The Spanish Order of the Golden Fleece[30]



© Guy Stair Sainty

The succession of Philip V of Spain to the Sovereignty of the Golden Fleece was at first unchallenged by the Habsburgs but after the death of the Emperor in 1712, his younger brother and heir, the Archduke Charles begun to make awards of the Order. The new Spanish King had acknowledged the appointments to the Golden Fleece made by his Habsburg rival before before 1713, but did not accept the latter's pretensions to Sovereignty. Several attempts were made by the Spanish to recover the Order's treasure but without success, and since then it has been divided into two distinct institutions.

Some writers have suggested that Louis XIV's decision in 1711 to change the system of succession to French ducal titles which allowed mixed male and female succession by limiting their succession exclusively to males, included the Duchy of Burgundy and, therefore, the Golden Fleece. [31] The succession to those parts of the Burgundian inheritance which were not part of the French Duché-Pairie, notably the Sovereignty of the Golden Fleece, could not be included in this decree, however, as one writer has proposed. [32] In French law the original Duché-Pairie had long reverted to the Crown and, even if the decree of 1711 could have been applied, the only Duke-Peer of Burgundy in French law was the eldest son of the Grand Dauphin, the father of the future Louis XV. Louis XIV's new law could not be extended to successions outside the apanage of the French Crown and, indeed, no attempt was made to assert any rights over the Golden Fleece on the part of the French who immediately recognized Philip as Sovereign.

In 1724, Philip V abdicated the Spanish Crown to his eldest son Luis. The serious illness of Louis XV had made Philip's own succession to the French Crown an imminent possibility so, at the same time, he declared that the Sovereignty of the Golden Fleece was irrevocably united with the Spanish Crown. This legality of this act has been questioned but, as it did not deprive any living person with an immediate existing right but only affected future generations it may be regarded as valid, although limited within Philip's descendants. Unlike the succession to the Crown itself, the Sovereignty of the Golden Fleece was always a subordinate dignity which the founder had invested as a perpetual inheritance for his heirs. Thus, Philip's decree could not validate the assumption of the Sovereignty by a Spanish Sovereign or Head of State who was not a Burgundian dynast (such as Joseph Bonaparte and Amadeus of Savoy, who both assumed its Sovereignty). With the death of Luis a few months later and Louis XV's recovery, Philip regained the Crown and the Sovereignty of the Golden Fleece, enjoying both until his death in 1746.

Clause XIII of the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle of 1748 (which, among other matters, established the Infant Philip of Spain as Duke of Parma and Guastalla), had proposed that a congress be established to "give a ruling upon the dispute over the Grand Mastership of the Order of the Golden Fleece". Philip's eventual successor, Ferdinand VI, refused to accept this clause in a protest dated 20 September 1748, which his ambassador followed with a declaration of 20 November of the same year, stating that the Sovereignty of the Order was a "right and a possession united inseparably to the Crown of Spain". Had Philip V's descendants become extinct, however, the Sovereignty of the Golden Fleece would have had to have followed the original destination of the Perpetual Burgundian Trust (i.e. it would have probably passed to the descendants of Louis XV before the Habsburgs), rather than passed with the Spanish Crown. After firmly stating the legality of his Grand Mastership, in 1755 Ferdinand VI decided to institute a Junta de Caballeros to assist in the administration of the ceremonial of the Order.

The Spanish Golden Fleece has been criticised for not retaining the same exclusivity during the nineteenth century as that given by the Emperor, even if the claim to its Sovereignty by the Spanish King was a better one and, in 1806, it was conferred on the Emperor Napoleon and his brother Joseph (leading Louis XVIII to return his Collar with a bitter letter). [33] When Joseph Napoleon became King of Spain by courtesy of his brother in 1808, he illegally assumed the Sovereignty of the Order by virtue of his possession of the Spanish Crown. In 1812 the acting government of Spain illegally conferred the Order on the Duke of Wellington, an act confirmed by Ferdinand VII on his restoration, who canceled the awards made by King Joseph. Ferdinand in a royal decree of October 30th, 1817, summoned the first Chapter of the Order to be held since 1559, to solemnly invest him with the Sovereignty of the Order. At the same time he re-established the Junta de Caballeros, under the presidency of his brother, the Infante Don Carlos, assisted by four vocales, the Marques de Ariza, the Conde de Miranda, the Marques de Bélgida and the Conde de la Puebla.

