This article was first published in the May 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine
Among the minor celebrities of the English Civil War, few retain the contemporary cachet of Prince Rupert’s dog, ‘Boy’. Characterised by the polemicists of the 1640s as a ‘dog-witch’ who was in league with the devil, Boy was reintroduced to the world by the Victorian journalist Eliot Warburton in his Memoirs of Prince Rupert and the Cavaliers in 1849 and, from that day to this, his reputation has steadily continued to grow.
Having been name-checked in dozens of scholarly books and articles, included as a supporting character in at least three historical novels and featured in a brace of films, Boy has recently enjoyed the ultimate accolade of being unleashed upon the nation’s classrooms.
In the latest edition of The Slimy Stuarts – one of Terry Deary’s bestselling ‘Horrible Histories’ series – readers are provided with a bite-size account of Boy’s life which informs them that “the Roundheads were afraid of the dog’s devilish powers”. Next, they are encouraged to ascertain whether their teacher is “a historical brain-box or a hysterical bonehead” by asking him or her whether or not it is true that the “Cavalier general, Prince Rupert, taught his dog to cock its leg every time someone said the name of the Roundhead leader [John] Pym”. The youthful inquisitors are subsequently assured that this statement is, indeed, correct and that Boy “also jumped happily in the air” when Rupert said “King Charles”.
Deary’s words, though clearly intended to amuse and entertain, faithfully reflect the way in which Boy has been represented in many popular histories of the English Civil War. Yet the authors of those histories have been misled, for the view of Boy which Deary’s words epitomise is simply the 21st-century perpetuation of a 17th-century hoax.
The strange story of Prince Rupert’s dog began in 1638, when Rupert of the Rhine – the youthful nephew of Charles I of England – was captured at the battle of Vlotho in Germany by Austrian Catholic forces. Some of the Austrian soldiers claimed that they had been unable to kill or wound the prince, despite having fired at him twice at point-blank range, and as a result the rumour began to spread that Rupert was invulnerable to bullets, or ‘shot-free’. The belief that it was possible to render oneself bullet-proof through occult means was widespread in the German lands at this time, and Rupert was by no means the only contemporary to whom such powers were attributed.
Having been carried into Austria by his captors, Rupert was imprisoned at Linz Castle where he languished for some time. Hoping to lift the prince’s spirits, the Earl of Arundel – an old family friend – now sent Rupert a dog to keep him company.
A rare breed
Virtually nothing is known for certain about this animal, but it appears to have been a hunting poodle of a ‘rare’ breed. When Rupert was finally released from Linz Castle in 1641 he presumably took his new companion with him, but the dog does not resurface in the historical record until more than a year later, by which time the prince himself was embroiled in the English Civil War.
During the early 1640s Charles I and his opponents in parliament had become locked in an increasingly bitter political struggle. Having tried and failed to arrest his chief critics, Charles eventually abandoned his capital in January 1642 and summoned his loyal subjects to assist him against the ‘rebels’ at Westminster. Rupert was swift to answer his uncle’s call, and in August he was appointed as general of the royalist horse.
Two months later Rupert and his troopers smashed the parliamentarian cavalry regiments which were ranged against them at the battle of Edgehill. A complete parliamentarian defeat was narrowly averted but, as the royalist army advanced upon London, so Roundhead polemicists grew ever-more shrill in their denunciations of the ‘outlandish’ prince who marched at the head of the Cavalier forces. During early 1642, hundreds of printed pamphlets had been pouring off the capital’s presses every month, many of them intended to denigrate the king’s friends and exalt his foes. Now, several pamphlets appeared that sought to exploit the occult rumours which had previously circulated around Rupert by suggesting that the king’s nephew was a shot-proof ‘shape-shifter’ armed with devilish powers.
These claims – made in an age, it should be remembered, when most people still believed implicitly in the reality of witchcraft – were clearly intended to convince the pamphlets’ more impressionable readers that the royalist cause was satanic. It’s impossible to say just how far such allegations were credited among the ordinary people of England.
However, following the king’s failure to take London and his retreat to Oxford in November – the royalist polemicist John Cleveland hit back with a satirical poem that mocked the Roundheads for their supposed credulousness. Cleveland claimed that the belief that Rupert possessed magical powers was universal among the Roundheads, and also declared that they were convinced that the prince’s dog was his ‘devil’, or familiar spirit; that is to say, a demon in the shape of an animal which provided him with occult assistance.
It was during the course of this poem that Cleveland suggested – with his tongue firmly in his cheek – that if anyone spoke the name of “Charles”, the dog at once “comes aloft for him,” but “holds up his Malignant leg at Pym”; an off-the cuff jest which would later come to be regarded by many historians as representative of what the parliamentarians had truly believed.
Cleveland’s satire clearly delighted his fellow royalists – suggesting, as it did, that the Roundheads were gullible fools – and by January 1643 the king’s supporters were reported to be drinking healths to Prince Rupert’s dog. So much mirth did the poem provoke that, soon afterwards, an anonymous royalist writer sought to capitalise on it by composing an entire pamphlet about the animal.
