On a December day in 1534, an often-overlooked victim of Henry VIII met a sad end. But this was no overblown nobleman, crowing about his claim to the throne, no broken-hearted wife, turning over the past to see where she had gone wrong, and no devoted councillor unable to fulfil the King’s latest scheme. The death of little Purkey, or Pourquoi, Anne Boleyn’s beloved lapdog was to prove a foreshadowing of her own tragic decline. In the beast’s quaint tilted head and appealing eyes, Anne’s own dark orisons were echoed. In its plaintive bark, Henry heard shades of her winning laugh, and when the creature begged, elegantly dancing on his hind legs, it brought the King to mind of Anne’s graceful steps. So why exactly did the canine have to die?
Purkey was the gift of Honor, Lady Lisle, to the new queen in the winter of 1533. Having remarried to Arthur Plantagenet, illegitimate son of Edward IV, Honor was keen to advance her daughters from her first match. She accompanied Anne to France in the autumn of 1532 and was hopeful that such a gift would encourage the queen to place Katherine and Anne Basset in her household. Anne however, accepted the gift but kept the pretty girls at arm’s length, perhaps recalling her own rise to power from within the service of Catherine of Aragon. Anne adored little Purkey, keeping him often at her side and feeding him titbits from her plate; she was heart-broken when she learned of his death. A year later, in December 1534, he supposedly fell from a window and the King was charged with breaking the terrible news to his wife. In fact, this was because Henry himself was responsible for the animal’s execution. Imagining the scandal if he sent a dog to the block, let alone the practical difficulties, Henry solved the problem with a simple act of defenestration.
Earlier the same day, Henry had discovered the canine’s deadly secret. He was more than a lap dog, more than a consumer of bread and a chewer of chair legs or chaser after royal balls. Purkey was, in fact, a highly trained double agent in the service of the Calais-based Lisle and his English agent, John Husee. Between them, the pair had trained the dog up since he was a pup, using an elaborate system of sign language, allowing it to report court gossip to fellow canines and its masters alike. Thus, it could rouse the dogs of London to howl when Henry passed by, or bark whenever the King began a rendition of Greensleeves. More dangerous though, Purkey could scratch, bow and wink his little way through Henry’s latest French policy, sending the news directly to Husse, who passed it to Lisle, who informed Francis I himself. It took Henry a while to work out exactly who was acting as the leak in his household, but by strange co-incidence, it was a literal leak that led him to the culprit.
In spite of his attempts to keep the court clean, appointing a royal scooper to follow around his wife’s pet, Purkey was caught short after a Christmas banquet and relieved himself in the straw in his mistress’s chamber. Anne was absent at the time, but Henry witnessed the leak and lost his temper. According to a little-know letter written by Chapuys, the King was furious and railed at the animal. Purkoy panicked and, in the moment, reverted to sign language to offer his apologies. Convinced at first that the dog was suffering a fit, the King watched, before the terrible truth dawned. His wife’s pet was a spy and he had to go. At once, he seized the creature and the cruel deed was done.
Anne grieved Purkey’s loss. She had been preparing a special gift for him for New Year, a silver collar hung with dog biscuits fashioned from gold and studded with pearls. In the intensity of her emotion, she ruled that when New Years’ Day arrived, it should be devoted to the memory of her pet, requiring all her ladies in waiting to wear a similar collar and even insisting that Henry too should sport such an item. At first, Henry complied out of guilt, but by the following year, his relationship with Anne had changed so completely that he did not feel obliged to. On January 1 1536, Anne’s ladies wore the silver collars for the second time running, while the Queen spent the day on her knees, as masses were said for the soul of the beast. She was reunited with Purkey a few months later and Henry ordered the silver collars to be melted down and returned to the royal treasury. This was one New Years’ Custom he was not prepared to continue.
Having read this, you now have Jeff R Vescent in your head. He’s going to sit back in there, stretch out his legs and have a look around.