The Legend(s) of the Swans of Bruges

Besides the medieval facades, the cobbled alleys and the charming bridges, the city of Bruges is also well-known for the elegant swans that majestically swim in the narrow canals, and several folktales tell the story how these swans came to Bruges.

The first tale is my favourite and the lesser-known narrative of the two. According to this story a father imprisoned his daughter in the cellar of a house located alongside the Spiegelrei in the 13th century. The reason he wanted to put her under lock and key was because she refused to marry the man she had been commanded to exchange vows with. Just when she thought she was never going to see the light of day again, two swans glided by her window. They returned the next day, and the next, and the day after that to keep her company during those lonely, dark hours. It’s unclear why and how she was released, but when she was finally free she decided to leave the city but not before gifting Bruges a huge fortune. There was only one condition: they had to promise that they would take care of the swans and all their descendants.

The second story is more widely known in Bruges and tells the gruesome tale of Pieter Lanchals. Lanchals was a trusted confident of The Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. The emperor and his adviser weren’t popular in the Duchies of Flanders and Brabant mainly because of the heavy taxes they imposed and the only major city that remained faithful to his regency during these tumultuous years was Antwerp. During the second revolt in 1488 Maximilian was captured in Bruges while Lanchals went into hiding in the Carmerstraat. When his hiding place was discovered the emperor was forced to watch the torture of his friend, which went on for a couple of days, and eventually his beheading. Once that was done, his head was put on a spike and displayed at the Gentpoort.

Unfortunately for the Flemish the revolts failed, and that’s where we move on to the folklore part of the story where the details become hazy. The emperor demanded that Lanchals honour would be restored and ordered that Bruges must take care of the swans that dwell in the city’s lakes and canals until the city falls. Interestingly, Lanchals is the old Flemish word for ‘langhalzen’ which translates as long necks.

The story of the swans of Bruges doesn’t end during these bygone centuries. In 2014 there was a lot of fuss in the city about an exotic black swan who to everyone’s astonishment could all of a sudden be seen swimming in the canals together with the countless of other swans that call Bruges their home. The city council wanted to remove the swan, but this was a decision the local population didn’t like at all and almost resulted in another revolt. Protest Facebook pages were created, the swan was bapitsed Burilda and quickly became a tourist attraction. Bruges’s only black swan vanished just as mysteriously as it had arrived. Some say the bird went away on its own accord, while others claim the owner of the animal came forward, and yet others think the city council was involved in its disappearance.

white sketch pad beside cup of coffee


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