by, Jo Carol Hebert
Listen to this post as a podcast.
“Does the Queen of England own all the mute swans in England?”
Well, yes. But, actually, no.
“By law, decreed in the Middle Ages: “the Queen owns all the unmarked mute swans in open waters in Britain and Wales.” (The ‘mute swan’ is the familiar white swan with orange and black bill).
Let’s go Swan Upping with the Queen and learn more about the Mute Swan and this unique tradition!
The Swan Law
In Medieval England, the swan was a ‘delicacy’ – a special food treat, and a status symbol of wealth and prestige.
The Crown collected a very expensive “swan mark” fee. Noblemen had to brand their swans as property. Any swan not marked belonged to the Royal family.
Swan moots were courts held to settle disputes about swan marks and ownership of swans.
Long Live the Queen
Today, following that old tradition of the Swan-Law, the Queen of England owns the swans mainly on the River Thames (say ‘timz’). These historical waters flow through London, where the Queen resides, and on through the length of England.
Respectfully, the people of England grant their beloved Queen traditional ownership of the mute swans.
Today, the Queen directs a strong and active program to conserve the swan.
In her service are a Royal Swan Marker and a Royal Swan Warden. These quite prestigious jobs involve the counting of the swans on the Thames River.
Called ‘swan upping,’ it is carried out with much pomp and ceremony.
The “uppers,” dressed in royal attire, paddle rowboats down the 79 miles of the Thames river in late July. For a week, the swans are counted and their health is duly noted.
The public, and especially school children, come out and are educated to respect and conserve the swan.
In 2018, the Royal Swan Marker was happy to report to the Queen that there were 132 cygnets (young swans) new on the river.
Did you know?
- Swans are waterfowl, in the duck and goose family
- This bird has over 25,000 feathers on its body
- The male is called a cob, the female is called a pen. and baby is called a cygnet
- Swans mate for life.
- They can fly 60 miles per hour
- Swans live on water and are herbivores
- They can weigh up to 33 lbs. and have a wingspan of up to 10 ft.
- Cygnets like to ride on their parents back (see The Peculiar Pangolin for another baby that likes to this).
- The word, cygnophobia, means “fear of swans”
True or False About Swans
Q. Swans are found on every continent?
False: Swans do not inhabit the continents of Africa and Antarctica.
Q. Swans are gentle creatures?
Not really: They can be very aggressive, especially if you mess with their “cygnets”.
Q. Swans are on the endangered list of the UUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)?
False: Swans are listed as LC, ‘least concern for extinction’.
Q. The mother swan teaches the ‘cygnet’ to swim?
False: cygnets are born swimming.
Q. The ‘mute swan’ cannot make any noise?
False: This swan is the least vocal of the species, but does hiss, snort, or whistle.
Q. Swans are considered to be very smart?
True. They remember kindness and mistreatment. They celebrate by gathering and flapping wings, when enemies are driven off. Swans will also signal to each other in flight by the throbbing sounds of their wing beats.
Swans in Fairy Tales and Fantasy
Of course, we could never talk about swans without mentioning the Ugly Duckling fairy tale, by Hans Christian Andersen of Denmark. The truth is that swans are rather gray, scraggly, and less than lovely at birth. We all love the ‘underdog’ (or swan) that overcomes.
The most famous Russian ballet is called, The Swan, where a princess and her friends are turned into swans.
This graceful, elegant creature, glides serenely over ponds and lakes. In our cultural imagination, the Swan, like the Unicorn, awakes a sense of wonder, dreams, and realms of distant times and faraway places.
What do you think of this fun festival? Tell us by writing a story or drawing a picture of a Swan.
Just use your imagination . . . .
For more information on the Swan Upping festival click here.