Tudor Norfolk Swan Rights manuscript to be auctioned

12:22 11 July 2022

They can break your arm and all belong to the queen, it is often said.

But at least one of these two statements about swans has some truth to it…as a rare Tudor manuscript confirms.

Swans have been considered royal birds since the Middle Ages
– Credit: Danielle Boden

The document, due to be auctioned next month, was written in the 16th century as a guide to swan breeding in Norfolk and Suffolk.

A favorite treat on the banquet table, the mute swan has been considered a royal bird since the Middle Ages.

The manuscript describes how all swans flying freely on open and common waters were considered the property of the Crown, and it set out the rules that landowners should observe in their dealings with birds.

Swan manuscript

Tudor manuscript is auctioned by Sworders
– Credit: Sworders

Only the monarch could grant the privilege of owning a “set” of swans, to individuals or institutions.

All of these birds had to be marked and pinned to help with any disputes over ownership, or for swan training – the annual supervision of the marking of new cygnets.

A Swan-Master was appointed both to look after the royal swans and to oversee and regulate the breeding of swans throughout England.

Tudor Swan Manuscript

Only the monarch could grant the privilege of owning a “set” of swans to individuals or institutions
– Credit: Sworders

He was assisted by deputies responsible for a specific and manageable region.

The two-volume manuscript, which was included in a sale at Sworders auctioneers, Stansted Mountfitchet, Essex, was used from the 16th to the 19th century by landowners in Norfolk and Suffolk.

It refers to the “Wisbech Hundred”.

The first volume, dated 1566, contains more than 600 marks – identification notches made on the beaks of birds – followed by 19 pages of handwritten notes concerning the “Laws and Ordinances concerning the Swan”.

The names start with the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, up to the Bishop of Ely and the Dean of York and end with wealthy landowners.

The second volume is dated 1834 and includes notes on swan marks followed by 84 pages of swan marks and an index of owners.

It will go under the hammer at the Sworders Book and Card Sale on August 23, and has a guide price of £8,000-£16,000.

So, does the queen still own all the swans?

Swan Parade

The Queen reserves the right to claim ownership of any unmarked mute swans swimming in open waters
– Credit: Archant

These days, according to the Royal Family’s website, the Queen reserves the right to claim ownership of any unmarked mute swan swimming in open waters.

But this right is mainly exercised only on certain sections of the Thames.

Swan lifting still takes place once a year on this river, with the cygnets being weighed, measured and checked for injuries.

Young cygnets are surrounded by individual identification numbers that indicate their ownership if they belong to the Vintners or Dyers livery companies.

Queen Elizabeth II attending the Queen's Bodyguard for Scotland (also known as the Royal Company of

The event has evolved from a primarily ceremonial event to a wildlife conservation event.

…and can they break your arm?

Male swans can be very aggressive and fierce in defending their nests, especially during the nesting season from April to June. But no, they can’t break your arm.

As John Hutson, from Abbotsbury Swannery in Dorset, told the BBC: ‘It’s a myth that they’ll break your leg or your arm with their wings. They’re not that strong and c is mostly show and bluster.”

Norwich Swan Pit

Norwich has a very rare example of a late 18th century swan pit, where swans were kept to be fattened.

swan pit

The Swan Den in Norwich
– Credit: Archant Library

Visible from the Riverside Walk, the pit, with attached locks, linking to the River Wensum, is within the grounds of the Grand Hospital.

It is a large rectangular pool with brick sides and paved ramps at the two east corners.

Sluice gates ensured that the pit was filled with water at high tide and was not allowed to empty at low tide.

The Grade II listed pit was used for the breeding of local swans for the Master of the Great Norwich Hospital, who since medieval times had the right to cull swans and supply them for feasts.

Swan Pit Norwich

The Swan Den at Great Hospital Norwich
– Credit: Peter James

About Cody E. Vaughn

Check Also

The art of forgery never spared even Galileo’s manuscript

A historian flagged it for a probe while researching the famous astronomer The prized possession …