wan Upping, the annual census of the Thames swan population, takes place each year in July when the new season's fledgling cygnets have been successfully bred and survived the vicissitudes of spring. Flying The Queen's banner and wearing traditional scarlet uniform, Swan Marker David Barber is rowed upriver at the head of a colourful liveried flotilla of Thames rowing skiffs from Sunbury-on-Thames on the outskirts of London, through Windsor, to Abingdon in Oxfordshire; a five day journey. His role is to count, measure and ring the newly hatched cygnets and ensure that the Queen's swans are healthy and not threatened by environmental factors or human agency. The Swan Warden, an Oxford professor, also ensures that the swans' health is monitored; a crucial task with the swan population under threat from avian flu, garbage and mindless vandalism.
Swan Upping originates from the 12th century when the birds were prized both as a banqueting delicacy and an important winter food source. In Shakespeare's day, the swan was in much request for the tables of royalty and nobility and was served up at all the principal feasts of the church year.
In the 'Northumberland Household Book' the following items regularly occur in the accounts of Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland, (beheaded for treason by Queen Elizabeth, 1572):-
"ITEM. It is thought goode that my Lordis SWANNES be taken and fedde to serve my Lordis house and to be paid fore as they may be bought in the country, seeing that my Lorde hath swannes enough of his owne.
"ITEM. A warraunte to be servide oute yerely at Michaelmas for 20 SWANNES for th' expencez of my Lordis house as too say for Christynmas Day - Saynt Stephyns Day - Saynt John Day - Childremas Day - Saint Thomas Day - New Yere Day and for 12th Day of Christynmas."
These were not to be old birds for the Great Hall's festive table, however. The "Warraunte" expressly provides that they be tender "signetts" which would have hatched the previous May, rather than tougher, older birds.
As well as claiming ownership of all game in the royal hunting forests, the Crown made similar claim to all swans; a right still claimed over all unmarked swans in open water. This is an effective modern measure of conservation for the country's 30,000 indigenous mute swans which grace our waterways, (the whooper swan is a winter migrant visitor). In practice, swans no longer decorate the royal or any other banqueting table, and the Queen only exercises her ownership on parts of the River Thames and its tributaries.
This Thames ownership has been shared with the Vintners' and the Dyers' Livery Companies of the City of London which were granted their rights in the 15th century in return for a timely loan when the King was short of cash. They still exercise their right to accompany the Queen's Swan Marker on his journey in their own pennanted skiffs.
Although a traditional part of summer's Royal pageantry, the census activities of the Queen's Swan Marker and City Livery companies now play a crucial role in waterways conservation and environmental education, and local schools are encouraged to participate. The Queen's Swan Marker is a respected source of advice and information on swan welfare and river wildlife.
Unauthorized killing and eating of a swan is still illegal. Miscreants are prosecuted but no longer branded or maimed, (13th century); deported to the Caribbean sugar plantations, (18th century); or sentenced to prison with hard labour, (19th century).
Figuring as it does so prominently in Tudor banqueting, it is not surprising that Shakespeare refers frequently to the swan in his plays. It is the swan's alleged mournful dying song, or "swansong", however, rather than the culinary delights of roast swan's breast or leg that snares the poet's muse.
"Tis strange that death should sing!
I am the cygnet to this pale, faint swan,
Who chants a doleful hymn to his own death;
And, from the organ-pipe of frailty, sings
His soul and body to their lasting rest."
King John, Act v. Sc. 7.
This summer's Shakespeare's Globe Theatre performances of As You Like It, (late June thru October), and Troilus and Cressida, (July thru September), both provide allusions to the swan.
As You Like It, Act i. Sc. 3.
"And whereso'er we went, like Juno's swans
Still we went coupled and inseparable."
Troilus and Cressida, Act i. Sc. 1.
Her hand ...........
............................to whose soft seizure
The cygnet's down is harsh."
It is perhaps appropriate to close this Spotlight in the words of Portia, making
"....a swan-like end, Fading in music."
The Merchant of Venice, Act iii. Sc. 2.
Subject to change, the Swan Marker's Thames census schedule is as follows:-
Date: Day 1. Monday, 20 July, 2009.
Sunbury Lock 09.00 (Departure point)
Shepperton Lock 10.45
Penton hook Lock 12.30
Romney Lock 17.30
Day 2. Tuesday, 21 July, 2009.
Eton Bridge 09.15 (Departure point)
Boveney Lock 10.15
Boulters Lock 13.30
Marlow Lock 17.45
Day 3. Wednesday, 22 July, 2009.
Marlow Bridge 09.30 (Departure point)
Hurley Lock 10.30
Hambledon Lock 11.45
Henley Town 13.30
Marsh Lock 16.30
Day 4. Thursday, 23 July, 2009.
Sonning Bridge 09.00 (Departure point)
Caversham Lock 10.30
Mapledurham Lock 12.45
Goring Lock 17.30
Day 5. Friday, 24 July, 2009.
Moulsford 09.00 (Departure point)
Benson Lock 10.15
Culham Lock 16.00
Abingdon Bridge 17.15
Tickets: No tickets are needed. Just turn up at lock or bridge and enjoy the spectacle. The most picturesque spots to view the passing flotilla are on days 2 and 3 at Eton, Marlow and Henley, or from the deck of a hired boat.