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“A variety of dog characterized by large drooping ears, long silky hair, keen scent, and affectionate nature, some breeds of which are used for sporting purposes, esp. for starting and retrieving game, while others are favourite pet- or toy-dogs” (OED online).


Image 1: King Charles Spaniel,  George Stubbs, 1776 



“Thro’ life the same, in sunshine and in storms,

At once his Lord’s protector and his guide,

Shapes to his wishes, to his wants conforms,

His slave, his friend, his pastime, and his pride.”

(“In Defence of our Attachment to Animals” 1801, quoted in Tague, Companions, Servants or Slaves?)


Speaking here of dogs in a general sense, Samuel Jackson Pratt encapsulates the popularity of the spaniel in the eighteenth-century as an obedient protector, guide, slave, and pride, and many other accounts from the era wholeheartedly agree with this depiction. Nonetheless, their portrayal in literature is evident as long ago as in medieval texts, including Chaucer’s Prologue to the tale of the Wife of Bath. Likewise, John Caius’ 1576 Of Englishe Dogges provides a comprehensive account of the nature, colourings and variations within the spaniel breed. There are many varieties of spaniels, including the King Charles spaniel, and what was known in the eighteenth-century as the water-spaniel, which was primarily used to “retrieve waterfowl” and the like, during hunting (OED).

It is not until late in the seventeenth century, however, that spaniels become far more integrated as social pets, as both hunting companions, and as indicators of being within a civilised society, leading to an increase of references within literature, and portrayals in other artistic forms, such as painting, as well as occurrences in documents such as newspapers.


Image 2: Graph showing frequency of term “spaniel” between the years of 1650 and 1840, from Artemis


While this graph is generally useful for depicting increases in term usage, the fact of surges in printed literature in this period, as opposed to manuscript culture being more esteemed, means that there were, on a whole, many more books of all kinds being printed. Therefore the use of this type of graph is complicated by the appearance of general increases in usage that may have little to do with increased usage of the word itself. Nonetheless, sudden increases such as that shown between 1830 and 1840 can suggest that there may have been a particularly popular text being re-published at this time of the long eighteenth-century, which somehow pertained to the word 'spaniel'.






Social Functions



The spaniel of the eighteenth century, more so than in recent centuries, fulfilled a varied role in society. Rather than simply being a household pet, to be doted on by the ladies and children, they also assisted their masters with hunting. This ambidexterity certainly contributed to the breed’s popularity, both in life and as the subjects of literature. Despite the seemingly wide-spread popularity of the breed, through exploration, it becomes clear that the spaniel was in essence contained to the upper echelons of society, as there is little evidence of the dog used or kept in a working-class environment.



The Working Dog



One benefit of owning a spaniel in the Eighteenth Century was their notoriety as hunters and hunting companions, and therefore their ability to more or less earn their keep. Thomas Page's The Art Of Shooting Flying firstly points out the superiority of the spaniel over the pointer in performing some tasks:


Image 3: Excerpt from The Art of Shooting Flying, p89.




Despite their depiction here and elsewhere as a practical possession, it is also clear that a man’s spaniel in the eighteenth century was also a great source of pride.  The Art of Shooting Flying, which is essentially one of many gentlemen’s handbooks concerned with hunting, lists a section instruction as to “The Method of Training, Breaking and Using Pointers and Spaniels; Rules for the preserving of their Health; and Receipts for the Disorders they are most liable to” and it is made clear by the author that much care should be taken. The second section of the book contains rules to be observed for keeping dogs in good health: “As pointers and spaniels, when good of their kind and well broken, are very valuable to a sportsman, it is worthwhile to take some care to preserve their health” (101), and goes on to list very detailed and specific instructions of when, how and what working spaniels should be given to eat or drink, how their coats should be preserved and their comfort maintained. This is particularly valuable in telling us that while hunting men may have been particularly indebted to spaniels for their help, so too were the spaniels dependent of a certain level of dedicated care given by their masters.




