Swan Upping

A medieval ritual as a metaphor for British constitutional history

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.

The Swan Upping arrives at Sonning Bridge: July 20, 2022

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).

The Swan Uppers, now doing their own rowing: Sonning, July 20, 2022

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!

End of a Swan Upping day’s work: Sonning, July 20, 2022

Such a Person

A recent biography highlights (some of) Thomas Cromwell’s influence on the constitution

I have just finished reading Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch’s very interesting Thomas Cromwell: A Life, and thought I’d share some of its constitutional history highlights. Inevitably, I suppose, for a book written by a religious historian, Sir Diarmaid’s telling of Cromwell’s life and times focuses more on religious issues than on legal or, say, economic ones. No doubt this serves to emphasize aspects of the story to which others (including Hilary Mantel, the source of prior knowledge about Cromwell for me and, I suspect, for many others) devote less attention.

At the same time, I was at times wishing for a little less theological detail, and a bit more about the other aspects of Cromwell’s story. For example, one Cromwellian innovation of whose origins constitutional lawyers today should be at least approximatively aware since it bears the name of Cromwell’s royal master are Henry VIII clauses, which allow the Crown to make rules that will override and have the force of statutes enacted by Parliament. Yet Sir Diarmaid refers to the legislation in which such power was granted to Henry VIII, the Statute of Proclamations, only in passing in the conclusion of the book. From a lawyer’s perspective, this is disappointing – though of course Sir Diarmaid doesn’t set out to speak to lawyers in particular. In any case, here are some of the legally-relevant nuggets.

Probably the most significant constitutional legacy that Sir Diarmaid attributes (in part) to Cromwell has to do with Parliament’s role. The great changes of Henry VIII’s reign ― above all the break with Rome and the manifold interventions in the affairs of the English Church were ratified by Parliament. Other reforms, in the law and in social policy, were implemented or at least attempted to be implemented through acts of Parliament too. As Sir Diarmaid points out,

[t]his intensive use of Parliament in the 1530s, a crucial moment in its consolidation and growth when many other such assemblies in Europe were atrophying, had implications not merely for the religious future of Tudor England, but for the shape of national history thereafter. When, over the next 400 years, other European commonwealths evolved into something like nations, it was usually through an exercise of will by monarchs who felt little need of their medieval representative assemblies. Cromwell the Parliamentary veteran is the most likely candidate for having promoted Parliament in the kingdom of England at this moment. (236)

The consequence of Cromwell’s involvement of Parliament into the great matters of state was that

[t]he King’s leading men were far more frequently Parliament men from the 1530s – more precisely, they became Commons men, if a peerage did not bar them and provide a seat in the other place. … From Thomas Cromwell’s time onwards, royal advisers mostly knew what it was to sit through the squabbles, the excitement and the tedium of a Tudor Parliamentary session. (547)

Related to this transformation of Parliament from occasional forum in which consent to taxation might be generated (in return for the airing and, perhaps, redress of grievance) to a central policy-making instrument, is another Cromwellian innovation that is still with us today: by-elections. These aren’t particularly necessary when a Parliament only sits for a brief period and then is dissolved. But “in a Parliament which eventually sat over an extraordinary and unprecedented seven years”, (215) they were a most useful device. It is Cromwell who came up with it, in 1532-33.

Cromwell’s influence is also still felt in the legislative process. He hadn’t come up with the idea, but embraced and regular the use of

what was then a very recent innovation in Parliamentary procedure. It has become known as a ‘division’, and is the method by which Lords and Commons vote at Westminster right up to the present day: separating out ayes and noes into their respective groups. Until the 1520s, decisions in Parliament were customarily taken by the same ancient procedure which elected knights and burgesses to the Commons: acclamation, or, to put it another way, shouting very loudly. The louder shout won. This procedure worked best when (as in well-regulated committees throughout history) there was already general agreement and the heat had been taken out of the issue in question. In circumstances of bitter disagreement, it became clumsy and contestable. The first recorded instance of a division was in contention over a royal tax demand in the 1523 Parliament … It is possible that the King’s advisers had used the division as a way of flushing out and making visible the core of the opposition. (159)

Cromwell had been one of the opposition in 1523; as a royal advisor, and the king’s agent in the House of Commons a decade later, he made use of the division himself. As Sir Diarmaid later explains

Unity was a prized good in medieval and Tudor England: division was an aberration from the norm, hence the government’s use of voting by division in Parliamentary proceedings as a way to shame people into conformity. (240)

Cromwell helped shaped not only the legislative, but also the executive branch of government. The Privy Council appears, officially, during his time as (in effect) Henry VIII’s chief minister. Sir Diarmaid notes that while the term “Privy Council” had been used earlier, “from 1537” it acquires a new meaning and refers to

a set number of people specifically named to that position, no more than twenty or so. The phrase continued into the early Stuart age to describe the main body for executive government, and still remains fossilized in the British governmental system. … [T]his newly formalized body sat not as a vehicle for [Cromwell’s] power, but to check it. The Privy Council’s further formalization, with its own clerk and minute-book, occurred immediately on his fall in 1540: a move designed to prevent any fresh Thomas Cromwell from emerging to usurp the power now distributed among Henry VIII’s closest advisers. (398)

Recent events have reminded us, of course that this Cromwellian, or rather anti-Cromwellian, innovation is “fossilized” in the Canadian governmental system too, as provided by section 11 of the Constitution Act, 1867clerk and all.

In addition to Parliament and the executive, left a mark on the judiciary too. Indeed he held a judicial office himself (while also occupying various positions in the other two branches): that of Master of the Rolls. As with Parliament, if perhaps even less predictably, Cromwell’s tenure proved a turning point since it had the effect of “as it turned out permanently transferring the Mastership of the Rolls from the domain of Chancery-trained clerics to lay common lawyers”. (271)

Another, and more sinister, long-lasting though thankfully expunged Cromwellian legacy was the first statute criminalizing “buggery”. Its causes, in fact, were partly related to the competition between the lay and the ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Sir Diarmaid explains that

After the Papacy had created a body of canon law and church courts to administer it in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, such matters of morality as this had been the concern of church lawyers in the Western Church, and not of the King’s courts. The Act was the first major encroachment in England on that general principle, a phenomenon which occurred right across sixteenth-century Europe, Catholic and Protestant alike. (241)

But the conflict wasn’t just jurisdictional. The statute appears to have been “directly linked” to the perception, among English protestants, of “the unnaturalness of clerical celibacy generally [and] monastic corruption in particular, and so … looks like a new try-out in Cromwell’s programme of intervention in the affairs of monasteries and friaries”. (241) But of course the criminalization was not limited to wayward monks and friars. Innocent men were collateral damage in this fight – though it is perhaps naïve to think that, but for it, homosexuality would not have been criminalized.

Of course, Cromwell was on the side, or rather the chief instrument, of repression in other ways too. Disagreement with the policies he steered through Parliament at his royal master’s behest was not welcome:

If the official theory of the 1530s ran that the realm was united with one voice as expressed in Parliament, once this expression had been made anyone dissenting was not a true subject, or churchman, lord, knight or burgess. The fate of such individuals could be dire. If Cromwell crafted the rhetoric, he was also put in charge of enforcing the consequences. (236)

And, still on the subject of repression of dissenters, it is impossible to speak of Cromwell without also speaking of Thomas More. In Sir Diarmaid’s telling, neither man comes out well. Before he became the great symbol of freedom of conscience, More was in his capacity as Lord Chancellor a devotee of persecution. As he

felt himself increasingly boxed in and at odds with the King’s plans, he turned to waging implacable war on enemies of the Church whom he could crush without inhibition. Gone were the days of Cardinal Wolsey, when no one was burned at the stake for heresy: More had a positive relish for burning heretics. Since 1529, he had been saying so at savage length in print, in flat rejection of Wolsey’s conciliatory line, and although claims by angry Protestants of the next generation that he personally tortured heretics have no evidence to back them up, his words now became Church policy. (160)

Indeed, More had a “strong sense of being caught up in a cosmic battle for the soul of Europe between the Papacy and the forces of Antichrist”. (161) He has, of course, been fortunate in his biographers―but the real, historical More seems to have been closer to the sour and stern character depicted by Dame Hilary than to the hero whom so many, myself included, have long admired.

For all that, there is little doubt that More’s execution was nothing more than judicial murder. Sir Diarmaid writes that Cromwell

choreographed the judicial procedures which briskly led to More’s execution. The court’s decision was based on evidence from Richard Rich, Solicitor-General and already firmly within Cromwell’s circle of patronage, in front of jurors carefully picked by Master Secretary [one of Cromwell’s titles]. Few historical accounts have managed to make the tale of Rich’s career anything better than despicable in its opportunism and chameleon-like profession of religious belief; he is likely to have distorted what he had heard in interviews with More. (279; reference omitted)

Sir Diarmaid notes that Cromwell seems to have felt rather terrible about the whole thing:

in Cromwell’s jottings of remembrances for action … he could not bring himself to name More in relation to the business of execution … [T]he note read “When Master Fisher shall go to execution, and also the other”. (280)

Perhaps it would be unfair to say “crocodile tears”. Yet even if Cromwell’s conflicted feelings were genuine, that hardly reduces his responsibility for putting a man to death for his beliefs (however fanatical and they may otherwise have been), and in a perversion of the legal process.

Cromwell was, then, a paradoxical figure in constitutional history. He was a man who abetted royal authoritarianism, including in its murderous tendencies, of which he would himself become a victim. But he was also a man who ultimately could claim the credit for aggrandizing Parliament and setting it on the trajectory that would lead, first, to a confrontation with the Crown in which, under the leadership of a Cromwell’s nephew’s great-grandson, Parliament would judicially murder Henry VIII’s nephew’s grandson, Charles I, and then to finally securing dominance over the Crown a century and a half after Cromwell’s downfall. Not that Cromwell would necessarily have been pleased with any of that. It is perhaps for the best that we do not know the consequences of our actions.

Facing Justice ― English Version

I wrote last year about the Supreme Court’s decision on whether a witness in a criminal proceeding could testify while wearing a niqab, a full-face veil,  R. v. N.S., 2012 SCC 72, [2012] 3 SCR 726. Of course, the questions about balancing trial fairness and freedom of religion which the Court had to confront in that case do not only arise in Canada. An English criminal trial court recently had to confront them too, delivering its decision on the matter in R. v D(R) [2013] EW Misc 13 (CC) yesterday.

One difference between the English and the Canadian cases is that in N.S., it was a witness (namely, the complainant) who asked to testify with her face covered. In D(R) it was the accused. Judge Murphy, who decided D, thought it was an important distinction:

there are different considerations in these instances. For example, the public has a strong interest in encouraging women who may be the victims of crime from coming forward, without the fear that the court process may compromise their religious beliefs and practices. On the other hand, the rights of the defendant in any resulting criminal proceedings must also be protected. So there is a potential for a challenging conflict of competing public interests. A defendant may, of course, be a witness; but this does not define her role in the proceedings. As a defendant, she plays the central role throughout proceedings, and unlike a witness, she is brought before the court under compulsion and does not appear as a matter of choice (par. 8).

Another distinction which Judge Murphy made in discussing N.S. concerns the significance of the right to religious freedom in Canadian law, by virtue of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which he took to be far greater than that of the “qualified” right to freedom of religion under the European Convention on Human Rights. (I think that Judge Murphy is wrong about this. He takes the protection of freedom in s. 2(a) of the Charter to be absolute, because that provision lacks a qualifying clause like the corresponding one of European Convention ― but of course the Charter does have a qualifying clause, albeit a general one, s. 1.)

One element of N.S. that judge Murphy rejects is the preliminary step of inquiring into the sincerity of the accused’s belief that she must wear the niqab. Such an inquiry would be too difficult to undertake, and different results in different cases would lead to “a kind of judicial anarchy” (par. 15). Better to have a general rule that will apply unless the prosecution decides to bring some evidence suggesting that the accused is, in fact, insincere.

These distinctions notwithstanding, Judge Murphy’s understanding of the basic problem facing the court is not very different from that of the majority in N.S. There is a clash of long-standing, fundamental principles: freedom of religion on the one hand, trial fairness on the other. Religious freedom means being able to wear the clothes one’s religion prescribes. Trial fairness means requires the judge, the jury, and counsel to be able to observe the witness who gives evidence, and the accused even when she is not giving evidence.

Judge Murphy’s views on the trial process, however, are similar to (and borrow from) those of Justice Lebel’s concurrence in N.S. A trial is a “communicative” process, and seeing the accused throughout is very important. It would be unfair to all the other participants in the proceedings if they could not observe the accused’s face. Judge Murphy goes further still. He finds that because “[t]he Court may not discriminate between different religious traditions, or between those with a religious belief and those with none,” if a woman wearing the niqab “is entitled to keep her face covered, it becomes impossible for the Court to refuse the same privilege to others, whether or not they hold the same or another religious belief, or none at all” (par. 60). Furthermore, if judges had to accommodate niqab-wearers on the mere assertion of their religious beliefs, they would in effect be deprived of their entitlement to control their courts’ procedures.

Balancing these considerations against the freedom of religion, Judge Murphy concludes that the accused may not wear a niqab while giving evidence, but may do so at other moments of the trial, except when it is necessary to identify her. To be sure, this may mean that some accused will choose not to give evidence, or will experience discomfort while doing so. Giving evidence, if one wishes to, is a right of the accused. However, this right “involves a corresponding duty to submit that evidence to the scrutiny of the jury” (par. 70). While in other cases it is often possible to accommodate religious beliefs, it would be too much of a strain, and indeed an impairment of rights, to arrange for trials of niqab-wearers to involve only women (as judges, jurors, and counsel).

As I said in my comments on N.S., I am more comfortable with the case-by-case approach taken by the majority in that case than with a bright-line rule. However, it seems clear enough to me that the majority’s approach will, in reality, far more often than not lead to witnesses being ordered to remove the niqab while giving evidence. The practical difference between the N.S. approach and the one taken in D is thus likely to be very minor.

What I don’t like in Judge Murphy’s reasons are his comments on discrimination and the need to have the same rule apply to all. Of course the law should not discriminate between different religions. But to accommodate a peculiar duty that the members of one faith have is not to make them a special favour; an accommodation made on account of such a duty need not be extended to those who have no such duty. The fact that a Sikh boy has the right to wear a kirpan to school does not mean that others ought to be able to bring knives, which they are not compelled to do by their conscience. The fact that a woman who feels in conscience bound to wear the niqab may (sometimes) do so in court need not mean allowing others to wear a mask. Of course, these differences mean that an inquiry into the sincerity of a belief is sometimes necessary (though often sincerity will be admitted by all parties), which is another point where Judge Murphy, in my view, goes wrong.

In any case, despite these problems, his opinion is thoughtful, and a useful read for those interested in the topic of religious accommodation.