Swans were kept and bred as status symbols by the wealthy, their meat reserved exclusively for elite tables. In England from 1482, it was decreed that all white swans, unmarked, and found in common waters were the automatic property of the Crown.
Swans could be legally kept on the estate waters of wealthy landowners. In order to identify who owned which swans, their bills were etched with an official ownership mark, granted by Royal consent for a substantial fee. These marks were recorded in swan registers, such as this example from Wisbech. It is ordered hierarchically, with Royal marks followed by those of nobles and gentry. Ignoring or defacing swan marks were offences met with harsh penalties. In 1570, the Order of Swannes stated:
‘if any person do raze out, counterfeit or alter the mark of any swan [they] shall suffer one year’s imprisonment’.
Wisbech, England, early 17th century
Ink on paper
The Wisbech & Fenland Museum (WisFM: 1851.127.1)