When I am in Greenwich Park walking my dog, I sometimes find myself in awe of its history. I am treading in footprints that are hundreds of years old. Celts, Romans, Saxons, Danes, Kings and Queens, all walked on this ground before me.
This got me wondering about the paw prints. Dogs have been domesticated for at least 15,000 years. Greenwich goes back more than 2,000 years. What ‘man’s best friend’ has been stalking this land on which my dog now runs?
Iron-age artefacts have been found near the river at Woolwich which suggests that Celts lived in this area. Celts kept hunting and tracking dogs, called Agassaei. They were small and shaggy and ran with their noses to the ground. Possibly the ancestor of the Welsh Springer Spaniel.
As well as hunting and farming the land, the Celts bartered their wares, pots and pans etc. Phoenician traders sailed to Britain from the Mediterranean and it is believed that they brought, amongst other things, massive dogs from the Middle East to exchange. The Celts used these dogs for guarding their livestock. These dogs could be today’s English Mastiff.
When the Romans came to Britain in 55 BC, they were so impressed with the fighting power of the Pugnacious Britannicus (Mastiff) that they exported them to the gladiator pits of the Colosseum. Their strength as fighting dogs led to them being used for bear and bull-baiting. Thankfully this sport was banned in the UK in 1835 but the lack of need for the breed nearly saw its extinction in this country. This gentle giant still remains a rare breed.
Romans returned and settled in Britain from around 43 AD. They built the famous Watling Street from Canterbury to London running through, what is now, Greenwich Park. The remains of a small enclosure, housing a temple and a couple of other buildings was discovered during archaeological excavations in the park. People lived in the area and where there were people, there were dogs.
Life continued in Greenwich when the Romans left, as indicated by the Saxon barrows on the west side of the park. Records later found that the manor of Lewisham, including Greenwich was granted to St Peter’s Abbey in Ghent, either by Alfred the Great’s daughter, Elstrudis or King Edgar.
The Danes invaded in 1009 and in 1012, kidnapped the Arch bishop of Canterbury, Alfege and murdered him in Greenwich where a church stands in his name.
King Canute (the Dane) imposed a Forest Law in Britain which penalised a man for poaching game. Law enforcers carried seven inch in diameter measuring hoops around the land. Hunting dogs that were too big to fit through the hoop were not allowed by ordinary folk. Hunting had become an aristocratic sport rather than a right of survival and owning large hunting dogs had become a status symbol.
William I (the Conqueror of 1066) imposed harsher penalties to the Forest law. Anyone living within 10 miles of royal forest land, owning a large dog beyond the size of the measuring gauge had to have their dogs barbarically lamed. The method, called expediting, involved cutting off three toes from the forefoot or the ball of the foot. As a result, some dogs were bred smaller leading to the English toy spaniel.
The Domesday Book of William I, recorded the land rights of the Manor of Greenwich to St Peter’s Abbey in Ghent but eventually ownership was renegotiated and in the late 1420’s, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (youngest brother of Henry V and uncle of Henry VI) acquired it. He enclosed nearly 200 acres, built a tower at the top of the hill and Bella Court by the river. The royal park in Greenwich, is the oldest of London’s Royal Parks.
When the Tudors took over, from the 15th Century, King Henry VII built a palace in Greenwich by the River Thames (where the Royal Naval College stands today.) The Palace was called Placentia. Henry VIII was born at Greenwich and when he became king, being a keen sportsman, he built a tilt-yard in the grounds of the palace for jousting; stables for his horses; and kennels for his hunting dogs. There is a myth that the dogs were kept on the other side of the river, at the Isle of Dogs, but there is no evidence to prove this.
Still, only aristocracy and nobility were allowed hunting dogs. Henry had greyhounds, spaniels and beagles. They were kept outside the palace for hygiene reasons. (It doesn’t seem that they were house-trained.) Henry was concerned about cleanliness, especially for his sickly son and heir, Edward. Any rumour of plague in the area and they would move palace. They had to move palaces regularly due to poor sanitation, to allow the each palace to be cleaned on their departure.
Small dogs were allowed in the palace and servants were supposed to clean up after them. Anne Boleyn had a small dog called Purkoy, who she adored. It is thought that the name came from the French word ‘pour quoi’ meaning ‘why’ because of its quizzical expression. It could have been a Bolognese or Maltese breed. Sadly, Purkoy died by falling from a high window. It might not have been an accident! No one dared tell the Queen. Henry had to break the news to her.
Another of Anne Boleyn’s dogs was a greyhound called Urian. This dog savaged and killed a cow and the King had to compensate the owner the equivalent of £150.
Greyhounds were considered the most noble of dogs. They would run regally alongside the king on horseback with his hawk on his gauntlet. Henry adorned his hounds with velvet collars embroidered with pearls and lined with kid. They wore white silk cloaks and were groomed with haircloth. The hunting dogs were fed meat, milk and bread, whereas, pet dogs were fed bread and no meat.
Henry’s dogs, Cut and Ball, were prone to straying, costing him a total of £225 in reward money for their return. It would seem they lacked training!
