The last independent rulers of Flanders were Charles the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy, and his daughter Mary of Burgundy, both of whom died in unfortunate circumstances, Charles during the siege of the French city of Nancy in 1477, she after a riding accident in 1482, when she was only 25. Mary was married to Maximilian, a Habsburg prince and future Holy Roman Emperor, who inherited her territories on her death – thus, at a dynastic stroke, Flanders was incorporated into the Habsburg empire.
In the sixteenth century, the Habsburgs relocated to Spain, but they were keen to emphasize their connections with – and historical authority over – Flanders, one of the richest parts of their expanding empire. Nothing did this quite as well as the ceremonial burial – or reburial – of bits of royal body. Mary was safely ensconced in Bruges’s Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, but the body of Charles was in a makeshift grave in Nancy. The Emperor Charles V, the great grandson of Charles the Bold, had – or thought he had – this body exhumed and carried to Bruges, where it was reinterred next to Mary. There were, however, persistent rumours that the French, the traditional enemies of the Habsburgs, had deliberately handed over a dud skeleton, specifically one of the knights who died in the same engagement. In the 1970s, archeologists had a bash at solving the mystery. They dug beneath Charles and Mary’s mausoleums in the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, but, among the assorted tombs, they failed to authoritatively identify either the body or even the tomb of Charles; Mary proved more tractable, with her skeleton confirming the known details of her hunting accident. Buried alongside her also was the urn which contained the heart of her son, Philip the Fair, placed here in 1506.