Have You Upped a Swan Lately?

Well, have you?

Swan Upping is the traditional census-taking of Mute Swans on the River Thames, wherein swans are rounded up, checked for bands or banded, and released. The king or queen of England, by ancient law and custom dating back to the middle ages, owns all unmarked swans in England. And since the twelfth century or so, the swans who live on the Thames have been counted and marked by the Royal Swan Upper to enforce that ownership (though two ancient groups, the Worshipful Company of Vintners and the equally Worshipful Company of Dyers also have some swan-related rights and participate as well.) Swans were once reckoned something of a delicacy, after all, and having one on your banquet table was something of a status symbol that the Crown thought ought to mostly belong to it.

Of course, no one today, even the Queen, eats swans. Even so, the annual Swan Upping is still carried out, though in this century it’s more a matter of monitoring the mute swan population’s health than making sure the peasants aren’t eating above themselves. While there’s still some ceremonial involved in the form of natty uniforms and rowing skiffs, the actual handling of the swans is managed by the Royal Swan Warden, a professor of ornithology from Oxford University. And yes, it’s not completely an odd holdover from the past: Swan Uppings in the 1980s revealed a drop in population that was found to be caused by swans swallowing lead fishing weights. The weights were banned in the Thames, and the population happily rebounded.

Unfortunately, this year’s Swan Upping, due to be held July 13-17, will not be taking place because of the pandemic. I hope, though, that the Royal Swan Warden will still be able to pop down the Thames to make sure his feathered friends are safe and thriving.




About Marissa Doyle

Marissa Doyle originally planned to be an archaeologist but somehow got distracted. At long last, after an unsurprisingly circuitous path, she ended up writing historical fantasy for young adults (the Leland Sisters series) and contemporary fantasy for slightly older ones, most recently By Jove from Book View Cafe. She is obsessed by the Regency period, 19th century stuff in general, and her neurotic pet bunny. Visit her at www.marissadoyle.com


Have You Upped a Swan Lately? — 7 Comments

  1. I presume that the term “Upping” comes from grabbing the bird by the tail feathers and lifting it up to get at the the leg for banding? Keeps the Upper’s hands away from the very wicked beak.

    • Swan upping originally involved marking the beak – from page 380 of the 1969 book ‘Folk Etymology: A Dictionary of Verbal Corruptions or Words Perverted in Form or Meaning, by False Derivation or Mistaken Analogy’ (Rev. A. Smythe Palmer, New York, 1969):

      “SWAN-HOPPING, a corruption of the original phrase “swan-upping,” or taking up of the young swans in the Thames annually in order to mark their beaks with the royal mark.”

  2. So this turns out to be a royalty question, and therefore quite at home on a site for writers!

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