During his reign he sent hundreds of dogs as gifts to the Emperor and the King of France. When Henry died, sixty-five dog collars were found in his closet.
Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, also born in Greenwich, loved dogs. She kept a pack of Pocket Beagles. One in particular, called Pericola, loyally followed her around. She is quoted as saying how, like her dog, she followed Lord Robert Dudley around!
Pocket Beagles were much smaller than the present day Beagles. Measuring 8 to 10 inches, they would fit in ladies’ sleeves or in saddle bags to go hunting. They remained a popular breed with the royals through to George IV. However, by Victorian times the breed began to deteriorate in health due to poor breeding practice and is now extinct.
Another small breed that has flourished is the dog that was known as the Comforter because of the comfort it brought to its mistress. In the first book ever written about dogs, by John Keys (also known as Dr Johannes Caius) entitled ‘De Canibus Britannicis’ and published in 1570, then translated from Latin, describes ‘the delicate, neat and pretty kind of dogs, called the Spaniel Gentle or the Comforter’ as ‘the smaller they be, the more pleasure they provoke, as more meet playfellows for mincing mistresses to bear in their bosoms, to keep company withal in their chambers, to succour with sleep in bed…’ The name Comforter was lost and became collectively Toy Spaniel.
Elizabeth was succeeded by her cousin’s son, James VI of Scotland, who became James I. He was another keen hunter and was seen riding through Greenwich Park with his hounds.
His wife, Anne of Denmark, accidently killed one of his favourite dogs, Jewel, whilst out hunting. He was furious with her but later apologised by giving her a diamond and having a mansion built for her in place of the gatehouse to the park.
Inigo Jones was the architect who designed her ‘House of Delight’. Building started in 1616 and was very contemporary in its day, being of the Italian Palladian style. Anne of Denmark never saw it finished as she died three years later.
Italian Greyhounds were another popular breed amongst nobility. They date back to ancient Egypt (found mummified with pharaohs), Greece and Rome. They were another companion dog to the Stuarts and were loved, not only for their miniature greyhound appearance but also, for their gentle, good-nature. Like the Pocket Beagle, they were bred to the point where their health was seriously compromised. Fortunately, towards the end of the Victorian era, decent breeders rescued them from extinction and the breed is now fully recovered.
The English Mastiff also found a place in royal households. Once known as a ban dog in Saxon times, it seems to have avoided the barbaric laming under Forest law, possibly on account of it being chained or ‘banned’ to guard, and therefore not seen as a poaching threat. Dr Caius described this creature, ‘stubborn, heavy and burdenous body, and therefore of but little swiftness’
There is a story that James I and his son observed three Mastiffs and a lion. The first two dogs were attacked by the lion and later died of their wounds but the third dog, locked its jaws on the lip of the lion. The lion thrashed at the dog and severely wounded it so that the dog was forced to give up its grip but not before it exhausted the lion, which slunked away. The dog survived, was taken into the care of the King’s son who said, “He who had fought with the king of beasts should never after fight with any inferior animal.”
James’ second son, Charles I was crowned in 1625 and married Henrietta-Maria of France. The mansion in Greenwich was given to her. Building work was completed by 1636 and it is known as Queen’s House.
Henrietta-Maria gave birth to the last of the royal babies born in Greenwich. Story has it that she went into early labour whilst walking up a hill in Greenwich. The baby boy, Charles James, was delivered but died shortly afterwards. They had six other children before Charles was executed in 1649.
Henrietta-Maria took refuge in France. England was governed by Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell and afterwards his son, Richard Cromwell. During the Civil War, the Palace of Placentia was ruined.
When the monarchy was restored and, Charles’ and Henrietta Maria’s son, Charles II became king, he made some changes to Greenwich. He employed Christopher Wren to build a Royal Observatory on the site of Humphrey’s old tower and he commissioned King Louis XIV of France’s head gardener, Andre Le Notre, (notably of Versailles) to landscape the park (apparently). These changes we can see today, as well as the Royal Naval College that Sir Christopher went on to build with the help of Nicholas Hawksmoor and others.
What Charles II may be most famous for in the dog world is giving his name to the King Charles Spaniel. The origin of the breed is undetermined. Some say it was imported from Spain in the 17th Century but there is history of toy spaniels in Britain before this date. He may have added new blood from abroad. He certainly became an avid breeder.
Dogs have featured in Greenwich for as long as man has – humble dogs (or hamble dogs when lamed) and noble dogs.
Greenwich Park was opened to the public in 1830 park. Since then, man and his best friend together have enjoyed the pleasure of walking in the grounds without fear of those barbaric forest laws. We do have laws to adhere to today but they are more in keeping with our welfare. May we go on to enjoy hundreds more years of the freedom to walk our dogs in our parks.
Aslet C. (1999) The Story of Greenwich
Channel 4, Time Team (1999) Greenwich Park
Morris D. (2001) Dogs
Platts B. (1973) The History of Greenwich
Podberscek A.L., Paul E.S., Serpell J.A. (2000) Companion Animals and Us
Weir A. (2008) Henry VIII, King and Court
Weir A. (2009) Elizabeth, The Queen
Wynn M.D. (1886) The History of the Mastiff