The ceremony of the Swan Upping has gone back to its original form…But do you know what it’s all about?
By Alessandra Ivaldi / 6.09.2022
The term Swan Upping refers to a ceremony that takes place every year in England. Traditionally, it should be held within five days, in the third week of July. Unfortunately, the pandemic caused the cancellation of the 2020 edition and the reduction to three days for the 2021 edition…But this year’s edition was held for all five days, from 18-22 July!
What is this all about? As the name Swan Upping suggests, it has to do with the swans of the United Kingdom. Traditionally, these fascinating animals are the property of her majesty, Queen Elizabeth. This ceremony is nothing less than the celebration of these majestic birds.
In charge of the event are a group of officials, headed by the Swan Marker, who for the occasion wears white breeches, a scarlet red jacket and a visor hat adorned with a large bird feather. His men, the Swan Warden and the other markers, in turn wear majestic uniforms.
During the Swan Upping this group of officials sails down the Thames River in six rowboats, adorned in turn with insignia and banners. When they spot a swan, all the boats head for it and surround it to catch it – but don’t worry! No harm is done to the swans, on the contrary! The captured birds are measured, weighed and given a veterinary check. If injured or sick, they are also treated. Finally, they are microchipped so that they can be monitored and their living conditions controlled.
While crossing the Thames, the markers reach the enchanting Windsor Castle, stand up in their boats and raise their oars in salute to Her Majesty.
But where did such a curious tradition originate? The Swan Upping ceremony dates back to the 12th century, when swans were considered a delicacy food destined only for noble families. It was King Edward IV who saved these animals from capture and poaching by issuing an edict in 1482 by which all swans in the kingdom were recognised as the property of the sovereign. Every summer since then the swans have been counted and tagged by special royal officials.
Today, of course, swans are no longer part of the menu of the Royal Family or of any English noble house. However, the custom of deeming them the property of the Crown remains. And in addition, the Swan Upping ceremony allows the swans that inhabit the water of the Thames to be monitored and protected, even if only in one section of the river, the one near Windsor Castle.
In addition, many schools participate in the ceremony. The idea is to exploit this curious tradition on an educational level as well. In fact, children are invited to observe the swans up close and find out a lot about them and their habits, thus stimulating the youngest children’s interest in nature and the animal world.
Would you like to know one last strange story concerning the Crown swans? Here you go: in 2017 it came to light that a 5-year-old girl, one Lyndsay Simpson, had spotted a swan during a walk by Heath Lake and expressed to her mother her wish to take the animal home and look after it for a weekend only. Not surprisingly, the mother responded negatively to her daughter, using as justification for her refusal the fact that all swans belong to the queen.
The child at that point did not give up and made a second request: to be able to write a letter to the same sovereign to ask her permission to keep the swan “on loan” for a weekend. The letter was actually written, sent – and received by the recipient!
Intrigued by the little girl’s request, Queen Elizabeth agreed to “loan” the swan for a weekend and also officially invited Lyndsay to attend the Swan Upping ceremony. It sounds like a fairy tale, but sometimes certain events are more incredible than fictional stories…