Love and Possession: A Brief Look at Dog Collars

Among the dogs kept by Lord Byron (1788-1824), the most extravagant and notorious of the English romantic poets, was his Newfoundland, boatswain. Byron also kept another Newfoundland, Thunder; a mastiff, and numerous other dogs and beasts – among which was a tame bear. When Byron attended Cambridge, dogs had been prohibited. But, as bears were not specifically banned, Byron brought his along with him.

The dogs remained at Newstead Abbey, the family estate near Nottingham, where they had free range over the countryside, their ownership proclaimed by their collars. Boatswain’s collar was a massive metal band with a turned-out, jagged-toothed edge. The collar is now on display at the Museum at Newstead Abbey, but its dents and scratches record a darker history than what we today expect from the eccentric aristocracy in bucolic surroundings.

dog collar and bed

Boatswainʼs collar. With permission from Nottingham City Museums and Galleries, Newstead Abbey.

While it is instinctive to envision a lovely image of Boatswain roaming the countryside, in actuality he terrorized nearly everyone. When Byron returned from Cambridge, he would use Boatswain in bear baiting against his pet bear. Byron also engaged his dog in fights against other dogs. In one such fight in 1808, Boatswain contracted rabies. He was buried in a monumental vault with a prominent location on the lawn at Newstead Abbey.

Today we question that Byron could have loved Boatswain and engaged him in dog fighting. Yet, Byron’s affections were such that he intended to eventually be buried alongside his favorite dog.

But that was not to be. He fled England in 1816 (many of his contemporaries taking as much umbrage toward his activities, primarily his debts and amorous activities, as we

silver dog collar

A brass Austrian regimental dog collar for the von Kerpen Regiment of infantry led by Fieldmarshalleutnant Wilhelm von Kerpen from 1797 to 1823. Courtesy of a private collector.

would today) and died in Greece, where he had become a national hero. Byron’s embalmed body (the Greeks may have kept his heart) was returned To England where, because of his scandalous life, he was refused burial at Westminster Abbey. His wish to be with Boatswain would still not be realized as his remains were laid to rest at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Nottinghamshire.

Regimental dogs, or mascots, were greatly beloved by the troops who marched or rode into battle over the centuries. Their companionship, acts of bravery and loyalty engendered much affection. Nearly every type of dog has played this role, their collars ranging from simple to ornate. It was not unusual for a collar to be engraved with the name of the regiment to which the dog belonged, sometimes including metal plaques engraved with the various battles in which the dog had been present – another indication of a proud connection in a shared experience.

One of the endearing images in canine portraiture is that of a toy dog with a ribbon tied in a bow around its neck, rather than a collar. A bizarre interpretation of this occurred during the reign of King Henri III of France (1551-1589). He began wearing a large ribbon tied in a bow around his neck. Attached to the ribbon was a small jewel encrusted basket holding one of hid lapdogs. Needless to say, it was quickly adopted by the inner circle of his court,

silder dog collar 2

A sterling silver, hinged collar.

Still in France, but about the middle of the next century, Louis XIV (1638-1715) was being compelled to bid adieu to one of his first loves, Marie Mancini. She was one of the seven nieces of Cardinal Mazarin, an Italian who served as Chief Minister of France. Mazarin brought the  “Mazarinettes,” as they were called, to Paris in order to surround himself with people from his own country.

Marie was charming, witty, slim and exotic. She was an accomplished equestrienne and an expert dancer. Louis, also, loved to dance and was likewise expert at it. He was 20 years of age and she 19, when he decided that they should marry. There were, however, too many social levels separating them, and the machinations to prevent their union were soon well in place. When they spoke to each other for the last time in 1659, she reportedly said, “You love me, you are the King and I go.”

As a parting gift, Louis presented Marie with a string of pearls that had belonged to Queen Henrietta Maria. Louis also gave her a much more personal gift: a spaniel puppy wearing a silver collar engraved with the words, “I belong to Marie Mancini.” The collar announced that Marie Mancini was the owner of the dog. But was Louis also saying that he too belonged to Marie? The customs of the time owned Louis, but clearly Marie Mancini had possessed him.

In the seemingly simple, yet in reality somewhat complex, relationship between humans and dogs, people own and love their dogs; they feed, house and water them and pay the vet bills. But who, or what, possesses whom?

leather and silver

Collars can provide protection and be engraved with the identity of the dog and owner – attach a leash and it is the pivotal point of connection between dogs and humans. It is a simple function, yet collars can also become extremely ornate (as shown in this Victorian leather and silvered-metal collar in a European Baroque style) expressing wealth and power of the owner as well as love for the dog. The dog, of course, has little to say in the matter of what collar it wears: as an engraved statement of loyalty on one collar expressed, “I will follow your lead.”

This article, in a slightly different version, first appeared in Middleburg Life, in the column “Then & There.” © Richard Hooper