There are many curious traditions associated with the monarchy of the United Kingdom. One of the most well-known is that all swans are the property of the King. Killing a swan, some claim, is high treason which could see you thrown in the Tower.
However, this is not strictly correct; it is only unmarked mute swans that are the property of the Crown, and you won’t you end up in the Tower for killing one. In fact, the actual truth is far more interesting.
What is an unmarked swan?
For hundreds of years, swans were seen as a prized food, often served as the centrepiece at feasts and banquets, skinned and redressed, with a lump of burning coal in its beak. They were particularly popular with noblemen and royalty. In 1247, for example, Henry III ordered 40 swans for the Christmas celebrations at Winchester.
Unlike chickens, geese, and ducks, though, swans could never be fully domesticated. Historical records show that they were semi-domesticated in England by at least the 12th century, probably by pinioning, but that they still retained many traits of fully wild animals such as a high degree of territoriality and only flocking out of breeding season.
This meant that swans could not be kept in the usual manner of domestic animals, so unless you owned a large private lake or moat, they had to live on open water, free to swim wherever they fancied. And once they move onto common land, you may lose ownership of them.
It is not known when it became customary for swans to be considered Royal Fowl, that is property of the Crown, but records documenting the rules of ownership go back to the middle of the 12th century, with the first written record of royal swan ownership dating back to 1186. In 1246 it is known that the Sergeant of Kennington was seizing cygnets on behalf of the King, and by 1361 the Crown had employed a Master of the King’s Game of Swans, also known as the Royal Swan-herd, Royal Swannerd, or Royal Swan-master.
Killing or injuring swans, stealing eggs, hunting near them with dogs, driving them from your land, or even cutting the grass near a swan were all considered offences and by 1463 a Swan-Mote was put in place by the monarch, with commissioners and justices appointed to hear the cases.
By the beginning of the 15th century however, wealthy people were awarded the right to buy, sell, and eat swans, by purchasing a ‘swan mark’ from the King. As proof of ownership a mark, one of the oldest property marks in England, was carved into the swan’s beak.
Over the centuries, hundreds of different swan marks evolved, with books, such as The Cantley Swan Roll. published to keep track of them. At first, the marks consisted of simple lines and shapes but eventually swords, crossbows, heraldic symbols, and finally letters were used.
Complex rules surrounding ownership were also drawn up and each year families of swans were rounded up to determine who the cygnets, which were highly sought after for their meat, belonged to.
If the cygnets had parents that belonged to two different owners, the brood was shared among them with the owner of the male swan, the cob, picking the first bird. If there was an odd number of cygnets, the owner of the cob, was given the extra cygnet. Alternatively, owners could pay to acquire disputed birds, or if there were 3 cygnets, the person whose land the nest was built on may be entitled to claim one of them.
Any swans and cygnets that were left unmarked remained the property of the Crown. Some of the marked birds were released to maintain the breeding stocks, while the rest were taken away to be fattened up on grain.
The custom was solely a peculiarity to England and Wales. In Scotland no such system developed, and the swan was never considered a royal bird.
As domestic poultry became more widely available, swan meat fell out of favour, and the birds lost their value. The owners let their licences lapse, and no longer marked their birds, with very few retaining their right to own swans. In the 19th century the practice finally stopped when Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII, decided it caused the swans unnecessary suffering.
Today, just 3 bodies have kept their right to own swans. Two livery companies, the Vintners and the Dyers, and the Ilchester family, which owns the swans breeding at a colony in Abbotsbury in Dorset. The Abbotsbury swannery has been in existence since at least the middle of the 14th century, while the livery companies received their rights in the 15th century.
Officially, the King does own all unmarked swans buy he only exercise his right over parts of the River Thames and its tributaries.
What is swan upping?
Every year, a census of the swan population of a stretch of the River Thames from Sunbury Lock in Surrey to Adlington Bridge in Oxfordshire takes place over 5 days in July. Although it is largely a ceremonial event, it also plays an important part in the welfare and conservation of swans.
A flotilla of 6 Thames rowing skiffs – traditional wooden clinker-built boats – rowed by scarlet-clad Swan Uppers, representing the Crown and the Vintners’ and Dyers’ livery companies, makes its way 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.
When they spot a family of swans and cygnets they shout “All Up” before positioning their boats around the brood, until they can safely lift them out of the water. They then take them ashore where they are carefully examined by The King’s Swan Warden
They are checked for disease or signs of injury that may have been caused by fishing tackle, dog attacks, or pollution, and the cygnets are weighed and measured. Any minor injuries are treated on the riverbank, while more badly injured birds are taken to a nearby wildlife rescue organisation that is supported by the two livery companies.
Finally, the ownership of the cygnets is determined. Nowadays, the swans are no longer marked in the traditional manner, but The Swan Markers of the livery companies place identifying 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 parents.
Children from local primary schools are invited to the event where they learn about the biology of swans, the rowing boats and other equipment used during the ceremony, and the history of Swan Upping.
They also partake in a Question and Answer session with the Swan Markers and of course have the opportunity to view the cygnets close up, often the highlight of the day.
The annual census has provided valuable insights about the swans on the Thames. From the 1960s to the 1980s numbers fell dramatically from a high of 1,300 individuals to just 7 breeding pairs recorded in 1985. After lead weights were banned in the late 1980s, and a series of mild winters the population began to increase again. In 2022, 155 cygnets were recorded, down 21 on the previous year, although this was most likely due to avian flu and the drop is not of significant concern.