LONDON — It was long a well-known bit of trivia in Britain, often invoked on the banks of the River Thames: The queen owns the swans.
It was mostly true. Technically, the queen didn’t own them, but she had a right, passed down through the centuries, to claim them if she pleased, making her the de facto owner. And it applied only in open waters to mute swans, one of several varieties of swans found in Britain, that weren’t already owned by three companies permitted to own them.
Still, Queen Elizabeth II was long associated with the thousands of elegant, long-necked birds found swimming in waters throughout the country. Following her death, the practice, which dates back to at least the ninth century, will continue under King Charles III.
David Barber, who has served for nearly 30 years as the royal swan marker — a sort of swan ambassador, dating back to the days when swans were marked with knives and brands on their beaks to indicate ownership — said on Thursday that he believed the new king would maintain the queen’s interest in the birds, given his prior interest in conservation efforts.
“It should work very, very well,” he said.
The ownership of the swans, though a minor footnote in the national mourning period and transition to a new monarch, has nonetheless been the figure of some fascination. But centuries ago, it was a far less trivial matter.
Some Key Moments in Queen Elizabeth’s Reign
Becoming queen. Following the death of King George VI, Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary ascended to the throne on Feb. 6, 1952, at age 25. The coronation of the newly minted Queen Elizabeth II took place on June 2 the following year.
A historic visit. On May 18, 1965, Elizabeth arrived in Bonn on the first state visit by a British monarch to Germany in more than 50 years. The trip formally sealed the reconciliation between the two nations following the world wars.
First grandchild. In 1977, the queen stepped into the role of grandmother for the first time, after Princess Anne gave birth to a son, Peter. Elizabeth’s four children have given her a total of eight grandchildren, who have been followed by several great-grandchildren.
Princess Diana’s death. In a rare televised broadcast ahead of Diana’s funeral in 1997, Queen Elizabeth remembered the Princess of Wales, who died in a car crash in Paris at age 36, as “an exceptional and gifted human being.”
Golden jubilee. In 2002, celebrations to mark Elizabeth II’s 50 years as queen culminated in a star-studded concert at Buckingham Palace in the presence of 12,000 cheering guests, with an estimated one million more watching on giant screens set up around London.
A trip to Ireland. In May 2011, the queen visited the Irish Republic, whose troubled relationship with the British monarchy spanned centuries. The trip, infused with powerful symbols of reconciliation, is considered one of the most politically freighted trips of Elizabeth’s reign.
Breaking a record. As of 5:30 p.m. British time on Sept. 9, 2015, Elizabeth II became Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, surpassing Queen Victoria, her great-great-grandmother. Elizabeth was 89 at the time, and had ruled for 23,226 days, 16 hours and about 30 minutes.
Marking 70 years of marriage. On Nov. 20, 2017, the queen and Prince Philip celebrated their 70th anniversary, becoming the longest-married couple in royal history. The two wed in 1947, as the country and the world was still reeling from the atrocities of World War II.
Losing her spouse. In 2021, Queen Elizabeth II bade farewell to Prince Philip, who died on April 9. An image of the queen grieving alone at the funeral amid coronavirus restrictions struck a chord with viewers at home following the event.
In medieval times, owning swans was seen as the height of luxury, an honor reserved only for the royals and the immensely wealthy and powerful, said Katy Barnett, a professor at Melbourne Law School and the author of “Guilty Pigs: The Weird and Wonderful History of Animal Law.”
“It became this status symbol, kind of like pop stars have tigers on leashes and bling and that kind of stuff,” she said.
But unlike those status symbols, the birds could end up on the dinner table. Swan was once seen as a rare delicacy, particularly associated with royalty, Ms. Barnett said. Henry III ordered 40 swans for his Christmas dinner in 1247, she said. (Eating swans fell out of style by the 18th century, she said. It was made illegal in 1981 when they were protected as a wild bird.)
Commoners were not allowed to own swans, and noblemen with sufficient land and income would have to ask the monarch for permission, Ms. Barnett said. A black market developed and swan theft became a major problem, necessitating the creation of courts dedicated to swan disputes, she said.
It’s unclear when, exactly, the monarchy began owning the nation’s swans; Ms. Barnett dated references back to the 12th century, while Mr. Barber said there was reference to a king in 966 granting permission for monks to own stray swans. But a key development came in the 1500s, when Queen Elizabeth I wanted to round up some swans, to the dismay of some who said they owned them, Ms. Barnett said.
The royal courts sided with the queen, ruling that she had a right to unmarked swans, along with “royal fish,” a classification that includes sturgeons, whales and porpoises. (Yes, whales and porpoises are mammals, not fish, but that is what they were called.)
The law stands to this day. In 2004, a fisherman in Wales caught a sturgeon and lawfully offered it to the queen before selling it. The queen declined.
Three companies are still permitted by the monarchy to own swans: The Abbotsbury Swannery, The Vintners Company and The Dyers’ Company. Nowadays, instead of the swans being marked on their beaks, they are fitted with rings to designate ownership.
Each year, Mr. Barber, wearing a red jacket and a large swan feather in his cap, leads the royal Swan Upping, a five-day expedition on six traditional rowing skiffs to collect data and assess the health of swans on the River Thames. They circle families of swans, lift them out of the water, weigh them and check them for injuries, and outfit them with tracking rings.
Queen Elizabeth II was keenly interested in the swans and in 2009 joined on the expedition, Mr. Barber said.
“The queen was watching with a big smile on her face,” he said.
Another bit of trivia often repeated in Britain, frequently taught to youngsters, is that swans can break your arm. That, Mr. Barber said, is not true.
“The wings on a swan are very powerful, but it is very unlikely that it would break a man’s arm,” he said. “It’s a myth because they wanted to keep people away from swans hundreds of years ago.”