Sunday, 22 February 2015

A Game of Swans: A Short History

Last week we learnt the collective term for ladies is ‘bevy’, and maidens are a ‘rage’. This week we discover the collective term for a group of swans is: A game of swans. So, taking out inspiration from history (rather than grammar!) lets look further into the history of swan keeping.

A Game of Swans

Swans have long been associated with royalty. This majestic bird is reputed to have been imported from Cyprus to England by King Richard I around 1189. This was widely held as fact until the middle of the 20th century when records came to light of an inventory of a feast served to King Henry III at Winchester in 1247.
An original register of swan marks
The banquet included 40 swans that had been collected from all over the kingdom, including Cumberland in the north, and Somerset in the west. Now the swans are not rapid breeders in the same way rabbits are, and it seems unlikely that the wild swan population was so diversely spread in such a relatively short space of time.
Swan marks
Whatever their origins, their elegance and beauty was laid claim to by royalty and ordinary folk were not allowed to own them. However, this didn’t stop illegal ownership. By the late 1450s it wasn’t unheard of for yeoman to steal cygnets to keep themselves.
Swan upping

In 1483 a royal decree was passed which stated that all birds belonged to the crown, unless the ’owner’ had been granted a special dispensation. In these cases the birds were marked with a ‘swan mark’ on the beak so as to identify them.

Each mark was registered, and the design was usually complex, perhaps incorporating part of the coat of arms of the nobleman who was lucky enough to be permitted to own the birds. It was during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign that the register of swan marks was at its largest with around 900 marks registered.
Swan upping on the Thames at Richmond

Of course, the birds had to be marked and this lead to an annual ritual of ‘swan-upping’. This involved visiting the riverbanks where the birds breed to catch the newly hatched cygnets and mark them.

A court proceeding from 1722 gives a glimpse into the ritual that was sometimes involved with swan upping.
“…agreed to go swan-upping on the first Monday in August…the court desired the Renter Warden would be pleased to provide a dinner, three six-oared barges to carry the company up water…”
Queen Elizabeth II attending a swan upping

With the passing centuries, people became more aware of the cruelty involved with permanently marking a bird’s beak. The RSPCA became involved in 1878 and as a result the practice dwindled and due to public pressure, stopped altogether. However, the correct term for a group of swans remains – as a ‘game of swans’.

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