hard to think of corgis without thinking of the queen and vice versa. You are more likely to find painted portraits of her with her corgis than without, statues in parks feature corgis frozen in bronze running down steps and they are even emblazoned on coinage for special anniversaries from the UK to Gibraltar.
The Queen is aware of the special kind of pseudo-immortality that figures like herself have the privilege of acquiring. Years after her reign, as new monarchs come and go we will still find her portraits hanging in palaces and galleries, money featuring her image will exchange hands until it falls out of circulation and her statues will still stand tall in parks. She has consciously chosen to bring her beloved corgis into this privileged realm and let them live on with her in the ways that she will remaining companions for eternity.
[From left to right: Queen's 60th Birthday Portrait by Michael Leonard, Official Portrait of the Queen 2013, Queen and her corgis for Vanity Fair, Corgis on a 1 crown coin from Gibraltar]
The corgis in a less romantic way find another way of transcending the after-life in the walls of gift-shops, strung up in lines as key-rings, on mugs or even cufflinks. And even now though there are no remaining Corgis at the palace you can still purchase a little stuffed corgi to take home with you – your very own little commercialised taxidermy of the Queen’s deceased canine friends. They are assuredly gone but never forgotten.
Happy and glorious, long to reign over us, God save the Corgis.
[Edit: Since this article was written the Queen is thought to have been gifted two new Corgi puppies - there is no information as to who gifted them or what their names are as the palace has refused to comment. But one royal biographer, Penny Juror, when asked to comment on the new arrivals noted: 'corgis seldom rush off to LA to give interviews'.]
* (It is no surprise that Donald Trump was the first president in a century to not have a furry friend traipsing round the White House.)