The report of the deliberate killing of a swan in my local park got me thinking, not just about the brainless slaughter of an innocent creature presumably for “fun” but about why it was there in the first place.
Swans have a very special place in history and there are all sorts of myths and stories about them – from the story of Leda and the Swan to Lohengrin and the mystery of the Swan Song, so I decided to do a bit of research about their place in our historic gardens and parks…and unfortunately kitchens as well. [But of course you can skip that bit!]
And what’s it all got to do with these strange late 16thc drawings?
All swans are the same aren’t they – well almost the same – obviously apart from the black ones which are native to Australia – but in fact there are 6 main kinds globally. Only the mute swan is resident in Britain all year, with two others the whooper swan and Bewick’s swan migrating here from more northern climes in our winter.
Unlike most wild creatures who have no legal owner, mute swans theoretically do. It’s the Queen but how and why is something of a mystery because nothing is spelled out legally until the late 15thc. However it’s clear that swans were semi-domesticated several centuries earlier than that. Presumably this was managed by pinioning the birds so they had little choice but to stay on the same stretch of water, even if they weren’t made captive within an enclosure. The first reference to swans being “royal” birds comes from the mediaeval chronicler Gerald of Wales [1146-1223] from which the assumption has been made that owning swans was only allowed by grant from the Crown.
By the time that Gerald’s contemporary Henry de Bracton wrote his treatise on the laws of England – De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliœ – sometime before 1235, swans and cygnets had already become the subject of rules and regulations and, probably almost inevitably, of argument. This had led to the introduction of distinctive marks of ownership, rather like branding cattle, which were carved into the birds beaks.
The first mention of this practice is in 1230 and by then it’s clear that any unmarked, ie unclaimed swans became the property of the crown.
These marks are recorded in a standardised way, based on the anatomy of the swans beak, with its nail, at the top of the diagram. They were jealously guarded.
Its pretty clear from all this, that swans have alway been seen as birds of high status- perhaps because of their size and elegance as well as their potentially fierce protectiveness around their young. Like hawks, hounds or the heavyweight destrier horse, by Gerald and Henry’s time they became associated with nobility and wealth and were also used extensively in heraldry.
Unfortunately for the birds that also meant they had high status as food. We know that at the same time as Gerald and Henry were writing, swans were a delicacy usually reserved for special occasions. Henry III’s Christmas feast in 1247 included 40 roast swans, probably served with their feathers put back on as decoration. There are several extant mediaeval recipes if you want to try it! However it probably isn’t the adults that were eaten but specially fattened up cygnets which were overfed on grain to make them obese.
In 1361, royal ownership became much more formalised. Thomas de Russham was given “the supervision and custody of all our swans as well as in the water of the Thames as elsewhere within our Kingdom.”
He became Master of the King’s Game of Swans (later variations of the title also known as the Royal Swan-herd, Royal Swan-master and Royal Swan Marker).
Swan-keeping was clearly popular and presumably quite widespread because in 1482 Edward IV introduced the Swans Act limiting who could keep the birds, and further regulating their marking. It was a good example of a sumptuary law which restricted ownership, or the wearing or use of something based on wealth or social status, and which were designed to enforce rigid social hierarchies.
Only those who “have Lands and Tenements of Estate of Freehold to the yearly Value of Five Marks above all yearly Charges” were included, or institutions such as monasteries and guild could keep swans. And just to make sure, the act went on that birds found in the possession of any “yeomen and husbandmen and other persons of little reputation” could be “seized” by a member of the elite. The spoils were then divided: “the King shall have one half, and he that shall seize, the other half”.
This is perhaps the time that the right to own swans – or more officially a Royalty of a Game of Swans on the River Thames – was granted to two city livery companies – the Dyers and Vintners – who continue to have that right today and who exercise it through the custom of Swan Upping each July.
It would also probably have been the time that the Master of the Great Hospital, founded in 1249, in Norwich was also given the right to keep swans.
The Hospital has extensive grounds in the city near the river Wensum, and even had two creeks which used to extend into its precincts. One served the fishponds which were an important source of food, and both were probably home to a large number of swans which could be eaten too.
Although there has probably been a swan pit at the Hospital since mediaeval times this one was built in 1793 by William Ivory, and was used to house a large number of cygnets. It was served by a sluice which allowed water into the pit at high tide but stopped the outflow on the ebb tide. It is the only surviving swan pit in the country, but a quick internet search will reveal that, judging by place names, there were many more.
The cygnets were fattened up on grain and then either eaten or sold to provide an income for the hospital. This practice continued until 1943 when the grain supply dried up.
However swan eating although it continued right through into the 18th century rapidly went into decline from the mid-17thc onwards, probably because of the availability of much cheaper alternative birds, and by the time Mrs Beaton published her cookbook in 1861 swans only get a mention in passing and I suspect by the 20th century had stopped entirely.
These days eating swans is a bit more risky as the wonderful story of Sir Peter Maxwell Davis, Master of the Queens Musick and the dead swan shows. Had he been a Fellow of St John’s College Cambridge he could have claimed not merely immunity but rights as they are the only group, other than the Royal Family, allowed to legally hunt and eat unmarked mute swans as a reward for some past service to the crown. There is even a swan trap built into the riverside wall of the college but their website reports that the last time the fellows did actually eat swan was 1896 although several of their servants in the 19thc were found to have sold fake swan meat to the unsuspecting public.
