Swan Upping is an annual ceremonial event and an activity that has endured since the 12th century. The mute swans on part of the River Thames are caught, weighed, inspected, ringed, and then released. Centuries ago these birds were eaten and this exercise was game management!
Swans were regular food in the Tudor age, but legally these days mute swans are only allowed to be eaten by the Royal Family and by fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge on 25th June. Their quills were also used for writing although quills from geese were much more commonly used – but a swan’s quill was said to last as long as 50 goose quills.
Traditionally, the British Monarch is the owner of all unmarked mute swans in open water, but only exercises ownership on certain stretches of the River Thames and its surrounding tributaries in Middlesex, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire. There is a Royal Charter which Edward IV passed in 1482 preventing the claim of ownership of swans by common people. In 2012, because of flooding of the Thames, Swan Upping was cancelled between Sunbury-on-Thames and Windsor. It’s thought to be the first time in 900 years that the event couldn’t take place.
The Keeper of the King or Queen’s Swans was an ancient office in the Royal Household and was previously called the King or Queen’s Swanmaster, a position which dates from the 13th century. He was assisted by three swanherdsmen during Swan Upping. The title of Keeper was replaced by two new posts in 1993, Warden of the Swans and Marker of the Swans. The Queen’s Marker of the Swans still organises Swan Upping and he monitors the health of the local swan population. The Warden of the Swans works alongside the Marker of the Swans, a post presently held by David Barber, and together they conduct the event.
Swan Upping is a colourful occasion and is used as a swan census. It takes place annually during the third week of July when the Queen’s ‘Worshipful Company of Vintners’ and the ‘Worshipful Company of Dyers’ provide Swan Uppers to row up the river in shallow boats called skiffs. The first documentary reference to the Vintners owning swans comes from 1509, when the Company’s “Under-Swanherd” was paid 4 shillings (20p) at the time of the ‘great frost’ for ‘upping the Master’s swans’.
This ownership of the swans is shared between the Royal Household, the Vintners and the Dyers, who were granted rights of ownership by the Crown in the fifteenth century. Swans caught by the Queen’s Swan Uppers under the direction of the Marker of the Swans are not now marked, except for a ring linked to the database of the British Trust for Ornithology. Those caught by the Dyers and Vintners are identified as theirs by means of an extra ring on the other leg. Today, only swans with cygnets are caught and ringed. This gives a yearly overview of how swans are breeding. Originally, rather than being ringed, the swans would have been marked on the bill with identifiable notches.
Swan Upping is conducted over a week with different stretches of the river being covered each day. As they row past Windsor Castle, the Swan Uppers salute “Her Majesty the Queen, Seigneur of the Swans”. The crews of the skiffs have ceremonial uniforms but for the working element of the job they are clad in blue, red or white polo shirts and white trousers rolled up over their ankles. Each boat flies the appropriate flag for its livery company. When a brood of cygnets is sighted, a cry of “All up!” is given to signal that the boats should get into position for a quick capture.
At the completion of Swan Upping each year, The Queen’s Marker of the Swans produces a report which provides information on the number of swans accounted for, including broods and cygnets. This enables the most appropriate conservation methods to be used to protect the swans. This ancient tradition has taken on a new mantle. The Swan Uppers are caring for swans, not as a source of food but as a beautiful part of the picturesque River Thames.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018