Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Monday, 26 July 2021

Swan Upping

I happened upon an online article from People about the Sovereign’s prerogative of the ownership of all mute swans in England and the continuing exercise of that right along the middle reaches of the Thames between Abingdon and Sunbury-on-Thames. The annual survey of swan numbers has again taken place, having been cancelled last year thanks to the virus, and is the custom known as Swan Upping. 

It does manage to render cygnets as ‘signets’, which conjures up images of the Queen’s Swsn Master either fishing late medieval royal letters out of the Thames or retrieving items of jewellery ….

This led me to another online article, more historical and legal in its sources and context about the Royal Prerogative in such matters and to the rights of the monarch to swans and royal fish such as sturgeon ( one somehow feels a Scottish political joke coming on ) and whales, dolphins and porpoises. This very interesting article, which has a good bibliography on the matter, can be read at The Ownership of Swans in English History: Does the Queen Own all the Swans?

Some years ago a friend of mine was the President of the Pantin Society, the Oriel college society for its student historians, and he had the bright idea of serving roast swan at the annual dinner.  We pointed out that swan is a regal prerogative and in Her Majesty’s gift 
( as at St John’s in Cambridge ). He did rather baulk at writing to HM, although she is Visitor of the College. He did however have a fantastic notion of going out on the Thames with a punt gun…. but instead we had goose, and very tasty it was too.

My other swan story from Oxford is the memory of walking into College one morning across Folly Bridge where the commuter traffic had some to a halt - a swan aiming to land on the Thames had misjudged its flight path trajectory and landed instead on the bridge. Clearly angry it looked just like the heraldic badge of the Bohun family and their heirs the Lancastrian kings and the Stafford Dukes of Buckingham. After much flipping of it wings and looking distinctly put out it got itself over the parapet and into the river. What was striking was to see just how large a bird a fully grown swan is when out of the water.

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