Ferdinand in confirming the nomination of Wellington made the first non-Catholic knight, an appointment soon followed by that of the Russian Minister Dmitri Pavlovitch Tatischev. Not wishing to contravene the terms of the Papal Bulls which had at various times endowed the Order, he wrote in 1817 to the Pope asking permission to admit non-Catholic princes, explaining that as the premier Order of his Kingdom he wished to include the leading non-Catholic European sovereigns among the Companions. The Papal response, dated December 28th, 1817, said (in part): [34]

…. And have seen that those non-Catholics who have been declared elected do not form part of the fifty-one Knights who compose the Chapter or Executive of the Order; that they may solely use the insignia of the Order as the actual knights do only as far as external acts are concerned and that always it must be insured that the number of fifty-one which constitutes the Order according to the Papal Bulls, must all be Catholic Knights. Accordingly, Your Majesty may not consider those non-Catholics elected to be members of the Order or Canonical Body that has been sanctioned by the Holy See, although they use the insignia, and you must consequently separate any such concessions or acts entirely from any connection with the aforesaid Body, we also recognize that Your Majesty does not have need of any intervention by our Apostolic authority …..” [35]

This was confirmed in a letter of the Ministry of Grace and Justice directed to the Chancellor of the Order dated June 29th, 1819. Acting on the advice of the Minister, the Chancellor then wrote to the King to confirm that “the non-Catholic Knights, while they cannot be considered members of the Canonical Body that the Holy See has sanctioned, and for whose spiritual privileges and graces they are not eligible, nonetheless …. must use and enjoy the same insignia and temporal privileges as the other Knights”. [36]

With the death of Ferdinand VII in 1833, the de facto succession to the Spanish Crown passed to his daughter Isabel II, under a secret Pragmatic Decree of King Charles IV of 1788, never published but sanctioned by the Cortes, and re-enacted by Ferdinand VII on 29 March 1830. This Decree undid the system of Salic law established by Philip V in the New Regulation for the Succession to these Kingdoms [37] of 10 May 1713 which had replaced the ancient system of succession under which Philip himself had inherited the Crown. Ferdinand's act, however, deprived all the males of the House of a position they enjoyed by birth, by placing before them his daughter Isabel II. Faced with protests by the supporters of his popular younger brother and of his cousins the King of the Two Sicilies, the King of the French and Duke of Lucca, Ferdinand rescinded this act on 18 September 1832, but then reinstated it again on 31 December 1832. Ferdinand VII died on 29 September 1833 and, while his daughter was proclaimed Queen as Isabel II, his next brother, the Infant Charles, having been deprived of his position in the succession, now proclaimed himself King as Charles V, and also Sovereign of the Golden Fleece as Duke of Burgundy. [38]

Although it was claimed by the Carlists, and by some later writers, that Isabel's assumption of the Sovereignty of the Golden Fleece was in contravention of the Statutes, the original terms of the Burgundian succession would have placed her as the heir after the death of Ferdinand VII. [39] This is not the place to argue the complexities of the Carlist claim, but nonetheless it must be pointed out that if Philip V could himself alter the succession, with the consent of the Cortes, so could the succession be altered again provided the same legal requirements were followed. The flaw, which undermined the legality of this reversion to the ancient system, was its consequent deprivation of the existing prior rights of the males of the House. Furthermore, the Spanish House of Bourbon had foregone its rights to France in return for guaranteed possession of Spain by application of Salic Law. Isabel II may be regarded as having a stronger claim than her uncle as heiress to the Golden Fleece under the terms of the original Burgundian succession, however, and she was able to maintain this claim more successfully as the de facto inheritor of the Spanish Crown, to which it had been tied in 1724. [40]

