One of the most ancient, prestigious and best-known European orders of chivalry – the Order of the Golden Fleece – was founded by Philip III, Duke of Burgundy, in Bruges in 1430. Income from his important ports and affluent estates in the Low Countries made Philip one of the wealthiest rulers of late medieval Europe, and the vibrant and flamboyant cultural life in his court reflected the Duke’s aspirations to attain a royal crown.
The Order of the Golden Fleece was intended to “outshine” the prominent Order of the Garter of the English kings and largely imitated it. Like the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Golden Fleece was also limited to 24 Knights, it had similar statutes and even an analogous innuendo linked to its name. The story goes that Philip was once smitten by the sight of his mistress, who he saw sitting naked in front of a mirror, on a stool covered with a sheep fleece. The Duke proclaimed the fleece she was sitting on golden and named his order accordingly.
In reality, the Order was named after the legendary artefact of Ancient Greek myths. Jason and his Argonauts pursued the fleece that, in a sense, was a symbol of legitimate kingship – Duke Philip also wished to be elevated to royal status. Much controversy surrounded the name, however, as it not only tied the Order to a pagan symbol, but also to a hero, with questionable morals, willing to commit perjury to achieve his goal. The Bishop of Nevers found a way out of this situation by proclaiming the fleece to be Gideon’s, from the Old Testament.
Duke Phillip’s dynastic line, however, went extinct later in the 15th century and Burgundian lands were inherited by the House of Habsburg. Since the Austrian Habsburgs became rulers of many domains all over Europe – mostly through marriages (‘Let others wage war, you – happy Austria – marry!’, as was said) – the Order of the Golden Fleece developed into a primary order of both Spain and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the beginning of the 18th century, it was divided into two separate branches as a result of dynastic developments.
Following the collapse of the Austrian monarchy after WWI, the sovereignty of the Austrian branch of the Order of the Golden Fleece remained with the House of Hapsburg. The Austrian order has retained its exclusive aristocratic and religious character and is only granted to members of royal families who profess the Catholic faith. The Spanish order is still granted by the King of Spain. It is now an order of merit and awarded to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The Order’s mottoes are Pretium Laborum Non Vile (not a bad reward for labour) and Non Aliud (no other).