The Swan with Two Necks (Swan-Upping on the River Thames)

Mary Reed


July strollers along the banks of the River Thames above Sunbury-onThames in Middlesex may be fortunate enough to observe a half-dozen Thames skiffs, flying special flags and manned by colorfully-costumed men, going by. This small flotilla is carrying out the ancient annual custom of Swan-Upping (or Swan-Hopping, as it is sometimes known), that is, establishing ownership of mute swans on the river and marking the year's crop of cygnets accordingly, a ceremony which has its roots in what was once considered to be a very great privilege.

Swan Marking and Swan Upping by

C. Skilbeck notes that, historically, there is some disagreement as to whether or not the mute swan is indigenous to Britain, some holding that it was introduced to the country (perhaps from Cyprus) during the reign of Richard I (1175-1199). The mute swan may be distinguished from the other common British variety, the whistling swan, by its orange beak (which turns redder with age), and the black knobby wattle where the beak joins the bead, which is more pronounced in the mute swan than in other species. It is, however, the mute swan which is regarded as the "royal bird," being under the protection of, and the property of, the monarch, a situation dating from the time when swans were, prior to the advent of refrigeration, extremely prized for their contribution of fresh meat to winter larders. They were particularly favored for banquets, and in 1247 Henry III requisitioned forty swans (from six counties, including Dorset, Hampshire and Oxfordshire) for the Christmas feast at Winchester, and two years later he requisitioned a total of 104 swans from ten counties (including Kent and Sussex) and London. Before turkeys were eaten, swans were also very popular for Christmas fare, and at one time Norwich in Norfolk (which maintains a swan pound once used for fattening these birds for table) was famous for its swans. In the Good Housekeeping Cookery Encyclopedia (Sphere Books, 1968), the authors give a recipe for cooking cygnets, but this recipe is, of course, of academic interest only, since swans, as other wildlife, are protected by the law.

Although two companies still hold swan feasts (the Worshipful Company of Vintners in November, and the Worshipful Company of Dyers on the second Wednesday in October),' swan is rarely eaten. On the odd occasion when it appears on the menu, the bird would have been found recently dead from accidental causes (for example, by having flown into a power line), and the body plucked and frozen for the feast. In such cases, the meat is mixed with that of, say, goose to augment it for the meal. In 1967, the Vintners' Company Swan Feast menu included a cygnet orange salad and madeira sauce (following a main course of lamb), the cygnet being broiled, and in 1984 smoked cygnet was served for the first time.


Full Text:



"Swan Marking & Swan Upping," C. Skilbeck, Honorary Archivist of the Dyers' Company, London. Text of paper given to the Guildhall Historical Association, November, 1984.

"Swan Upping," leaflet N.34, March 1978 (revised April 1979 and August 1980), Lord Chamberlain's Office, London.

Letters from Mr. F.J. Turk, MVO, Her Majesty's Keeper of Swans, dated 4 June, 11 July and 1 August 1985.

Letters from the Vintners' Company, London, dated 25 October 1984 and 1 July 1985.

Letters from the Dyers' Company, London, of 27 June and 29 July 1985.

Source for figures: Letter of 23 October 1985 from Clerk of the Vintners' Company.


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