Swan Upping

Swan Upping

Swan Upping
(Photo: Daily Mail, 2007)

In England, all mute swans on the Thames belong either to the Queen or to one of two London livery companies, the Vintners’ Company and the Dyers’ Company. Originally, all swans belonged to the the monarch, but a 15th century charter gave shares to the two livery companies.

In the third week of July, when the cygnets are in moult and cannot fly, they are rounded up in a public festival called Swan Upping. Swan Uppers row up the Thames, catching swans. Those owned by the livery companies are marked. Those owned by the Queen are left unmarked. Originally, swans were marked by notching their beaks. Now, Dyers’ Company swans are ringed on one leg, and Vintner’s Company swans are ringed on both legs. The older custom is commemorated in the pub name, The Swan with Two Necks, which is a corruption of The Swan with Two Nicks.

This event goes back to the Middle Ages, when swans were served as a delicacy at feasts and festivals. Some sources say that the tradition goes back to Richard the Lion-Hearted, who is said to have brought the first swans to England after the Third Crusade. Notwithstanding the legend, swans are documented in Britain from at least the Roman era.

Until 1993, the Keeper of the King’s Swans, an office dating to the 13th century, was a member of the Royal Household. He was supported by three swan herdsmen. The office was abolished in 1993 and replaced with two new offices in the Royal Household: the Warden of the Swans and the Marker of the Swans.

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