The Order of the Golden Fleece (Spanish: Orden del Toisón de Oro, German: Orden vom Goldenen Vlies) is a Roman Catholic order of chivalry founded in Bruges by the Burgundian duke Philip the Good in 1430, to celebrate his marriage to the Portuguese princess Isabella. Today, two branches of the Order exist, namely the Spanish and the Austrian Fleece; the current grand masters are Felipe VI, King of Spain, and Karl von Habsburg, grandson of Emperor Charles I of Austria, respectively.
Having had only 1,200 recipients ever since its establishment, the Spanish Order of the Golden Fleece has been referred to as the most prestigious and exclusive order of chivalry in the world, both historically and contemporaneously. Unlike any other distinction, the Golden Fleece is only granted for life, meaning it must be returned to the Spanish Monarch whenever the recipient deceases.
The Order of the Golden Fleece was established on 10 January 1430, by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, in celebration of the prosperous and wealthy domains united in his person that ran from Flanders to Switzerland. It is restricted to a limited number of knights, initially 24 but increased to 30 in 1433, and 50 in 1516, plus the sovereign. It received further privileges unusual to any order of knighthood: the sovereign undertook to consult the order before going to war; all disputes between the knights were to be settled by the order; at each chapter the deeds of each knight were held in review, and punishments and admonitions were dealt out to offenders, and to this the sovereign was expressly subject; the knights could claim as of right to be tried by their fellows on charges of rebellion, heresy and treason, and Charles V conferred on the order exclusive jurisdiction over all crimes committed by the knights; the arrest of the offender had to be by warrant signed by at least six knights, and during the process of charge and trial he remained not in prison but in the gentle custody of his fellow knights. The order, conceived in an ecclesiastical spirit in which mass and obsequies were prominent and the knights were seated in choirstalls like canons, was explicitly denied to heretics, and so became an exclusively Catholic honour during the Reformation. The officers of the order were the chancellor, the treasurer, the registrar, and the King of Arms, or herald, Toison d’Or.
A golden ram is placed in the lower part of the collar that the knights of the order receive. With the election of the ram, the Duke of Burgundy wanted to allude to the legend of the Golden Fleece of Jason in the ship Argo. In Greek mythology, the Golden Fleece is the fleece of the golden-woolled, winged ram, which was held in Colchis. The fleece is a symbol of authority and kingship.
It figures in the tale of the hero Jason and his crew of Argonauts, who set out on a quest for the fleece by order of King Pelias, in order to place Jason rightfully on the throne of Iolcus in Thessaly. Through the help of Medea, they acquired the Golden Fleece. The story is of great antiquity and was current in the time of Homer (eighth century BC). It survives in various forms, among which the details vary.
The links of the collar of the Grand Master have inscribed letter B, alluding Burgundy, and between the links, flames, symbol of Prometheus, last guardian of the fleece, as well as the symbol that appears in the badge of the Duke, inscribed with the motto: “Ante ferit quam flamma micet” (“Hurt before the flame is seen”).
The choice of the Golden Fleece of Colchis as the symbol of a Christian order caused some controversy, not so much because of its pagan context, which could be incorporated in chivalric ideals, as in the Nine Worthies, but because the feats of Jason, familiar to all, were not without causes of reproach, expressed in anti-Burgundian terms by Alain Chartier in his Ballade de Fougères referring to Jason as “Who, to carry off the fleece of Colchis, was willing to commit perjury.” The bishop of Châlons, chancellor of the Order, rescued the fleece’s reputation by identifying it instead with the fleece of Gideon that received the dew of Heaven.