The Austrian Order of the Golden Fleece

©Guy Stair Sainty

The Habsburgs would probably have abandoned their claim to Sovereignty of the Order of the Golden Fleece after the Treaty of Utrecht if they had not found themselves in possession of the Treasure of the Order, which had been retained in Brussels. The Emperors Leopold and Joseph had not awarded the Order and neither had the Archduke Charles, Habsburg Pretender to the Throne of Spain, until after his election as Emperor in 1711 when, in the following year, he nominated twenty-one new knights. The Austrian branch of the family had never found it necessary to found their own separate Order of Chivalry after the disappearance of their own Order of the Eagle in the early sixteenth century. By virtue of the de facto possession of the Order's regalia, the Austrian Sovereigns were able to maintain its original character, at least in theory. Never united with the Austrian Archducal or Imperial Crown (although it was implicitly included in the renunciation made by the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on behalf of his unborn issue), it was not employed as a political instrument. The Order was only given to members of the Imperial family, the representatives of great noble families or foreign royalty and has remained an exclusively Catholic institution.

The Emperor Charles VI (de facto Chief and Sovereign of the Order from 1711-1740) was the last male of the Habsburg dynasty and, on his death, the Sovereignty of the Habsburg Order passed not to his daughter (Maria-Theresa, who became Sovereign of Austria, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, etc) but to her husband, Francis, former Duke of Lorraine and, since 1737, Grand Duke of Tuscany. The Emperor Charles was succeeded as Holy Roman Emperor by the Elector Charles of Bavaria but, with the latter's death in 1745, Francis was elected Emperor. On his death in 1765, the Sovereignty of the Order passed to the first Prince of the new house of Habsburg-Lothringen (Habsburg-Lorraine), the Archduke Joseph, who had been elected King of the Romans in 1764 and became Emperor immediately upon his father's death. Emperor Joseph II was appointed co-regent of Hungary and Bohemia by his mother, whom he succeeded as King in 1780. Leaving no surviving issue on his death in 1790, he was succeeded in the Hungarian, Bohemian and Netherlands Crowns by his next brother, the Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany, who resigned the latter state to his next brother and was elected Emperor shortly afterward. Leopold only ruled for two years when he was succeeded as Emperor and Sovereign by his eldest son Francis, who was elected Emperor as Francis II and presided over the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.

Francis had been proclaimed Emperor of Austria in 1804 and, by artful political maneuvering (in which he was aided by the considerable skills of his long-serving prime minister Clement, 2nd Prince of Metternich-Winneburg), managed to hold much of his disparate Empire together, eventually only losing the Belgian Netherlands following the Congress of Vienna of 1814-15. He died in 1830 and his feeble-minded son and successor, Ferdinand I, abdicated in 1848 to the young Franz Josef I, whose father (the third son of Francis I) had renounced his own rights in his favor. Franz Josef presided over enormous changes in the Austrian Empire, the loss of its Italian territories and forfeiture of much of its German and Silesian lands to Prussia. Despite the many disparate languages and cultures that caused endless internecine quarrels, the rise of nationalism that continually strained the fragile Habsburg union, and the industrialization which led to the rise of a whole new social class, the Emperor managed to maintain his central authority and the respect and love of the majority of his subjects. Franz Josef maintained a simple and austere personal life, without surrendering any of the majesty of his office, he was warm hearted and pious and a determined advocate of the rights of minorities (for example the Jewish population of the Empire was directly protected by him).

The advent of the First World War marked the collapse of the Habsburg Empire; Franz Josef died in 1916 and was succeeded by his great-nephew, the Archduke Charles, as Emperor Charles I, IV as King of Hungary. Married to Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, who survived him for sixty-seven years (she died in 1989), he was a deeply religious and spiritual man who was ill-prepared for the task of saving the unity of the Habsburg Empire or his various Crowns. Having been forced to renounce the exercise of government in Austria (without abdicating as Emperor on 11 November 1918), and as King of Hungary two days later, he was declared deposed by the new republican government and expelled from Austria in April 1919. The dynasty was formally deposed by the Hungarian Assembly on 5 November 1921 and the Regency established by Admiral Nicholas Horthy (who ruled the country until 1944) refused to allow him to enter the country. The Emperor Charles died in very straightened circumstances at Funchal, Madeira on 1 April 1922; the cause for his Beatification (he has already been declared Venerable) is currently being considered.

The Austrian Republic in an act of extraordinary malevolence confiscated all the personal property of the dynasty, only restoring it to those Archdukes who were prepared to renounce their titles and all claims to the throne. Titles of nobility were abolished and it seemed as if the Habsburg Order of the Golden Fleece might become an historical relic. The Belgian King's claim to the Sovereignty and Treasure of the Order at the Congress of Versailles of 1919 was not wholly resolved until 1923, the commission established to determine the succession deciding that it was not attached to the Sovereignty of the Netherlands, as the Belgians tried to claim, but was an inalienable family inheritance of the heirs of Burgundy (without determining whether the Spanish or Habsburg Order was the de jure successor of the Burgundian Order). The Treasure remained in Vienna, thanks to the personal intervention of King Alfonso XIII without whose assistance the Austrian Order may be today an award of the Belgian Crown [see Spanish Order of the Golden Fleece].

