The Queen’s Corgis






The bagpipes got to me; they always do. The first mournful, resonant notes carry me right out of a crowd, and all I can see is a solitary figure at the top of a hill, the plaid of his kilt softened by fog, turning his cold-misted breath into our sorrow. The myrtle on Queen Elizabeth’s coffin, ancient symbol of a happy marriage, caught my throat, because I believe she truly loved Philip, and anchored him, and while the gravity may have dragged him down at times, it also held him together. The lord chamberlain breaking his Wand of Office on the Queen’s coffin made a far more eloquent statement than the griping of White House staffers as they pack up their belongings, rendered powerless by the change of administration. Millions of Brits weeping, spending the night on hard pavement, tossing flowers as her coffin passed—that made an impression, reminding me that, for all the empire’s past sins, a good monarch can unify people every bit as different from one another as the Trump supporters and the woke and caffeinated far left who are tearing us apart.

All this, all the symbols and ceremonies of a death that stopped the world in its tracks and lifted its sights to dedication, service, and self-sacrifice, I found deeply moving.

But it was the sight of the two corgis waiting outside Windsor Castle that undid me.

Not that they understood the funeral cortege. As the drums grew louder, one of the dogs lifted his head and sniffed the air. He would have smelled only exhaust fumes and sweaty soldiers, not their dear friend’s presence, locked as it was inside all that metal and gilt and glass. The rituals Muick and Sandy understand are simpler, centering around biscuits at appointed times, their five o’clock dinner of beef, chicken, rabbit, liver, cabbage, and rice (sometimes mixed up for them by Elizabeth herself), and, best of all, the moments they could count on her hand, the fair skin now translucent and papery, reaching down to smooth their coats.

She understood animals, and she never hesitated to engage with them (once needing stitches after breaking up a dog fight). She even brought an earlier corgi, Susan, along on her honeymoon. (The destination was dog-friendly: Broadlands Estate, the country home of Lord Louis Mountbatten, who had arranged the trip that first introduced Elizabeth to his nephew Philip.)

Thirty corgis followed, these two the last in the line. Were they with her, I wonder, when she died? I hope so. No living creature is as much comfort at a deathbed. I think of how gently our dog Sophie reached up to lick my father-in-law’s hand, and how sat up for the first time in days and leaned down, nearly toppling, to pet her. We humans froze in shock; he had already withdrawn from us to face his own journey, and he had not been responsive—to us—for forty-eight hours.

I remember how a later dog, Louie, told he had to be careful about touching my mother because she was so fragile, stationed himself on the ottoman and guarded her feet. All day long. For weeks. He rose only to follow her to the loo, slowing himself to her snail’s pace and picking up his paws to avoid the tangle of oxygen tubing. Then he waited outside, followed her back to her recliner, and resumed his guard duty.

If Elizabeth’s dogs were not with her when she drew her last breath, I suspect they will look for her, wait hopefully for her, for weeks or even months before the permanence of absence sinks in. Another way dogs wrench our hearts. A friend of mine, an extraordinary dog whisperer, once remarked that we often give them too much credit for cognition, projecting logic they do not use and imputing dark motives they do not possess. “No,” she would tell someone wearily, “the dog was not trying to ‘get back’ at you. He was just scared and lonely and tearing something up felt good.”

That said, she continued, we give dogs far too little credit for emotional IQ. They pick up moods faster than a psychic, and they can sense illness, cancer, impending seizures or heart attacks, fragility, distress, grief. They do not run from your sorrow or sickness, as humans have been known to do. Instead, they lean in quite literally, pressing themselves against you as if to say, “I can’t say or do anything to help, but I am here, and I will not leave you.”

Many Brits loved their queen, but they knew her only in public ways, catching glimpses as she passed, reading the family gossip, smiling over her bracing addresses to the nation. The corgis hung out with her. They smelled her powder, her fear, her jam pennies (the crustless rounds with butter and strawberry jam she had loved since childhood). They watched her shoulders drop and her facial muscles relax in their company. Perhaps she talked nonsense to them, a relief after trying to summon logic for her meetings with a motley succession of prime ministers. Did she indulge in a little babytalk, as she seldom had the ease or time to do with her own infants? We know she and her former equerry exchanged a series of witty letters, the Queen writing to his Jack Russell in the voice of her corgis, which was far merrier than the royal We.

People who do not live with animals wonder how parting with them can leave us in shreds. I used to feel a bit abashed by it myself—a grief of such force should have belonged to friends and relatives. How could I compare their fine intellects and complicated virtues to sixty-five pounds of warm dog, his sloppy kisses and eager presence?

Presence, though, is the key. Add up how much time you spend with the humans you admire and adore. Now add up all the time you spend, sleeping and awake, with a dog at your side, snoozing while you work (“a heartbeat at my feet,” Edith Wharton put it) and thrilled to accompany you on the most trivial of errands. They are always there. And they are good at being there. Someone who is ceremonially leading a huge chunk of the world could use such abiding, unconditional support.

The French writer Michel Houellebecq, so otherwise cynical, once wrote, “The love of a dog is a pure thing. He gives you a trust which is total.” Emily Dickinson adds a practical bonus: “Dogs are better than human beings because they know but do not tell.”

And so they sat, or lay down on the brick walk, during that long wait for the cortege, ready symbols for a bond that had nothing to do with royalty at all.

Incidentally, I was not the only one verklempt. Ellie Hall tweeted, “I was not emotionally prepared for the Queen’s pony and Corgis.” Magazines rushed to reassure the world that the viral rumor that the corgis would be euthanized was false. False! The Queen only said that she would stop breeding corgis, knowing they would outlive her and careful about her responsibilities to the end.

These two will now live in the lodge that her son Andrew shares with his ex-wife, Sarah Ferguson. It was Andrew who presented the pups to his mother, hoping to cheer her up after Philip’s death. I imagine they did. The people we lose can never be replaced, the loss of them erased. But a good dog’s loyalty is every bit as staunch, within canine limits, as the devotion Elizabeth showed to the commonwealth. We all know the stories—Greyfriars Bobby, guarding his human’s grave for fourteen years. Hachi, going to the Tokyo train station to wait for his lost person—was it habit or blind hope?—every day for the next nine years, until his own death. We find these demonstrations moving because we do not quite understand the dogs’ feelings.

Or maybe because we understand them all too well.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.