Religious festivals are often celebrated with food and eating together. The household account rolls of Henry III, for example, reveal that feasting was a regular occurrence at his court particularly on the feast day of his favoured saint, Edward the Confessor, as well as at Christmas. In 1225–6 while the typical daily expenditure of the royal household was around £6 or £7, the cost of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day was £51 10d with much of the expenditure on food. Swans were traditionally associated with Christmas feasting and the tradition of feeding guests high status hunted birds including swans, peacocks and partriches continued for many centuries.
But while eating swan was part of ostentatious display, the real status in the medieval period lay in owning them. Following legislation in 1482, only landowners over a certain income were allowed to keep mute swans. The mute swan – a white bird with a long S-shaped neck and orange bill – is the most familiar breed today. Ownership was denoted by marks nicked or branded onto the swan’s beak. These were known as swan marks and were made in a pattern unique to the owner. While swans themselves were relatively cheap, these ‘marks’ were extremely expensive. Any swans without marks belonged automatically to the Crown.
We have recently added a 14th-century manuscript of Statutes (O.1.71) to the Wren Digital Library which includes diagrams of two swan marks: one belonging to a religious house in Winchester and the other to Richard Vannell, possibly the citizen and goldsmith of London who died in 1521 and was commemorated in the church of St Peter upon Cornhill.
The means by which the Crown sought to regulate ownership of swans on the River Thames gave rise to a ceremony known as swan upping which was effectively a census of the birds. The ceremony, which continues to this day, takes place on the Monday of the third week in July. The Queen as Seigneur of the Swans has an official Swan Keeper who, together with representatives of the only two trade companies to retain swans, travel up a 79-mile stretch of the river between Sunbury Lock in West London and Abingdon in Oxfordshire.
They travel in wooden skiffs. The Crown’s representatives wear red blazers with insignia and those of the worshipful Companies of Vintners and Dyers wear blue. Ownership is today established by parentage and the swans belonging to the trade companies are ringed, while royal swans remain unmarked. Today the ceremony is largely symbolic but it is also a useful conservation exercise to monitor the numbers and health of the birds.
As a footnote, Fellows at our neighbouring College of St John’s are the only people in the United Kingdom besides the Royal Family who are legally allowed to eat unmarked mute swans. Over time turkey or goose were cooked more often at Christmas and King Henry VIII is popularly believed to have been the first monarch to eat turkey. The favouring of turkey over goose at Christmas was represented by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol. In the company of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge observed the Cratchit family dining on a small goose:
Such a bustle ensued that you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds; a feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan was a matter of course – and in truth it was something very like it in that house … There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all at last!
A Christmas Carol, Stave III
When Scrooge awoke, a reformed character, on Christmas morning his first action was to send the Cratchit family a huge turkey.
D. A. Carpenter, ‘The household rolls of King Henry III of England (1216-72)’, Historical Research, 80 (2006)
Notes on the top photograph from the Feast and Fast Exhibition held at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge which opened in November 2019:
Recreation of a Baroque feasting table, c.1650, conceived and made by Ivan Day with taxidermy by David Astley and seafood and fruit models by Tony Barton. Consisting of the following replica objects: Swan pie; peacock pie; pheasant pie; partridge pie; oysters; lobster; crayfish; apricots. None of the four birds on the pies was harmed or killed for this educational display. The taxidermy elements (heads, wings and tail feathers) were ethically sourced and legally obtained. The partridge and pheasant were road kill; the swan died by flying into overhead cables in Stittenham, York (April 2013) and its use in this display has been formally approved by The Queen’s Swan Marker; the peacock was commercially reared for the table, and its discarded head, wings and tail were rescued from being thrown away.