Rob Hardy: The black legend of Prince Rupert's dog

September 7, 2011 9:58:00 AM

Rob Hardy - [email protected]


You may have read or seen the movie about Marley, "The World''s Worst Dog." Marley, at least, was just a dog, and those whom he troubled might have had to suffer torn belongings and other messes. Marley was a piker at "worstness" though; he did not speak all the languages of Satan, for instance, and he could not change his shape into that of a seductive woman, and he could not render himself and his master invisible. These are the sorts of naughtiness ascribed to Boy, a dog who lived over three centuries ago and belonged to Prince Rupert, nephew of the British King Charles I. Boy, whatever demonic things he could do, did play a real role in the English Civil War, and he did affect how the British regarded witches, so if you are interested in reading a book about a real dog with a real place in history, here is _The Black Legend of Prince Rupert''s Dog: Witchcraft and Propaganda during the English Civil War_ (University of Essex Press) by Mark Stoyle. The author is a history professor with special interest in witchcraft and the Civil War period, and says that he knew even as a child that Prince Rupert had possessed an unusual dog. While Stoyle denies that he was "bewitched" by the story, he started devoting serious academic attention to the dog six years ago, mostly because although the occult connections of Boy were famous in the dog''s own time, and have been storied ever since, no one had investigated the origin of the rumors about the dog or how Prince Rupert''s diabolical image developed over time. This is the book to do just that, and the play of superstition and its effect on reality is fascinating throughout.



Here are some pointers, for those who don''t make the English Civil War the object of their constant study. The first part of the war, the one in which Rupert and Boy took part, was fought from 1642 to 1646. Rupert was on the side of the Royalists, or Cavaliers, supporting his uncle Charles I. They were opposed by the Parliamentarians, Roundheads, or Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell, who barely appears on these pages. Stoyle''s account starts when Rupert''s mother, Charles''s sister Elizabeth, was left a widow after Frederick V, elector of the Rhineland Palatinate, died in 1632. As a child, Rupert got the nickname "Robert the Devil," and there is little explanation why he got the name, but it may have been the first indicator to make people think of a connection between him and the occult. Rupert even as a teenager proved to be a competent soldier. He miraculously escaped death or wounding in the Battle of Vlotho in Westphalia in 1638 when he was nineteen, and a rumor went around that Rupert was "shot-free," or unable to be hurt by bullets due to some sort of enchantment. Nonetheless, he was captured and imprisoned in Linz Castle, Austria. Sometime during his two and a half years there, he was given a dog.




There is some confusion about what sort of dog this was, and its name, but best evidence supports that he was a white hunting poodle, and he went by the name of Boy. When Rupert was released, he, with Boy, went to England to serve in his uncle''s cavalry. He may have come to the service bearing a reputation as a witch or sorcerer, but any such stories would have been forgotten if it were not for the Roundhead pamphleteers. There may have been initial reports that Rupert had committed "divelish" outrages, but a pamphlet in November came out saying that Rupert had disguised someone to look like himself and that Roundhead soldiers had seen "the plundering Prince, or some fiery spirit mounted on some airy apparition in the likenes of a horse." No reason was given why there should be an assumption that if it wasn''t Rupert, it had to be some incorporeal spirit, but the link between Rupert and witchery was made. A further pamphlet said he charged "like the Devil" and broadcast the story that Rupert was shot-free. Another referred to Rupert taking disguises in order to spy on the Roundheads, but said he had taken "severall shapes" in such disguises, hinting at the witch''s capacity for shape-shifting. The Roundhead propaganda also sparked the idea that there was a diabolic tribe around the king.



On their side, the Royalists were happy to portray the Roundheads as dunderheads who could believe the most foolish superstitions. The poet John Cleveland got into the act by a poem that made fun of Roundhead credulity, and that said that the Roundheads were just as scared of Boy the dog as they were of Rupert, because Boy ate human flesh, and before he lay down he went around in circles, circles just like witches made on the ground for their enchantments! The Cavaliers would have found this hilarious. The Royalist leaders, including the king, thought witchcraft fraudulent and silly (although other levels might have believed in it as fervently as any Roundheads). Cleveland may also have been the author of a famous pamphlet of 1643, _Observations upon Prince Rupert''s White Dog Called Boy_, the text of which is included as an appendix in this book. Historians had first thought the pamphlet was a Roundhead diatribe against Boy''s witchery, but Stoyle masterfully shows it to have been a Royalist satire on Puritan propaganda. Among other things, the pamphlet borrowed on the stock belief that a witch would have a "familiar," the devil himself or one of his subordinate imps in the form of a pet, to help the sorcery go along.



_Observations_ may have been satire, but it was also the first pamphlet about witchcraft published in England in fifteen years. It would have achieved its purpose of making Royalists laugh at the foolish credulity of Roundheads, but it had a serious unintended consequence. Stoyle shows that the pamphlet, and others, created "an intellectual atmosphere in which the subject of witchcraft could be discussed more freely in print than it had been for many years before." The fanciful stories about Boy only supported the beliefs of the Roundheads that the king was really in league with genuine witches, and thus proved a propaganda masterstroke against the home team that had generated the stories in the first place. It may be that they did influence the first part of the war, increasing the vehemence and courage of the Roundheads; Rupert was not ultimately successful in his campaigns against them, and left England in 1646. More importantly, Stoyle shows, the newly-revived public thinking about witches may have lead the Roundheads to massacre the female Royalist camp-followers after the battle of Naseby. Even more significant, the increased attention paid to the familiars of witches because of Boy''s reputation of being himself a familiar may have influenced the way the witch-finder Matthew Hopkins proceeded in his persecutions. No witches were executed in the king''s quarters during the years covered in this book, but scores were executed after the Roundheads took over.



Boy himself was killed at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644, but stories about him continued to reinforce ideas that Rupert was in league with the devil, as were the king and the rest of the Cavaliers. That the dog had absurd stories told about him proves to have been far from a frivolous matter, and a case could be made that Boy because of the reputation bestowed upon him was one of the most influential dogs in history. Stoyle seems to have investigated this surprisingly important sliver of history as deeply as can be done. While many of the connections he draws are tentative (and he admits it), Stoyle''s picture is a dark and convincing look at a few monstrosities resulting from the sleep of reason.


Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]