Why Do Swans Belong To The Monarch?


There are various curious traditions related to the monarchy of the UK. Some of the well-known is that every one swans are the property of the King. Killing a swan, some declare, is excessive treason which may see you thrown within the Tower.

Nonetheless, this isn’t strictly right; it’s only unmarked mute swans which are the property of the Crown, and also you gained’t you find yourself within the Tower for killing one. In actual fact, the precise reality is way extra attention-grabbing.

What’s an unmarked swan?

For a whole bunch of years, swans had been seen as a prized meals, typically served because the centrepiece at feasts and banquets, skinned and redressed, with a lump of burning coal in its beak. They had been significantly well-liked with noblemen and royalty. In 1247, for instance, Henry III ordered 40 swans for the Christmas celebrations at Winchester.

Not like chickens, geese, and geese, although, swans may by no means be absolutely domesticated. Historic data present that they had been semi-domesticated in England by at the very least the twelfth century, most likely by pinioning, however that they nonetheless retained many traits of absolutely wild animals comparable to a excessive diploma of territoriality and solely flocking out of breeding season.

This meant that swans couldn’t be saved within the regular method of home animals, so until you owned a big non-public lake or moat, they needed to stay on open water, free to swim wherever they fancied. And as soon as they transfer onto widespread land, it’s possible you’ll lose possession of them.

It isn’t identified when it turned customary for swans to be thought of Royal Fowl, that’s property of the Crown, however data documenting the foundations of possession return to the center of the twelfth century, with the primary written file of royal swan possession courting again to 1186. In 1246 it’s identified that the Sergeant of Kennington was seizing cygnets on behalf of the King, and by 1361 the Crown had employed a Grasp of the King’s Recreation of Swans, also called the Royal Swan-herd, Royal Swannerd, or Royal Swan-master.

Killing or injuring swans, stealing eggs, looking close to them with canines, driving them out of your land, and even chopping the grass close to a swan had been all thought of offences and by 1463 a Swan-Mote was put in place by the monarch, with commissioners and justices appointed to listen to the circumstances.

By the start of the fifteenth century nevertheless, rich folks had been awarded the correct to purchase, promote, and eat swans, by buying a ‘swan mark’ from the King. As proof of possession a mark, one of many oldest property marks in England, was carved into the swan’s beak.

Over the centuries, a whole bunch of various swan marks developed, with books, comparable to The Cantley Swan Roll. revealed to maintain observe of them. At first, the marks consisted of easy traces and shapes however ultimately swords, crossbows, heraldic symbols, and at last letters had been used.

Complicated guidelines surrounding possession had been additionally drawn up and annually households of swans had been rounded as much as decide who the cygnets, which had been extremely wanted for his or her meat, belonged to.

If the cygnets had dad and mom that belonged to 2 totally different homeowners, the brood was shared amongst them with the proprietor of the male swan, the cob, choosing the primary fowl. If there was an odd variety of cygnets, the proprietor of the cob, was given the additional cygnet. Alternatively, homeowners may pay to amass disputed birds, or if there have been 3 cygnets, the particular person whose land the nest was constructed on could also be entitled to assert considered one of them.

Swan Marks
Assortment of swan-marks displayed in alphabetical order, starting with the royal swan mark earlier than Henry VIII – from the Harley Assortment within the British Library

Any swans and cygnets that had been left unmarked remained the property of the Crown. A few of the marked birds had been launched to keep up the breeding shares, whereas the remaining had been taken away to be fattened up on grain.

The customized was solely a peculiarity to England and Wales. In Scotland no such system developed, and the swan was by no means thought of a royal fowl.

As home poultry turned extra extensively out there, swan meat fell out of favour, and the birds misplaced their worth. The homeowners let their licences lapse, and now not marked their birds, with only a few retaining their proper to personal swans. Within the nineteenth century the follow lastly stopped when Queen Alexandra, spouse of King Edward VII, determined it triggered the swans pointless struggling.

Right this moment, simply 3 our bodies have saved their proper to personal swans. Two livery firms, the Vintners and the Dyers, and the Ilchester household, which owns the swans breeding at a colony in Abbotsbury in Dorset. The Abbotsbury swannery has been in existence since at the very least the center of the 14th century, whereas the livery firms acquired their rights within the fifteenth century.

Formally, the King does personal all unmarked swans purchase he solely train his proper over components of the River Thames and its tributaries.

What’s swan upping?

Yearly, a census of the swan inhabitants of a stretch of the River Thames from Sunbury Lock in Surrey to Adlington Bridge in Oxfordshire takes place over 5 days in July. Though it’s largely a ceremonial occasion, it additionally performs an vital half within the welfare and conservation of swans.

A flotilla of 6 Thames rowing skiffs – conventional picket clinker-built boats – rowed by scarlet-clad Swan Uppers, representing the Crown and the Vintners’ and Dyers’ livery firms, makes its manner up the river. The boats are adorned with flags and pennants, and are headed by The King’s Swan Marker who wears a cap adorned with a single swan feather.

After they spot a household of swans and cygnets they shout “All Up” earlier than positioning their boats across the brood, till they’ll safely elevate them out of the water. They then take them ashore the place they’re fastidiously examined by The King’s Swan Warden

They’re checked for illness or indicators of harm which will have been attributable to fishing deal with, canine assaults, or air pollution, and the cygnets are weighed and measured. Any minor accidents are handled on the riverbank, whereas extra badly injured birds are taken to a close-by wildlife rescue organisation that’s supported by the 2 livery firms.

Swan Upping

Lastly, the possession of the cygnets is decided. These days, the swans are now not marked within the conventional method, however The Swan Markers of the livery firms place figuring out rings on the cygnets’ legs. All birds belonging to the Crown are left unringed. The cygnets are then returned to the river and reunited with their dad and mom.

Youngsters from native major faculties are invited to the occasion the place they study concerning the biology of swans, the rowing boats and different tools used throughout the ceremony, and the historical past of Swan Upping.

In addition they partake in a Query and Reply session with the Swan Markers and naturally have the chance to view the cygnets shut up, typically the spotlight of the day.

The annual census has offered priceless insights concerning the swans on the Thames. From the Nineteen Sixties to the Eighties numbers fell dramatically from a excessive of 1,300 people to simply 7 breeding pairs recorded in 1985. After lead weights had been banned within the late Eighties, and a sequence of delicate winters the inhabitants started to extend once more. In 2022, 155 cygnets had been recorded, down 21 on the earlier yr, though this was more than likely resulting from avian flu and the drop shouldn’t be of great concern.


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