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The Order of the Golden Fleece

Millefleur tapestry, Brussels (?), ca. 1466 © Bernisches Historisches Museum, Bern, photo Stefan Rebsamen

During the rule of the Burgundians, over five hundred years ago, a significant new knighthood emerged, the Order of the Golden Fleece.

Traces have been preserved both in Bruges and in various other places in Europe of this exclusive organisation, which still exists today.

This e-exhibition relates the history of the order by means of some special works of art, objects, and documents.

The foundation of a new order

Philip the Good founded the Order of the Golden Fleece in Bruges on 10 January 1430, the last day of the festivities of his marriage to Isabella of Portugal.

The painter Albrecht De Vriendt immortalised this historic moment over 450 years later on one of the mural paintings in Bruges city hall. The wedding couple are seated at the back on the throne with the canopy. The knights are clothed in their typical red vestments. De Vriendt paints in a neo-Gothic style, drawing inspiration from the 15th century art of the ‘Flemish primitives’.

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Albrecht De Vriendt, `The Institution of the Order of the Golden Fleece', 1895-1900, mural en el 'Gothic Hall' del Ayuntamiento de Brujas, Musea Brugge © www.lukasweb.be, Photo: Dominique Provost
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Copy after Rogier van de Weyden, 'Portrait of Philip the Good', second half of the 15th century, Musea Brugge© www.lukasweb.be

A select company

Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, appointed himself as head of the new order in 1430. In his portrait, which is on display in the Groeningemuseum, he is depicted wearing the necklace of the order.

Apart from the duke, the order comprised four other officers: a treasurer, a master-at-arms, a chancellor, and a registrar. Then there were twenty-four knights. That number was increased later, but it remained limited. The members joined the order for life unless they violated the rules of the order. Only the noble elite were eligible for the much coveted membership. This was how the duke endeavoured to strengthen his links with the nobility and increase his power.

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Cross of the Order of the Golden Fleece, cross: ca. 1400, standard: ca. 1453-1467, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna © KHM-Museumsverband

Religious values …

Although the elite society certainly had a political function, their religious function was at least equally important. Religious values were fundamental, apart from loyalty to the duke and chivalrous virtues. Members of the order had to swear loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church and commit themselves to maintaining the faith.

Even today, new knights and officers swear the oath before the so called ‘Schwurkreuz’ (Oath Cross), which is kept in the Art History Museum in Vienna. This is a simply designed golden cross, set with precious stones (sapphires, rubies, and pearls). The cross itself dates from around 1400. The standard was completely renewed between 1453 and 1467 by order of Philip the Good. Amongst other things, he had his weapon and insignia engraved on it. In the central section of the cross he put away a splinter from the sacred cross, whereby it became a relic cross.

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View from the oratory of Lodewijk van Gruuthuse on the coat of arms of the order knights above the choir stalls in the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk in Bruges (in the centre the coat of arms of Lodewijk van Gruuthuse), Musea Brugge © www.lukasweb.be, photo: Dominique Provost

… And Religious privileges

The Order of the Golden Fleece is recognised by the pope and is granted papal privileges. For instance, it is permissible to celebrate a holy mass around the sickbed of a knight from the order.

The meetings, the so called chapter meetings, last for several days and include services of worship. During mass, order members are seated in the choir stalls, something normally reserved strictly for the clergy. Even today, in a number of churches where chapter meetings once took place, you still see the coat of arms of the knights above the choir stalls. Such coats of arms can be found in Bruges in the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady) and the Sint-Salvatorskathedraal (St Saviour’s Cathedral). They serve as reminders of the respective meetings in 1468 and 1478. However, you also find such coats of arms above the choir stalls in Ghent, Mechelen, and Barcelona, for instance.


Its own rule of law

Another remarkable privilege which members of the order enjoy is that they cannot be prosecuted by a secular law court anywhere in the world. Jurisprudence within the order has priority. This means that ultimate power lies with the sovereign of the order, who ensures observance of Christian values, but also moral and ethical values which all members have endorsed via their oath. At chapter meetings members can be called to account for their deeds. However, this did not take account of the creativity of certain sovereigns. For instance, it is absolutely clear that Philip II acted in direct contravention of the Order of the Golden Fleece rules when he ordered the prosecutions of the Counts of Egmond and Hoorne in 1568. As head of the order, Philip II simply organised no further chapter meetings so that he could not be called to account for those actions.

