The Aldenhaag Golden Fleece of 1509–1559

Stephen Herold, Ph.C., O.B.C.
(With the assistance of Vincent van Vilsteren, Archaeological Curator at the Drents Museum)

IN our work to discover the history of the Golden Fleece we have been fortunate to identify some with their original owners, most noteworthy the Schwarzenbergs and the King of Bavaria. Now we have another, far older and rarer, fleece whose discovery reads like a treasure hunt adventure. We will tell the story in five chapters, with appendices and bibliography: the discovery of the fleece, a brief history of the villages of Thedinghsweert & Zoelen that are associated with it, the history we have found about this magnificent fleece of the van Egmond family, a study of Charles V and this form of fleece and supporting documentation. Note that although in our pages on the Golden Fleece we generally use the Burgundian French names of knights, here we use the Dutch version as the Egmonds would have then. Please note some inconsistency with Dutch names as there appear to be variant spellings used.

The fleece was on display in a show at the Drents Museum from March 6 to August 16, 2010 along with a collection of gold from the ancient Colchis, home of the original Golden Fleece, and is published in the show catalog that is still available from the museum.

I. Willem’s Picnic Discovery

In the late 1960s Willem H. van Duijn (seen at left) enrolled in the Biologisch Dynamische school, Warmonderhof to study organic and sustainable farming practices. Such organic techniques that avoid the use of industrial chemicals and pesticides were taken up years ago in the Netherlands, a rich agricultural country whose watery land and small area are especially threatened by chemical buildup. Being at the mouth of the Rhine, one of the most polluted rivers on earth, makes this concern even more important.

In 1971 the school moved into the Manor House in the tiny hamlet of Thedinghsweert in South Gelderland, in the middle of the Netherlands. After settling in, the students began the walking exploration of the region around Thedinghsweert, now a suburb of the city of Tiel which is only a kilometer or so away. On one of these walks around their new home they stopped near some ancient ruins. This area had been thickly settled since the Middle Ages, and a number of surviving and ruined buildings are still found across the landscape. While there Willem noticed a small object sticking from the ground, which he quickly dug out. It turned out to be a dirty, but somewhat shiny metal ram. We can see in the picture above where his knife cut into the metal ring at the top (at about 2 o’clock position).

Finding a keepsake on an walking trip made the day even more special, and Willem kept the small fleece for the rest of his life. Although its meaning was considered there was no attempt to do historical sleuthing into its origins or why it was buried there. Willem died in 1992 and the fleece was inherited by his brother Dick. Dick thoroughly cleaned the fleece, and reports that it was very dirty and encrusted so he had to brush it very firmly. Although it was dirty, he also noted that there was no green corrosion from bronze or copper despite over 400 years in the ground.

Research by the Drents Museum into the finding of this fleece, including talking to several of van Duijn’s friends who were there, now indicates that although they lived in Thedinghsweert they more often had their walks near another nearby castle at Zoelen, only some 2.5 km away from Thedinghsweert. The Zoelen “castle” is now actually a Renaissance-Reformation estate house built in front of the ruins of a much older motte and bailey castle that is called Aldenhaag, which likely dates from the 1263 first mention of the castle. Although this region has many old castles, Zoelen-Aldenhaag was owned by a member of the Golden Fleece in the late 16th century named Claes Vijgh who was supposedly appointed in 1559 for his strong support of the policies of Philip II. This makes him a likely owner of the fleece.

Dick van Duijn contacted the Confrerie for help in identification, and we determined by examination:

This was a genuine and very old style fleece peculiar to the Low Countries, and later taken to Spain and Portugal, in the time of Charles V. An early version of the style is seen in a painting of Charles the Rash where the fleece is fairly solid bodied and upright (seen just below, left). It is seen fully developed in a Flemish sculpture of the young Charles V in 1522 (seen just below, center and right), and by mid century was obsolete. Unlike the later fleeces, whose pinched middle shows that they are a mere skin of gold, these early ones are almost a standing live animal held by a hoisting belt (seen just below, right). Their feet extend straight down, ready to stand when they touch ground.


That it was of a massive form typically worn both with armor or in daily use from a red ribbon, and the cast ring at the top shows a groove from exactly such a ribbon ring. The usage of the fleece determines the design of the top attachment; for collars and bijous the top ring opens fore and aft to permit attachment, from a ribbon it is a closed loop and usually inline. Of note is that the front of the fleece has a decorative dome at the base of the ring that is lacking in the back, despite the full three-dimensionality of the fleece. The fleece weighs 50 grams and is 5 cm across, making it middle sized of the five known examples. With only five copies now known it is a very rare version of the fleece. Known examples are discussed below.

This front side is very fully sculptured, and is one of the highest quality ancient fleeces I have seen; the back is much worn smooth from use and a bit flatter in profile. Certainly proof the fleece was worn a great deal. But to whom did it belong? and why was it there, intact in tiny Thedinghsweert or Aldenhaag?

 

The Standing Ram Form of Golden Fleece

In the early days of the Golden Fleece there was much local variation since there were no absolute design standards, and this was especially so in personal wearing copies as here. Since sheep were much better known than their hanging skins the Low Countries created a version of the fleece that resembled a solid, living ram rather than his empty skin. This is referred to here as the “standing ram” form of the fleece. It was taken to Spain by the entourage of Charles V, but was obsolete everywhere by the early 17th century, and the fleece then lost weight until it became an empty skin again. A more thorough examination of the history of the standing ram fleece and its use in art can be seen on the Standing Ram Fleece & Charles V page.

The oldest known one is in Munich at the Bayarische National Museum (No. 338), likely late 15th or beginning of 16th century, bronze gilt and very worn and battered from use. It is 9 cm wide and seems not well carved even when new. This fleece looks like it is still grazing grass. Below left.

Another magnificent 16th century 7.2 cm example in gold was in the Spada collection (Volume III, p. 242-245) and is likely lost forever with its theft and probable melting down. Some of the missing Spada items may have been seen since and so this fine fleece may yet turn up again. Below second from left.

The third is a 4.3 cm 17th century Hispanic bronze-gilt example discussed on the Confrérie Amicale Symbols page. Below third from left.

The fourth was a late, mid-18th century gold Austrian example, perhaps 3.5 to 4 cm, found in a 1990s catalog. Note that although the ram is “standing” and solid it is pinched in the middle. Below far right.

The fifth is the van Egmond or Claes Vijgh fleece from Aldenhaag: Below, from left to right: Front of the fleece, back of the fleece, close up of the head of the ram – you can see the wear and polishing of highlight areas from use. Note also the different designs to the base of the ring.

 

Of five examples known 20 years ago one is already lost.


Introduction To The Aldenhaag Fleece

II. The Hamlets of Thedinghsweert & Zoelen-Aldedhaag

III. The van Egmonds, Claes Vijgh & The Golden Fleece

IV. The Standing Ram Fleece & Charles V

V. Documentation & Photos

     VB. Documentation & Photos II

Appendix 1. The Standing Ram Fleece As Seen in the Insignie Orden Book & Other Catalogs

Appendix 2. Other Scholars Look At the Aldenhaag Fleece

Appendix 3. Greek & Roman Mythology of the Golden Fleece

     3B. Classical Texts That Mention the Golden Fleece

May 2010 Meeting on the Aldenhaag Fleece 1. The Places

May 2010 Meeting on the Aldenhaag Fleece 2. The Fleece

Bibliography


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