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  • Writer's pictureVictoria Regina

Order of the Golden Fleece

The Golden Fleece was the first foreign order received by Prince Albert after his marriage. Prince Albert had various pieces of regalia of the Golden Fleece, some more fashionable than others and some more suited for less formal occasions. The Prince seems to have rotated between three badges throughout his life, he was most fond of an a opal/diamond badge and sapphire/ ruby one which was supposedly owned by George IV. Prince Albert was also given a smaller enamelled badge which was a replica of The Duke of Wellington's badge.

Order of the Golden Fleece badge presented to Prince Albert on his birthday, 1841 © Royal Collection Trust / HM King Charles III 2024

Honours which would have been offered to Queen Victoria by foreign sovereigns and governments had she been male were unavailable to her, so the Prince was given orders that she could not be offered. While male members of the Royal Family were honoured with the Golden Fleece or the Order of Charles Ill or both, ladies, until the 19305, were mostly presented with the Order of Maria Louis (though Queen Victoria also received the Order of Charles III). As Princess Victoria, before her accession, she was appointed to the Order of Marin Louisa in December 1833.

Prince Albert was painted wearing this Order more often than any other foreign award. The bestowal of the order on the Prince by Queen Isabel in 1841 was, however not without its problems. The major concern was that of reciprocity, Queen Victoria might have to respond by bestowing the Garter. Eventually Prince Albert received the honour from the Duke of Wellington who acted as Queen Isabels proxy, in the role not only of the only English Knight of the Order but also of a Spanish Grande. The ceremony was described by Queen Victoria in a letter to her uncle King Leopold of the Belgians, who himself had the Order: "Albert has rec" the Golden Fleece; ... he was invested by the Duke of Wellington, whom the Regency had charged as Grandee of Spain and having the Order, to present it to him. The old Duke and Alva (Spanish ambassador) ... were delighted at this, and the old Duke ...appeared in a new Spanish uniform made for the occasion"

We know that Prince Albert's Garter badge was an earlier piece reset for Queen Victoria in 1840 and bestowed upon Prince Albert, so it is highly possible that this badge of the Golden Fleece was once the ‘Golden Fleece in brilliants’ sold to Rundell, Bridge & Co. in 1830 and later given to Prince Albert on his birthday in 1841.

Prince Albert in drawing room attire 1854 © Royal Collection Trust / HM King Charles III 2024

The Golden Fleece was bestowed originally not by the Kings of Spain but by the Dukes of Burgundy, who founded the Order. King Edward IV was the brother-in-law of Charles the Bold. Duke of Burgundy; Henry VII (in 1491) and the future Henry VIII (in 1505) were appointed to the Order by Philip the Handsome, brother-in-law of Henry VIII's consort Queen Catherine of Aragon. King James V of Scotland was appointed to the Order by the Habsburg Emperor Charles V, who inherited the Duchy from his father, Philip. After the Reformation, the Order was not bestowed on British monarchs until the early nineteenth century. The Order itself split into Austrian and Spanish branches when Habsburg rule came to an end in Spain in 1700 and the War of the Spanish Succession ended Spanish rule in the Low Countries. Both the Kings of Spain and the heads of the House of Habsburg, the new rulers of the Low Countries, claimed Grand Mastership of the Order. The Order came to be available from both the Austrian and the Spanish courts, with minor variations in the designs of the insignia for the Austrian and Spanish branches.

Order of the Golden Fleece; Badge of Prince Albert. May have belonged to George IV. c.1820 © Royal Collection Trust / HM King Charles III 2024

The Golden Fleece is usually associated with the mythological Greek hero Jason, who had to retrieve the fleece of a golden-haired winged ram with the help of the Argonauts in order to regain his throne. This pagan association was rather controversial for a Christian order, therefore the Golden Fleece was also associated with the fleece of Gideon that received the dew of Heaven. It is also thought the ram chosen to symbolize the importance of woods trade and industry to the Burgundian economy. The design consists of the Order’s symbol, a ram’s fleece suspended the Duke of Burgundy’s impresa which depicts a shower of sparks and flames emitting from a flint being struck by a briquette. Philip III, Duke of Burgundy, on the occasion of his marriage to the Portuguese Infanta Isabella in 1430 established the Order of the Golden Fleece. For the order Phillip III chose his personal emblem, the fire-steel in the shape of B for Burgundy, he placed two of them back to back and suspended the fleece from a flint stone positioned between the fire-steels.

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