The Golden Fleece (Fr. Toison d’Or) was an order of chivalry founded by Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy (d. 1467), on the occasion of his wedding with Isabella of Portugal, in January 1430.
Philip promulgated the statutes of the order at the first meeting of its chapter, held at Lille in November 1431. Like other orders of chivalry, the Golden Fleece was founded for the defense of the Catholic faith of the Holy Church, as well as the tranquillity and prosperity of the common weal; if the head of the order (Philip himself) were to take up arms in defense of the Christian faith or to fight for the church or the Holy See of Rome, the knights of the order were obliged to accompany him. For its chancellor, Philip twice chose bishops who were in favor of the crusade: Jean Germain (1430-1461) and Guillaume Fillastre (1461-1473). In fact, the crusade only figured in two meetings of the chapter of the order, at Mons in 1451 and Valenciennes in 1473.
At Mons in 1451, Philip the Good vowed to go on a crusade (without having any precise aim) and asked his fellow knights to go with him, but they showed no such enthusiasm. Jean Germain presented his works, the Débat du Chrétien et du Sarrasin (also known as Trésor des simples) and the Mappemonde spirituelle. During the homily of the Mass, he described the desolation of the militant church and called for its defense. It was decided to organize a feast to publicize this aim, which was held at Lille in 1454 (the Feast of the Pheasant). However, the subsequent preparations for a crusade and the dispatch of a fleet under Anthony, the Great Bastard of Burgundy (1464), was not directly connected with the order.
At Valenciennes in 1473, the papal legate called on the knights to fight against the Turks, as did the Venetian and Napolitan ambassadors. Although Philip’s son Duke Charles the Bold made repeated promises to launch such an expedition, he never fulfilled them.
After the turmoil following the death of Charles the Bold at the battle of Nancy (1477), the new head of the order was Maximilian of Habsburg (d. 1519), the husband of Charles’s heiress Mary of Burgundy. Maximilian considered suppressing the Golden Fleece or splitting it into two orders, a Netherlandish one and a German one. The order regained its splendor under Mary’s grandson Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain, who opened its membership to subjects from all his dominions. It continued to hold chapters until 1559. After that, new knights were no longer elected, but nominated by the sovereign. With the advent of the Bourbon dynasty in Spain (1700), the order split into separate Spanish and Austrian branches.