Swan Roll

Towneley swan roll at The Society of Antiquaries showing a variety of Godericke (Goodrick) Swan Marks 16th century. Photographs by Richard Gravestock.


The swan holds a unique position as a British bird. It has been a Royal bird since at least 1186 and is the only bird that can be an 'estray'. All swans at liberty on open or common waters belong to the Crown by prerogative right. The Crown could and did grant the privilege of keeping swans on open and common waters provided that they were 'pinioned' and 'marked'. However, if a bird strayed and was not recaptured within a year and a day, ownership passed back to the crown.

It is not known whether the Mute Swan is an indigenous species or introduced from abroad in a state of captivity. Legend has it that they were introduced by Richard I when he returned from the Crusades. But historical records indicate that they were widespread in the mid 13th Century which suggests that their presence predates the Crusades.

Swans were kept for a variety of reasons. As a Royal bird they were highly valued and created an air of distinction. They made highly prized gifts and were customarily eaten at Christmas and at banquets.

As they were cheap to rear they could easily be turned to profit through sale.

The swan's royal status was formally enshrined in the 'Act of Swans' which came into force in 1482. The Act provided formal legislation concerning the ownership and marking of swans. Later ordinances and proclamations provided further guidance on the keeping and conservation of 'The Kynges Swanes and Sygnetes'. The 1482 act introduced a right of 'possession by prescription' and a property qualification that restricted the possession of a 'Swan Mark' to landowners. More recently, a specific clause was made in The Wild Creatures and Forest Law Act 1971 to safeguard the Queen's rights in respect of swans. 

'Swan Motes' or 'Swanning Courts' were set up to enforce the swan laws. Transgressors were tried by a jury, presided over by a chief commissioner. These courts also had the power to draw up regulations affecting swan keeping in their area and settle disputes concerning ownership. 

The 'Master of the Swans' was and still is responsible to the crown for the care of the royal swans and the general supervision of swan keeping throughout England. It is not known when the post was created although evidence suggests that there was a Swan-Master from at least the 14th Century. Prior to that, duties appear to have been carried out by officials having purely local jurisdiction.  Swan Marking was necessary, as with other animals, to distinguish ownership. Swan-Marks were essentially in the nature of scars or deficiencies. Upper mandible marks were the most important. Other, less common marks were made on the lower mandible, leg, foot or wing. Leg and foot marks were made by cutting, branding, slitting or punching holes in the foot or by removing toes or claws. Beak marks on the upper or lower mandible were produced by cutting with a sharp knife. This then produced a scar. Once legally obtained by grant or prescription from the crown, the Swan-Mark together with the 'game' of swans marked with it became the absolute property of the owner. 'Swanrolls' were kept to record each mark and the name of the owner. 

The swan laws required that swans had to be 'marked' and 'pinioned'. Pinioning ensured that the swans did not stray and involved clipping the swan's wing to prevent flight. As a result of pressure from the media and animal protection organizations, pinioning finally ceased in 1978. Although Swan-Marks are no longer as elaborate as they used to be, they are still considered to be cruel and unnecessary by some conservationists and swan protection organizations.

Today, there are only three owners of the swans on the River Thames: Her Majesty the Queen, The Vintners Company and The Dyers Company. The Dyers derived their swan rights by a grant from the crown in 1473; the Vintners by a grant before 1483. Royal swans are unmarked, whilst those of the Vintners have a mark on each side of the mandible and those of the Dyers have a single mark. The pub name 'The Swan with Two Necks' is a corruption of the phrase 'The Swan with Two Nicks' meaning a swan with the Swan-Mark of the Vintners Company. 

Swan Upping (or Swan Hopping as it was called for many years) is an ancient tradition that has been carried out on the River Thames for some 500 years. The actual 'upping' is the taking of the birds out of the water. The very early swan voyages were practical and were done solely for the purpose of recording the number of swans and marking the new cygnets with the owner's Swan-Mark. In the 18th Century they became much more elaborate and ceremonial, with specially decorated boats and the Swan-Master and 'Swan-Uppers' attired in fine costumes. Today, the event is less spectacular but it is still a fascinating and entertaining custom.

The Royal Swan's bill markings in the reign of George III

  This Royal mark was used throughout the reigns of George III, George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria. It is not clear when the marking of royal birds ceased but marks were reduced over 70 years ago at the instigation of Queen Alexandra who was concerned that the birds were hurt by the complex old marks. 

Towneley swan roll at The Society of Antiquaries showing a variety of Godericke (Goodrick) Swan Marks 16th century. Photographs by kind permission of Richard Gravestock.