The Order of the Golden Fleece was established in 1430 by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy in celebration of the properous and wealthy domaines united in his person that ran from Flanders to Switzerland. Just as with the Danish Order of the Elephant, it is not known why Phillip chose the golden fleece as the sign and symbol of his order. Some point out the great wealth he obtained from the wool trade in Flanders, others to the spread of humanism and classical literature, and yet others point to the symbol of Jason for the archangel Gideon. In his youth Philip always longed to go on crusade to the golden East, and so the choice of Jason journying east to gain the golden reward may be a rememberance of his desires. We must also remember that Jason chose a select crew of the greatest of the Greek warriors, and Philip's "Compaignons" of the Fleece are his crew of dedicated, Christian demi-saints.

The sovereignty of the order, in hereditary possession of the House of Burgundy, was, in default of a male heir, destined for the husband of the heiress of the Duchy until the majority of her son. In 1477, the Grand Mastership passed, therefore, to the House of Habsburg following the marriage of Mary, daughter of Charles the Bold, last Duke of Burgundy, to Archduke (later Emperor) Maximilian of Austria. Following the marriage of Joan (Juana) the Mad of Castille and Aragon with Archduke Phillip of Austria (son of Maximilian and Mary), control of the order passed in 1516 to the Spanish branch ot the House of Habsburg. At that time the Order was enlarged by 10 places for Spanish members, clearly indicating the Habsburgs long-term plans for Spain in their patrimony. The first Spanish investisure came in 1519, the year of Charles' accession. Charles V (I), son of Phillip, willed the Grand Mastership of the order along with the throne of Spain to his son, Phillip II, after having, in 1521, ceded his Austrian possessions to his brother Ferdinand I. This last act was very important years later when both Austria and Spain claimed the order.

In 1700, the last of the Spanish Habsburgs, Charles II, designated as his heir his grand-nephew, Phillip of France, Duke of Anjou, grandson of Louis XV, who became Phillip V (a designation that led to the War of the Spanish Succession). The legitimate Sovereign Heads of the order, Phillip V and Ferdinand VI, united the Golden Fleece to the Crown of Spain, the Duchy of Burgundy existing only in theory, having been annexed by France in the reign of Louis XI.

However, in 1712, the Head of the House of Austria reclaimed the order, together with the Spanish crown, appropriated the treasury of the order, and proclaimed himself Soverign Head. The treasury was later brought to Vienna from Bruges when threatened by French revolutionaries (where it remains to this day). Since 1712, therefore, there have been two Orders of the Golden Fleece, the one being confered by the Austrian Monarch, the other by the Spanish Monarch, and each contesting the legitimacy of the other.

Official language. French (originally "Our noble Burgundian French"). Still used by the Archduke Otto, whereas Spanish is the official language used by King Juan Carlos.

Austrian Order. It has preserved the original statutes: ritual admission with dubbing by sword and solemn oath. Since the end of the monarchy (1918), Emperor Charles I (1887-1922), then his son, Otto von Habsburg, as Sovereign Heads, have continued to confer the order. It was recognized as a Habsburg family order by the Austrian Republic by decree of 8 September, 1953.

Spanish Order. Originally recognized only by France, it became a civil royal order by decrees of 1847 and 1851, and has even been accorded to non-Catholics: Soverigns and Princes of: Russia, Great-Britain (also to the Duke of Wellington), Germany, Japan, Turkey, as well as to non-nobles, such as the President of the French Republic, Gaston Doumergue (a Protestant). After the fall of the Spanish monarchy (1931), and until his death, Alphonso XIII (1886-1941) did not make a single nomination. Since 1951, his son, the Count of Barcelona, head of the Royal House of Spain, confered it on six individuals of royal blood. After the Count renounced his rights, King Juan Carlos named several Spaniards and several foreign soverigns.

Origins of the Golden Fleece Symbol

The choice of the symbol of the Golden Fleece for a Burgundian order is both interesting and a sign of contemporary fashion. As the orders of knighthood proliferated in the later Middle Ages both the knights and the rulers who created the orders looked to the great and noble warriors of the past for inspiration and as a role model to follow. Despite the mean and vicious nature of Medieval warfare, the knights professed the most noble and gentle civilitiy towards women and the oppressed. Starting in the late 13th century and beginning in Italy, there was a rediscovery of the ancient histories and myths and a revival of the "Anticha" style in everything, at least in so far as the Medieval mind could understand it. There was also a great fascination with that which was distant, romantic and obscure. It is in this context that we must consider the use of Jason's Golden Fleece as a symbol.

Philipp the Good, Duke of Burgundy, was one of the most cultured and well off of all the Medieval lords, and as such he was from an early age exposed to the literature of the past and of romantic fashion. The crusades were just over and the Holy Land lay firmly in the hands of the Islamic infidels, and we know that Philipp desired to go on crusade all his life even though his responsibilities forbade it. In the East lay the golden land of Christ and the apostles, the home of man and the Garden of Eden, and all the great mysteries and riches of the little known east that the crusaders, Marco Polo and many others brought tales of. It is clear from the icon of Jason on the early Golden Fleece insignia that the daring voyage of the Argo to bring back the sacred Golden Fleece from the edge of man's known world touched Philipp deeply and helped inspire his dreams. The Argonauts were few in number, carefully selected for their nobility and talents and dedicated to the most noble of causes that also held religious and humanitarian importance. It is these values that we see in the statutes of the Order of the Golden Fleece.

There also seem to be some immediate reminders of Jason and the voyage to Colchis in the time of Philipp's youth. Colchis was in the realm of the Trebizond Empire of the Comnena family, whose rule at Byzantium was terminated by the Latin Fourth Crusade -- that perverted venture of 1204 which the Venetians turned from freeing the Holy Land to looting the Christian Byzantine Empire that was Europe's bulwark against the march of Islam. From this time western Europeans had a much more keen knowledge of the East, its places and its mysteries, and Latin kingdoms remained in Greece until the Turkish conquest. Both from moving closer to Trebizond, and from its place as the trade entrepot of the northern trade routes from Persia, the distant city and Empire entered the world and thoughts of Medieval Europe.

Traders and envoys alike journied through there, and in its later years the powerful Genoese and Venetian fleets established bases and trade centers in the domains of Trebizond. Beside the many official records of Trebizond kept in Genoa and Venice a number of such travelers left accounts that became known to the educated nobility of Europe. These include:
We might well expect that these "news" items helped bring the journey of Jason to Philipp's mind and suggest its connection with his new, wool-rich domains in the low countries with their busy sea ports. It has likely been the slender corpus of knowledge about the Empire of Trebizond that has caused its influence in Medieval thought to be left out of scholarly histories, and its actual role in late medieval thought has long been underestimated. In fact, it seems fairly clear that this is a significant element in the origins of the Order of the Golden Fleece.

For the history of Trebizond as we know there are only two good works in English.
Finlay, History of Greece, IV, 305-439, Oxford, 1877. Although a major work for its time it is now showing its age and does not reflect the last 125 years of scholarship.
Miller, William, Trebizond: The Last Greek Empire of the Byzantine Era, 2nd revised edition, Chicago, 1969. This revision of the original 1926 edition by Anastasius C. Bandy updates the bibliography to 1968 and provides a useful introduction.

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