The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel acquired its name because it was a great favorite of King Charles I of Britain in the 1600s. Only royalty or the very wealthy could afford a dog who did not earn his keep by hunting or chasing varmints. King Charles II also adored this breed, and its popularity in Britain increased until the fall of the House of Stuart. Apparently, the favorite breed of William and Mary was the Pug, and it became quite a liability to be associated with the dogs of King Charles. Queen Victoria owned a Cavalier as a young child, but throughout her life her interest in developing and breeding dogs led to development of the breed known today as the English Toy Spaniel in America and the King Charles Spaniel in the United Kingdom, with a much shorter, flatter face, a domed skull and smaller in stature than the original Cavalier, which all but disappeared. This newer toy spaniel breed apparently developed from crossing Cavaliers with Pugs and the Japanese Chin.
In the early 1920s, an American named Roswell Eldridge visited England and apparently was disappointed to discover that the original King Charles Spaniel which he had admired from afar had effectively been replaced by a smaller, pug-faced dog. He wanted to find a pair of spaniels resembling those he had seen in old paintings and tapestries of the aristocracy. When he was unable to find those dogs, in 1926 he sponsored a contest at the Cruft’s dog show offering money prizes of 25 pounds each for the best dog and best bitch of the long-faced “old world type” of toy spaniel. Specifically, the prize was offered to the dog and bitch "as shown in the picture of King Charles II's time, long face, no stop, flat skull, not inclined to be domed and with the spot in the center of the skull." Eldridge ran this contest for five years, drawing ridicule from some and enthusiasm in reviving the original small spaniel from others. In 1927, a dog named Ann's Son was the winner of the 25 pound prize, and in 1928, a breed standard was drawn up using Ann's Son as the model. The monetary prize tempted several other dedicated breeders to focus on bringing back the original type, which became the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel that we know today.
The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club was founded in England in 1928. People started breeding bigger, longer-faced dogs and competing with them against the smaller, shorter-faced ones in the same classes. In 1944, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel officially was recognized by the Kennel Club of England as a separate breed. The first Challenge Certificates were awarded in 1946. The Cavalier remains among the most popular breeds in Great Britain today.
According to the American Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club: “Purists would have us believe that long nosed throwbacks from English Toy Spaniels were the only dogs used in the re-creation of this breed. Breed lore suggests, however, that various Cocker breeds, Papillons and perhaps even the Welsh Springer were used to recapture the desired breed traits.”
World War II interrupted the development of the breed when travel to the few stud dogs available was virtually impossible. This led to some intense inbreeding which might be frowned upon today, but which saved this emerging breed at the time.
The first Cavaliers were sent to America in 1952, and in 1956 a breed club was formed. Shortly thereafter, the parent club sought American Kennel Club recognition, but because of the small number of breed representatives in this country they were relegated to the Miscellaneous class. In 1993, The American Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club was formed and in January 1996, the breed became the 140th breed recognized by the American Kennel Club. The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, in the Toy Group, has a loyal and growing following in the United States to this day.
The average life expectancy of the Cavalier is between 10 and 14 years. Breed health concerns may include Chiari-like malformation, hip dysplasia, endocardiosis, patent ductus arteriosus, mitral valve disease, patellar luxation, entropion, distichiasis, keratoconjunctivitis sicca, retinal dysplasia, brachycephalic upper airway syndrome and syringomyelia.