Entitled Observations upon Prince Rupert’s White Dog Called Boy (see image right) this artful tract took the form of a letter – a reproduction, it was clearly implied, of an original missive which had supposedly been sent from Oxford to London by a parliamentarian spy named ‘TB’. Written in a parody of the Puritans’ canting style, the letter solemnly listed the magical powers that Boy was held to possess, and claimed that the prince’s companion was not, in fact, a real dog, but was rather a “handsome white woman” in the shape of a dog, with whom Rupert enjoyed frequent sexual encounters.
Here, TB’s ventriloquist was tipping his hat to the contemporary conviction that witches had sex with their familiars – and in the process, hinting very strongly that Rupert was himself a witch. Not surprisingly, the publication of the Observations caused a considerable stir, and three separate editions of the pamphlet are known to have been printed – one of them featuring a woodcut engraving of Boy. By now, Rupert’s dog had become front-page news, and the animal went on to feature in a whole series of pamphlets, some of them even more scurrilous than the Observations. There can be little doubt that, by mid-1643, Boy was the most celebrated ‘familiar’ that England had ever seen.
Throughout late 1643 and early 1644 royalist writers continued to derive great amusement from the mockserious claim – first promulgated by Cleveland in his poem and then elaborated by ‘TB’ in his faux-parliamentarian pamphlet – that the Roundheads regarded Boy with superstitious fear, but Cavalier laughter soon turned to tears. In July 1644 Rupert and the king’s northern army were decisively defeated at the battle of Marston Moor. Thousands of royalists were killed – and among the casualties was the prince’s famous dog.
Parliamentarian polemicists seized on Boy’s death with predictable glee. Royalist writers, for their part, never seem to have mentioned Boy again; for them, the joke that the dog could assist his master in battle had turned distinctly sour.
Despite the assertions of the royalist propagandists, and of the many later scholars who have been deceived by their effusions, there is little evidence to suggest that the belief that Boy was a familiar spirit was genuinely widespread in the parliamentarian camp. Nevertheless, the repeated references to Boy in the ephemeral literature of the day clearly had the effect of raising the profile of familiars in general, while the repeated claims that Rupert possessed supernatural powers were undoubtedly believed by at least some of the ordinary people who encountered them.
The bizarre reports that were circulated about Rupert and his dog almost certainly helped to fuel the growing popular anxiety about witchcraft which became evident during the 1640s. They may even have contributed to the great English witch hunt of 1645–47, when Matthew Hopkins, the so-called ‘Witch-finder General’, hunted down scores of alleged witches in parliamentarian East Anglia. At the height of this panic, it is intriguing to note, James More, a Suffolk man suspected of witchcraft, testified to the fact that he and a relative had sent three ‘imps’, or familiars, to assist Prince Rupert several years before.
More’s testimony shows how the stories about Rupert and Boy – originally invented for polemical purposes in Oxford and London – had filtered down to the villages of provincial England, where they had been incorporated, by some at least, into their occult world view. Thus partisan political propaganda had collided with popular witch-belief to produce strange new fusions.
In 1646 the royalist cause collapsed and Rupert departed for the continent. After suffering many vicissitudes during the Interregnum, he returned to England after the Restoration of the monarchy and was eventually buried at Westminster Abbey in 1682. By this time, Boy had been all but forgotten and it was only with the 19th and 20thcentury rediscovery of the satirical texts which the royalist polemicists had written about him that the conviction that the Roundheads had been terrified of Prince Rupert’s dog again took root.
How delighted John Cleveland would have been to know that the hare – or perhaps one should say the devil-dog – which he had first set running in 1642–43 would still be subverting Roundhead reputations more than 350 years later.
According to a contemporary pamphlet, Boy possessed the following range of extraordinary occult powers:
- The power to ‘prophecie’, or to predict the future
- The power to find hidden treasure and all sorts of other concealed goods
- The power to speak many languages (including Hebrew and ‘High Dutch’)
- The power to render both himself and his master ‘weapon-proof’, or invulnerable to bullets
- The power to make himself invisible
- The power to assume the form of other people by shifting his shape
- The power to inflict death or injury on those who Had wronged him
- The power to prevent others from taking rational decisions, by making them “impotent… [in] their minds”
Other devil dogs
Boy was the most celebrated familiar spirit of his day, but he was by no means the only ‘imp’ to catch the popular imagination during the Tudor and early Stuart periods. Other famous familiars included:
- Bomelius, the black dog who belonged to the Elizabethan sorcerer known as ‘Feats’
- Tom, the demon “in the shape of a dog”, who was said to have appeared to a woman named Elizabeth Sawyer during the reign of James I and seduced her into serving the devil. Tom was subsequently to be immortalised as ‘Tom-Boy’ in Thomas Dekker’s stage-play The Witch of Edmonton (see image right)
- Mamilion, the spirit “in the shape of a brown-coloured dog” who supposedly lay with a Lancashire woman during the 1630s. Like Tom, Mamilion was later to be resurrected in a play – this time Heywood and Brome’s The Late Lancashire Witches (1634)
Mark Stoyle is professor of history at the University of Southampton. His new book, The Black Legend of Prince Rupert’s Dog, will be published by University of Exeter Press in May 2011.