While the Habsburg Order has followed the original statutes in maintaining its historic character, it is nonetheless a Dynastic Order of the House of Habsburg-Austria. The renunciation of his rights by the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the exclusion of his issue from the succession, had also implicitly included the Golden Fleece, whose Sovereignty was assumed by the Archduke Charles when he became Emperor, just as Emperor Franz Josef had assumed the Sovereignty on the abdication of his uncle, the Emperor Ferdinand I. The original Burgundian inheritance did not contemplate morganatic marriage and, if the Habsburg Order had truly represented the original foundation in its ancient form, the Golden Fleece would have been inherited by the Dukes of Hohenberg whose birth conformed perfectly with Canon Law. The Habsburg Order, therefore, may be regarded as permanently united with the Headship of the Dynasty, just as the Spanish was united with the Crown (when held by Burgundian dynasts). Nonetheless, unlike the Spanish Crown, the Habsburg Sovereigns of the Golden Fleece managed to maintain their Order free from the political interference that occasionally affected its Spanish counterpart in the past.

The Emperor Charles made seven awards of the Order between his departure into exile and his death in 1922 but the Order was not awarded again until the Emperor's son and heir, the Archduke Otto, attained his majority in 1930. The latter, after seventy-four years as head of the Imperial House of Austria, has surpassed the reign of his great-great uncle, the Emperor Franz Josef, as the longest-serving Chief and Sovereign of the Golden Fleece. The Archduke Otto was an implacable enemy of Hitler, who ordered his arrest and would almost certainly have had him murdered. Otto was seen by many as the only viable alternative to the highly compromised representatives of the principal Austrian political parties and, in 1943, after secret negotiations between Britain, the United States and the Vatican, it was proposed that Otto would be restored as Monarch following the end of hostilities. Unfortunately this plan was vetoed by the Soviets whose occupying armies remained until 1955. [47]

The post-war Austrian republic was less hostile to the Habsburgs and, after a government investigation into the status of the Order, made an official statement on 8 September 1953 that the Order was "an independent legal entity in international law", confirming this in a decree of 16 September of the same year. It was also determined that the treasure and archives of the Order, although under the guardianship of the republic, were the property of the Order. [48] The knights celebrate the annual feast on 30 November, Saint Andrew's day, at the Hofburg Chapel, and since renouncing his claim to the Austrian Throne in 1961 in order to reenter his country, Dr Othon Habsburg-Lothringen (as he is called in Austrian law) has been able to preside as Chief and Sovereign. [49]

Awards of the Order are unrelated to the cause of Austrian or Hungarian Monarchism but are made for "important personal achievement in the furtherance of the Christian ideal", and granted in "lettres d'avis" written in French, beginning "Mon cousin" and signed "Otto". [50] The Collars of the Golden Fleece remain the property of the Order, to which they must be returned after the death of a knight, and may be worn at ceremonies of the Order, in solemn processions accompanying the Holy Sacrament and at Pontifical audiences. Normally the badge of the Order is worn suspended from a red ribbon with the ornate enameled B and fusil. The knights are required to keep a miniature reproduction of the fleece, blessed by a chaplain, "in an honorable place " on their persons at all times and are required to have three masses celebrated for the repose of the soul of any recently deceased knight. [51]

The present members of the Order are as follows: the Archduke Otto, Chief and Sovereign, the Archdukes Felix, Carl-Ludwig, Rudolf, Ferdinand, Heinrich, Friedrich-Salvator, Franz-Salvator, Josef-Arpad, Carl (heir), Andrew-Salvator, Carl-Salvator, Lorenz, Michael-Koloman, Michael-Salvator, Georg, Carl-Christian and Joseph, Franz Duke of Bavaria, Princes Franz, Ludwig, and Rasso of Bavaria, Albert II King of the Belgians, Jean Grand Duke of Luxembourg, Antoine Prince of Ligne, Raymond Vicomte de Chabot-Tramecourt, Prince Albrecht of Hohenberg, Joachim Prince of Furstenberg, Carl Duke of Wurtemberg, Eduard Prince of Auersperg-Trautson, Prince Vincenz of Liechtenstein, Maria-Emanuel Markgraf of Meissen, Duke of Saxony, Prince Nicholas Lobkowicz, Johann Count Hoyos-Sprinzenstein, Georg Prince of Waldburg zu Zeil und Trauchberg, Hans-Adam Sovereign Prince of Liechtenstein, Clemens Prince of Altenburg, Duarte-Pio Duke of Braganza, Josef Count of Neipperg, Georg Duke of Hohenberg, Carl Prince of Schwarzenberg, Frà Andrew Bertie, 78th Prince and Grand Master of the Order of Malta, Jacobus Count of Eltz. Chancellor: Ernst, Count of Abensberg und Traun, Almoner, Coadjuteur (the Most Rev Bishop) Christophe Count of Schönborn, Treasurer, Wulf Gordian Baron of Hauser, Greffier, Alexander Count of Pachta-Reyhofen, King of Arms, Franz Count Czernin de Chudenitz.

[47]See Owen Chadwick, Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War, 1987, pp.

[48]See Prosser, Op. cit., 1981, p.9.

[49]The Archduke Otto is a member of the European Parliament for a Bavarian constituency and is leader of the Pan-European Movement. He is married to Princess Regina of Saxe-Meiningen and has issue two sons and five daughters.

[50]See Prosser, Op. cit., 1981, p.9.

[51]See Prosser, Op. cit., 1981, p.9.