Many people incorrectly believe that the monarchy owns all swans in the UK. While that’s not quite the case, British kings and queens have had a long relationship with the regal white bird.
Here, we’re talking about the Mute swan which is white with an orange bill and is the only species that permanently resides in the UK. Two other species, the Bewick’s and the Whooper swans (who both have yellow and black bills) are seasonal visitors in the UK for the winter.
Swans, King, and Aristocrats
Apparently, in the early 1400s lots of people had swans. Then in 1482 the king decreed that those owning less than a certain amount of land had to forfeit their long-necked birds. And who were they forfeited to?… The king, of course. The law went on to set out prison sentences and fines for anyone caught trying to catch or kill a swan or interfere with their breeding or nesting. Common people could no longer own, hunt, or eat swans.
Apply for A Swan License
Elegant white birds swimming around in your lake or castle moat became a status symbol. So, of course, all the aristocrats just had to have them. The monarchy found a way to cash in on this fad too. You had to register for a “brand” which would be carved into the swan’s bill and make sure your birds’ wings were clipped, because any unmarked swans on open water became the property of the king.
Even so, lots of lords wanted swans, and between 1450 and 1600 there were about 630 marks recorded for London waters. As time passed, though, many lost interest and let their swan license lapse. Today, only two organizations (other than the monarchy) still hold the right to have Mute swans on the Thames River: The Vintners Company and the Worshipful Company of Dyers – both ancient guilds who have held this privilege for hundreds of years.
These hieroglyphic-type markings were carved into the birds’ bills until the early twentieth century. Queen Alexandra requested that the markings be simplified and less damaging to the swans. At some later date, the monarchy stopped marking their birds altogether – since all unmarked swans belonged to them anyway.
The Dyers’ streamlined mark became a single nick on one side of the bill and the Vintners put a nick on each side. This is the origin of the pub name, “A Swan with Two Necks.” – it’s a corruption of “a swan with two nicks.”
Swan on the Table
Why were the king and his aristocratic friends so interested in swans? Well, it wasn’t only for their graceful beauty – they also liked eating them up for Christmas dinner. Often the carcass (feathers and all) was used as a decorative centerpiece on the table, or as an elaborate topping for a swan pie.
But people didn’t eat just any old swan: Mature birds are very tough, so it was the young that were destined for the dinner table. They were selected in July, placed in a fenced-off pond, and fattened-up on grain. As we all know from Hans Christian Anderson’s “ugly duckling,” young swans are greyish until they mature and get their white feathers. When these feathers start to come in, they are at their most succulent. And, as it happens, young swans hatch in spring and start to get their white feathers just about Christmas time. That’s perfect timing for hungry aristocrats – not so good for swans.
Upping the Swans
So if you are a ravenous royal looking forward to roast swan and swan pie for Christmas, how do you go about finding those young birds to fatten up? You have a “swan upping.” The upping is the annual swan count on the River Thames – a tradition that goes back 900 years.
Originally these uppings were to mark the ownership of the young swans with the same mark as their parents – and to select those who would end up on the dinner table. Even though swans are no longer eaten in the UK, the young are still marked as belonging to either the Monarchy, the Dyers, or the Vintners.
Updating the Uppings
The uppings are still carried out today, but they have been updated. Instead of having notches carved into their bills, the swans on the Thames are now tagged with a leg band. These bands are linked to a database which is used to monitor the health and numbers of the swan population. The Vintner and Dyers add a second identity leg band to their birds – because all unmarked swans still belong to the monarchy.
The upping takes place the third week of July and lasts five days. The three “teams” representing the Monarchy, the Dyers, and the Vintners wear their respective upping uniforms and display their corresponding flags. The upping starts with a toast to the Seigneur of the Swans – one of the lesser-known titles of the British monarch.
When they spot a family of swans, they cry, “All-Up!” and the boats surround the birds. Each cob (male), pen (female), and cygnet (youngster) is lifted out of the water. The cygnets get their new identity leg band, and everyone gets a thorough health check. The upping has also become an opportunity to educate children about swans, and school activities are often planned around it. It’s a great example of an old tradition that has adapted with the times.
Read more stories like this in my book Bowlers, Brollies, and Brits: Curious Histories of England
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