Image 4: Spaniel and Hare, engraving by James Scott, 1797 


Furthermore, there is evidence suggesting that men may have developed emotional feelings of fondness towards their spaniels in The History of the Renown'd Don Quixote de la Mancha translated into English and published around the years of 1700-12 depicts the following scene:


There was a Mad-man at Cordova, who made it his Business to carry about the Streets uponhis Head a huge Stone of a pretty

Conscionable Weight; and whenever he met with a Dog without a Master, especially such a surly Cur as would stalk up to his Nose,

he very fairly dropp'd his Load all at once, souse, upon him[…]till one Day it was his Fortune to meet with a Sportsman's Dog, a

Capmaker's by Trade, though that's neither here nor there. The Dog was mightily valu'd by his Master, but that was more than the

Mad-man knew; for slap went the Stone upon the poor Dog. The Animal being almost crush'd to Death, set up his Throat, and yelp'd

most piteously; insomuch that his Master knowing 'twas his Dog by the Howl, runs out, and touch'd with the Injury, whips up a Stick

that was at Hand, lets drive at the Mad-man, and belabours him to some Purpose, crying out at every Blow, you Son of a Bitch, abuse

my Spaniel! You Inhumane Rascal, did not you know that my Dog was a Spaniel? 



This, being a translation of an earlier, fictional text, can not be seen to reliably commentate on eighteenth century perceptions of the spaniel. Nonetheless, the emphasis on the breed of the dog suggests that there was still some notoriety about the breed, and the owner’s emotional retribution on the grounds of the sentimental worth of the dog may point to a generally acknowledged view of a master’s relation to his spaniel. This particularly elevated view of spaniels is echoed throughout the century.



The Civilised Dog



The popularity of the spaniel in the eighteenth century is not contained to their talent and utility in the field of hunting. In the 1701 poem, “A Rod for Tunbridge Beaus, Bundl'd up at the Request of the Tunbridge Ladies to Jirk Fools into more Wit and Clowns into more Manners”, the unacknowledged author makes a distinction between her subject's civilised behaviour, and rakish behaviour through his association with spaniels:


 This famous Archwag you must know,

was bred:- home-spun Rural Beau;

For Country-Beaus are now as Common,

As Looby-Clowns, or Booby-Yeomen;

He does a good Estate inherit,

Which came by Birth, and not by Merit,

And chiefly when at Home converses,

With Setting-Spaniels, Hounds and Horses,

But when abroad, the time he passes

Away with hare-brain'd Fools and Asses

(P. 23)



In this extensive critique of men of Tunbridge, this “Archwag” is said to have been born into a wealthy family, but is presented as lacking the innate ability to act as a gentleman. this would undoubtedly involve partaking in homosocial hunting activities with “Setting-Spaniels, Hounds and Horses”. Instead, the author puns on "Archwag's" association with men of low quality, who are simply dehumanised into “hare-brain'd Fools and Asses”, and the poet goes on to ridicule him further over a few more pages. Thus the spaniel becomes a marker of high society due to their responsibility and talent in hunting, while hares and asses, which at the time were thought to have below-average intelligence, become synonymous with stupidity and baseness. While spaniels, and all other animals are clearly seen as far inferior to human-kind, the eighteenth-century displays a sense of hierarchy within the animal world which correlates to the animals' usefulness in the human word. Therefore, in a society driven by pastimes of hunting, and travelling by carriage, spaniels, hounds and horses are thought to be 'better' animals than hares, for example, who are the victims of the hunt.


Image 5: W.m Lowndes Esqr, Painted alongside a Spaniel by T Gainsborough, 1771


Here, a spaniel is shown in the company of William Lowndes, who, like his father of the same name, was a Auditor of His Majesty's Court of Exchequer in the late eighteenth-century. The artist responsible for the production of this painting was one Thomas Gainsborough, who at the time, was steadily gaining esteem as a portraitist, and increasing his prices up to 100 guineas. Thus the inclusion of a spaniel is likely to have been to the purpose of demonstrating the status of his subject, and the spaniel's stationary obedience suggests a firm-handed master who nonetheless enjoyed the spaniel's compete loyalty.


Much of the evidence considered seems to agree that while the popularity of the spaniel was not confined to one gender, it was certainly confined to one class of people. As hunting was very much the pastime of the wealthy, their favouritism of the breed seems obvious. Camilla: or, A picture of Youth, by the author of Evelina, Fanny Burney, recalls an episode in which "a butcher's boy, who was riding by, from a wanton love of mischeif, gave a signal to his attending bulldog, to attack the old spaniel that accompanied Sir Hugh" (44). The image that is created here is one in which the working class people of the eighteenth century showed preference to more robust and (according to stereotype) aggressive breeds of dogs, while the spaniel, was made comfortable in his master's manor, when not accompanying him to the hunt.



Sentimental Value






The immense sentimental value placed on spaniels by their eighteenth century owners is exemplified in the fact that beloved pet dogs such as spaniels were often commemorated after they had died. The same method of memorialisation was also dedicated to Cats in the eighteenth-century. The form that this often took was usually that of the short, isolated passages, or, as is the case with Edward Burnaby Greene, with an ode, at the end of an extended collection.




