The swan has been the subject of many myths and legends besides being a well-known
and attractive bird. Legend has it that the Greek god, Zeus, took on the form of
a swan when he seduced Leda, the wife of the king of Sparta. And according to another
tradition Zeus’s daughter, Aphrodite, goddess of desire, rode a chariot that was
driven by swans.
In the German legend of the Swan Knight, the oldest surviving version of which dates
from about 1210 and which in modern times has been made famous by a Wagner opera,
Lohengrin sails in a boat steered by a swan and rescues Elsa, Princess of Brabant.
Although she has been dispossessed of her rightful inheritance, he agrees to marry
her and in doing so is compelled to reveal his identity. At which point the swan,
who turns out to be Elsa’s brother Gottfried, returns and Lohengrin disappears. The
story is very similar to an earlier legend from Celtic Britain.
In France the legend of Lohengrin was associated with the family of Godfrey of Bouillon
in the Middle Ages, and a number of English noble families adopted the swan as their
badge, including the de Bohuns, the Beauchamps and the Courteneys who claimed descent
from the Swan Knight. The swan was also the badge of the House of Lancaster.
A swan motif on the side wall of a pub at Garboldisham in Norfolk.
Because of its association with royalty and chivalry, the swan became a not-infrequent
motif for use in heraldry, and from that evolved the fashion for displaying it on
the outside of houses as a mark of distinction; it later came to be used as a subject
for inn signs. Sometimes it is depicted with a chain round its neck. A white swan
with a collar and chain was the badge of Henry IV and Henry V. From very early times
swans were declared the property of the Crown and the theft of the swan incurred
severe punishment. Even the theft of a swan’s egg was a punishable offence that
in the reign of Henry VII meant a year in prison.
It was not unusual for kings and nobles to swear oaths on the swan. In 1306 King
Edward I swore an oath on two swans when he knighted his son, later to be Edward
II, at a special ceremony in Westminster Abbey. A first-hand witness was an anonymous
monk of the Abbey who in his ‘Flowere of History’ tells us that ‘two swans were brought
before King Edward I in pomp and splendour, adorned with golden nets and gilded reeds,
the most astounding sight to the onlookers. Having seen them, the king swore by
the God of Heaven and by the swans that he wished to set out for Scotland and to
avenge the wrong done to the Holy Church, the death of John Comyn and the breach
of faith by the Scots.’
Above the front entrance door of the Swan Inn at Clare there is a two-and-a-half
metre length, six-hundred-year-old block of solid oak that may originally have been
a window corbel and which is carved in painted relief with a fettered swan and fruit-laden
vegetation in the centre and a shield at each end. One shield bears the royal coat
of arms of England and France, and the other bears those of the Mortimers and the
de Burghs who were members of the nobility associated with Clare during the Middle
Ages. Elizabeth de Burgh was buried at Clare Priory in 1363. Her husband was Lionel
of Antwerp, son of King Edward III, and their daughter, Philippa, married Edmund
Mortimer, 3rd Earl of March.
Later, in 1498, a John Norfolk, who may have been a relative of the de Burghs and
Mortimers, left the inn to his son. The carving’s good state of preservation is due
to it having been covered in plaster for a time.
The picture above shows a detail of the oak carving above the front entrance door
of the Swan Inn (formerly known as ‘The Quilters’) in the High Street at Clare in
Only as a special favour by the sovereign could a subject be in possession of a swan.
The swan was valued highly as a table bird by royalty, and the goose was considered
the poor man’s equivalent.
While the wealthy revered the swan, the poor, perhaps through jealousy, used it as
a symbol for false pride and clever deception. In one particuar medieval Bestiary
(a reference book that describes different animals) it is said that when the swan
swims with its head held high on its long neck that it is like a proud man who glories
in his possessions: as a man cannot take his worldly goods with him after his death,
his pride is misguided. Furthermore, we are told that beneath the swan’s white feathers
is hidden black flesh, which reveals its deceptiveness.
A pub sign with three flying swans at Worlingworth in Suffolk.
The village sign at Colney in Norfolk depicts a swan as well as a kingfisher and
more besides. Colney is situated by the River Yare. The swan is sitting on her
nest on an island in the river.