16th-century log of swan ownership goes up for auction

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Distinctive markings on the beaks of swans to denote their aristocratic ownership in the 16th century are logged in a rare Tudor manuscript to be auctioned this month.

A book dating from 1566 contains images of more than 600 marks used in Norfolk and Suffolk, along with notes on the “laws and ordinances regarding swan”.

The swans’ owners are listed in order of importance, starting with the dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, the bishop of Ely, and the dean of York, and ending with wealthy landowners.

A second volume, dated 1834, has 84 pages of swan marks and an index of owners.

An enduring myth about mute swans – the elegant white water birds with distinctive orange bills – is that they are all owned by the crown. In fact, only unmarked swans belong by default to the monarch, who still retains the title “seigneur of the swans”, and counts a swan warden among her staff.

“The crown allowed influential landowners to own swans – it was an honour accorded to the most important landed gentry. But the swans had to be marked in order to record their ownership,” said Guy Schooling, the chairman of Sworders, the auctioneers selling the manuscripts.

“The markings are quite detailed and ornate. The 1566 register, which is on vellum, shows stylised swan heads with large bills,” Schooling said. “A document of this age, in this condition, is a really rare survival. It gives us an insight into the incredibly hierarchical society of 16th-century England.”

The laws and ordinances in the document are difficult to decipher, but a 1570 “Order of Swannes” recorded that “if any person do raze out, counterfeit or alter the mark of any swan [they] shall suffer one year’s imprisonment.”

As well as creatures of grace and beauty, swans when roasted were a great delicacy on Tudor banqueting tables, especially at Christmas. “The wealthy and privileged didn’t want the hoi polloi eating swans,” Schooling said.

Swans no longer appear on the royal menus, but the tradition of swan upping on the Thames has survived. The annual practice involves rounding up cygnets, establishing their parentage and marking them with rings before returning them to the river. It is largely used to track the swan population.

According to the RSPB, the UK swan population has increased in recent years, but they still face threats from foxes, pollution, fishing tackle and overhead power lines. Some birds stay in their territories all year, while others move short distances and form winter flocks, the charity says. In cold weather, some birds arrive from Europe into eastern England.

The manuscripts to be auctioned are part of what is described as “an extraordinary collection of books about the Fenlands” owned by Peter Crofts, a member of a well-known Wisbech family, who died in 2001.

After both his legs were amputated after a crash while training as a pilot in the second word war, Crofts became an antiques dealer and collector.

The books will go under the hammer on 23 August with an estimate of between £8,000 and £16,000.