It is an historic Royal ceremony that has taken place annually for the last 900 years but the Coronavirus means that for only the second time, this ancient practice of counting the swans on the River Thames has been cancelled for the year.
The Swan Upping census lasts for five days and was due to take place between Sunbury-on-Thames and Abingdon from July 13 to 17. Swan Upping dates back to the 12th Century when the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans, which used to be considered a delicacy. In a similar vein to how you might remember how in Robin Hood the outlaws weren’t allowed to trap the Kings deer and later in London the poor were reduced to Mudlarking on the filthy banks of the Thames.
To protect swans as an exclusive commodity, in 1482 the crown ordained that only landowners could keep the birds. Ownership of swans was recorded by a code of marks nicked into the beak of the bird; an intricate system of these ‘swan marks’ developed. Only those who owned the right to use an official swan mark could own swans, and marks were restricted and expensive to purchase. Any swans that didn’t bear a mark were automatically the property of the crown. This effectively meant that only the monarch, wealthy landowners and some large institutions like trade guilds, cathedrals and universities could afford swan ownership.
Having a swan or two in your lake or garden was the equivalent of having a Bentley or Rolls Royce parked outside so imagine how important and rich you would have to be to able to eat them. Swans were eaten as a special dish at feasts, served as a centre-piece in their skin and feathers with a lump of blazing incense in the beak. They were particularly associated with Christmas, when they would be served in large numbers at royal feasts; forty swans were ordered for Henry III’s Christmas celebrations in 1247 at Winchester, for example.
The Queen has more titles than possibly anyone else alive not only is she the Queen of the United Kingdom and many other countries but she is the Head of the Commonwealth; Defender of the Faith; Commander in Chief of the British Armed Forces; Sovereign of the Most Noble Order of the Garter; Sovereign of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle and way way down her list of roles is that of being the Seigneur of the Swan.
These days the Queen doesn’t actually eat the swans even though they were once considered to be a delicacy. and the ceremony now serves a wildlife conservation purpose rather than a culinary one. When I was a boy in the 1980’s it was a serious crime to go fishing with lead fishing weights which if they broke or were cut off and swallowed by the swan would lead to its death as technically it was a crime against The Queen and eating one was Treason until 1998.
The five-day census normally involves cygnets being weighed and measured, examined for signs of injury or disease, and taken for treatment if necessary. The young birds are ringed with identification numbers that denote whether they were tagged by either of Vintners’ or the Dyers’ livery companies both old guilds from the Medieval times that have the honour of performing this ceremony for the Crown. When Swans and their Cygnets are sighted the shout of “All Up!” rings out from the boats.
It is hugely popular with people in Surrey, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, who flock to the Thames to see the Royal Swan Uppers at work with their royal flags and colourful uniforms.
Dressed in their traditional scarlet uniforms and rowing in skiffs, they herd the swans and their cygnets between the boats so they can be measured and ringed.