The swan is not indigenous to Britain and probably arrived here as a royal gift in the reign of Richard I. It always was, and still is, a "bird royal" and very few people outside the royal family were allowed to own a game of swans. Those that did had to brand them on the beak with a mark recognised and recorded by the royal swanherd. The marking became an annual traditional ceremony n which is still carried on today.
According to legend the first swans to arrive in England were a gift from Queen Beatrice of Cyprus to Richard I (The Lionheart). The species, known as cygnus oler or the mute swan is still to be seen on the Thames today. Whatever the truth of the legend, and there is every possibility that it is true, the Swan became a Royal bird in the twelfth century and remains so today. Under this designation any privately owned swan that escapes its owner becomes the property of the Crown. The royal position of the "Keeper of the King's Swans" is documented from 1378 (Richard II). In the last year of the reign of Edward IV "The Lawes, Orders and Customs for Swans" were laid down. Under the first law in this document
"all swans owned by those who pay less than 5 marks [Note 1] a year Freehold were forefeit to the King."However, on rare occasions the right was granted of taking such swans within a certain area, and for a limited time. In the reign of Edward III, on June 20th, 1356, such a grant was made under privy seal, for seven years,
"to the Warden and College of the King's Free Chapel of Wyndesore of all swans flying, not marked, within the water of Thames between Oxford and London Bridge, as fully as these should pertain to the King by reason of his right and prerogative" There was a re-grant for a similar term in 1390, and was apparently extended for a further period since, on July 16th, 1398, the right of search was included in a grant to
"Thomas Butiller, Dean of the King's Free Chapel of Wyndesore, and the College of that place ... that they may whenever and as often as they please search for swans throughout the said river, and all streams flowing to and from it, between Gravesend and Oxford Bridge" There was a third renewal in 1400 to Richard Kyngeston, Dean of the King's Chapel and William Louency, Keeper of the great wardrobe, jointly, for a period of ten years. No record of the marks used under the above grants has been found. Before 1584, swans forefeit to the King were marked on the leg or foot.
Naturally there were regulations to maintain the royal prerogative. In 1496 (Henry VII) it was laid down that anybody who stole swan's eggs would be imprisoned for one year and fined whatever amount the monarch felt was necessary or appropriate. Anybody who was caught stealing or snaring swans was punished even more severely at the King's pleasure. The same law required that on every river in the kingdom the swans should be counted, examined and recorded every year. This jealous royal protection of the swan had its basis in the simple fact that it was prized as a delicacy and considered fit only for royalty and occasions of high ceremony. Swan feathers were also used for the upholstery in the royal palaces.
Henry VIII regulated matters more. He decreed that no one who owned swans could appoint a swanherd without a licence from the Royal Swanherd. He also added the stipulation that all cygnets should be marked with nicks on their beaks to identify the owner. Any swan that was found to be unmarked became Crown property. This was re-iterated in the reign of Elizabeth I. In The Order of Swannes of 1570 it was enacted that anyone who erased or counterfeited any owner's marks should be imprisoned for a year. In addition, it laid down that anyone driving away swans at breeding time, or stealing eggs, was liable to one year's imprisonment plus a fine, at the pleasure of the crown. Any person carrying a swan hook, by which swans might be taken from the river, if not a swan herd nor accompanied by two swan herds was liable to a fine of one mark. The laws were strictly enforced. Paul Hentzner was one of the many foreign visitors to London in the Elizabethan period and in his journal he noted that there were many companies of swans to be seen upon the Thames. He added that:
"They live in great security, nobody daring to molest, much less kill, any of them, under penalty of a large fine."The ordinance that it was only those of royal or noble blood who were allowed to own swans was somewhat relaxed during the sixteenth for political reasons. Certain of the City Livery Companies were given a concession to do so as a royal gesture towards the encouragement of trade and Eton College, close to the royal palace of Windsor, was also granted the privilege. The privilege had to be paid for, of course, by means of an annual fine [Note 2] for the "right of marking". In Elizabeth's time, the marking had to be completed in one day by the various swanherds along the Thames and the fine was one half of a mark.
The annual ritual of marking became known as "Swan Upping" or "Swan Hopping" the "upping" being derived from the fact that the swanherds take "up" the birds to mark them. The purpose of swan upping is to mark all new cygnets with the same mark as their parents. Each game of swans is driven into the bank, where the cob and pen have their beaks examined to ascertain ownership, and the cygnets are then similarly marked by making nicks with a sharp knife Royal swans are now left unmarked. When the Livery Companies and members of the nobility had their private swans each owner had their own distinctive mark or cygninota. These marks were granted by the monarch's Swan Master and entered into a Registration book. The illustration shows the mark for Royal Swans during the reign of George III.
Today, only the Queen and the Dyers and the Vintners Companies own swans on the Thames. The Worshipful Company of Dyers mark theirs with a nick on one side of the beak, and the Worshipful Company of Vintners marking theirs with a nick on each side. The latter is the origin of the inn sign 'A Swan with Two Necks', where "nick" has been corrupted to "necks". This George III royal mark was used throughout the subsequent reigns of George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria. The royal birds are no longer marked and it is not clear when the marking ceased. However, there was a considerable reduction at the instigation of Queen Alexandra, consort of Edward VII, who was concerned that the birds were made to suffer in the making of the complex marks. The Queen still employs here "Keeper of the Swans" who still presides over the Upping ceremony. A small flotilla of boats, with the Queen's Standard and the Livery Company banners flying, bearing the Keeper and the swanherds from the Dyers and Vintners, sets off up-river in late July or early August. It is often a colourful affair with the swanherds and their assistants dressed in blazers of red, green, blue, white and gold. There is a traditional toast to the monarch before the marking begins and the ceremony ends with a traditional banquet at a riverside inn when the main course is a dish of swan meat. [Note 3]
The Queen's Swan Marker produces a report at the completion of Swan Upping each year, which provides data on the number of swans accounted for, including broods and cygnets. The cygnets are weighed and measured to obtain estimates of growth rates, and the birds are examined for any sign of injury (commonly caused by fishing hooks and line). The cygnets are ringed with individual ceremonial flotilla traditionally set off from Southwark Bridge but in recent times the route was curtailed to the western reaches of the river between Sunbury, just inside the M25 motorway and Pangbourne in Berkshire.
During the latter half of the twentieth century there was a marked decline in the swan population on the Thames. In 1981 the number of swans marked was the lowest on record when only 14 broods and 54 cygnets were counted. The previous year 114 birds had been counted and there were 600 in 1970 still well down on the 1,000 regularly recorded in the 1950s. It was concluded that the decline was inadvertently caused by the fishermen along the river. They used lead weights on their lines and it seemed that these were retained in the swan's crop with the natural grit and slowly poisoned the animal. A number of swans were also strangled by the fishing lines. Lead was shortly afterwards banned from the weights used by anglers and the number of cygnets increased to 116 in 1991 and 136 in 1992. This modest increase in continuing but as yet, no solution to the problem of the swans that are strangled by the fishing lines.
Note: 1. The mark was worth two thirds of a pound, 13s 4d.
2. The term "fine" originally referred to the fee someone paid for some royal or public privilege.
3. There are photographs of the ceremony in the years 2000 and 2001 here.