The swans of Bruges: the real reason they are there

© Westtoer - Jan Darthet

Surely you’ve heard of the many white swans proudly guarding the Bruges canals, but did you know they’re actually a life sentence imposed on the city of Bruges? 

Once upon a time, back in the 15th century, the city of Bruges was prosperous and flourishing and it was known far beyond the borders as a lovely place to live. Moreover because it was famous back then for its fairs and festivities held all year round.

In the year 1482, Flanders and with it Bruges fell under the county of Maximilian From Austria, who had heard about the fame of Bruges and wasn’t very fond of the rampant mentality of its inhabitants. He imposed a law that prohibited all festivities, including the annual fair and other important festivals to the people of Bruges. Known for their fierceness, the citizens revolted and they started riots all over town, burning houses and killing envoys and sympathisans of emperor Maximilian. Finally they captured Maximilian in 1488 and locked him away in the house ‘Craenenburg’. You can still see the house on the Main Market Square.

Because the emperor still wouldn’t give in to the demand of the the citizens to annul the law, they captured Maximilians’ head squire and best friend Langhals (‘long neck’) and beheaded him with a guillotine in Maximilians sight, right beneath the house where he was held captive. Aghast by this deed, the emperor finally gave in. But he didn’t give up without a fight…

Maximilian decided to impose an eternal punishment on the city of Bruges. His best friend Langhals, who was highly important to the emperor, had a symbol of a swan on his escutcheon. As a tribute to his friend he made the people of Bruges promise that they would take care of 101 white swans for eternity. If they failed to do so, Bruges would fall in decay, never to be able to hold its head above water again… And yes, today the beautiful white swans are still there today.

To many a Brugean this story is unknown, but they take care of the white swans nonetheless. In 2014 a black swan perched among the white swans, which provoked huge commotion in the entire city.  The black swan mysteriously ‘disappeared’ a while after. City services claim the owner of the black swan took it home, but of course, we have our doubts. Whatever happened, Bruges quietly returned to comply it’s never-ending sentence…




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Life is short. Live it.