Towards the end of the Middle Ages, as chivalry and the golden age of knights started to become more and more irrelevant, there was a paradoxical surge in knightly culture. In particular, and of interest to this article, from the early 14th to the 15th century, it saw a sudden mushrooming of numerous orders of chivalry across Europe.
One of the last medieval orders to be formed was the Order of the Golden Fleece, which was founded by Duke Philip the Good of the Duchy of Burgundy in 1430. One of the most powerful men in Western Europe at the time, and something of a king-maker during the Hundred Years War between the kingdoms of England and France, Philip the Good created the Order of the Golden Fleece in honour of his wedding to Princess Isabella of Portugal. Another legend has it that the Duke heard his courtiers had taken to mocking a favoured lady of Bruges for the vibrancy of her hair, and so he took a lock of her hair and made it the badge of his new order.
Those familiar with English history, particularly that of King Edward III, may find this legend rather familiar to the story of how the Order of the Garter was founded, with the order’s founder seeking to defend the honour of a noblewoman from courtly detractors.
The legend is undoubtedly a work of chivalric romance, and it’s almost certain the Order was in fact named for the mythical Golden Fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts in Greek mythology. The Bishop of Chalons, perhaps trying to explain away the apparent pagan namesake, associated the name with the fleece of Gideon, which soaked up the dew of Heaven. It’s also quite probable that the Duke had been intending to create such an order for a while, and his marriage to Isabella of Portugal simply provided an occasion august enough for it to be formally announced. In the age of feudal politics, knightly orders were a useful way to create tighter bonds between a lord and his vassals, and to further centralise power and influence within his court.
By creating the Order of the Golden Fleece, Duke Philip the Good hoped to create the foundations of a stronger, more enduring state that could solidify its hold over his extensive Burgundian holdings. He may even have hoped it would provide a greater bulwark of protection against the King of France who, after his victory over the English at the end of the Hundred Years’ War, was cracking down on his more rebellious and fickle vassals.
The Order’s seat was placed in Dijon, and was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Initially restricted to just 24 knights, the Order would eventually be expended to include 31, then 51. As well as giving the Duke his own fraternity of knights, Philip the Good also dedicated the Order to the promotion of knightly virtues and ideals, the glory of God, the protection of Catholicism and the Christian religion, and to give prestige and honour to the Dukes of Burgundy. The Order also functioned as a means of providing a place where disputes between knights could be settled.
If Philip the Good hoped to keep the Valois-Burgundy line supreme within Burgundy, he was to be very quickly disappointed. Not even a generation afterwards, his line became extinct in 1478 when his son, Charles the Bold, met a premature end in the Battle of Nancy, and the Burgundian territories passed to his son-in-law, Maximillian of Austria. It was then that the position of Master of Order of the Golden Fleece came to the hands of the Hapsburg family, where it would remain until the death of Charles II in 1700.
An important point to note was that Maximillian claimed the Order by virtue of his dominion over the Low Countries, and even when his son, Philip the Handsome came to inherit the Kingdom of Spain in 1498 it continued to be held by virtue of that connection. This helped tie the Order of the Golden Fleece directly to the Low Countries, making it an almost national organisation. When King Philip II of Spain ceded the Low Countries to his daughter, Isabel, he made a point of explicitly retaining his title as Grandmaster of the Order, again giving pretense to the idea that the title was considered separate to that of King of Spain.
When Charles II of Spain died, heavily inbred and wracked by terrible physical deformities, the Spanish throne came to be disputed by the House of Bourbon and the Austrian branch of the Hapsburg family, triggering the War of Spanish Succession. With a Bourbon victory, King Philip V assumed the Spanish throne while the Holy Roman Emperor retained the Low Countries, seeing the Order of the Golden Fleece split itself into two branches — a Spanish branch, and a Low Country/Austrian branch. The monarchs of both nations continued to invest people with this as their highest chivalric honour.
Despite this it was still very much a Belgic-order, and privileges associated with it only applied to the Low Countries, irrespective of the monarch presenting the honour.
Upon the French invasion and attempted annexation of the Iberian peninsular during the Peninsular Wars, Emperor Napoleon I usurped the title of Grandmaster and conferred it upon his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, when he crowned him as the Bonaparte King of Spain. This was contested by the Bourbon King of Spain, King Ferdinand, and he promptly revoked any appointments to the Order upon his restoration made by the Bonaparte. Shortly after the Peninsular War, the Duke of Wellington was inducted into the Order by a grateful Spanish government. He was the first non-Catholic to be added to the Order, and since then numerous non-Catholics and non-Christians have been appointed Knights of the Golden Fleece.
Emperor Napoleon, upon subjugating Belgium, Austria and Spain, attempted to combine the various Golden Fleece Orders into a single Order of the Three Fleeces, but this never saw fruition.
The Spanish Order of the Golden Fleece would later be inherited by both of its Republics, as well as General Franco during the fascist period. It was restored to the Bourbon monarchs upon the restoration of King Juan Carlos I. The Austrian branch of the Order continued to be held by the Hapsburgs even after they had lost their Belgian and Dutch territories to the Republican French Army, where it remained primarily a Catholic order. After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, the King of Belgium laid claim to the title of Grandmaster of this branch of the Order by virtue of his sovereignty over former Austrian territories, but was rebuked by the King of Spain. Sovereignty thus remains with the Hapsburg family, with the current Grandmaster being Karl von Hapsburg.