The Order of the Golden Fleece between Loyalty and Felony (1484–1493)


After the death of Duke Charles (1477) and that of his daughter and sole heiress Maria (1482) a number of political protagonists tried to expand their powerful position in the magnificent Duchy of Burgundy. Especially the Estates of Flanders claimed that, instead of Maria’s husband, the later Roman-German King and Emperor Maximilian I, the rightful Duke of Burgundy was his son Philip (born in 1478). Until Philipp’s coming of age the duchy should be reigned by a guardian and a regency council with their participation. With his Burgundian marriage in 1478 Maximilian had taken over the sovereignty of the Order of the Golden Fleece, which was questioned too. The Order, which was founded in 1430, was conventionalised as a symbolical identity for the heterogeneous Duchy of Burgundy, which granted access only to the knights who were the best, the most exemplary and most loyal to the duke. Shortly the Order of the Golden Fleece turned into one of the most magnificent monarchical orders of knighthood of the 15th century. The chapters, ceremonies, rituals and constitution were held in high esteem throughout Europe and were taken as an example for other elitist associations. The dispute over the legitimate Duke did not stop at the Order of the Golden Fleece and split the members into two factions. But at a meeting in Dendermonde in the summer of 1484 the Order’s members found a compromise allowing Maximilian to keep the lordship until his son would come of age. The assemblies of the following years were marked by the effort to re-establish the reputation of the Order of the Golden Fleece, because the rejection of Maximilian was viewed as an act of felony.

A central source for the negotiations in 1484 and the Order’s chapter in Mecheln in 1491, where several members had to face accusations of infidelity, are the volumes 6 and 7 of the eight-volume series of record books of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Intended for internal use only these books give detailed insights about the places of the assemblies, the participants, the items of agenda, the ceremonies, re-elections and decisions made. Besides describing the generally admired splendor they reveal the various opinions and positions of the actors involved. They also provide a multifaceted picture of communication strategies, representation, social control, identity, loyalty, felony and about government understanding of competing forces in the late 15th century.

One aim of the present project is to continue the edition of the record books with the volumes 6 and 7, because these are an essential, but nearly unknown source not only for the history of the Order itself, but also for the political history of the Burgundian Netherlands at the time of Maximilian I.  Another aim is to exploit the contents of the record books for a monograph about the “History of the Order of the Golden Fleece in the 15th Century”.