Image 6: Gray's Ode on the Death of a Favorite Spaniel



This epigraph does not only depict the sorrow of a master at having lost his highly esteemed spaniel, but the image of a “grave” tells modern audiences that as pets, there was perhaps a degree of ceremony in laying spaniels to rest in the eighteenth-century. Such respectfulness is now perhaps more reserved for humans than domestic animals. The focus on the "constancy" and the "cheer" the spaniel contributed to his master's life further exemplifies an aspect of the breed's characteristics that made them so popular with men, women and children alike.


Image 6: Oil on Canvas by James Northcote, A Little girl nursing a kitten, 1795




Newspapers have been particularly useful in exploring the role of the spaniel in the eighteenth-century household. Contemporary newspapers saw many verses dedicated to spaniels (among other pets), including the poem “On the Death of a Lady’s Spaniel”, in the New London Magazine, 1785, which follows the example of many in praising and immortalising the adored features of a favourite spaniel. That the dog is specified as having belonged to a Lady demonstrates that the popularity of the breed was not limited to men, and hunting, but that they would also serve as companions to most members of noble families. The detail in this poem of 'Jett' being “of Charles’s royal race” is a reference to the common idea that King Charles II (1630–1685) first imported two Spaniels from Spain, thus initially establishing the breed in England that would steadily gain popularity, particularly within the higher classes, until the eighteenth-century, when, as demonstrated, the breed was immensely favoured.



Image 7: On the Death of a Lady’s Spaniel



Newspapers of the time also included many examples of advertisements for runaway or stolen spaniels. In one, a reward of five shillings is offered for the safe return of a spaniel, but it is not mentioned whether the dog is thought to have been stolen. Despite the occurance of many such advertisements, The Old Bailey archive lists very few examples of stolen spaniels, suggesting that the spaniels missing may have been returned or done so of their own accord. Likewise, it may be the case that spaniels were not often stolen as they were very common companions, and the worth of them was mostly a matter of sentimentality rather than monetary worth as a particularly rare commodity.



Images 8 and 9: Advertisements from newspapers Post Boy; London, March 26, 1700 - March 28, 1700 (above) and Caledonian Mercury; Edinburgh, 02 May 1799 (below)







Spaniel Metaphors in Literature


Literature of the eighteenth-century also irrevocably demonstrates that as a result of the breed’s devotion to their owners, the term ‘spaniel’ became synonymous for being weak and over-emotive, and pandering to the desires or attention of another person. More than this, the concept seems bound to the idea that such behaviour secures one's inferiority, thus reflecting the ideal power dynamic between men and animals.


A popular example of this type of usage occurs in John Gay's 1728 ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera. The character Lockit, a jail-keeper, accuses his daughter Lucy of “whimpering and fondling, like a spaniel, over the fellow that hath abused you" (Act 2, Scene 11), suggesting that she displayed a helplessness and immaturity towards a man, and that this may be in detriment to her reputation. For the actions of a women to be described as spaniel-like is not particularly shocking, given that women were more often than not acting according to the desires of a man, a master of sorts in their father or husband.


This metaphor has also been used in the emerging party politics of the eighteenth-century. In a text entitled The Character of a Whig, Under Several Denominations, to Which is Added The Reverse, or the Character of a True English-man, in Opposition to the Former, in a Chapter on "A Politick, Tricking, Over-Reaching, Trading Whig", such a character is described as an individual who "Fawns like a Spaniel upon every New Customer, and a Puking Wambling Conscience, is his Cloak to hide his Knavery" (85). Thus, the Trading Whig is depicted as a being void of self-respect, and duplicitous in his intentions and actions. The significance of this lies once more in the implicit idea of power and superiority: the Whig trader is subservient to his customers, who in return think they have power over him, when in reality, they are probably (according to the author) being swindled. 


As a result of the fawning and feeble nature of the spaniel, the inclusion of them in literature in the eighteenth-century could also be seen as a way of affirming, by contrast, the masculinity of their masters. In support of this, a book entitled Familiar Essays on Interesting Topics includes the following passage: 


Image 10: Familiar Essays, on Interesting Topics, p.156


Taken from a chapter which essentially critiques inhumanity towards animals, in this passage, the author suggests that a man's cruelty towards animals is taught from a young age, at which maltreatment of a spaniel is enabled by parents. It is implied that the boy is socialised into his cruel role by lack of admonition for early misdemeanors, in order to fortify his later role of master of his surroundings. It is significant that a spaniel is used for the portrayal of this situation, rather than, for example, a cat, as the easily-domesticated and loyal breed would seemingly bear his 'chastisement' without harbouring resentment for his master. A similarly slippery slope is shown in William Hogarth's The Four Stages of Cruelty, wherein mistreatment of animals is the first stage of a process that concludes in cruelty towards fellow humans.