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Chapter meeting of the Order of the Golden Fleece, out: Surroundings of the Master of Wavrin of London, 'Statutes and Armorial of the Order of the Golden Fleece', Bruges, 1481-1486 © The British Library Board, Harley ms. 6199, f. 7r
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Karel de Stoute in het ornaat van het Gulden Vlies, uit: Omgeving van de Meester van Wavrin van Londen, ‘Statuten en Armoriaal van de Orde van het Gulden Vlies’, Brugge, 1481-1486 © The British Library Board, Harley ms. 6199, f. 69r

Ceremonial outfits

During chapter meetings, members wear ceremonial outfits and insignia. There is a different dress code for each occasion. The ecclesiastical ceremonies are spread over three days. On the first day, the feast day of Andrew (30 November), Patron Saint of Burgundy and patron of the order, a mass is celebrated for this saint. The members of the order wear red vestments on that day. On the second day, the order remembers deceased members, so the members dress in black mourning clothes. During the third day, a celebratory mass is celebrated in honour of Mary, also a patron of the order, and members wear red and white.

The clothing worn by the order members is known via descriptions and via images in documents such as manuscripts. The miniature with the portrait of Charles the Bold in the regalia of the Golden Fleece comes from a manuscript with the statutes and armorial bearings of the Order of the Golden Fleece. The portrait was made after his death and shows few similarities with the official portraits which were painted during his lifetime.

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'‘The mystical marriage of Saint Catherine with the Christ Child', central representation on the front of the antependium of the Burgundian Parament, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna © KHM-Museumsverband

Religious textile

During chapter meetings, church buildings are furnished with expensive tapestries displaying the emblems of the order. The clergy who are present wear stunning robes.

An impressive liturgical ensemble from the 15th century are the so called ‘Paraments of the Order of the Golden Fleece’. Paraments are textile items which serve as adornment of an altar or clothing for the clergy. The eight Paraments of the Order of the Golden Fleece together form a complete set of equipment for a celebratory high mass in the Roman Catholic Church. The Paraments are of high quality and are embroidered with precious materials such as gold and silk.

This is a fragment from an altar cloth with the presentation of ‘The mystical marriage of St Catherine’. The edges of the cloth are highlighted with real pearls. The crowns of Mary and Catherine are also set with pearls and with coloured glass stones.

The Paraments formed a highlight in 15th century textile art. The details and development equate to painting from that time. The components were made by order of Philip the Good and were later donated to the order.

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Millefleur tapestry, Brussels (?), ca. 1466 © Bernisches Historisches Museum, Bern, photo Stefan Rebsamen


The entire city got dressed up for festive processions between the Burgundian palace where the meetings took place and the church where masses were celebrated. The palace walls were decorated with tapestries. They were extremely expensive and showed off the owner’s wealth and power.

The ‘Mille-fleur’ (literally ‘thousand flowers’) with the heraldic emblems of Philip the Good is unique because we certainly know who the owner was. It is a so called ‘verdure’ i.e. a flower tapestry. In contrast to many other tapestries, this one does not visualise a story, but simply shows a sea of flowers. The seeming simplicity of the subject does not mean that this tapestry is inferior. On the contrary, the fine and complex flower patterns require great traditional craftsmanship from the makers, who, moreover, processed extremely expensive materials such as gold and silk.

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ante ferit, quam flamma micet

(first the stroke, then the flames), Motto of Philip the Good
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Order chain of the Golden Fleece, Burgundian Netherlands, third quarter of the 15th century, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna © KHM-Museumsverband

The symbolism of a special necklace

The symbol of the order is a ram’s fleece with head and feet which hangs on a necklace through a ring. The necklace itself consists of fire stones and fire strikers. A fire striker is an iron rod with curled tips to make it easier to hold. Sparks are created by striking a fire striker with the straight side against a fire stone. If the sparks come into contact with slightly inflammable material (tinder), it is possible to light a fire. Fire stone and a fire striker together form the emblem of Philip the Good and, therefore, of the Burgundians.

