Richard Collins on how swans were seen in medieval England
SWANS featured twice in a recent episode of The Tudors, the lavish TV series depicting the life and times of Henry VIII. The king, in the process of guiltily transferring his affections from Anne Boleyn to Jane Seymour, looks wistfully at a magnificent pair of swans gracing the lake beside one of his castles. It’s a mute comment on his predicament; “if you want fidelity”, the saying goes, “marry a swan”.
The pair on Henry’s lake would have seemed exotic even to an ornithologically challenged viewer because they were not the familiar mute swans of Irish ponds and lakes. Nor were they whoopers or Bewicks which visit us in winter. They were magnificent creatures with all-black bills from North America. There are two native species there, known as tundra and trumpeter swans. They differ in size and it’s difficult to be sure from a television picture which of the two was featured. Tundra swans usually have a yellow patch at the base of the bill; Henry’s pair lacked this, so they were probably trumpeters.
After the stillborn birth of a boy, Henry had Anne tried for adultery. A swordsman severed the head from her body on May 19, 1536. Could trumpeter swans have been shipped to England a mere 44 years after Columbus’s first visited the Americas? It’s unlikely, but not impossible; the first turkeys were brought to Bristol by the Yorkshireman William Strickland as early as 1497.
Swans in Henry’s day were not ornamental fowl but livestock to be harvested for the table. The collective name for swans, “herd”, is a legacy of those times. From the 12th century, “swan-upping” took place each autumn, when adult birds moult their flight feathers. Swans are flightless for six to eight weeks while the new feathers grow and are relatively easy to catch. Families with cygnets would be surrounded by boats and captured using swan-hooks, long poles resembling shepherd’s crooks. The adults would be pinioned by removing a bone from the carpal joint of the wing, rendering them permanently flightless. They would then be released. Pinioning was so widespread that the sight and sound of mute swans in flight was almost unknown in Tudor England.
The captured cygnets, now fully grown, would be placed in large pits filled with water, and fed on barley to fatten them for the table. No feast was complete without roast swan. At celebrations for the installation of the archbishop of York in 1466, 400 swans were eaten.
In The Tudors, Henry is shown dining on a swan. It has full white feathers and was, therefore, an adult. However, only young swans were eaten and, indeed, the French term “cygnet” meant a bird young enough for the table. John Rutty, in his Essay Towards a Natural History of the County of Dublin, published in 1772, said Liffey swans were “most succulent, but hard of digestion, except when very young”.
Only the monarch was entitled to harvest “the royal fowl”. However, licenses were bestowed on favourite courtiers, allowing them to take swans on their estates. When being pinioned, the upper bill was given a “swan mark”, so that the ownership of future cygnets could be determined, even if the birds were captured away from the estate. All stray birds were deemed to be the property of the crown.
It’s often said that all British swans are owned by the monarch. The issue arose during a court case in Dublin some years ago, when a lady sued an Irish minister for injuries she claimed had been inflicted by a swan. Crown property, including swans, was transferred to the relevant minister in 1922. The State, therefore, might be responsible for injuries inflicted by swans, since they were, effectively, the avian equivalents of the minister’s pet dog.
However, the legal position is that the monarch in Britain, or the minister here, may, at his or her discretion, claim ownership of any swan. Until he does so, he is not responsible for injuries a bird might inflict. It’s fortunate that the law is discretionary. If it were otherwise, the taxpayer would have to compensate the ESB for the damage caused by swans colliding with transmission lines.
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