The liberal government of Spain unquestionably abused the Order, removing both King Charles X and his son, the Duke of Angoulême (later titular King as Louis XIX) from the roll and using the gift of the Order as a political tool. Isabel II further amended the character of the Order by decrees of 26 July 1847 and 28 October 1851, in which she declared that it was one of the royal civil Orders to which nominations could not be made without the assent of the Council of Ministers and must be announced in the Gaceta de Madrid within one month. This requirement did not mean that awards of the Order which were not published in the Gaceta were invalid, however, because failure to publish such awards could not deprive Sovereigns of the Order of their statutory right to bestow it at their discretion.

The Isabeline Order was no longer limited to Catholic nobles, being given both to bourgeois politicians and non-Catholics, which in some eyes diminished the prestige of the Order. Nonetheless, the non-Catholic members by virtue of the Papal assent of 1817 were considered extra-numerary members and their appointment did not offend the original statutes. During the course of the century and in the first three decades of the twentieth, it came to be regarded as a great state honor, rather than the personal award of the Sovereign. It was unsurprising, therefore, that following the revolution of 1868, it was conferred, probably illegally, both by the provisional government of the Duke of la Torre (1868-1870) and the short-lived Monarchy of the Duke of Aosta (1870-1872). Until 1936 there were effectively three Orders of the Golden Fleece, two Spanish and one Austrian; although only one could be said to represent the original Order, the other two may be considered to have conformed more strictly with the historic statutes. Awards were generally made according to the political complexion of the recipient, but even within other branches of the family there were differences - while the Duke of Lucca, later Duke of Parma, accepted the Carlist decoration, his son and grandson both accepted the Isabeline Order.


The end of the First World War led to a claim being put forward by the King of the Belgians to the Sovereignty of the Order, by virtue of possession of the former Austrian Netherlands, which made up much of the territory of modern Belgium. This claim can be dismissed as having no justification whatsoever, but since Belgium had suffered horribly following the unprovoked German invasion, there was considerable sympathy to its demands on the part of the victorious powers. Most of the other powers that had supported France and Great Britain had gained some territory at the expense of Germany and her allies and the possibility of handing over an Austrian Imperial prerogative along with the treasure of the Order, even on such tenuous grounds, was seriously considered. By the tretay of Saint-Germain it was agreed that the King of the Belgians' claim would be considered by a commission of three jurists, and a determination made thereafter to whose authority the Austrian Republic, although illegally holding the Treasure, promised to submit. While this had no affect on the position of King Alfonso XIII, the Spanish King nonetheless generously offered his assistance to the Emperor Carl. Through the agency of the former Imperial Ambassador in Madrid, the King approached the Emperor, who was outraged at what the Austrian Sovereign of the Order perceived as the perfidy of King Albert in taking advantage of his plight. In his reply of 20 May 1920, the Emperor asked King Alfonso to intervene through diplomatic sources with both the Austrian Republic and the King of the Belgians. [41] The King's interventions immediately bore fruit and the Austrians agreed to consult closely with the Spanish emissary.

Nonetheless, in 1922 the Belgian King once again tried to claim the Treasure from the Austrians and the dispute was immediately before the hastily convened commission of jurists. The Emperor wrote to the King on 4 February 1922 thanking him for his assistance and stating “it is no longer possible for me to be occupied in any effective manner with my Order of the Golden Fleece and of the treasure pertaining to the Order. …. In this situation, I have recourse to You, my dear brother and cousin, as Head of the Spanish Order of the Golden Fleece, and I pray that you, having the same interests of the Order which certainly you do not hold any less dear to your heart than I do, will as I wish take charge of the guardianship and protection of the said Order and its treasure until such time as, by the grace of God, I will be able myself to retake this protection that has been my joy and my burden. My recognition, my dear brother and cousin, also that of all the knights, you will be assured of always.” [42] The King then instructed his mission to accept custody of the Treasure of the Order which was preserved for safekeeping in the Spanish Embassy in Vienna. Since King Albert was a member of the Austrian Order and therefore could not receive the Spanish, he later conferred the Collar of the Order on the heir to the Throne, Leopold Duke of Brabant (later Leopold III).