The order necklace from Vienna is the only one from the 15th century which has been preserved. It is remarkable for its specific structure of separate loose elements. The curled tips of the fire strikers hook into each other. They form a unity only if all parts are connected and they undergo equal traction. The necklace therefore symbolises ideas of brotherhood and togetherness within the order.

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Jason's fight with the bulls, from: Publius Ovidius Naso, Colard Mansion, 'Metamorphosis', 1484 © Bruges, Public Library, Inc. 3877, f. 175r.

A mysterious name

Much has been written about the source of the Order of the Golden Fleece’s name. One far-fetched account is the allusion to the red hair of Philip the Good’s wife, Isabella of Portugal. Another story relates to the blond hair of Mary van Crombrugghe, the most well known of his twenty-four mistresses.

A more obvious answer is the reference to Jason, a hero from ancient Greek mythology. With his ship the Argo, he led a group of men, the Argonauts, to Colchis, where he had to capture the golden fleece, the skin of a ram. Thanks to the help of Medea, Jason accomplishes his mission. The Roman poet Ovid wrote down the story in his ‘Metamorphoses’. The incunabulum of the Bruges printer Colard Mansion, kept in the Biekorf Public Library in Bruges, shows a wood carving of the fight between Jason and the bulls, one of his assignments in order to obtain the golden fleece.

The myth played an important part in life at the Burgundian Court from the end of the 14th century. The hero tales of Jason and the Argonauts fitted in with a new form of chivalry which the Order of the Golden Fleece adopted.

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Personification of Justice, from: Guillaume Fillastre, 'Histoire de la Toison d'Or', second volume, ca. 1472 © KBR, ms. 9028, f. 14v

The justification of the name

Due to the strong Christian impact of the order, the members later searched in the Bible for references to a ‘fleece’. Amongst other things, they found one in the Old Testament history of Gideon, who was given a sign from God via the appearance of dew on a fleece of wool (Judges 6v37).

Guillaume Fillastre was the second chancellor of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Under Charles the Bold he wrote a work about the virtues of the order. It was to become six parts, always with one of the six ‘fleeces’ in the middle.: that from Greek mythology and the five from the Old Testament (Judges 6v34-38; Genesis 30v32; 2 Kings 3v4; Job 31v20, and Psalm 72/71v6). Fillastre could only finish three parts. The first part was about the virtue of ‘courage’ and covers the story of Jason and the Argonauts.

The second part is dedicated to Jacob’s fleece and is about the virtue of ‘righteousness’. This miniature presents the personification of righteousness via the mythical figure of Paris. The shepherd’s staff stands for uprightness in justice.

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Fragment of a tile found during excavations on the site Prinsenhof in Bruges © Raakvlak

Witnesses from the soil

The Dukes of Burgundy did not have a permanent residence. As was customary for other European courts during the late Middle Ages, they led a nomadic life, roaming from one palace to another. The most commonly visited residences were the Coudenberg Palace in Brussels, the Hof ten Walle in Ghent, and the Rihour Palace in Lille. In Bruges, the Burgundians stayed at the Prinsenhof.

Excavations at the Prinsenhof have brought several remnants from the Burgundian period to the surface. Remarkable findings include some green glazed tiles. The tiles come originally from tiled stoves which served not only as heating, but also as decoration in the room. Only the richest could afford that type of stove. They are embellished with heraldic floral patterns, animals, and such like. Some tiles from the Prinsenhof bear the depiction of a two-headed eagle, the symbol of the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Moreover, one of them is encircled by the necklace of the Golden Fleece. The combination of those symbols can refer only to two rulers, namely Maximilian of Austria or Charles V. One of those two leaders probably had the stove built, of which this fragment is a part.

