The Cavalier, A Modern Breed with an Ancient History

What’s in a name? Well for the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel there is a wealth of history in its name. So much of what we see in our modern Cavalier and its nomenclature revolves around history. Today’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is a descendant of the line of small toy spaniel dogs seen in so many of the royal paintings from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The well known paintings of Gainsborough, Stubbs, Van Dyke, and later Lanseer depict small spaniel type dogs with flat or slightly rounded skulls, high-set ears, narrow muzzles and almond eyes. Things were not always thus.

The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is named for King Charles II of England. He was so enamored with these little dogs that he was seldom without several at his side or at his heels. Charles allowed these little spaniels to accompany him to Court and even Parliament, where dogs were not permitted. Today there still exists a decree allowing the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel to attend Parliament.

Historically, King Charles II ruled Britain from May 1660 until February 1685. He was successor to his father Charles I who was executed on January 30th 1649 and although Charles II was proclaimed King, he had to flee to Scotland while Oliver Cromwell ruled England. Charles II returned to England after Cromwell’s death and re-established the House of Stuart. Along with him came his spaniels. These Toy Spaniels became the darling of the ladies of the court, becoming treasured pets, “Comforter Spaniels” and ultimately the “Royal Spaniel.”

Time passes, kings and courts change and so do styles. William and the Dutch Court brought an interest in the Pug and Oriental breeds. The classic Spaniel lost favor. The King Charles Spaniel changed drastically in the late 17th century, when it was interbred with flat-nosed breeds. History suggests that Spaniels were bred to Pugs and other “Oriental” breeds producing a dog with a rounded skull, flatter face, undershot jaw and large round eyes. This little dog known as the Charlie is closer to the English Toy Spaniel we know today.

Elements of English society resisted this change in canines. The Dukes of Marlborough maintained a strain of the traditional spaniels in a red and white coat at the Blenheim Palace. Today the Red and White Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is called the Blenheim in honor of John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough. Similarly the cherished red spot or lozenge seen on the head of some Blenheim Cavaliers is known as a Blenheim Spot. The Blenheim spot is also known as the mark of the "Duchess Thumb Print", based on the legend that Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough while awaiting news of her husband's safe return from the Battle of Blenheim, pressed the head of an expecting dam with her thumb, resulting in five puppies bearing the lucky mark after news that the battle had been won.

Over time and in its land of origin, the Cavalier seen in those old treasured paintings disappeared. It was an American, Roswell Eldridge who is credited with saving or resurrecting the breed. In 1926, at the Crufts Dog Show he offered a prize of 25 pounds each for the dog and bitch of the Blenheim variety that most resembled the dogs of King Charles II reign. In those years, this was no minor prize and he arranged this for five years. The Crufts’ catalog described a dog “As shown in the pictures of King Charles II’s time, long face, no stop, flat skull, not inclined to be domed and with a spot in the center of the skull.’ It was not until 1928 when a dog owned by Miss Mostyn Walker, Ann’s Son won the prize. Ann’s Son is always held up as the progenitor of the Cavalier King Charles Breed. Unfortunately, Roswell Eldridge passed just one month before the 1928 Crufts show.

It took many generations of breeding to produce the present day Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. In fact, it was not until 1945 that The Kennel Club felt there were sufficient numbers to permit entrance as a recognized breed. The Cavalier remained in the AKC Miscellaneous Class for forty years, being accepted as the 140th recognized breed in 1996. But that is a story for another day.

—Dr. John V. Ioia, MD, Ph.D., This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
American Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club website: ackcsc.org

Reprinted from the AKC Gazette December 2020