Order of the Golden Fleece

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The Order of the Golden Fleece (Ordre de la Toison d'Or in French) is an order of chivalry founded in 1430 by Duke Philip III of Burgundy to celebrate his marriage to the Portuguese princess Isabelle of Aviz

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Neck Chain of a Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece, shown in the Schatzkammer in Vienna, Austria.

It was modelled on the English Order of the Garter (Philip had been elected to membership of the Garter in 1422, but had declined to avoid offending the king of France), but dedicated to Saint Andrew. Like the Garter it was restricted to a limited number of knights, initially 24 but increased to 30 in 1433 and 51 in 1516. The order was explicitly denied to "heretics", and so became an exclusively Catholic award during the Reformation, though the choice of the pagan Golden Fleece of Colchis as the symbol of a Christian order caused some controversy.

The badge of the Order was suspended from a jewelled collar with the motto "Pretium Laborum Non Vile" ("Not a bad reward for labor") engraved on the front of the central link, with Philip's motto "Non Aliud" ("I will have no other") on the back.

With the absorption of the Burgundian lands into the Habsburg empire, the sovereignty of the Order passed to the Habsburg kings of Spain, where it remained until the death of the last of the Spanish Habsburgs, Charles II, in 1700. He was succeeded by Philip of Anjou, a Bourbon.

There followed a dispute between the Houses of Habsburg and Bourbon over sovereignty, which was resolved by the division of the Order into Spanish and Austrian branches.

The Spanish Order

The Spanish Order of the Fleece has been a source of controversy in the past, particularly during the Napoleonic period. The award of the Order to Napoleon and his brother Joseph angered the exiled king of France Louis XVIII and caused him to return his collar in protest. These, and other awards by Joseph, were revoked by king Ferdinand on the restoration of Bourbon rule in 1813.

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The Duke of Wellington wearing the Fleece

In 1812 the acting government of Spain illegally awarded the order to the Duke of Wellington, an act confirmed by Ferdinand on his resumption of power, with the approval of the pope. Wellington therefore became the first Protestant to be awarded the Fleece. It has subsequently also been awarded to Orthodox Christians.

There was another crisis in 1833 when Isabella II became Queen of Spain in defiance of Salic Law. Her right to award the Fleece was challenged by Carlists and the prestige of the Order inevitably suffered due to the political controversies of the period.

Sovereignty remained with the head of the Spanish house of Bourbon during the republican (1931-39) and Francoist (1939-1975) periods and is held today by the present king of Spain, Juan Carlos.

The Austrian Order

The Austrian Order did not suffer from the political difficulties of the Spanish, remaining an award solely for Catholic royals and nobles. The problem of female inheritance was avoided on the accession of Maria Theresa in 1740 as sovereignty of the Order passed not to herself but to her husband, Francis.

On the collapse of the Austrian monarchy after World War I the king of Belgium requested that the Sovereignty and treasure of the Order be transferred to him as the ruler of the formerly Habsburg lands of Burgundy. This claim was seriously considered by the victorious allies at Versailles but was eventually rejected due to the intervention of the king of Spain, who took possession of the property of the Order on behalf of the dethroned emperor Karl. Sovereignty remains with the head of the house of Habsburg, presently Otto.

See also

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de:Orden vom Goldenen Vlies nl:Orde van het Gulden Vlies

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