Why is Buckinghamshire's County Emblem a Swan?

A swan in St Cross, England
A swan in St Cross, England | © Henry Burrows / Flickr
Buckinghamshire’s county emblem of a swan can be seen consistently throughout the area—it’s the logo for the local library, the local council website, the Wycombe Swan theatre and the Swan Pub in Beaconsfield. Though much of Buckinghamshire’s population is aware of the prominence of the swan emblem, not many of the county’s residents are truly aware of its history.

The image of a swan, with a Duke’s coronet that’s attached to a heavy gold chain around its neck, is commonly found in Buckinghamshire. This element of the emblem is particularly confusing, as the swan is associated with being a free, wild bird. The history of the emblem has been much debated and has been described as ‘lost in a confusion of medieval romance, a joke and the sovereign’s appetite.’

One possible, potentially limited, history of the emblem begins with Henry II appointing Henry of Essex as Sheriff of Buckingham in 1156. One of the Sheriff’s ancestors had the surname ‘Swein’, which is phonetically close to swan. This resulted in the creation of a pun, due to the popularity of wordplay during this time, which in turn may have led to the Sheriff of Buckingham selecting the bird as the badge of his county.

Buckinghamshire swan emblem © Jza84 / Wikimedia Commons

Another possible explanation for the swan’s presence in the Buckinghamshire emblem links to the de Bohun family. Thomas of Woodstock, the youngest son of Edward III, married Eleander de Bohun. Her family had claimed descent from the mythical French Knight of the Swan, a widely known legend from the European Middle Ages onward. The story follows 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. She forgets to break this promise, so he tragically leaves her and never returns.

The children born from the de Bohun family wore silver chains around their necks with swan pendants and the family crest was a swan with a coronet encircling its neck. This seems to be a clearer link to the origin of the emblem than a pun made in 1156.

The de Bouton swan, on a hotel sign © Keith Edkins / Wikimedia Commons

The de Bohun family also inherited a swan emblem from the Mandeville family from Henry of Essex. Thomas, son of Edward III, was made the first Duke of Buckingham in 1377, therefore providing yet another link between Buckingham and the swan emblem.

In 1521, Henry VIII executed the Third Duke of Buckingham for treason. The title of Duke of Buckingham was only reinstated in 1623 when James I awarded it to George Villiers. The heralds, who were designated the task of checking coat of arms within the country, found that between these two dates, Buckingham had adopted the swan for its arms and seal. Its black and red background was due to the livery of the holder of the first creation of the Dukedom. These two colours are less prominent today, however. The swan and its coronet and chain can still be found in many places, from the local council’s logo to the Wycombe Wanderers FC badge.

The history of the swan emblem of Buckinghamshire remains disputed to this day. However, whether its origins are rooted in a simple pun made from an ancestor’s name or associated with the de Bohun family, it is undeniable that it has stood the test of time.