For more info on eating swan see Ivan Day’s blog Food History Jottings.
I’m glad I’m vegetarian.
Perhaps as a result of all these mediaeval regulations and restrictions on ownership swans flourished. A Venetian diplomat wrote in 1496 that it was “a truly beautiful thing to behold one or two thousand tame swans upon the River Thames”.
In 1570, a new Order of Swannes, stipulated that “if any person do raze out, counterfeit or alter the mark of any swan [they …] shall suffer one year’s imprisonment” and imposed strict sentences for killing swans or stealing their eggs. It was equally forbidden to driving them away from your land, to mark them or even to hunt anywhere near them with dogs, or lay nets and traps on the river at certain times of year in case swans were injured. Controls were enforced with Swan-moots being held regularly to hear cases related to swan ownership.
This meant that by the time Paul Hentzner a German traveller visited London in 1596 he was able to describe colonies of swans living “in great security, nobody daring to molest, much less kill, any of them, under penalty of a large fine.”
These rules were tested in a 1592 court judgement in The Case of the Swans. The Abbot of the Benedictine monastery of St Peter’s at Abbotsbury in Dorset was one of those who had the right to keep swans. After the Dissolution the abbey and its lands and the right to the swans were granted to the Strangways family. In 1590 there were about 500 of them on “the mere or fleet” at Abbotsbury and the Sheriff of Dorset rounded them up on behalf of the queen much to the annoyance of Dame Joan Young and Thomas Saunger who had been given the rights to the birds for a year by the family. They went to court to contest the seizure but lost their case because the swans were not marked and “all white swans not marked, which having gained their natural liberty, and are swimming in an open and common river, might be seised to the King’s use by his prerogative”.
Despite this decision the descendants of the Strangways family, who became Earls of Ilchester, still own and manage land covering Chesil Beach at Abbotsbury, and the bed of the Fleet, through Ilchester Estates… and they still own all the cygnets and swans although these days they tag and ring them rather than mark their beaks. The Abbotsbury Swannery today is the only place in the world where visitors can walk freely through a colony of mute swans, watch cygnets hatching and can help with the hand-feeding of swans. Ilchester Estates also own the nearby Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens which I’ve also written about on here.
Now what about Swans in private parks and gardens? They’re often included in paintings of historic houses and gardens, both real and imaginary, however I’ve found very few documentary references to the deliberate introduction of swans, although several sites have encouraged swans to stay once they have arrived of their own volition.
The 17thc seems to provide the most evidence. William Lawson in his New Orchard and Garden  suggests that if your fishponds or moats are deep enough you may have swans and other water birds “good for devouring of vermin.” Sir Arthur Ingram of Temple Newsam, who also had a house in York, kept swans on the ponds in his gardens, and in 1625 is known to have bought cygnets.
But the best example is that of Sir Thomas Temple of Stowe. In 1624 Sir Thomas handed over the estate there to his son and retired to Warwickshire where he spent much of his time gardening at Burton Dassett. He was clearly very fond of swans. He developed an elaborate system supplying water to his house and estate more generally, and in 1634 asked a carpenter to construct a “bridge and a dore on the same, extending somewhat broader than the bridge, whereby the swans maybe fed at the osyer [osier] island and others kept out.” Nor should “foode for them” be forgotten.
Temple’s accounts are invaluable because they show that this was not a rare occurrence. In a letter of 1632 to his son, Sir Peter, at Stowe, Sir Thomas says “I have hearde the Swannes I sent yow out of Lincolne Sheare… do not abide so well in your Poole.. but wander sometimes into Dadford Towne.” This suggests that the swans had been pinioned to prevent them flying off but did not stop them, as Temple puts it, “stragling”. This was nothing new or unexpected: “as Salomon saith there is nothing so new, but hath bin of old” and “Indeede I remember 40 yeares agoe my father endeavoured with a Swans Iland in the Great Poole in the old Parke to have kept some Swans there” but they had “an instinct of nature to wander.”
The birds Sir Thomas had sent to Stowe were “breeding swans which I have marked with a Crosse in their Beakes thus + which hath bin of old given to my father & is indeede a plane + + for Temple on every side of the Beake on which side soever you look, besides a hole made in the lefte foote of them, which I thinke will be sufficient & fitt mark to continew.”
I’m grateful to Jill Francis for giving me the transcript of this letter that she found in the Stowe Archive which is now in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.
John Evelyn also has a section about swans in his Elysium Britannicum [ch 13] which was written in over many years in the later 17thc. They must have “a Nidarie [presumably a nest – its another Evelyn’s made ups words] in some solitary part… coverd over and often clensed. We have seen one built of rock worke of a stupendious height which was full of caverns both below and above growne over with sedge and flaggs and shaded with a circle of lofty trees which for being built in an island … was one of the most pleasant Vivaries that could be imagined. The Swan had neede be well kept for he is a greate devourer: they hatch but once a year and lay commonly not above 3 eggs.”
He then goes own to relate the version of the famous legend of how swans sing as they die which he says was told to him by his father who had seen it take place on his own ponds. More on that and other swan-related stories soon.