Not such an ugly duckling
It was in the 12th century that the Crown first claimed mute swans, a great delicacy, for itself. All unmarked swans swimming in open water belonged to the monarch or to those who had received royal permission to own them. In the fifteenth century the right was extended to the Worshipful Company of Vintners and the Worshipful Company of Dyers. At the annual ceremony of 'upping', the equivalent of a swan census, swans were caught to ensure their cygnets were properly marked on their bills to indicate ownership. This ancient ceremony is illuminated by the survival of a rare document, a swan roll, among the papers of Sir William More of Loseley Park, near Guildford, revealing that 'all things bling' is no modern-day concept!
More held the lucrative office of Deputy Master of Swans for Surrey under Elizabeth I in the 1590s. This beautiful parchment roll shows the beak designs which indicated the ownership of the birds. (Please click on the image to enlarge it.) Designs included stars, chevrons, crosses, and the initials of their distinguished and often titled owner. The birds were of course a symbol of wealth and social standing and Surrey swan owners included Sir William Howard, Lord Buckhurst, and Francis Carew Esq.
As with modern day trappings of wealth, the more swans you owned the better – they were not only an elegant adornment to your lake or moat but, weighing in at a whopping 12kg, they could also be roasted as an impressive centrepiece of any feast.
Swimming with the tide of progress, royal swans today even have their own website www.royalswan.co.uk. Alas, this year's Upping ceremony beginning at Sunbury Lock in July fell 'fowl' of the Great British weather and was cancelled due to rain.
The Loseley Database
The swan roll is part of a unique collection which gives an enticing insight into both the ancient procedures and rights of the Royal Swan Master and indeed the lives of both rich and poor under Elizabeth I.
Public access to the Loseley Manuscripts, the archive of the More-Molyneux family, has been dramatically enhanced through the creation of a database of the family's correspondence. The papers are a fantastic source for early family history in the county, as well as the social and political experiences of a leading Surrey family during the turmoil and splendour of the Tudor and Stuart Ages.
- Roll of swan marks of Surrey owners. Parchment, nd [?1572 x 1593] (SHC ref LM/1080)