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Swan Upping - Centuries of Tradition on the River Thames

The Vintners' Company's ownership of swans and the annual 'swan upping' which takes place on the Thames are well-known, and we are sometimes asked how far back this goes and how it first arose.

What follows is a summary of what we know about the Vintners' Company's early involvement with swans.

Download a Swan Upping Brochure by clicking HERE

The first documentary reference to the Vintners owning swans comes from 1509, when the Company's "Under-Swanherd", named James, was paid 4 shillings at the time of the 'great frost' for 'upping the Master's swans', plus a further 4 pence for boat hire at the same time. These early Company accounts are at the British Library ('Egerton manuscripts'), but we have a copy on microfilm at Vintners' Hall. Apart from a single sheet for 1392, no Company accounts have survived earlier than 1507.

The Company's right to own swans is generally said to be 'by prescription'. This specific legal expression implies that the right has been exercised for so long that it has never been challenged. In theory it stretches as far back as 'legal memory' itself, fixed by statute as starting from the accession of Richard I in 1189. The Vintners have therefore owned swans since 'time immemorial', in the correct legal sense of that common phrase.

A statute of Edward IV of 1483 is frequently referred to in various printed sources on the 'swan royalty'. This states that only someone possessing freehold land worth at least 5 marks p.a. (between £3 and £4) has the right to own swans. In a 16th century law suit between the Crown and Lady Joan Young it was clarified that this applied only on a person's private waters; on the common and open river, swans could only be marked, and therefore owned, by the monarch (and their agents), or 'by prescription'. The fact that the 1483 statute does not appear to have been followed by any later legislation or grant to the Vintners has led to the (not unreasonable) assumption that the Vintners were already swan owners by that date.

A useful book to read on the subject is Norman Ticehurst's The Mute Swan in England', published in

1957. This refers to a grant of swan-rights to the Dyers' Company in 1473 and also remarks that the Vintners "received their swan-rights from the Crown between 1472 and 1483", although no specific evidence for this is supplied. Ticehurst also points out that the swan mark used by the Vintners for centuries, until it was altered in 1863, was the same as that used by David Selby, a prominent Vintner in the mid-15th century, implying that the Company's swan ownership may derive from around that time or a little later.

Thus although the first documentary reference to the Vintners' Company as swan owners is from 1509, it is likely that it goes well back into the 15th century and possibly even earlier.

Swans were a prized source of meat in the Tudor age and their quills were also used for writing. Quills from geese were much more commonly used, cheaper, and preferred by many people who found a swan's quill too stiff to write with easily. However, a swan's quill was said to last as long as 50 goose quills, and Queen Elizabeth I preferred to write with a swan's quill. Quills were invariably trimmed of all or most of their feathers to make writing easier -it is a common mistake in historical dramas to see someone pretending to write with a quill which still has all its feathers intact! Swans' feathers may also have been used decoratively in hats, and the down used for stuffing quilts and pillows. At Vintners' Hall we have a beautiful cape made from swans' down, though this dates from the 1920s - relatively modern by Vintners' standards!

By Gone Years!

Play the YouTube video below to see some images of Swan Upping over the year!

A Royal Visit

In 2009 Her Majesty the Queen visited the royal custom of Swan Upping. Although she may own all unmarked mute swans in open water in Britain, she had never before made a personal visit to watch this ancient ritual.

The usual starting point in Sunbury in Surrey was changed to accommodate Her Majesty as she travelled by boat from Boveny Lock at Eton Wick to Oakley Court. Here she met with Swan Uppers and watched cygnets being weighed, marked and measured.

Her Majesty is known as the Seigneur Of The Swans during the historic ceremony.

Swan Warden Michael Cox, Swan Marker Martin Spencer, Uppers and their wives

Swan Warden Michael Cox, the Uppers and their ladies 

The Swan Upping Programme

The programme for Swan Upping runs from Monday to Friday, usually during the third week of July.

The Loyal Toast is drunk between 4.00 p.m. and 6.00 p.m. on the Monday at Romney Lock, Windsor.

It is possible to view the Swan Uppers at work from various points on the towpath alongside the River Thames. Additional information may be obtained from the Royal Website:

More general information may be found on the 'Visit Thames' web site

The Swan Upping Weekly Schedule
(subject to conditions on the River Thames)

MondaySunbury Lock09.00(Departure Point)
Shepperton Lock10.45
Penton Hook Lock12.30
Romney Lock17.30
TuesdayEton Bridge09.00(Departure Point)
Boveney Lock10.15
Boulters Lock13.00
Marlow Lock17.00
WednesdayMarlow Bridge09.15(Departure Point)
Hurley Lock10.30
Hambleden Lock12.00
Henley Town13.30
Marsh Lock16.00
Shiplake Lock17.00
Sonning Bridge18.00
ThursdaySonning-on-Thames09.00(Departure Point)
Caversham Lock10.30
Mapledurham Lock12.30
Goring Lock17.30
FridayMoulsford09.00(Departure Point)
Benson Lock10.15
Clifton Hampden Bridge13.00

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