The Swan has probably been associated with High Wycombe, and with the county of Buckinghamshire and the ancient borough towns of the county, since the lifetime of Humphrey, 6th Earl of Stafford. Humphrey, who became first Duke of Buckingham in 1444, employed the swan as his personal badge or crest, and the association of a swan with this county had probably become established by the time of his death in 1460.
During the 16th century Heralds made tours, called ‘Visitations’, of each county recording and authorising the use of coats of arms by families and borough towns. In 1521 the title of Duke of Buckingham became extinct when one of Humphrey’s descendants was executed and 45 years later, Thomas Hervey, the Clarenceux Herald in a Visitation in 1566, says ‘the arms antiently belonging to the town and borough of Buckingham’ were ‘partly per pale, sable and gules, a swan with expanded wings, argent, ducally gorged’.
The arms were ‘antiently’ established by then in Hervey’s words, and sable and gules – herald’s terminology for black and red – were the livery colours of Duke Humphrey’s family. From earliest times sable and gules are the two colours of the background on which the arms of Buckingham the county town are shown.
Although it was never the county town, High Wycombe’s claim to use the swan as a coat of arms is as ancient as Buckingham’s. Hervey’s Visitation of 1566 also says that the arms of Chepping Wycombe – the official name of the town until 1946, were ‘Sable, on a mount in base vert, a swan, close, ducally gorged, and with a chain reflected over the back or’. In other words a swan very like the one over the entrance to the old High Wycombe library, standing on a green mount, with a black background, wings closed, a duke’s coronet round its neck, and a gold chain from the coronet over its back. Hervey confirmed the town’s use of these arms, and saying they were ‘…their ancient arms and common seal’.
The story of the swan goes back further than this and is eventually lost in the mists of antiquity. The family of Duke Humphrey, who died in 1460, had inherited the swan badge from one of the three daughters of another Humphrey, the son of Thomas of Woodstock. Thomas of Woodstock was the youngest son of Edward III and had been given the title Duke of Buckingham in 1377, at the coronation of Richard II thus beginning a connection in name between Buckinghamshire and the swan.
Thomas in turn had inherited the swan badge from the family of his wife, Alianora de Bohun, one of two daughters who in 1372 had been the only children of the last male member of the de Bohun family. There are numerous examples of the de Bohuns using a white swan (usually with closed wings) as a family badge, and Alianora’s tomb in Westminster Abbey has numerous swans around it.
The de Bohuns may have used the badge because they claimed descent from the mythical ‘Knight of the Swan’ who figures in French Medieval romance. A descendant of Humphrey, the first duke mentioned earlier, had the story of the Kinght translated into English in 1504.
The Knight of the Swan was the son of a King called Oryant, who had seven children, each born with a silver chain round its neck – each child turned into a white swan with one exception, Helyas the Knight of the Swan.
In any case Alianora de Bohun’s ancestors in turn had inherited the swan from the Mandeville family in 1227 when the last male Mandeville had died, and the Mandevilles had inherited the badge in 1210 from the descendants of the family of Henry of Essex, a late 12th century Sheriff of Buckingham.
Henry of Essex may have inherited the swan from an ancestor with the Danish name of Sweyn – the word ‘swan’ would be what is called a rebus – a pun on the words Sweyn and Swan. Punning on names in this fashion was common in an age when people could not read or write.
From these early beginning the swan has continued in use into the 21st century as a local symbol, used as a public house sign, and as a means of identifying the towns and county of Buckinghamshire and their servants. Most town council in Bucks have, or have had, a swan in their coats of arms.
The badge has now been developed into the ‘crest’ used today by the Charter Trustees of the town of High Wycombe.
“Industria Ditat” is latin for Industry Enriches.
[Information courtesy of High Wycombe Museum]