Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Question from Katie - Sources for story of Wolsey's dog biting the Pope

Oddly, since I have studied Tudor history for years, I have just come across a bizarre anecdote floating around the internet. I wondered if there were any factual evidence for it, beyond dog-afficionado websites.

The story goes that when Cardinal Wolsey traveled to Italy to plead the annulment case to the Pope, he met with said Pope and they were just about to reach agreement on the annulment. Wolsey's greyhound Urian, who (probably in defiance of every protocol in the history of time) had somehow been included on the guest list for the meeting. As Wolsey knelt to kiss the Pope's shoe (again striking me as odd; this was not the normal way of saying "thanks a ton" even to the Pope), Urian freaked and bit the Pope for being too close to his master.

My understanding (flawed though it may be) was that Wolsey never even got to meet with the Pope in person, given that whole being-besieged-by-the-emperor nonsense that made personal audiences impractical, if not lethal.

I am, of course, familiar with the popular story of Anne's hunting dog Urian killing the cow, and Henry reimbursing the farmer. I am just having a lot harder time buying the idea that the entire Reformation sprang from the Pope being bitten (and thereby offended) by a dog who evidently missed one too many obedience lessons.

Any reliable sources?


Foose said...

The episode is in Foxe's Book of Martyrs; the historian James Gairdner called it "worthless, like many other of Foxe's stories." Foxe did know a lot of leading Protestants and possibly there might be some truth in the story, though, but I couldn't find any other source supporting the account.

However, according to Foxe it is Anne Boleyn's father, not Wolsey, whose spaniel bites the Pope's toe. As you point out, Wolsey never went to Rome, so his appearance in the anecdote is absurd. Possibly whoever introduced the error confused Wiltshire (Thomas Boleyn's title in 1530, when he visited the Pope) with Wolsey.

Most accounts of Boleyn's mission to Rome describe it as a failure, with the earl being bullied and intimidated by Spanish soldiery and completely failing to achieve Henry's goals. Possibly Foxe concocted the "Pope's toe" story or improved the actual truth to make Wiltshire (and Cranmer, who was with him) look better in his Acts and Monuments.

The dog in Foxe is described as a spaniel (also a "great spaniel.") Curiously, in introducing Wolsey, your version of the story has retained the Boleyn element in the substitution of the greyhound associated with Anne Boleyn.

Spaniels were thought to be "Spanish" dogs, so possibly the story preserves anti-Spanish bias - Wiltshire had earlier called on Charles V, who was crowned by the Pope in Bologna that year. The story could also point up the collusion between Spain and the Papacy (A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Sexual Puns and Their Significance notes that "spaniel" is an "epithet for farting and arse-licking") as well as a cynical perception that the Imperials were harassing ("biting") the Pope to prevent Henry's annulment. The same source notes that spaniels were often associated with castration, so the dog's breed could signify a jibe at Catholic celibacy or the impotence of Spain as far as England was concerned.

Anonymous said...

What an excellent answer! Especially the parts about the symbolisms of the spaniel ... they did love their allegories back then, and it makes lots of sense that a few grains of truth could easily have been twisted and added onto, to make a very suspect but fun moral tale. Thanks!