Friday, July 12, 2013

Swan Upping on the Thames

For five days during the month of July, a census is conducted of the mute swans on the River Thames. The flotilla plies the river to count swans and tag cygnets. July is the chosen time for "swan upping" because adult swans are in molt and cygnets are too young to fly, making the birds easier to "drive up" or catch.

The Queen's swan warden oversees this operation. When the birds are spotted, the cry "All up!" is given and rowboats surround the birds. Gradually the swans are nudged toward the riverbank where boatmen jump out and catch them. Each bird is examined for signs of injury or sickness, weighed, measured and tagged, then released back to the river.

Mute swans are believed to have been brought to England in the 12th Century. The first written record of royal ownership is 1186 A.D. At that time, swans were a gastronomic delicacy. In 1251, Henry III's Christmas banquet required one hundred twenty five of them.

The first royal swan master was appointed in 1361 A.D. The Act of Swan in 1482 A.D. allowed certain landowners to own them as well, but required each owner pay five marks for the privilege. The landowner cut a unique mark in the bill of his swans. (Click on swan mark image for larger view.) At the height of swan popularity in the 16th Century, nine hundred people were granted "swan marks."

If convicted of illegal possession or killing of a swan, a person was sentenced to seven years hard labor, or transported.

Only three entities currently are allowed to own mute swans -- the Worshipful Company of Vintners, the Worshipful Company of Dyers, and Queen Elizabeth II. These Livery Companies were granted royal charters in the 15th Century. Vintners used to mark their swans with a nick on each side of the beak. The Dyers applied only one nick. Unmarked birds were the property of the Crown. Today, the birds' legs are tagged with identification bands -- the Vintners place a band on each leg, while the Dyers place a band on one leg. The Queen's birds are left untagged.

Livery Companies
There are currently one hundred eight Livery Companies registered in the City of London. Formed as guilds, each regulated wages and labor conditions of their particular trade, much as unions do now. Some continue to do so, but most have evolved into charitable organizations.

Like so much in Britain, there's an order of precedence among the Livery Companies. The two involved in swan upping are the Worshipful Company of Vintners (11th in order of precedence and wearing scarlet shirts during the upping) and the Worshipful Company of Dyers (13th in precedence and wearing navy blue shirts during the upping.) Both Livery Companies date from the 12th Century.

Bell-Ringing Swans
Built in the early 13th Century, the moat around Bishop's Palace in Wells, Somerset sports mute swans taught to pull a bell string for food. (Click here to see a YouTube video of the bell-ringing swans.)


The Queen's Swan Marker: Royal Swan Upping 2011
Swan Upping

Swan Upping: The Official Website of the British Monarchy
The City Livery Companies
The City of London Livery Companies

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Mothering Sunday

Until the mid-17th century, the fourth Sunday in Lent was known as Refreshment Sunday or Laetare Sunday. (Roughly translated, laetare means "delight" or "joyful.") For that one day, the Church relaxed its Lenten fasting rules in honor of the biblical story about the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Miracle of the Five Loaves and Fishes).

During the Middles Ages, the Church required that, at least once a year, people returned to their local or "mother" churches -- the one in which they were baptized. The fourth Sunday in Lent became the date upon which this was commonly done and the pilgrimage was referred to as going "a-mothering."

Gradually, the secular habit of honoring mothers was grafted onto the religious observance. It began as a region custom in the western counties, and slowly spread to the rest of Britain.

The first known reference to Mothering Sunday is found in the 1644 diary of Richard Symonds:

"Every mid-Lent Sunday is a great day in Worcester, when all the children and god-children meet at the head and chief of the family and have a feast. They call it the Mothering-day."

Mothering Sunday became the one day a year that people "in service" were allowed to return home for a visit. Children would bring their mothers small gifts, flowers, and a simnel cake.

According to Rebecca Edridge in 1822 --

“…members of the same family go to visit the oldest female of their line…The venerable matron on that day sits enthroned, the Queen of the festival.”

Old family stories were told and games played before the cowslip wine and cake were passed out.

Simnel Cakes

Simnellus was a kind of fine wheaten bread the Romans ate during their spring fertility rites. Since at least the time of Edward the Confessor, bakery goods were made on specially occasions from simnel. It was so highly prized that the canon, David de Aqua, willed land in Hertfordshire for its cultivation when he died in the late 12th century.

There are several legends about the origins of simnel cakes. According to one, a married couple -- Simon and Nell -- argued about whether to boil or bake the cake. (They did both.) In another, it was said the cake was invented by Henry VII's baker, Lambert Simnel. The later story is unlikely because Robert Herrick mentions simnel cake in his 1648 poem, To Dianeme: A Ceremony at Gloucester:

I'll to thee a simnel bring
'Gainst thou go'st a mothering
So that, when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou'lt give to me.

Mothering Sunday by G.D. Rosenthal; Project Canterbury
Mothering Sunday; The Gentleman’s Magazine Library 1731-1868; p. 31
Mothering Sunday, The Scrinium by Rebecca Edridge Vol II; 1822; p.17
Recipe for Cowslip Wine, Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management; Chapter 37: Beverage Receipes; p.1817
Simnel Cake, Practically Edible: The Web's Biggest Food Encyclopedia, 2010
The Outfit for the Profession of an Austin Canoness at Lacock, Wilts. in the Year 1395, and Other Memorabilia, By the Rev. W.G. Clark Maxwell, M.A., F.S.A.;The Archaeological Journal Vol LXIX No. 273 Second Series Vol. XIX No. 1;By British Archaeological Association, Royal Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland; March, 1912; p. 122 -->
Diary of the Marches of the Royal Army During the Great Civil War kept by Richard Symonds; Edited by Charles Edward Long, Trinity College, Cambridge; 1859; p. 27
Hesperides #684: To Dianeme: A Ceremony in Gloucester by Robert Herrick; The Hesperides & Noble Numbers Vol II; Edited by Alfred Plllard; Aberdeen University Press; 1898