Swans of Bruges: The Legend Why The City Keeps Track Of Its Number

Canals of Bruges
Canals of Bruges

Bruges is one of the most well-preserved towns in Europe with its medieval architecture. Adding to the charm of this small scenic small town in Belgium are the swans. Legend has it that a curse in 1488 was the reason why a number of swans are in the canals of Bruges.

The Legend of the Bruges Swans

Maximilian I of Habsburg was the Archduke of Austria and the future Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He took over the role of governor of Belgium after his wife, Mary of Burgundy, died. She died on March 27, 1482 in a horse-riding accident near the Wijnendale Castle, which is very close to Bruges. 

Bruges Market Square
The Markt (“Market Square”) of Bruges

Maximilian developed an antipathy to Bruges. He relied on Pieter Lanchals, the town administrator and Maximilian’s adviser, to execute an iron reign that included heavy taxations.  The reason was to pay for the wars that he waged as head of the Habsburg family. During his visit to Bruges, the oppressed people rose in revolt against him. In 1488, the burghers captured him and Pieter Lanchals. They imprisoned them in the Cranenburg House (also Craenenburg) on the Market Square of Bruges. Pieter Lanchals, who was also his best friend, was beheaded with a guillotine. Maximilian watched the execution by force from the house where he was held captive.

A Curse on the City of Bruges

Maximilian gave back the Bruges people their privileges and they released him. He fled back to Austria and regained his power. Maximilian later returned to Bruges with a whole army with him. He put a curse for their cruelties, especially with the fate of his best friend in mind. He wrote a decree stating that “The city should keep the swans on all its lakes and canals at its own expense until the end of time.”.

Bruges Swans
Bruges Swans

He chose swan because the name “Lanchals” is very close to the Dutch word “lange hals”, which means “long neck”. Also, the coat of arms of the family of Pieter Lanchals has a representation of swan in it. If the number of swans fall below 58 (Don’t ask me why 58)Maximilian himself would retaliate. Some are afraid that Bruges would be flooded. And so a city legend was born…

Swans of Bruges
The swans of Bruges

Fact or complete fiction, locals have embraced this story. Up to now, the beautiful white swans are still around the canals of Bruges. Our guide told us that the people of Bruges have avoided the curse by keeping the number at all times. Right now the number is above the margin and is over 120. The people take this curse very seriously. They have put tracking devices on its legs and the city has even put up a law about the swans. They also have a paid official assigned to just keep track of the number.


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