by   David Hancock

“The mighty dogs which used to be kept at Chatsworth were pure Alpine Mastiffs, as also were the magnificent animals I have mentioned as having seen at Bill George’s kennels some sixteen years ago…I have spoken to people who have visited the convent, (i.e. St Bernard’s, DH), and it appears that the monks have used another cross – the huge boarhounds found in Bavaria, the Upper Danube, and Tyrol.”
From Stonehenge’s Dogs of the British Islands of 1872, quoting Capt Garnier’s letter.

The Nobility and their Dogs

 The association between large and often imposing houses and large and equally imposing dogs is a long and varied one. In the days when the nobility of Europe prided themselves on their horses and dogs, many famous breeds owed their origin to the dedicated, almost single-minded patronage of landed families. The royalty and aristocracy of Europe liked to have their portraits painted with their mastiff-like dogs, as the Batoni portrait of Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, the Della portrait of Kaiser Ferdinand II, the Van Dyck portrait of the children of Charles I and the Velazquez painting of Las Meninas illustrate, the latter featuring a cropped-eared Spanish Mastiff, a breed still existing today.  The inherited sense of sporting history in the blood of such dynasties so often led to the stables and kennels being a prized feature of the family property. The architectural importance of purpose-built kennels such as those at Croxteth Hall in Liverpool and Lyme Hall near Manchester is now acknowledged. The fact that so many of these kennels no longer have dogs in them is disappointing.

Restoring Kennels

 Lyme Hall retains paintings of its mastiffs; Chatsworth and Nostell Priory retain the collars of their mastiffs. But how comforting it would be to see this ancient association revived. The Lyme Hall kennels are now empty but their Danish equivalents may soon be filling up with the mastiffs of Broholm Castle or Broholmers, now thankfully being resurrected. The Boerboel of South Africa, developed from the Bullenbijter of the Brabant - now divided between Belgium and  Holland, also of mastiff type, is similarly being saved from extinction. Our own breed doesn't need saving from extinction but how good it would be to see these huge dogs back in favour at great houses.

Eminent Owners

 Mastiffs, eminent owners and historic houses coincide again and again when the development of today's Mastiff breed is researched. We can read of the Earl of Oxford's 'Lion', the Marquis of Hertford's 'Pluto', Lord Waldegrave's 'Turk' and 'Couchez', Sir Fermor Hesketh's 'Nero', Sir George Armitage's 'Tiger' and Sir E. Wilmott's 'Lion'. As well as the celebrated Lyme Hall strain, we can discover an old line of pure Alpine mastiffs (probably smooth St Bernards) at Chatsworth and references to mastiffs at Elvaston Castle near Derby, Hadzor Hall near Worcester, Trentham Park near Stoke on Trent, Bold Hall in Lancashire, Esthwaite Hall in the Lake District and Nostell Priory in Yorkshire, Lord Stanley's dogs at Alderley and Athrington Hall's 'Lion'. Mastiffs and mansions were clearly closely associated and those at Lyme Hall hardly unique.

The End of an Era

 I suspect that the separation of noble families from their mastiffs had multiple causes, with two world wars significant accelerators. But one rather sad reason could lie in the departure of the modern breed away from its historic mould as a heavy hound, used to pull down big game such as auroch, buffalo, boar and wild bull, and into a cumbersome unathletic overweight yard-dog. It is not historically correct to seek in this modern breed a dog weighing 180lbs, measuring 32" at the withers and lacking mobility, physical soundness, featuring sunken eyes and sagging lips. Morally, it is disgraceful to breed dogs with harmful exaggerations. Commercially, it is disastrous to breed dogs which attract huge veterinary bills. Compassionately, it is distressing to see dogs bred which only enjoy a limited lifespan and a restricted lifestyle. On these grounds I can understand any potential Mastiff owner, mansion-owner or not, looking elsewhere.

Renewing Associations

 Nevertheless, the Mastiff, a magnificent breed of imposing stature and impressive temperament, is an important feature of our canine heritage and it would be good to see a remodelled breed, physically respecting its own ancestry, gracing the steps of great houses once again. Earlier this century, the Marquess of Londonderry and the Duke of Gloucester favoured the Bullmastiff, smaller and more athletic than their sister breed but strangely now being desired by some fanciers to be more mastiff-like. Fashion has destroyed more than one breed of dog but it would be good to see the Mastiff of England fashionable once again amongst mansion-owners. This is a breed of reassuring solidity, with noble bearing, an air of relaxed superiority yet possessing considerable reliability. They have much in common with the great houses they once adorned.

"He seems to be fully aware of the impression which his large size makes on every stranger; and, in the night especially, he watches the abode of his master with the completest vigilance..."
William Youatt, on the Mastiff, in his 'The Dog' of 1854. 

"Many recent winners have been somewhat of the degenerate type, but at the present time a reaction is setting in with a view to a revival of the grand old type of English Mastiff. This is as it should be, and there can be no doubt that these monarchs of strength and beauty will again become fashionable and find places in the stately halls of Great Britain and her dominions."
Frank Townend Barton, MRCVS, in his 'Non-Sporting Dogs' of 1905 (RA Everett, London).