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Royal Traditions: Swan Upping

I love writing about British royal traditions and ceremonies. Steeped in history, the odd sounding Swan Upping needs an explanation.

An 1875 depiction of the Swan Upping ceremony.

An 1875 depiction of the Swan Upping ceremony.

What Is Swan Upping?

The annual royal tradition of Swan Upping has been carried out for over nine hundred years and it is a census and marking of ownership of the Mute Swan species (Cygnus Olor) along an agreed stretch of the River Thames. Despite the name it’s not an event in which the Queen’s officials in livery tip swans over so they're tails up in the water. (Although the swans do this themselves when feeding.)

The three day count is held during the third week of July. For example, the 2021 Swan Upping commences on Tuesday 20th July at Eton Bridge in Berkshire and finishes at Moulsford on Thames in the neighbouring county of Oxfordshire on Thursday 22nd July. The event was not held in 2020 due to the Covid pandemic.

Swan Upping's Origins

Its origins lie in the 12th century. Mute Swans were a bird that came under royal ownership around the time of Richard I (The Lionheart's) reign. These swans were served as a sumptuous food accessible only to the monarch and their elite guests. To ensure that stock levels were maintained and that the royal palaces were always feast and banquet ready, an annual count was initiated.

The equal ownership agreement between the monarch and two ancient trading companies, The City of London’s Worshipful Company of Dyers and the Worshipful Company of Vintners commenced in the 1400’s. The companies received their prestigious royal warrants from King’s Edward III and Henry VI in 1363 and 1471 respectively. Vintners is one of the “Great Twelve” livery companies in the city, ranking at number eleven. Its motto of Vinum Exhilarat Animum or Wine Cheers The Spirit is appropriate for a company that historically held the monopoly on importing wine from Gascony, France and was permitted to sell wine without a license in the City of London.

The Worshipful Company of Dyers has been in existence since the 1100's. It ranks as the thirteenth most prestigious livery company and it was once solely concerned with cloth dying but today also carries out a range of charitable pursuits and offers support within the industry.

Vintners and Dyers swan counters wear their own liveries and they have specific identification tags for swans denoting ownership.

Swan Upping taking place in Henley on the River Thames.

Swan Upping taking place in Henley on the River Thames.

Who's Who?

Six teams in boats, or skiffs, bearing flags and pennants, make a tally between the two points on the river for the monarch and mark the birds appropriately as they progress. Traditional scarlet uniforms are worn by the Queen's Swan Marker who co-ordinates the ceremonial count and is responsible for maintaining the population. The counters and swan markers are known as Swan Uppers. July is the best time for the census because the cygnets have not yet flown and the parent swans are moulting.

In recent pre-Covid years, Elizabeth II and her daughter Anne, The Princess Royal have attended the event. The Queen is known as the Seigneur of the Swans.

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The Swan Marker at the time of writing is David Barber. The Swan Warden, since the 1993 creation of the role, has been Oxford University ornithologist Professor Christopher Perrins. He is of equal rank to the Marker but holds a purely scientific role as he is responsible for checking the health and weight of the swans and cygnets along the river. “All’s up!” is the signal that they have found Mute Swans to count and mark.

Vintner's team Swan Upping at Sunbury on the River Thames in 2004.

Vintner's team Swan Upping at Sunbury on the River Thames in 2004.

How The Census Works

The birds that belong to Dyers or Vintners wear identification tags, the swans which bear no tags are designated as royal property. This rule extends to swans in the open water throughout the country. The tags replaced the previous method of nicking the bird’s beak in a manner to show who its owner was.

Today, the focus of Swan Upping is not food but conservation and education. This royal tradition attracts crowds and the Swan Marker and his teams use the census as an opportunity to help people, particularly schoolchildren, understand the importance of wildlife, swans' welfare, needs and preservation.

A report is produced for the monarch confirming the quantity of swans, cygnets and family broods counted during the census and issues are highlighted. For example, the increase of pollution or signs of disease.

A beautiful and majestic Mute Swan on the water.

A beautiful and majestic Mute Swan on the water.

Covid's Impact on Swans

Sadly, even without a census in 2020 it became evident to Barber that during the Covid lockdowns the amount of pollution affecting the swans increased significantly and has yet to fall. The Swan Marker and his team have made it a priority to educate the younger members of the community on the dangers to the swans of careless human actions.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Joanne Hayle

Comments

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on June 23, 2021:

Joanne, how very interesting. I was unaware of swan upping. Thanks for enlightening me.

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