Image 11: The first plate of 'The Four Stages of Cruelty', etching/engraving by William Hogarth





A Lasting Legacy


The same era that used 'spaniel' as a derogatory word eventually saw much corrective literature, particularly aimed at children, to the end of advocating animal rights. One example of this is Sarah Trimmer's Fabulous Histories. Ingrid H. Tague has explored this a great deal and found that:


Sarah Trimmer’s cautionary tale against overindulging pets also included a contrast between legitimate and illegitimate relationships with animals: “the lap-dop [sic] is, I am sure, a miserable object, full of diseases, the consequences of luxurious living. How enviable is the lot of a spaniel that is at liberty, to be the companion of his master’s walks, when compared with his!”

In these examples, then, we can see the ways in which the vocabulary of canine slavery could be employed in critiques of pet-keeping. Like the advocates for animal rights, these writers constructed a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable servitude rather than developing an alternative to the power relations that left animals at the whim of humans [...] the mere pet is transformed into a corrupted and corrupting slave; more useful dogs, on the other hand, escape the slavery of pethood. Sarah Trimmer’s spaniel is the “companion” of its master, at “liberty” to roam, in contrast to the unhappy lapdog or Ward’s treacherous and “domestic” pug. The right form of servitude in this presentation transforms the dog from slave to companion [...] Ironically, in this vision it is by working for humans that the dog wins its liberty. (124-5)



Thus it becomes clear that as the century goes on, attitudes towards the keeping of pets like spaniels develop and become far more moralistically nuanced. While eighteenth century spaniels were far from having the constitutional protection they might possess today, there is distinct evidence that their central role within wealthy households appropriated the increase in concern by eighteenth century citizens for the welfare of spaniels and other dogs. 


Image 12: King Charles Spaniels (‘The Cavalier’s Pets’), Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1845



The changing attitude towards spaniels is exemplified by the proposition of the English Dog Tax towards the end of the century (1796), in which parliamentarian John Dent argued, according to Lynn Festa that 


 The destruction of dogs [...] would reduce the large number of cases of [rabies] caused by mad dogs that disproportionately afflicted the poor, and would curtail the many attacks of dogs upon herds of sheep that both inflicted losses upon farmers and diminished the food supply. Equally important, the tax would prevent the poor from squandering their money on useless pets, while the quantities of food lavished upon dogs might instead be used to feed the indigent (1)


While it is clear that Dent harboured genuine concerns about societal issues, he was nonetheless cast as a villain in the ensuing media and literary frenzy that followed. Literature was particularly important in the refutation of the passage of the new law; examples include Thomas Young's An Essay on Humanity to Animals (1798).


It can be safely assumed that while mongrels and other dogs favoured by the working classes would suffer under the law, spaniels and pointers would be protected by their wealthy owners, who would be more than willing to pay the five shillings per dog (Festa, 15). nonetheless, from the events at the end of the century, it can be inferred that greater care may have been taken in the process of deciding whether to own a spaniel. The enduring popularity of the breed is testament that many thought the spaniel well worth the extra tax.





BBC- Crufts 2017: American Cocker Spaniel Afterglow Miami Ink is Best In Show







Primary Sources


Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de and Peter Anthony Motteux. The History Of The Renown'd Don Quixote De La Mancha. 1st ed. London: Printed for S. Buckley, 1700.

             Via Historical Texts Online:


-      An early edition of Don Xiote, including a passage demonstrating a man’s passionate reaction to ill-treatment of a spaniel


Gillray, James. John Bull Baited by the Dogs of Excise. coloured engraving. London, 1790. Via British Museum:


-     Not used for spaniels, but shows that many were interested in the symbolism of dogs in general- in this case, as representatives of politicians.


Greene, Edward Burnaby. The Latin odes of Mr. Gray, in English verse, with an Ode on the Death of a Favorite Spaniel. Printed for J Ridley, St. James’s Street, 1775.

           Via Historical Texts Online:


-      A poet’s ode to a dead pet. Useful in showing intimacy and respect- includes mention of grave, suggesting respect for pets.