Alfonso XIII was deposed as Spanish King in 1931, and spent the last decade of his life in exile in Rome, not making any further awards of the Order. By the extinction of the senior male line of the House of Bourbon in 1936, Alfonso became both de facto and undisputed de jure Sovereign of the Order and, as head of all the House of Bourbon (France), adopted the plain Arms of France without the difference for Anjou. The King died in 1941 and the claim to the Crown of Spain, along with the Chiefship and Sovereignty of the Golden Fleece passed to his third, but second surviving son, Juan, Count of Barcelona. [43]

DON JUAN DE BORBÓN, COUNT OF BARCELONA, SOVEREIGN OF THE GOLDEN FLEECE in the uniform of a Lieutenant in the British Royal Navy

The Count of Barcelona was implicitly acknowledged as Sovereign of the Order by the government of General Franco, whose diplomats returned to him the Collars of deceased foreign knights. Furthermore, the present King, when Prince of Spain, wore the Golden Fleece on his uniform and at state occasions and his official coat of Arms was surrounded by the Collar of the Order. The Count of Barcelona avoided awarding the Order on a political basis, conferring it firstly on his son, the present King, upon his succession in 1941. He made no more awards until he gave it to Baudouin I, King of the Belgians (1960), Charles of Bourbon, Duke of Calabria, (in 1964, twenty-two days after the death of his father, also a member), Robert of Bourbon, Duke of Parma (1964), and Constantine II, King of the Hellenes (1964, six months after the death of his father, King Paul, given the Order in 1962). [44] The Count of Barcelona began the process of restoring the Spanish Order to a premier position and refused to concede it on a political basis.

DON JUAN DE BORBÓN, COUNT OF BARCELONA, with the Collars of the Golden Fleece and Charles III, and the starts of the four military Orders.

When Juan Carlos became King in 1975 he did not immediately assume the Sovereignty of the Order of the Golden Fleece, which still pertained to his father as Head of the Royal House of Spain. By an act of 14 May 1977, the Count of Barcelona abdicated as Head of the Spanish Royal House and Sovereign of the Golden Fleece to his son the King, and since that time regular but highly exclusive bestowal of the Order has been resumed. A dynastic Order of the House of Burgundy by origin, its original statutes have not been formally amended or changed, neither have the decrees attaching it permanently to the Spanish Crown or requiring its award to be approved by the Council of Ministers been formally incorporated therein. Today the King awards the Order with the prior knowledge [45] of the Council of Ministers and the recipient is notified in a decree written in Spanish, although the actual conferral is made in a letter written, as Duke of Burgundy, in French. The succession, however, is not limited to those eligible under the modern Spanish Constitution but includes those dynasts who enjoy a right of succession under the earlier 1876 Constitution which incorporated the provisions of the Pragmatic Sanction of 1830/33.


