grinning Cheshire Cat
But this puss was no Lewis Carroll creation
"...It vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the
tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the
rest of it had gone."
Lewis Carroll did not invent the enigmatic Cheshire Cat. Sorry !
Please don't feel disillusioned, for the truth of the origin of
the Cheshire Cat pays a greater tribute to the scholarship of the
Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson than to the imagination of his alter
ego, the children's writer.
Bom in 1832. Charles grew up in what was then the isolated small
country village of Daresbury, where his father began his career
as curate. The elder Dodgson was himself no mean scholar, becoming
in later life Archdeacon of Richmond and a Canon of Ripon.
As the eldest son of a family of eleven, Charles showed an early
aptitude for amusing small children. He devised games, and edited
a series of family magazines to which all his brothers and sisters
were expected to contribute.
Painfully shy, with a stammer, deaf in one ear, and with few friends
outside his family, the young Dodgson was a voracious reader and
Picture this quiet, studious, but fun-loving boy devouring the ancient
books in his father's library. Was it here that he first became
familiar with the tale of the disappearing Cheshire Cat?
The story begins with the eleventh century Earl of Chester, Hugh
Lupus, a nephew of William the Conqueror, Hugh 'the Wolf', a very
big man, was also known as Hugh 'the fat'.
Hugh Lupus bore as his coat of arms a wolf's head, jaws open and
teeth bared. He had this symbol of authority displayed all over
the conquered Cheshire countryside given to him by his royal uncle
as a reward for his services.
Medieval provincial artists had a somewhat primitive drawing technique,
and his noble emblem soon debased to a pale imitation of the original.
The snarl of the wolf began to resemble a grin. Defeated Saxon peasants
were quick to call their new master's badge -'Fat Hugh's Cat.'
Fat Hugh the Wolf had no son. Both his Cheshire estates, and the
family tendency to obesity, were inherited by his nephew Gilbert,
also known by a nickname - Le Gros Veneur, 'the Fat Hunter'.
Gilbert Le Grosvenor took as his arms the devise azure, a bend or.
That Is a gold diagonal stripe on a blue background, a fairly simple
badge, as were most early examples of heraldry. It was quite common
then for two or more families to have very similar coats of arms
but, providing they lived some distance from each other, no confusion
As heraldry became more complicated and more people became entitled
to display their own devices the system was formalised and regulated
by the Court of Chivalry.
It was in 1389 that Sir Robert Grosvenor, of Hulme, fell foul of
the Court of Chivalry when Sir Richard Scrope, Baron of Bolton,
won the exclusive rights to the arms azure, a bend or. The Grosvenors
were required to find an alternative.
"I have just the thing," says Sir Robert (or words to
that effect). "I shall take as my arms those of my illustrious
ancestors the Earls of Chester, the Grasvenor family."
Spelling, you will notice, was another medieval art still to be
Indeed that is what Sir Robert did. He took as his arms the golden
wheatsheaf, not the wolf's head, 'Fat Hugh's Cat'.
And so it was, because our ancestors could neither draw nor spell,
the embodied grin of the Cheshire cat finally, accidentally, disappeared
600 years ago.
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