Hogarth, William. The Four Stages of Cruelty, Four plates. London, 1751. Via Tate.org:


-     Not specifically related to spaniels, but shows the descent from animal cruelty towards cruelty to mankind.


Page, T. The Art Of Shooting Flying. Norwich: Printed by J. Crouse, 1770. Via Historical Texts Online:


-     A handbook for hunting, including detailed instruction of caring for a spaniel used to aid hunter.


Unknown author, A Rod for Tunbridge Beaus, Bundl'd up at the Request of the Tunbridge Ladies to Jirk Fools into more Wit and Clowns into more Manners. Printed by The Booksellers of London and Westminster, 1701. Via Historical Texts Online:


-      Comic poem, linking male association with hunting animals with civility and refinement.


Unknown author, Familiar Essays, on Interesting Topics. Printed for Leigh and Sotheby, York Street, Covent Garden, 1787. Via Historical Texts Online: 


-     Source suggesting that domination over a spaniel from a young age contributes to the construction of masculinity.

Unknown author, The Character of a Whig, Under Several Denominations, to Which is Added The Reverse, or the Character of a True English-man, in Opposition to the Former. London, 1709.           Via Historical Texts Online:


-     Political Tory propaganda, highly critical of Whigs (in various forms), who are directly contrasted to 'true English-men'. trading Whig described as Spaniel in fodling over customers- will do anything to hide true character.


Young, Thomas. An Essay on Humanity to Animals. London, 1798. Via Historical Texts Online:


-     Possibly a reaction to the Dog Tax Bill of 1796. Demonstrates increasing concern for the welfare of dogs.


Secondary Sources


Festa, L. "Person, Animal, Thing: The 1796 Dog Tax and the Right to Superfluous Things." Eighteenth-Century Life, vol. 33 no. 2, 2009, pp. 1-44. Via Project Muse:


-     Explores the origins, justification and effects of the Dog Tax of 1796, and the role of literature in the backlash. The works cited in the essay may be particularly useful primary sources.


Tague, Ingrid. H. “Companions, Servants, or Slaves?: Considering Animals in Eighteenth Century Britain.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture. 39. (2010) Pp.111-130 Via Project Muse:


-      Good, general introduction to pets and other animals in the Eighteenth century.


Tague, Ingrid. H. “Dead Pets: Satire and Sentiment in British Elegies and Epitaphs for Animals.” Eighteenth-Century Studies. 41.3 (2008). Pp. 289-306 Via Project Muse:  


-      This has some exploration of the ways in which epitaphs and the like contrast humans to the virtue of animals



Reference Sources


Belsey, Hugh. “Gainsborough, Thomas (1727–1788).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004.


-      Evidence that the artist who painted Lowndes and Spaniel portrait was highly respectable, and esteemed for his work- thus the spaniel has a purpose in the painting.


"spaniel, n.1 (and adj.)." OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016.


-     Source used to find a formal description of spaniel characteristics.



Image Directory:


Image 1: Painting by Stubbs, George, King Charles Spaniel, 1776: England. Via Artstor:



Image 2: Graph showing frequency of term “Spaniel” between the years of 1650 and 1840, created on the Artemis database


Image 3: Excerpt from Page, T. The Art Of Shooting Flying. Norwich: Printed by J. Crouse, p 89. Via: Historical Texts Online



Image 4: Engraving by Marshall (artist), James Scott (engraver) and J Wheble (publisher), Spaniel and Hare, 1797: London. Via V&A Collection:



Image 5: Excerpt from The Latin odes of Mr. Gray, in English verse, with an Ode on the Death of a Favorite Spaniel. P 11. Via Historical Texts Online



Image 6: Oil on Canvas by Northcote, James. A Little girl nursing a kitten, 1795: Great Britain. Via V&A Collection:



Image 7: G. "On the DEATH of a LADY'S SPANIEL." New London Magazine, 1785-1789 1.6 (1785): 321. Via ProQuest (British Periodicals):



Image 8: "Advertisement." Caledonian Mercury, May 02 1799: Edinburgh. Via ProQuest (British Periodicals):



Image 9: “Advertisement” Post Boy, Issue 775. March 26, 1700 - March 28, 1700: London. Via 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers:







Image 11: Plate 1 of 4 -  The Four Stages of Cruelty, etchings/engravings by William Hogarth. London, 1751. Via Tate.org:



Image 12: Oil paint on canvas by Edwin HenryLandseer. King Charles Spaniels (‘The Cavalier’s Pets’). 1845. Via Tate.org:


Familiar Essays, on Interesting Topics

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