The Swan and the Swan with Two Necks – A revised opinion

Some while back I discussed the name changes at the old Swan on the High Street The post is here.

However, after looking at new evidence from the 18th century licensing register I have changed my opinion.

Let’s start with the facts. The Swan, located on the High Street at what is now Nos. 92-94 was almost certainly a medieval foundation, although it does not appear in documentary records until 1526, or possibly in an unnamed document cited by Markham, 1470. It was always a part of the Wolverton Manor and remained so until the end of the 18th century. Therefore it was always rented to tenants. It was never owned by anybody other than the Lord of the Manor. This point is actually crucial, and I will come to it in a minute.

The will of Michael Hipwell, probated in 1609 after his death contains a reference to his house the “Swan with Two Necks” which he bequeathed to his wife. This place was identified by Sir Frank Markham in his 1948 book as identical to the former Swan, and was merely a change of name. I accepted that until I came across 18th century licences naming both the Three Swans (as it was then called) and the Swan with Two Necks, both under different landlords. Furthermore, the Swan With Two Necks, is identified in 1754 as being on Stony Stratford’s west side. The Swan or Three Swans was always on the east side.

I then realised that the The Swan, if it had ever been in Michael Hipwell’s hands, was not his to bequeath to anyone. It was rented property. He could have happily bequeathed all the furniture and contents of the house but not the buildings themselves. They were always the property of the Longuevilles and later the Radcliffe Trust.

It is plain now that the Swan With Two Necks, which was probably Stony Stratford’s wine shop for many years, was a separate building and nothing at all to do with the Swan or Three Swans.

The Three Swans finally ceased to trade in 1782. The sale of all the contents, the furniture, the linen, the plate and so on, took three days. Mrs. Ann Whittaker, a widow and the last licensee, then retired. There were probably no tenants available to run the premises as an inn and they were converted to residential use. The Radcliffe Trust sold it in 1802.

The Swan with Two Necks meanwhile, survived to 1790. It had been run for several years by Ann Mulliner (sometimes written Mullender), herself a widow. At the moment I have no idea where it was located or what became of the building.

Two necks or two nicks?

The Swan Inn at Stony Stratford can trace its origins to the 15th century. It was in a prominent position on the Wolverton side close to the church of St Mary Magdalene. At least one 18th century reference rated it as the best of the Stony Stratford Inns. It was originally the Swan and in the early 17th century it is referred to as “The Swan with Two Necks“. When it starts to appear in 18th century estate documents it is always called The Three Swans. The inn remained part of the Wolverton Estate until 1802 when it was sold to Thomas Harrison. It did not survive the railway era and was converted to residences.

Extract from Michael Hipwell’s will 1609

The first reference to the building as The Swan with Two Necks is to found in Michael Hipwell’s will, dated 1609. I have copied it above and highlighted the relevant phrase.

Why the change? And what did this mean? The change of pub name I will come to, but let me first explain where the phrase Swan with Two Necks comes from.

Swans were kept in plentiful supply at one time as a source of food and quite early the royal prerogative was asserted over swans, which still prevails today. In the 15th century the King agreed that the Vintners Company and the Dyers Company  could keep for themselves a number of birds on the Thames. To distinguish the Royal Swans from the Vintners’ and Dyers’ Swans a system of marking was developed. The Vintners chose to mark the bills of their swans with two notches or nicks. Subsequently they adopted a sign of a swan with two nicks at the entrance to Vintners Hall in London. In time the Swan with Two Nicks became corrupted to The Swan with Two Necks.

Like most guilds the Vintners Company strove hard to regulate and control the trade and they could usually ensure that only their members across the country could deal in wine. So it must have come to pass that the inn holder of The Swan became a member of the Vintners Company and as a consequence may have had a monopoly on the retailing of wines in Stony Stratford. Therefore an inn sign advertising not just a swan, but a swan with two nicks would be a way of asserting his status as a member of the Company.

By the end of the 17th century the Vintners Company had lost influence and exclusive control and possibly the name mattered less. At any rate it appears in early 18th century documents as The Three Swans although the secondary name does crop up from time to time in later 18th century references.

The inn and its associated land were always part of the Wolverton estate and inn holders took out leases. In 1802 the Radcliffe Trust sold it with several other properties to meet a new Land Tax,

The Swan was probably a 15th century foundation. Like many other Stony Stratford properties it was rebuilt after 1742 and it is that building which can still be seen today at 92-94 high Street.

