Every summer, barring a plague, an age-old ritual takes places on the Thames: the Royal Swan Upping. Led by the Royal Swan Marker, “[t]he Royal Swan Uppers, who wear the scarlet uniform of Her Majesty The Queen, travel in traditional rowing skiffs together with Swan Uppers from the Vintners’ and Dyers’ livery companies”. Truth be told, the skiffs are mostly towed by a boat with an engine, but the whole thing does look pretty grand. I know, because I went to see it yesterday.
Scarlet uniform: check. Royal flag: check. Awesome swan flag on the towing boat: also check. Even Galadriel would be proud, I think. (And, come to think of it, I’m wondering if the Swan Upping has helped inspire Professor Tolkien.)
The reason I’m writing about it here, though, is that there is a fascinating legal-historical and indeed constitutional dimension to the Swan Upping story. As Katy Barnett explains in a most instructive post over at Legal History Miscellany the reason for the glorious scarlet uniforms’ presence is that her majesty has a special relationship, one might say, with the mute swans of the Thames:
[t]he ancient origins of the monarch’s ownership of swans are shrouded in mystery. The first mention of mute swans being a ‘royal bird’ comes from Gerald of Wales (‘Giraldus Cambrensis’) in the late 12th century. It is generally deemed part of the royal prerogative by custom, then entrenched in case law and statute. (Footnote omitted)
The office of the Royal Swan Marker goes back (at least?) to the 14th century:
In 1361, Thomas de Russham was given responsibility by the king for “the supervision and custody of all our swans as well as in the water of the Thames as elsewhere within our Kingdom.” Thereafter, the king had an officer who was Master of the King’s Game of Swans (also known as the Royal Swan-herd, Royal Swannerd, or Royal Swan-master).
In the Middle Ages, the scarlet uniforms were not just for show: swan ownership was tied up with social hierarchy:
In 1482 and 1483, Edward IV’s Act for Swans was passed to prevent unlawful keeping of swans by “Yeomen and Husbandmen, and other persons of little Reputation”. Accordingly, the only people who could have swan marks or own swans were noble and rich people
And “only the monarch could claim unmarked mute swans”. This is what the Royal Swan Upping was:
[p]eople would catch the swans, record the ownership of the birds and their offspring, and place markings upon the beaks of the birds. It seems that the marks were achieved by inscription with a knife or by branding. The swan-master was to meticulously maintain the marks in an ‘upping book’.
Nowadays, of course, the whole process is much more humane, and its point is no longer to ensure the steady supply of swans for royal Christmas feasts as in the Plantegenets’ and Tudors’ times. As the Royal Swan Marker explains,
Swan Upping plays an important role in the conservation of the mute swan and involves The Queen’s Swan Warden collecting data, assessing the health of young cygnets and examining them for any injuries. Cygnets are extremely vulnerable at this early stage in their development and Swan Upping affords an opportunity to help both adults and cygnets that might otherwise go untreated.
In this way, the process really is emblematic of the British constitution: its origins are in medieval royal absolutism, later reinforced and partly taken over by statute, and eventually re-thought for a more caring and democratic age, with the scarlet uniforms more or less intact. So it only makes sense that I went to see it, and that I blog about it!