The Black Legend of Prince Rupert's Dog: Witchcraft and Propaganda During the English Civil War

A tale of a royal's best friend whose reputation was manipulated to scare the enemy delights

July 21, 2011

So is this book Roundhead history or Cavalier history? Roundhead history is, of course, right but repulsive: nuanced, significant, scholarly, dry and turgid. Whereas Cavalier history is wrong but wromantic: trivial, slapdash, readable and fun. Mark Stoyle is trying to give us the best of both. But he knows as well as anyone that those few brave souls who tried to bring Roundheads and Cavaliers together ended up being attacked by both sides.

We start firmly in Cavalier territory, with Prince Rupert, King Charles I's nephew and much-feared cavalry commander, and his unusual dog, who soon after the outbreak of the Civil War became notorious. Propagandists on both sides traded tales of the beast's magical powers. The dog was killed at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644, but by then it was part of the prince's legend, and it continues to have walk-on parts in scholarly and popular accounts of the Civil War.

Stoyle brings heavyweight scholarship to bear on this apparently frivolous matter. We learn that there were probably two dogs - both poodles, one black and one white - given to Rupert in Germany. The black one was lost early in the war; it was the white survivor who became notorious. It was sometimes called "Puddle" (for "poodle"), but we know it as "Boy" - although it may have been female.

It's the propaganda that gives the dog's life a shot at significance. Boy was turned into a public figure by two pieces of Royalist writing. First, an unpublished poem by John Cleveland, To Prince Rupert, used the dog as a satirical foil to Rupert's fearsome reputation. Rupert was already said to be bulletproof ("shot-free") and was nicknamed Robert the Devil. Cleveland's teasing tales of Boy's ferocity and magical powers were a simple joke: the Parliamentarians are even afraid of Rupert's dog!

But the poem was a hit, and a printed tract (perhaps also by Cleveland) followed: an ingenious spoof of a Parliamentarian pamphlet, full of breathless and ridiculous claims for the dog's magical powers and Rupert's sexual dependence on it. Now the joke was not Parliamentarians' cowardice but their superstitious credulity. The Royalist elite regarded magic and witchcraft as fraudulent and ridiculous. This tract applied almost every trope of traditional witch-belief to Boy, and added a few of its own - all to laugh at the far-too-earnest Puritans who believed such nonsense.

It was clever (and Stoyle's analysis is masterful). Other Royalist propagandists followed this lead: some much more crudely, others with equal wit. Parliamentarian propagandists were at a loss to reply. In their own terms, the Royalists had won the argument.

Unfortunately, this was a war, not a debate. Parliamentarians couldn't match the Royalists' agile mockery, but they could and did smash Boy's head in on the battlefield. And ultimately the Royalists were too right for their own good. Many Parliamentarians really were frightened of magic, and the satirical stories of Boy reinforced their conviction that the King was in league with witches. Stoyle argues that the massacre of the female Royalist camp-followers after the Battle of Naseby, and even the great East Anglian witch-hunt of 1645-46, were fired by that association.

So we end in Roundhead territory. If Boy matters, he matters as a piece of black propaganda that took on a life of its own, a joke that turned sour and helped to generate a Civil War-era revival in witch-belief. Was he really central to that revival? I'm not sure. Some of the connections are uncomfortably tentative. But the overall picture is horribly convincing. It makes for a book that is immensely readable, and also worth reading.

The Black Legend of Prince Rupert's Dog: Witchcraft and Propaganda During the English Civil War

By Mark Stoyle

University of Exeter Press

208pp, £45.00

ISBN 9780859898591

Published 25 July 2011

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