Where did the Prince stay in 1483?

This building on Stony Stratford High Street is reputed to be the Inn where the Edward, the heir to the throne after the death of his father Edward IV, was abducted by his uncle Richard. He was taken to the Tower of London, at the time no more than a secure royal palace. Later, his brother Richard was also persuaded to move there, in both cases “for their own protection and safety”. They never emerged alive and Richard had a brief reign as Richard III until he was killed at Bosworth in 1485. The plaque on the wall proclaims this fact and it is widely believed to be true.

Is it?

The only answer is that it may be, but there is absolutely no evidence, other than hearsay to back up this claim.

The chronicles recording the events mention only Northampton and Stony Stratford. Richard reached Northampton on his way to London on April 29th. The young king, accompanied by his uncle Earl Rivers, had by this time reached Stony Stratford on their journey from Ludlow. Richard and Rivers made contact and Rivers rode back to Northampton. The two men, who were later joined by the Duke of Buckingham, apparently spent a convivial evening together, but at dawn Rivers and his nephew, Lord Grey, were surprised by Richard’s men and arrested. They were despatched to Pontefract, one of Richard’s northern strongholds.

Buckingham and Richard then rode to Stony Stratford where they explained to the young Edward that they had intercepted a plot to seize the throne. Whether they were believed or not is probably irrelevant. Edward was now under Richard’s control.

Very little of medieval Stony Stratford remains, partly due to the inevitable rebuilding and partly due to a series of disastrous fires in the 18th century.

What we do know about the building is that it can be dated to the late 15th century at least and that it was an inn known as the Rose and Crown and it features in the bequest of the owner Michael Hipwell in 1609 in his desire to turn it into a school after 99 years. It is one of Stony Stratford’s oldest buildings and it escaped the great fire of 1742 because the winds were blowing north from the Bull rather than south.

One of the inns which had been destroyed during this fire was variously known at various times in its history as the Swan, the Swan with Two Necks, and the Three Swans. It was also one of the inns owned by Michael Hipwell. Now Browne Willis (1682-1760) the 18th century antiquarian who lived at Whaddon Hall, writes in his notes “the two Princes are reported traditionally to have lain at The Three Swans Inn in the centre of the town.”

The location of the former Three Swans was where the present hotel now stands, at numbers 92-94 High Street. It is in this section of the town where the larger inns appear to been located. The Red Lyon ( which may have changed its name to The Horseshoe, and is at one time referred to as the “Lyon and Horseshoe“) occupied the land where St Paul’s School was later built, and the Cock and the Bull are all on this side. There are hints that the Three Swans may have been of equivalent size. In early 18th century account the Three Swans is paying rent of £12 for its adjoining land and orchard, the Bull £4, if that is anything to go by.

So what can we make of this? My intuition tells me that the prince, who would be travelling with an entourage (possibly as many as 2,000 according to one source), would be more likely to stay at one of the larger inns. Would they have been told, “Sorry, we have no room. You’ll have to go to one the smaller hostelries up the street.”? It is more likely that other travellers would have been turfed out to make way for their more important guests. The former location of Queen Eleanor’s Cross would also lead us to conclude that Royal parties stayed at the larger inns at the northern end of the town.

Browne Willis was not a resident of Stony Stratford and had no particular axe to grind. If he was reporting this in the 18th century, then it is probable at least that there was no controversy about the location and that this might have been the oral tradition two centuries after the event. There was, at any rate, no mention of the Rose and Crown at this time.

My guess is that the Great Fire of 1742 changed everything. After rebuilding, all properties from the Bull northwards were 18th century, and when local historians started to take an interest the only standing and visible 15th century buildings were those of the Rose and Crown. It therefore may have appeared “obvious” that this was the place where they stayed. I have seen something similar happen in Romsey in Hampshire, where a 13th century house just outside Romsey Abbey walls was identified by an enthusiastic local historian as “King John’s Hunting Box”- in other words a hunting lodge. Recent academic and scientific research has proved that it was in any case built later than 1217 (when John died) and that it was more likely to have been a lodge for abbey guests. The precise date of the building has now been established as 1256. It is still, however, called King John’s House.

Of course we have no such information to corroborate or dispute the Rose and Crown claim. It is conveniently still standing and the medieval Three Swans disappeared over 250 years ago. One sentence in an obscure manuscript by an obscure writer is hardly in a position to challenge that claim.