It all started with Susan. She was a gift for then Princess Elizabeth’s 18th birthday. Susan was registered as “Hickathrift Pippa” and at first, was called Sue, which evolved into Susan. Susan and Elizabeth became so attached to one another that Susan accompanied the princess on her honeymoon, hidden under blankets in the royal carriage.
Queen Elizabeth II, perhaps the most famous owner of Pembroke Welsh Corgis, has had more than 30 in her lifetime. All of these dogs have descended from Susan. On that birthday in 1944, a love affair was born, for both the future queen and the world.
The Royal Corgi History
Susan, however, was not Elizabeth’s first exposure to the breed. In fact, Corgis had been a part of the royal family before. In 1933, breeder Thelma Gray brought a litter of Corgi puppies to show the Duke of York and his family. The family chose a dog and named him Dookie. A few years later, Gray gave the royal family another Corgi, called Jane. And thus, there were two royal Corgis.
At the start of World War II, Dookie passed away, but Jane gave birth to a puppy called Crackers, and there were two royal Corgis again. When Jane was accidentally run over and killed in 1944, Princess Elizabeth was heartbroken, but wrote to the driver to tell him that she was sure it wasn’t his fault.
And next, there was Susan. Susan, Princess Elizabeth’s 18th birthday present, was the first Corgi to belong solely to her. Susan became the foundation of a royal breeding program
The Queen’s Breeding Program
As Michael Joseph Gross writes in his Vanity Fair article, the queen has personally overseen a program of Pembroke Welsh Corgi breeding, based at Windsor Castle. Purebred puppies from her kennel are registered under the affix of Windsor, and a number of prominent breeders have been involved with her program over the years.
It wasn’t until recently that much of this information was known, as “according to a set of unwritten but strictly observed conventions, the breeders who took part in the queen’s program never discussed their experience in public, and rarely even with one another.”
But now, we know that Susan is the common ancestor of all the queen’s Corgis, an incredible pedigree. Holly and Willow, the last two Corgis the queen had, appeared to be the 14th generation of Susan’s descendants. Over the years, the queen called on prominent breeders, such as Thelma Gray, Maureen Johnston, Ally Boughton, and others, to help her continue her lines.
How did she care for all those dogs? The answer: Bill and Nancy Fenwick. Bill Fenwick became Windsor’s head gamekeeper, and in doing so, he and his wife also became the caretakers of the Corgis. Nancy trained the dogs to walk up stairs, fed and looked after them, and assisted with finding matches to mate with the queen’s dogs. When Nancy Fenwick died, Prince Andrew attended the memorial service, accompanied by the queen. By royal protocol, the monarch does not attend staff funerals, but it seems here an exception was made.
The End of an Era
After decades of devotion to the breed, Windsor has ended its Corgi program. When the queen mother died, people in the Corgi community began to realize that the breeding program had stopped. In 2012, Monty Roberts, the queen’s equine advisor, asked her about the breeding of her Corgis. The queen reportedly said that she “didn’t want to have any more young dogs. She didn’t want to leave any young dog behind.”
Now, after Willow’s passing early last year, only the “Dorgis” remain. Vulcan and Candy, both Dachshund-Corgi mixes, were a result of one of the queen’s Corgis mating with Princess Margaret’s Dachshund, Pipkin. While officially, the palace has kept quiet on matters involving the dogs, The Washington Post reported that the queen was hit particularly hard by Willow’s death. After all, she was the last real tie to the dog that started it all, Susan.
Gone, But Not Forgotten
While there may not be any Corgis at the heels of the queen, their impact on society and on Elizabeth’s reign remains ever-present. As Roberts said, “the queen created an avenue by which people could include animals as part of our social structure.”
The queen used her love for her dogs to make the monarchy friendly and put people at ease. The Corgis have often helped to break the ice with strangers, even at one point providing therapy for a war surgeon suffering a post-traumatic stress disorder attack.
Now, in pop culture, the Corgis have been featured in productions like “The King’s Speech” and “The Crown,” and the UK Kennel Club cites these instances as producing new interest in the breed.
At 92 years old, Elizabeth II is the longest-lived British monarch, and in addition, she is also one of the most prolific and dedicated Pembroke Welsh Corgi breeders and ambassadors that the world has ever seen.