The King has conferred the Order on four non-royal Spaniards - his former military tutor Torcuato Fernández Miranda (whom he created a Duke and gave the Fleece in 1977), the recently retired head of his household, the Marquess of Mondéjar (who also received it in 1977 and is the only living non-royal knight), the late D. Jose-Maria Peman y Pemartin and, in 1993, on the Duke of Alburquerque (who died in 1994). He has also conferred it on several reigning sovereigns, including the Grand Duke of Luxembourg and King Albert II of the Belgians, although against all precedent both had received the Habsburg Order from the Archduke Otto. The present King has further amended the original constitution of the Order by the admission of three ladies, without promulgating a formal amendment to the statutes, namely Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, Queen Margarethe II of Denmark and, in 1988, Queen Elisabeth II of Great Britain. [46] As an Order conferred primarily on foreign Monarchs and members of the Royal Family, it is different in character to other great Collar Orders given by reigning Monarchs such as the Garter, the Seraphim or the Elephant, which are awarded more frequently to subjects of those Crowns. Nonetheless, the present Monarch has been well-advised to remove it from the political sphere and refuse to make it an award for senior Ministers and officials of the Crown. In modern Spain, unlike Great Britain, where there is no real Court and the nobility have few privileges and no public responsibilities, it could be considered inappropriate as a distinction offered to the heads of ancient families close to the Sovereign (as with the Austrian Order, and the Garter and Thistle).


The present members of the Order are, in order of their appointment: Juan Carlos I King of Spain, Chief and Sovereign, the Infant Charles Duke of Calabria (1964), Constantine II King of the Hellenes (1964), Felipe Prince of the Asturias (1981), Carl-Gustaf King of Sweden (1983), Jean Grand Duke of Luxembourg (1983), Akihito Emperor of Japan (1985), Beatrix Queen of the Netherlands (1985), Marguerite II Queen of Denmark (1985), Elisabeth II Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (1988), Albert II King of the Belgians (1994) and Harald V King of Norway (1995).


[30] My thanks to Sr Ricardo Martí-Fluxá, Head of Protocol of H.M. the King, for his comments (written communication, 30 June 1995).

[31]By French Royal letters patent of May 1711.

[32] See Pinoteau, Op. cit., pp.522-523.

[33] With the defeat of the Austrians at Wagram in 1808, Napoleon felt emboldened to found an Order of the Three Golden Fleeces - marking his conquest of the Netherlands, Spain and Austria - but although drawings were done of the insignia no awards were made.

[34] Alfonso de Ceballos-Escalera y Gil, Marques de la Floresta, (published for the first time in) Historia de la Insigne Orden del Toisón de Oro (Madrid 1996).

[35] Anhelando corresponder con el paternal y vivo afecto que profesamos a V.M., el cumplimiento de sus deseos hemos prestado la mayor atención a cuanto se expone en la referida memoria, y hemos visio que en ella se declara que los elegidos no catolicos no forman parte de los cincuenta y un Caballeros que componen el Capitulo o junta de la Orden; que usam solamente de las insignias de la Orden, como los verdaderos caballeros, en los actos extreiores; y que siempre debe verificare que el numero de cincuenta y uno que constituye el Orden según las Bulas Pontificias, sea de sólo Caballeros católicas. De esta manera , no considerando V.M. a los elegidos no católicos como miembros de la Orden y Cuerpo Canónico que la Santa Sede ha sancionado, aunque lleven las insignias; y debiendo por consiguente mirarse tales concessiones como actos substancualmente separados de todo conexión con dicho Cuerpo, hemos tenido que reconocer que V.M. no necesita de la intervención de nuestra Apostólica autoridad, puesto que la Santa Sede no entiende de las Ordenes de las Potencias estrangeras sino en cuanto a las relaciones religiones, que en el caso presente no pueden tener lugar, y para la concesión de los privilegios y gracias espirituales, de que no son suceptibles los eterodoxos….” Archivas General de Palacio, registro 7014, fol. 35, in Alfonso de Ceballos-Escalera y Gil, Op. Cit.,

[36]si, no estando completo el número de los cinquenta Caballeros católicos, podrá S.M. sin contravenir los estatutos de la Orden, completarle con no católicos, aunque estén nombrados y admitidos en la misma algunos altos personages que profesoan varias sectas y religiones diferentes de la Católica Romana; por manera que pueda verificarse que el número de los cinquenta sea siempre de Caballeros católicos.” Consequently, the Chancellor, Don Cayetano de Campos, explained to the King that: “sin que pueda servir de obstáculo, según lo declarado últimamente por Su Santidad, las elecciones hechas por V.M. en Caballeros no cátolicos, por no poderlos considerar miembros del Cuerpo canónico que la Santa Sede ha sancionado, y de cuyos privilegios y gracias espirituales no son susceptibles, aunque usen y gocen, como pueden y deben usar y gozar, de las mismas insignias y privilegios temporales que los demás Caballeros”. Archivas General de Palacio, in Alfonso de Ceballos-Escalera y Gil, Op. cit.

