07 June 2022
The Swan of Buckingham:
myths, legends and links
with the Stafford family
A swan, and not a buck, is the emblem of Buckingham and the county emblem of Buckinghamshire. The swan can be seen as a logo or emblem throughout the area, as the logo of the local council and the local library, in street sculptures, and as the name of theatres and pubs, and a carving on the tower of the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Buckingham.
Until recently, I had associated the swan with royal prerogatives and with the heraldic emblems of the Stafford family.
But during my recent visit to Buckingham I saw a number of public images showing a swan, often with a duke’s coronet attached to a heavy gold chain around its neck. The choice of this emblem is greatly debated and its origins are said to be ‘lost in a confusion of mediaeval romance, a joke and the sovereign’s appetite.’
One mythical origin of this emblem is suggested with Henry II’s appointment of Henry of Essex as Sheriff of Buckingham in 1156. One of the sheriff’s ancestors had the surname ‘Sweyn,’ and with puns and wordplays at the time, the Sheriff of Buckingham is said to have chosen a swan as the badge of his county.
Another link is suggested in the links of the de Bohun family with Buckinghamshire. Thomas of Woodstock (1355-1397), the youngest son of Edward III, was made Earl of Buckingham (1377) and Duke of Gloucester (1385). He married Eleanor de Bohun, whose family claimed descent from the mythical French Knight of the Swan.
The legend appears in Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, and involves a mysterious knight who arrives in a boat drawn by swans to rescue a damsel in distress. He marries her but forbids her to ask his name or his background. When she breaks her promise, he leaves and never returns.
Members of the de Bohun family wore silver chains around their necks with swan pendants and the family heraldic emblems included a swan with a coronet around its neck. The de Bohun family also inherited a swan emblem from the Mandeville family from Henry of Essex.
The title of Earl of Buckingham died out in 1399, but in 1444 Humphrey Stafford, Earl of Stafford, was made Duke of Buckingham. On his father’s side, Stafford was descended from the Stafford family of Stafford; his mother was Anne of Gloucester, a daughter of Thomas of Woodstock, Earl of Buckingham and Duke of Gloucester.
His grandson, Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, used the swan with a duke’s coronet and a chain as his own badge, along with his own Stafford knot. For some generations, the Stafford family was a strong political presence in Buckinghamshire.
It is through his links with the Stafford family in the 15th century that William Comberford (ca 1403/1410-1472), MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, developed family links with Buckinghamshire, with lands and other properties in Newport Pagnell and Tickford, and the marriage of his son John Comberford (ca 1440-1508) and his ward Joanna Parles.
During the Wars of the Roses, Henry Stafford helped Richard III to claim the throne in 1483. They took the ‘boy king’ Edward V prisoner at the Rose and Crown in Stony Stratford in 1483, before taking him to the Tower of London. But Henry then led a revolt against Richard III and was executed later that same year. All his titles were forfeited, including that of Duke of Buckingham.
His son, Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, was restored to the title by Henry VII in 1485. But he was executed for treason in 1521 because of his opposition to Cardinal Wolsey, the title became extinct, and he was posthumously attainted in 1523.
The swan seems to have become the emblem of Buckingham during the time of the Stafford dukes, and survived the execution of Henry Stafford in 1521. Almost a century later, at the Visitation of Warwickshire in 1619, the heralds allowed William Comberford’s descendant, William Comberford of Tamworth, to use the Parles arms of five red roses on a golden engrailed cross with a red background as the Comberford family coat-of-arms and to quarter these with eight other arms, including those of the Stafford family. However, there is no independent evidence to explain why William Comberford was allowed to include the differenced Stafford arms in his quarterings.
Meanwhile, the swan remained part of the arms and seal of Buckingham, town and county, by the time James I gave the title of Duke of Buckingham to George Villiers in 1623.
The swan and its coronet and chain are still found in many places in Buckingham and Buckinghamshire.
The 18th century Golden Swan crowns the Old Town Hall in Buckingham, and has a long and chequered history. This weather vane was lost for many years, and local lore says it is a bad omen when the swan turns its back on the town.
The ‘Swan Girl’ is a bronze sculpture of a girl holding a swan by local artist Freya Boyesen. This sculpture on a plinth in front of the Old Gaol in the Market Square was provided by Buckingham town council and was unveiled in 1997 by the then Mayor, Councillor Ruth Newell.
Further afield in Buckinghamshire, the Swan was once a popular pub at 92-94 High Street, Stony Stratford, and over time was also known as the Swan Inn, the Swan with Two Necks, and the Three Swans. The Swan is a Victorian hotel and inn in Old Stratford that was first listed in directories from 1847.
The Swan Revived is a family-run hotel in a 16th century coaching inn in the heart of Newport Pagnell. It first appears in records in the 1540s as the Swan Inn, and was renamed the Swan Revived in 1952.
Today the sovereign and the Vintners’ and Dyers’ Companies share the ownership of swans. This is celebrated each July when ‘Swan Uppers’ of the two city livery companies, dressed in scarlet uniforms, row the Thames to catch and ring the feet of swans with cygnets. The ceremony is, in effect, an annual census of swans.