The Prince and the Devil Dog

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.

Boy 1

A 17th-century woodcut of a contemporary poodle, of the same breed as Boy

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.

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.

Rupert, Count Palatine of the Rhine, Duke of Bavaria, 1st Duke of Cumberland, 1st Earl of Holderness , commonly called Prince Rupert of the Rhine, (1619 – 1682)

Rupert, Count Palatine of the Rhine, Duke of Bavaria, 1st Duke of Cumberland, 1st Earl of Holderness , commonly called Prince Rupert of the Rhine, (1619 – 1682)

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 parlamentarian 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.

Prince Rupert and Charles I of England

Prince Rupert and Charles I of England

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 implicity 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.

Prince Rupert and his dog

Prince Rupert and his dog

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 this artful tract took the form of the letter – a repoduction, 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 mock-serious 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.

Observations upon Prince Rupert’s White Dog Called Boy

Observations upon Prince Rupert’s White Dog Called Boy

Parliamentarian polemicist 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 effusion, there is a 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 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 the 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.

The death of the dog

The death of the dog

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 fusion.

In 1646 the royalist cause collapse 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 20th-century 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 route.

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.

Mark Stoyle, the author of The Black Legend of Prince Rupert’s Dog: Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

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