Post by Richard Michael Briggs
This may be one of those legal urban legends that does the rounds by
email every now and then, but I've often heard it stated that, as all
swans in England allegedly belong to the Queen, then the act of
killing a swan can and will lead to the perpetrator being arrested for
Anyone know if this is (or indeed ever was) true? I was speaking to
someone the other day who claims to clearly remember a case 'two or
three years ago in the paper' in which a 'young man' was arrested and
charged with Treason for shooting a swan dead with an air rifle...
Today, the Crown retains the right to ownership of all unmarked Mute swans
in open water, but the Queen only exercises her ownership on certain
stretches of the River Thames and its surrounding tributaries. This
ownership is shared with the Vintners' and Dyers' Companies, who were both
granted rights of ownership by the Crown in the fifteenth century. Nowadays,
the swans are counted and marked, but rarely eaten except perhaps
occasionally at State Banquets.
Swans appear to have been given Royal status in the 12th century, and
thereafter, if a privately owned swan escaped, it became the property of the
crown. By 1378 the office of 'Keeper of the King's Swans' was in existence
and in a document entitled "The Lawes, Orders and Customs for Swans", dated
1482/3, the first law states that all swans owned by those who pay less than
5 marks a year Freehold were forefeit to the King. To own swans was,
therefore, a status symbol and also provided a tasty ceremonial dish until
superseded by the turkey early this century.
The process of swan upping which dates from medieval times determines
ownership of swans on the Thames. The purpose of swan upping is to mark all
new cygnets with the same mark as their parents. The method is to drive each
group of swans into the bank, where the cob and pen have their beaks
examined to ascertain ownership, and the cygnets are then similarly marked
by making nicks with a sharp knife. The Dyers and the Vintners Companies are
now the only owners of private swans on the Thames, the Worshipful Company
of Dyers marking theirs with a nick on one side of the beak, and the
Worshipful Company of Vintners marking theirs with a nick on each side.
Royal swans are left unmarked. The right of marking was subject to a fine of
one third of one pound (6s. 8d., 33p) paid into the Royal Exchequer. Anyone
driving away swans at breeding time, or stealing eggs, was liable to one
year's imprisonment plus a fine, at the pleasure of the crown. Any person
carrying a swan hook, by which swans might be taken from the river, if not a
swan herd nor accompanied by two swan herds was liable to a fine of two
thirds of one pound (13s. 4d., 66p).
In the past, when there were a great many private owners there was a rich
variety of marks which were granted by the King's Swan Master and entered
into a Registration book.