[37] The Nuevo Reglamento para la Sucesion estos Reynos. This had not affected the rights of any of Philip's immediate heirs, as the rights of males superseded those of females under the ancient law

[38]See Pinoteau, Op. cit., pp. 524-525 in which he suggests that by the terms of the edict of May 1711, limiting the succession to French ducal titles to males, the Infant Charles was de jure Sovereign of the Order both as heir of Burgundy, and by virtue of his succession to the Crown of Spain as senior male heir of Philip V under the terms of the new fundamental law of succession of 1713. However, the decree of May 1711 could not include the Sovereignty of the Golden Fleece as it was outside the apanage of the French Crown.

[39] The Sovereignty should properly have been exercised by a companion knight of the Order as regent, until her marriage, when the Infant Francis of Assisi, who became King-Consort, should have become Chief and Sovereign, but this did not mean that she was not legitimate heiress.

[40] The real consequence of the introduction of mixed succession was to invalidate the renunciations to the French throne by the Bourbons and to the Spanish by the senior branch of Bourbon-France (now extinct) and Orléans.

[41] See Alfonso de Ceballos-Escalera y Gil, Op. cit. For the full text of this letter and the King's reply (1 June 1920).

[42] See Alfonso de Ceballos-Escalera y Gil, Op. cit.

[43] Alfonso's eldest son, who had married unequally and renounced his rights by the terms of the 1876 Constitution, had predeceased him; his second son, the Infant Don Jaime, had renounced his rights to the Spanish Crown in 1933 under the terms of the Constitution of 1876, which required the exclusion from the succession of a Prince who was prevented by physical or mental incapacity from exercising the duties of kingship. Don Jaime married unequally, in contravention of the terms of the Pragmatic Sanction of 1776, as interpreted by the Royal Act of 16 March 1875, which required members of the Royal House of Spain to marry “equally” into other royal dynasties, thus excluding both himself and his issue from the Spanish succession. He duly recognised his younger brother as his father's heir to the Spanish Crown and its associated dominions (including the Golden Fleece), later proclaiming himself Head of the Royal House of France as the primogeniture successor of Louis XIV. As such he could neither pretend to the title of Duke of Burgundy (a fief of the French Crown) nor to the Sovereignty of the Golden Fleece, although he was persuaded to do so in 1946 by certain of his adherents. The Infant Don Jaime died in 1975 leaving two sons, of whom the eldest, Alfonso, Duke of Anjou and Cadiz (who acknowledged his cousin Juan Carlos I as Sovereign of the Golden Fleece), was unhappily killed in a skiing accident in 1989 (leaving an only surviving son, Luis-Alfonso).

[44] All the knights acknowledged the Count of Barcelona as Sovereign, until 1962, when Princes Ranieri and Gabriele of the Two Sicilies (as a tactic in the disputed Two Sicilies succession) denied the legitimacy of his exercise of its Sovereignty, claiming that the renunciation of the Throne of Spain by the Infant Don Jaime might not have been legitimate and that the Count of Barcelona's claim was questionable This was an attempt by the junior princes of the Two Sicilies to disclaim the lawful authority of the Count of Barcelona, through whom the present King of Spain inherited his rights and by whose abdication in 1977 he acquired the Sovereignty of the Golden Fleece,. The “castroist” claimant to the Two Sicilies presumably shares his father's views on this.

[45] "Oido el Consejo de Ministros".

[46] A special jeweled badge of the Order, suspended from a red ribbon, is worn on the left breast.