Saturday, July 30, 2011

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 Official Website of the British Monarchy: Swan Upping
The Queen's Swan Marker: Royal Swan Upping 2011
The City Livery Companies

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