The ritual is as unchanging as it is poignant. For nearly 60 years, after the death of every one of the Queen’s corgis, a quiet corner somewhere on a royal estate is made ready to receive the mortal remains of the devoted companion.
Such an intimate and private moment is entrusted to one of the Queen’s most senior servants, usually the head gardener. The Queen herself likes to oversee the burial, but there are rarely any other onlookers.
Then, within a few weeks a headstone will appear, marking the life of this much-loved pet. It will be this way for Willow, the last of the surviving corgis bred by the Queen herself and who died on Sunday.
Yesterday, the Mail revealed that the Queen had been hit especially hard by the death of the dog that had to be put to sleep at Windsor after suffering from cancer and other related illnesses.
For the Queen is not just mourning Willow, but also the end of an era and of a royal dynasty that began in her childhood.
The Queen was hit especially hard by the death of her last Welsh corgi Willow, that had to be put to sleep at Windsor after suffering from cancer and other related illnesses
Like all 30 of the corgis she has owned — and other royal pets including gundogs, labradors and cocker spaniels — Willow’s time as part of the Queen’s menagerie will be recorded in the traditional manner.
It has been like this since 1959 when the death of Susan, the Queen’s first corgi, given to her as a puppy on her 18th birthday by her father King George VI, was marked with a headstone.
On it are engraved the dog’s dates of birth and death along with the moving epitaph: ‘For almost 15 years the faithful companion of the Queen.’
The same words appear on the gravestones of two of Susan’s descendants, Sugar and Heather. And, because Willow is the last of the line, the 14th generation traced back to Susan, the elegy is likely to be just as heartfelt.
There is only one unwritten rule — wherever possible, the animals are buried where they died, which means the final resting place of generations of the Royal Family’s pets can be found at Windsor, Balmoral and Sandringham.
These pet cemeteries have one thing in common: they are all in a secluded and peaceful spot with special resonance for the Queen.
Willow is believed to have been interred close to Frogmore House, the royal retreat in Windsor Great Park where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will celebrate their wedding with a party on May 19.
Other corgis have been buried closer to Windsor Castle, but Frogmore is where the Queen likes to walk, often with her dogs, far from any public access.
The death of Willow represents the final act in a story that began one spring day 85 years ago when the Queen’s father — then Duke of York — brought home a Pembroke corgi called Dookie from kennels in Surrey
By far the largest animal cemetery is at Sandringham, in a tidy corner of the 20,000-acre estate, but within view of the royal residence.
It was started by Queen Victoria for her collie Noble, who died in 1887, and it is where Susan was buried more than 70 years later.
There are also memorial plaques set into a stone boundary wall that separates the cemetery from the rest of the estate.
One commemorates Candy, Prince Philip’s yellow labrador, who died in 1958. Another bears the name Sandringham Slipper, a black labrador who died in 1980 after eight years as a royal pet.
Sandringham Brae, another black lab, is described as ‘a gentleman amongst dogs’ on his stone, while a roan cocker spaniel called Sandringham Fern is celebrated as a ‘tireless worker and mischievous character’.
When Holly, the Queen’s penultimate corgi, died at Balmoral 18 months ago, she directed that he must be buried in sight of the castle’s drawing room windows.
‘Even when they are no longer with her, the Queen likes to feel she is still surrounded by her corgis,’ says a friend. ‘That is why they are buried at all of her main private homes. They have been such a huge part of her life.’
The Queen is not, of course, without four-legged companionship now; she still has her two dorgis — corgi-dachshund crosses Candy and Vulcan — along with a new addition to her canine family, Whisper, a corgi who used to be owned by a Sandringham gamekeeper.
But the death of Willow represents the final act in a story that began one spring day 85 years ago when the Queen’s father — then Duke of York — brought home a Pembroke corgi called Dookie from kennels in Surrey.
In her 1983 biography of the Queen, Elizabeth R, the Countess of Longford wrote: ‘1933 was the year of the corgi.’
At one stage there were said to be 13 corgis — memorably described by Princess Diana as a ‘moving carpet’ — lolling in the Queen’s private sitting room, and nipping the heels of footmen, prime ministers, ladies-in-waiting and diplomats
Princess Elizabeth, then only seven, had fallen in love with a corgi she had played with in Hyde Park. It belonged to the family of Viscount Weymouth, a future Marquess of Bath
Princess Elizabeth, then only seven, had fallen in love with a corgi she had played with in Hyde Park. It belonged to the family of Viscount Weymouth, a future Marquess of Bath.
The breed was little known outside South Wales, but the young princess and her sister Margaret pleaded with their parents for one of their own.
The Duke and Duchess of York needed little persuading and Mrs Thelma Gray, breeder of the Weymouths’ dog and a pioneer of the breed, supplied the first royal corgi, Rozavel Golden Eagle — or Dookie, so-called by Mrs Gray because, she claimed, he acted ‘aristocratically’.
Three years later Dookie acquired a wife called Jane but this royal marriage of convenience proved unproductive.
