The ancient ceremony of swan-upping on the River Thames
Swan-upping is a ceremony that takes place on the River Thames in England during the third week of July. It is a colourful spectacle that has its origins back in the 12th century, but it is not just an ancient tradition that refuses to die; it also has an important role in maintaining the health and welfare of the river’s swans.
One of the monarch’s many titles is “Seigneur of the Swans”, which dates back to an age when swans were highly prized for their meat and the king or queen took every care to see that there was a plentiful supply for the royal table. All mute swans were therefore declared to be royal property, and anyone who killed a swan was therefore guilty of stealing from the monarch and could expect a particularly severe penalty.
In practice, the royal prerogative of ownership is only exercised along the course of one river, the Thames, and only along the stretch from Sunbury to Abingdon, which includes the Royal town and castle of Windsor. Even so, this is 130 kilometres (80 miles) of prime swan-breeding water, so the Queen can still claim possession of a large number of swans!
Since the 15th century, the stewardship of the swans has been shared between the monarch and two of London’s livery companies, the Vintners and the Dyers, which needed swans for their annual dinners. These were trade guilds that regulated the quality of work done by their members, but they now exercise only ceremonial functions, with the annual swan upping being one of these.
The ceremony takes place over five days and is led by the Queen’s Swan Marker, accompanied by representative of the Vintners and Dyers. They proceed up the river in six wooden rowing skiffs in which the crew wear traditional costumes and fly pennants that signify who they represent.
When a group of swans and cygnets is spotted there is a cry of “All Up” and the birds are gently corralled towards the bank where they are lifted from the water to be checked. This is done with great care to make sure that the swans are neither harmed nor scared.
The ownership of the swans is identified by their leg rings (in earlier years their beaks were notched). The Vintners and Dyers have their own coloured rings, and the royal swans have none. If they are big enough, the cygnets will also be ringed (or not) at this stage.
The opportunity is taken to check the health of the swans, which includes looking for any injuries caused by fishing lines or deliberate assault - unfortunately some people take pleasure in firing airguns or crossbows at swans. Weighing and measuring is also done, so a record can be kept of how well the swan population is doing at various places along the river.
When the skiffs pass Windsor Castle the crews stand and raise their oars in salute to “The Seigneur of the Swans”.
Swan-upping is an interesting example of a ceremony that reaches back into the mists of time but still has an important purpose today. Although the current Queen’s appetite for roast swan is considerably less than that of her 16th century predecessor King Henry VIII, the need for swan-upping as a regular check on the health and welfare of these beautiful birds is as great as ever.
Image Credit » Bill Tyne. Licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence.