Queen of the United Kingdom; Head of the Commonwealth; Defender of the Faith; Commander in Chief of the British Armed Forces; Sovereign of the Most Noble Order of the Garter; Sovereign of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle; all titles held by Elizabeth II. Not included in this illustrious list is one of her lesser-used ones, the Seigneur of the Swans, a holdover from an era centuries ago when the (literally) regal avians denoted class, wealth and status. The strange and ancient relationship between the swan and the British crown manifests itself to this day in a tradition known as “Swan Upping.”
Some 40 miles west of London, the Queen’s Swan Uppers arrive at Mapledurham Lock on the River Thames. They’re traveling in traditional wooden rowing skiffs, each with three or four crewmen in smart blue or red blazers with royal insignia. Some have white swan feathers pushed into the peak of their caps. Royal pennants showing swans against blue and red backgrounds flutter from the boats.
The blue flags represent two of London’s ancient trade guilds, the Worshipful Companies of Dyers and Vintners. The guilds are some of the richest and most powerful organizations in London, and since at least the 15th century have been granted the right to own mute swans on the Thames. (Mute swans have the elegantly curved necks, orange beaks and white feathers that most people think of when they picture swans.) The red flags are for the Queen’s Swan Warden, the man charged with counting all the mute swans on the Thames between Sunbury Lock in West London and Abingdon in Oxfordshire, a 79-mile stretch of river that takes five days to navigate.
Swans—who owns them, who breeds them and who eats them—is an issue for the British that has generated legal statutes, sparked courtroom battles and engaged town councils in bitter arguments since the Middle Ages.
There is a legend that the mute swan was introduced to Britain by Richard I in the 12th century, who brought them back from his campaigns during the Crusades. Today, ornithologists believe the bird is probably native to the country, with archaeological evidence for the presence of swans dating back as far back as the late glacial period, 10,000 years ago.
Swans were considered royal fowl, but by the beginning of the 15th century, wealthy people could buy the right to own, sell, and eat them. If you wanted to keep swans on your property (a right reserved for those who had property to begin with), you had to buy an expensive “swan mark” from the king, which you’d carve or brand into the beaks of your swans.
These marks, one of the oldest propriety marks in England, might have started as simple lines and shapes, but eventually there were hundreds of swan marks in England and whole books dedicated to keeping track of them. They were designed to look like swords or crossbows, heraldic symbols, and eventually letters. Every year swan-masters would row through open waters, determining the ownership of cygnets and marking them. Any unmarked birds belonged to the crown.
The prestige of swan ownership went far beyond their appeal as a delicacy. They were impressive enough as the centerpiece of a feast, but a swan in itself was not particularly expensive. The real desirability came from the right to own swans at all, because purchasing a swan mark was so expensive. To have a “game” of swans elegantly sculling around the lake of your stately pile required funds and status.
The rules relating to swans prevented ordinary people from interacting with them at all, beyond being able to see them on the river. If you weren’t an officially recognized swan keeper it was forbidden to sell swans, to drive them away from your land, to mark them or even to ʜᴜɴᴛ with dogs or lay nets and traps on the river at certain times of year in case swans were ɪɴjᴜʀᴇᴅ.
The right to own swans was granted to the Vintners and Dyers city livery companies in the 15th century. The exact reason for the dispensation has not been recorded, but it is likely to have been a sweetener to strengthen relationships between the crown and the powerful trade guilds.
Swan remained a delicacy eaten as part of Christmas celebrations right up until the 18th century, but even after that, it was still only legal to ᴋɪʟʟ and eat a swan if it had a legitimate swan mark. As such, it remained a luxury for the rich. During the Victorian period, swan fell out of fashion as a dish, and by the 20th century was rarely eaten.
It took until 1998 for the law to change so it was no longer treasonous to eat a swan in the U.K. But as a native species, mute swans are now protected as wild birds under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act and under this law it is still ɪʟʟᴇɢᴀʟ to keep or ᴋɪʟʟ them.
This tradition of royal swan ownership carries on today, though: The Queen still owns every unmarked mute swan—the white-feathered bird with a knob on its orange beak, the bird that you most likely think of when you think “swan”—on England’s open waters. Every year in the summer, a group of “swan uppers” perform a ritualized swan census, during which they salute the Queen as the “Seigneur of Swans.”
Kɪʟʟing swans was outlawed in the 1980s, when the population in England was shrinking, and many people now believe that only the Queen is allowed to eat mute swans. That’s not exactly correct, but since she’s considered immune from prosecution, if she had a hankering for swan at Christmas, a traditional dish, no one could stop her from acting on it.