Swan Upping is the 800-year-old royal tradition you've never heard of

Yasmine Leung September 16, 2022
Swan Upping is the 800-year-old royal tradition you've never heard of
Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The Royal Family are known for their centuries-old traditions, although one of the oddest practices is royal Swan Upping – yes, the majestic white birds.

When it comes to royal ceremonies, Trooping the Colour and Changing Of The Guard are two of the more common practices that spring to mind.

It’s widely known that the Queen loves her corgis, but swans hold a firm place in her heart as well, so much that they receive a five-day event focused on their preservation.

Photo by Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Swans are assessed in the royal tradition

Swans receive the royal treatment every year in an event that usually occurs in the summer. Rowing skiffs manned by workers, known as Swan Uppers, embark down the River Thames from Sunbury-on-Thames through Windsor to tally up the mute swans and assess their health.

Dressed in red rowing shirts, the uppers are led by the Queen’s Swan Marker, who sports a scarlet blazer with gold details and a hat decorated with a white swan’s feather.

David Barber was employed as Her Majesty’s Swan Marker 30 years ago and is now known as the King’s Swan Marker. The ultimate goal for Swan Upping is conservation and education of mute swans and the impact of pollution on the species.

As a Swan Marker, Barber is also tasked with advising organisations regarding swan welfare and the removal of swans from parts of the River Thames in preparation for summer rowing regattas.

Once mute swans are spotted, the crew shout the traditional cry of “All up!” as they corral them towards the riverbank. The birds are gently grabbed and restrained to be weighed and examined for injuries. The Dyers and Vintners uppers mark their swans with rings, while the Crown’s swans remain unmarked.

Photo by Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Swan Upping dates back to the 12th century

Previously a culinary delicacy and symbol of status, swan owners purchased expensive marks from the government to claim their possession. Swans without a mark automatically belonged to The Crown; a right that dates as far back as 800 years ago.

By the end of the 18th century, swans belonged to three groups: the monarch, Vintners, and Dyers. The latter two were wine merchants and cloth dyers, respectively.

Back then, the Crown recorded which swans they owned to ensure that the monarchy had the exact number of swans they requested.

Since the bird is no longer consumed, Swan Upping conserves the animals, working in parallel to the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which makes it illegal to keep the birds and kill them.

The Queen’s last appearance at the annual census was in 2009; Princess Anne represented Her Majesty in 2018.

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Yasmine is a third-year Anthropology and Media student at Goldsmiths University with a new obsession with League of Legends, despite being really bad. She's always on social media keeping on top of the latest news and trends and is HITC’s expert in Korean pop culture. She also loves music, TV and fashion - her favourite things to write about.