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Cats and royalty

Alongside the well-established royal love of dogs, cats are far less recorded as preferred pets, unlike their canine counterparts. They have, however, been no less loved by those that did own them. So revered were cats (“mau”) as sacred animals in Ancient Egypt that they were often mummified. Feline depictions of Egyptian deities date back as far as 3100 BC; the goddess Bastet often took this form. The cult of cats was well established by the period of the New Kingdom. It was forbidden to kill a cat in Ancient Egypt; the Welsh medieval King of Deheubarth, Hywel Dda the Good (ca. 880-950) was also thought to have declared the killing of a cat as being unlawful, an interesting parallel with the Egyptian world, if true.

The mythical realm of Cat (or Cait) was a Pictish kingdom around the time of the Early Middle Ages, ‘Inse Catt’ (literally ‘Isles of Cats’) being the earliest known name for the Shetland Islands, in early Irish literature. The Cat tribe then provided an etymological link with Caithness, ‘Cataibh’ in Eastern Sutherland translating as “among the cats” in the original Gaelic. There is a historically important ancient cat cemetery at Beni Hasan in Egypt; a cat also appears in a tomb painting here, dating from around the time period of the Middle Kingdom. Tamra Maew, (‘The Cat-Book Poems’) were believed to date from the time of the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1351 to 1767 A.D) and featured the Siamese cat, or Wichienmaat, amongst twenty-two other breeds, of which only five survive today. A legend continues in modern Thailand today, which when the ancient capital of Ayutthaya was sacked in 1767, King Hsinbyushin found and read the Tamra Maew. King Prajadhipok, the seventh monarch of the Siamese Chakri dynasty, had a Siamese cat feature in his coronation festivities in 1926, as seen in a photograph, held by one of his court ladies. The Chinese Song dynasty (960-1279 A.D) also favoured cats as pets.

Longhaired cats were already in Britain and France in the sixteenth century, having been introduced from Asia Minor, Persia and Russia, although the true date of this may stretch back even earlier, as a consequence of the Crusades. We know that there were cats in the kitchens of the Tudor palaces during the reign of Henry VIII, but some of these seem instead to have been more pests than pets. Far from chasing away mice, they formed an army of furred intruders, together with dogs and rats, that strayed into the royal kitchens in search of food and would not be banished, even when chased out with “whips and bells”. Cats also added to the reason why the ‘rushes’ that were strewn on the palace floors in the old medieval manner had to be frequented refreshed – because of the ‘consequences’ of “men, cats and dogs“. Aside from all this, cats had by then also become favoured as pets, albeit more unusual ones. Cardinal Wolsey owned a cat of his own, and Henry VIII was presented with the offer of “two musk cats” in 1539 (Weir, Henry VIII: King and Court, pg 31).

In a telling description, Queen Caroline, consort of George II, was described by her husband, as writing “like a cat”, on account of her scratchy and at times almost totally illegible handwriting, having taught herself to write – with execrable spelling – in each language she knew. On the late baroque continent, Louis XV loved cats, which were probably his favourite pets at the Palace of Versailles. The cats which belonged to Louis XV were “everywhere”, in marked contrast to the preference of the Dauphin Louis Auguste – the future Louis XVI – who did not like them, and to his grandfather Louis XIV, who unquestionably preferred his beloved English ‘sporting dogs’ to the later, French royal felines. Cats roamed like courtiers (depending on the rights of entry) about the royal apartments at Versailles, alongside a veritable ‘zoo’ of strange and often bizarre royal pets. Louis XV owned a Persian white cat which he especially adored. Grey angora cats were sometimes found walking over the gambling tables at Versailles, evidence that they wandered freely about and were indeed, “everywhere” (Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, 2000).

Cats also helped to guard the cavernous Winter Palace in St. Petersburg and were valued for keeping down its resident rodent population, in a parallel with how cats were officially employed (from 1868) by the British Post Office for this same purpose. The tradition of keeping cats dates from the reign of Empress Elisabeth Petrovna, who was offered five cats by the city of Kazan in answer to her 1745 edict of appeal regarding the rat problem at the Winter Palace. Her successor, Catherine II ‘the Great’ is said to have admired the feline breed of ‘Russian blues’ inside the palace, whilst continuing the tradition established by Empress Elisabeth regarding ‘working cats’ at the Winter Palace. These palace cats, known popularly as the ‘Hermitage Cats’ – were so valued in Imperial Russia, that even had their own servants until the October Revolution, with their food paid for every month by the Treasury. The imperial palace was gradually absorbed into the vast Hermitage museum, in a transformation which began in 1918 and lasted until about 1939. 