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Master of the royal portraits, 'Portrait of Louis of Gruuthuse', ca. 1472-1482, Musea Brugge © www.lukasweb.be, photo: Dominique Provost

Louis of Gruuthuse

Louis of Gruuthuse built an impressive political career. Apart from being adviser to Philip the Good and Charles the Bold, he was governor of Zeeland, Holland, and Friesland. In 1472, the English King Edward IV appointed him as Count of Winchester. He renovated his grandfather’s palace, which is still known today as the Gruuthuse palace, and connected it to the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady) next to it. There he assembled the most important collection of books in Flanders.

In 1461, Louis of Gruuthuse became a Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece. His portrait, painted by the Master of the Royal Portraits, is on show in his palace, the Gruuthusemuseum. The portrait shows him holding a rosary. The order necklace is depicted twice: He is wearing it around his neck and it encircles his coat of arms, between his motto, on the original frame of the painting.

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Tomb of Charles the Bold in the Church of Our Lady, Jacob Jonghelinx, 1558-1562, Musea Brugge © www.lukasweb.be, photo: Dominique Provost

An order of Burgundians

The Order of the Golden Fleece is led by the heirs of the Burgundian dukes. The first leader or sovereign was the founder, Philip the Good.

After the death of his son, Charles the Bold, his daughter and heiress Mary of Burgundy married Maximilian of Austria. And so, the sovereignty of the order passed over to the Habsburgs, who continued to use the title ‘Duke of Burgundy’.

In the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady) in Bruges you can see the tomb of Charles the Bold, which is made of marble and gilt bronze. It is half a century younger than the tomb of his daughter, Mary of Burgundy, which is next to it. Charles the Bold’s tomb is inspired by that of his daughter and is partly Gothic in style, but it also includes renaissance elements. The duke is depicted lying down and is wearing the necklace. Next to the tomb we see the choir stalls with the knights’ coat of arms above them, which serve as a memorial to the chapter meeting of 1468. Charles the Bold’s coat of arms is the first one in the row.

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François Gérard,'Joseph Bonaparte at the koning of Spain', ca. 1808, National Museum of the Château de Fontainebleau. François Gérard creator QS:P170,Q163543, Joseph Bonaparte - Chateau de Versailles, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

The division of the order

When Charles II passed away in Spain in 1700, the Habsburg dynasty came to an end and the War of Spanish Succession broke out. Both the Roman-German Emperor Charles VI, Archduke of Austria, and King Philip V of Spain claimed the succession of Charles II and adopted the titles. From then onwards, the Order of the Golden Fleece was divided into an Austrian Order and a Spanish Order. Both of them still exist today.

The Austrian Order possesses the records and the old insignia, and continues to adhere to the original statutes. The Spanish Order has accepted new regulations. For instance, since the rule of Joseph Bonaparte (the elder brother of Napoleon), the order has also admitted protestants. And so, the Spanish branch is no longer a spiritual order, but an order of merit. This means, for instance, that members of the Dutch royal family can become members, such as Queen Beatrix. King Albert II of Belgium is even a Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece in both branches.

Further reading

Het Gulden Vlies. Vijf eeuwen kunst en geschiedenis, Brugge, 1962.

H. Fillitz (red.), Schatten van het Gulden Vlies, Brussel, 1987.

B. Hillewaert & E. Van Besien (reds.), Het Prinsenhof in Brugge, Brugge, 2007.

P. Houart & M. Benoît-Jeannin, Histoire de la Toison d’Or. La prodigieuse aventure d’un ordre éblouissant, de Philippe le Bon à nos jours, Brussel, 2006.

H. Kervyn de Lettenhove, La Toison d'Or. Notes sur l'institution et l'histoire de l'Ordre, depuis l'année 1429 jusqu'à l'année 1559, Brussel, 1907.

S. Marti, T.-H. Borchert & G. Keck (reds.), Karel de Stoute (1433-1477). Pracht en praal in Bourgondië, Bern/Brussel, 2009.

A. van Oosterwijk (red.), Staging the Court of Burgundy. Proceedings of the Conference ‘The Splendour of Burgundy’, Londen/Turnhout, 2013.

M. Verkest, In en om de tentoonstelling van het Gulden Vlies, Tongeren, 1907-1908.