07 June 2022

The Swan of Buckingham:
myths, legends and links
with the Stafford family

The Swan of Buckingham … a carving on the tower of the Parish Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Buckingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

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 Golden Swan decorates the top of the old town hall in Buckingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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 Girl’, a bronze sculpture by local artist Freya Boyesen in the Market Square in Buckingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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.

The Swan Revived is a former 16th century coaching inn in the heart of Newport Pagnell (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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.

The standard of Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, with his badges of the Buckingham swan and the Stafford knot (Wikipedia/RB Utting, ‘English Heraldry’, by Charles Boutell)

Praying with the Psalms in Pentecost:
7 June 2022 (Psalm 104)

‘There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it’ (Psalm 104: 26) … a fresco in Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections from the seasons of Lent and Easter, including my morning reflections drawing on the Psalms.

In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 104:

Psalm 104 is one of the longer psalms, and has 35 verses. It is sometimes known by its Latin name Benedic anima mea Domino. In the slightly different numbering system in the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate, this psalm is counted as Psalm 104. A portion of this psalm (Psalm 104: 24-35) was the appointed psalm on Sunday morning (Pentecost, 5 June 2022).

Psalm 104 is closely related to the first Genesis creation narrative (Genesis 1), where the waters are separated before the creation of Sun and Moon. This is a hymn of praise to God as the creator, creator of the heavens and the earth (verses 5-9). God is wrapped in light, the waters above (the skies) are his heavenly dwelling and the rains, the winds and the fire (thunder and lightning) are his messengers and servants, so that we depend on God for our very existence.

Verse 2-4 tell of the creation of the heavens and verses 5-9 of the earth. To ancient people, light (verse 2) was a thing, so likening it to a garment made sense. God built his heavenly dwelling on the chaotic waters (verses 2b-3a).

The wind (verse 3c) brings rain clouds from the sea; both are under God’s control. The hot wind in verse 4 is the sirocco, a desert wind from the east.

People saw the earth as a disk supported by pillars or foundations (verse 5). Before God’s creative acts, the waters (verse 6) covered the earth. God chased away chaos, bringing order. he restricted the waters to the mountain tops as snow and to the valleys as rivers (verse 8).

God will never again allow the waters to cover the earth (verse 9) and all that lives (verses 10-18): creatures depend on him for their very existence (verses 27-30).

God’s marvellous works (verse 24) are countless, all are made in his wisdom. He has made them in wisdom, with perfection of design and ethic, absolute integrity, truth and beauty.

For people at that time, the sea was almost chaotic, beyond controlling (verse 25), but God is so great that even Leviathan, the mythical sea monster, is his harmless, sportive creature (verse 26).

All living things depend on God at all times, for their food (verse 27) and their life (verse 29), without it, they die. Lack of God’s presence causes terror. His creative agent is his spirit (verse 30). Creation is continuous, continually renewed. The glory of the Lord (verse 31) is the magnificence of the created world, his visible manifestation. His power is evident too in earthquakes and volcanoes (verse 32).

The psalmist vows to praise God throughout his life.

‘The Old 104th’ is a well-known tune composed by Thomas Ravenscroft (1592-1635), and associated with a number of hymns, including ‘Disposer Supreme, and Judge of the earth’, in 1686 by Jean-Baptiste de SanteĆ¼il (1630-1697) and translated into English in 1836 by the Revd Isaac Williams (1802-1865).

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s composed an arrangement for ‘Disposer Supreme’ or the ‘Old 104th’ and the hymn ‘Disposer Supreme’ (New English Hymnal, No 216). His harmonisation for this hymn is his adaptation of the ‘Old 104th.’

Vaughan Williams probably came to know and love this because of the strong Gloucestershire connections of Isaac Williams. Indeed, he was so fond of this tune that he wrote a remarkable Fantasia on it for piano solo, chorus and orchestra.

Isaac Williams was John Henry Newman’s curate at the University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Oxford, where John Keble preached his Assize Sermon, the spark that ignited the Oxford Movement. Williams became the most prolific of the Tractarian poets, writing no less than 11 volumes of poetry for the movement. He was the author of Tract 80, on Reserve in the Communication of Religious Knowledge, which, next to Tract 90, stirred the greatest controversy. He was curate to Keble’s younger brother, the Revd Thomas Keble (1793-1875), who was also a Tractarian.

‘You cause the grass to grow for the cattle’ (Psalm 104: 14) … cattle grazing in fields by the River Ouse near Passenham in Northamptonshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Psalm 104 (NRSVA):

1 Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honour and majesty,
2 wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
3 you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind,
4 you make the winds your messengers,
fire and flame your ministers.

5 You set the earth on its foundations,
so that it shall never be shaken.
6 You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
7 At your rebuke they flee;
at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
8 They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
to the place that you appointed for them.
9 You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.

10 You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
11 giving drink to every wild animal;
the wild asses quench their thirst.
12 By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.
13 From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.

14 You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
15 and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.
16 The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
17 In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has its home in the fir trees.
18 The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the coneys.
19 You have made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
20 You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.
21 The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
22 When the sun rises, they withdraw
and lie down in their dens.
23 People go out to their work
and to their labour until the evening.

24 O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
25 Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
creeping things innumerable are there,
living things both small and great.
26 There go the ships,
and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

27 These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
28 when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
30 When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.

31 May the glory of the Lord endure for ever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works—
32 who looks on the earth and it trembles,
who touches the mountains and they smoke.
33 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
34 May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the Lord.
35 Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Praise the Lord!

‘You have made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting’ (Psalm 104: 19) … Sun and Moon House on Market Square in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘The Time to Act is Now!’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by Linet Musasa, of the Anglican Council of Zimbabwe.

The USPG Prayer Diary this morning (Tuesday 7 June 2022) invites us to pray:

Let us remember that we only have one earth and that we must act urgently to protect and support local and global ecosystems.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

‘Disposer supreme – the Old 104th’ sung by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org