The Hermitage’s stalwart, feline guardians all died during the brutal blockade known as the 872-day long ‘Siege of Leningrad’ (1941-1944), when the heroic city of Leningrad, as St. Petersburg had become known from Petrograd in 1924, became starving, yet remained boldly resilient. Following the end of the Second World War, two wagon-loads of new cats arrived in the city to fulfil the purpose that Empress Elisabeth intended for them. The Hermitage now has its own ‘Cattery’, today located in the vast Museum’s basement, as reached by a stone staircase. The ‘Hermitage Cats’ may be found in the galleries themselves or outside the Hermitage, even on the embankments of the river Neva.

Cats were kept by the family of the last Russian Tsar. Grand Duchess Olga Nikolevna, (1895-1918) eldest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, owned a cat named ‘Vaska’, which was photographed in the Imperial Family’s private residence of the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, outside St. Petersburg. Kittens also feature in photographs taken on the Imperial yacht, Standart, with the imperial children sitting on board, each with a young cat in their lap. The youngest daughter, Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolevna described ‘Vaska’ in a letter to Tsar Nicholas II, as “Olga’s cat” – no surprise, in an imperial family that loved pets, especially their dogs. The imperial children established their own pet cemetery, located on the so-called ‘Children’s Island’ in the park of the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo.

The royal love of animals led Queen Victoria, a devoted dog-lover, to lend her patronage to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1837 the year of the Queen’s accession. The official ‘Royal’ stamp making the Society the RSPCA – by which it is known today – was in 1840, the year of the Queen’s marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. There was presumably a black and white kitten at Osborne House, because Queen Victoria drew a study of it, in 1844. The photographer William Bainbridge recorded ‘Snowdrop’ in an album made by Prince Albert; ‘Snowdrop’ was the beloved white cat of Queen Victoria’s eighth child and youngest son, Prince Leopold, future Duke of Albany. He was photographed in the summer of 1856, which means that the young Prince already owned him at the tender age of three. ‘Snowdrop’ wears a collar that may have identified him as belonging to the Prince – something typical for pets – royal dogs had their own special collars during the reign of Henry VIII and Edward VII’s adored dog ‘Caesar’ even had a collar which proudly proclaimed that he “belong[ed] to the King”.

The only other example – recorded photographically – in Queen Victoria’s reign was a black cat called ‘Peter’, who lived at Buckingham Palace, with an official home at the Royal Stables. A kitten features on a chair in one of the animal paintings at Osborne House – presumably made for Queen Victoria in 1885 – together with three of the Queen’s dogs. Cats were also the subject of Faberge’s animals sculpted from life, such as the Kalgan jasper cat in the so-called ‘Sandringham Commission’, of Edward VII in 1907.

Queen Alexandra’s love of photography is well-known. Fittingly, the Queen would often be photographed with pets, notably her dogs, such as the borzois, which she bred – one a Russian gift from her brother-in-law, Tsar Alexander III, for example. However, on at least one occasion, she was pictured with a white kitten, perhaps belonging to her or the royal children. Appropriately, she established the pet cemetery at Marlborough House on the Mall, the official London residence of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Perhaps fittingly, given Queen Alexandra’s earlier photographs with a kitten, she purchased two models of kittens in 1908 and another Faberge kitten in 1911, for £15.

Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of Cornwall became the latest Royal Patron of Battersea Dogs’ and Cats’ Home in 2017; Her Royal Highness also opened the £5million London Cattery at Battersea in 2010, on the occasion of Battersea’s 150th Anniversary.

Pets have, of course, provided an endless source of delight and companionship to monarchs and their children alike, as they have for us all; however, taking a closer look at some of these privileged pets allows us a rare, domestic insight into royalty, the other side of the camera.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.

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