Jane did produce two puppies with another mate, however, and Crackers and Carol joined King George and Queen Elizabeth’s household during World War II.
In 1944, Susan arrived as Princess Elizabeth’s birthday present. Mistress and pet were inseparable. She even accompanied the Princess on her honeymoon with Prince Philip in 1947, hidden from view under a blanket in the royal carriage.
The following year, when the Princess gave birth to her first baby, Charles, newspaper columns were full of advice on how she could prevent Susan from becoming jealous of the infant prince.
A year later, Susan followed her royal mistress into motherhood, producing a pair of puppies: Sugar, who belonged to Prince Charles, and Honey who, in later years, lived with the Queen Mother. It marked the beginning of a new royal dynasty.
Over the years, the Queen became one of the most experienced breeders of Pembrokeshire corgis in the country. She always chose the sire herself, aiming for good-looking puppies that maintain the red colouring of the original Pembrokes.
Whenever possible, the Queen feeds the corgis herself — their menu includes steak, poached chicken, liver and rabbit
At one stage there were said to be 13 corgis — memorably described by Princess Diana as a ‘moving carpet’ — lolling in the Queen’s private sitting room, and nipping the heels of footmen, prime ministers, ladies-in-waiting and diplomats.
Every few years, a fresh litter arrived and older dogs passed away. No puppies were ever sold; instead the Queen ensured that they went to good homes. Susan’s descendants have gone to Australia and America.
Then came the dorgis, a cross-breed resulting from an unplanned liaison between one of the Queen’s corgis and Princess Margaret’s dachshund Pipkin.
In 2009, it emerged that the Queen had stopped breeding the dogs. It was perhaps the first public sign that our monarch was growing old.
She worried about puppies and lively young dogs around her feet, and the fear that she might trip over, hurting herself or them. But what was not clear then was that she no longer wanted any new four-legged companions to replace those that died.
Then, three years ago Monty Roberts, the Californian cowboy who inspired the Hollywood film The Horse Whisperer, disclosed what many had suspected: the Queen, who will be 92 on Saturday, did not wish to leave any of her beloved pets after her death. Corgis have an average lifespan of 12 to 13 years, though some can reach 18. Willow was just a few weeks short of her 15th birthday.
Inevitably, perhaps, it took a plain-speaking American to give this first intimation of the Queen’s sense of her own mortality.
Roberts — after whom the Queen named Monty, one of the corgis that appeared in the James Bond spoof she made with actor Daniel Craig for the London Olympics — was an informal adviser to her on horses and dogs for more than 25 years.
He said that when Monty died in 2012, he offered to find the Queen a replacement puppy. ‘But she didn’t want to have any more young dogs. She didn’t want to leave any young dog behind. I understood we would discuss it further at a later date.
‘Well, we never did, and I have no right to try to force her into continuing to bring on young puppies if she doesn’t want to.’
Often the dogs are taken to the Queen’s private sitting room when she is having breakfast, and clamour for scraps, slices of toast and marmalade, fed to them from the table
For now, life for Candy, Vulcan and Whisper will continue as usual. Each day starts with a brisk walk with a footman in the Buckingham Palace gardens and, because of their age, they are relatively easy to handle. The days when former royal butler Paul Burrell, then a Palace page, was knocked unconscious when nine leashed corgis pulled him over on the steps of Sandringham House are long past.
When their mistress is at the Palace, the dogs sleep in raised wicker baskets in a boot room near the royal apartments, through which they are at liberty to wander.
Often the dogs are taken to the Queen’s private sitting room when she is having breakfast, and clamour for scraps, slices of toast and marmalade, fed to them from the table.
Whenever possible, the Queen feeds the corgis herself — their menu includes steak, poached chicken, liver and rabbit.
According to former royal chef Darren McGrady, who spent 11 years in the Palace kitchen, the corgis had a ‘wonderful diet. One day it might be chuck steak, boiled and diced and served with finely chopped boiled cabbage and white rice. The next they’d have poached chicken or liver. Or rabbits shot by William and Harry which we’d clean and cook’.
The Queen likes to take them on a daily constitutional which also serves as a kind of meditation. Prince Philip has referred to this as her ‘dog mechanism’ therapy.
And she is very hands-on with their personal maintenance, de-fleaing them and administering medicine. Nothing is too much trouble. When she is being fitted for a new dress, the Queen produces a special magnet to pick up pins to ensure the dogs do not prick their paws.
No world figure has been as identified with an animal as the Queen has with her corgis.
Over the years they have brought a warmth to her public image, being photographed at her side receiving statesmen in formal situations, or on a tartan picnic rug with the Royal Family at Balmoral, or being bundled by a flunky up the steps on to a royal plane.
In a life governed by protocol, they are also a simple way to break the ice with strangers. The line may now have ended, but Willow, like each and every one of her corgis, will be remembered.
Reacting to news of Willow’s death yesterday one royal fan, Angela Cox, recalled visiting Sandringham just after the Queen had been there.
In a tweet she said: ‘There was a small posy on each of her dogs’ graves. It made me cry.’