New from 1694-1702: Induction ceremony documents for the Order of the Golden Fleece. Part I (background)

By ADBL editor Corey Brennan and Madhumita Kaushik (Rutgers’20)

One of the most impressive attributes of the Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi is its large collection of “Diplomas of citizenship, and of military and civil honors” that members of the family received over a span of some six centuries.

Originally this category of documents was housed in a single cabinet, and grouped into four folders (Protocolli 587-590). The series starts in the year 1379, with a doctoral diploma in civil law granted at Bologna to the great-great-grandfather of Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni, one Pietro Boncompagni (died 1408), and it continues well into the twentieth century.

Credit: HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi Archive, Villa Aurora, Rome

The documents of this group up to the year 1576 ( = Protocollo 587) today are found in the Archivio Segreto Vaticano. Yet the rest (= Protocolli 588-590) remain still in the possession of HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, conserved in her home, Rome’s historic Villa Aurora, in the HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi Archive.

Our interest here is in the second installment in this series of honorary diplomas (= Protocollo 588), which runs from the years 1578 to 1734. Toward the end of this sequence one finds a thick packet (no. 37) dated to 25 June 1702, entitled “Diploma di S. M. Cattolica a favore del Duca d. Antonio Seniore col quale viene creato Cavaliere dell’insigne Ordine del Toson d’Oro”.

Archival wrapper (revised in XIX cent.) for Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi Prot. 588 No. 37. Credit: HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi Archive, Villa Aurora, Rome

In other words, it is the case of a diploma issued by 18 year old King Philip V of Spain (reigned 1700-1746, with a brief hiatus in 1724). The recipient of the diploma is the Prince of Piombino, Antonio Boncompagni (1658-1676-1721). And the honor? Induction as a Knight into the celebrated Order of the Golden Fleece, a Roman Catholic order of chivalry that dates back to 1430, the year of its foundation in Bruges by the Burgundian duke Philip III (“the Good”). And as one would suppose, receipt of the Order’s distinctive symbol, a dazzling jeweled collar with pendant representing the Fleece.

Golden Fleece chain (15th century) by Bruges goldsmith and jeweler Jean Peutin, one of 24 he created for the first Knights of the Order. Credit: Artstor Collections

To be sure, the original copy of the diploma is found first in the dossier. In the same archival folder are three other items, clearly associated with the same occasion, and each—one imagines—meant to be confidential, at least in principle. First, detailed instructions on how to conduct the ceremony by which a Knight enters into the Order of the Golden Fleece, in Spanish (with careful Italian translation), dated to Madrid, 17 March 1694. These documents explicitly were drafted for the induction of Francesco Caracciolo (1668-1720), 5th Prince of Avellino. Second, another set of instructions in Spanish, closely modeled on the 1694 document, but specifically naming Antonio Boncompagni as the inductee. And third, in Italian, a history and “constitution” of the Order of the Golden Fleece, in 20 sections. There is a lot to unpack here, as they say. But in this post let us focus on that diploma signed by Philip V.

Patent (25 June 1702) signed by King Philip V of Spain, directing that Antonio Boncompagni be inducted into the Order of the Golden Fleece = Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi Prot. 588 No. 37. Credit: HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi Archive, Villa Aurora, Rome

A quick bit of historical context. By the early 18th century, the Knights of the Golden Fleece had firmly developed into a tightly-knit international order of nobility of the highest rank. However at that time it still retained much of its essentially Burgundian character. The main chapel and treasury of the Order remained in Brussels (indeed until 1794); its main festival, that of St Andrew’s Day (30 November), was also celebrated in that city. Four members of the Boncompagni, Ludovisi, or Boncompagni Ludovisi family have received admission to the Order: Niccolò Ludovisi (in 1657) and his son Giambattista Ludovisi (1670) as Princes of Piombino, our Antonio Boncompagni (1702) as Duke of Sora, and his son Gaetano Boncompagni Ludovisi (1736) as Prince of Piombino.

The Order still exists today, albeit (since 1712) in two branches: Spanish and Austrian. The Sovereign of the Spanish Order is King Felipe VI of Spain, and its other 16 Knights and Ladies—mostly royals—include Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth Realms (aged 93) as the oldest, and Felipe’s daughter Leonor, Princess of Asturias (aged 13) as the youngest.

For many Americans, the emblem of the Order of the Golden Fleece is most familiar through its appropriation (since 1850) by the Brooks Brothers clothing chain. The Order also crops up regularly among conspiracy theorists who seek to identify institutions bent on world domination.

Ad for Brooks Brothers (founded 1818), Los Angeles Times, 11 August 1948

Now, Philip V—the grandson of Louis XIV of France (1638-1643-1715)—was the first member of the French House of Bourbon to rule as king of Spain. He succeeded his granduncle—last in the line of Spanish Habsburgs—the childless Charles II (who reigned 1665-1700). In his final months, Charles was persuaded that the French Bourbons had the best chance of keeping his kingdom’s far-flung possessions intact. Hence his choice of Philip, then Duke of Anjou.

At the time of his accession the young king did not even understand Spanish. But that turned out to be one of the least of Philip’s problems. England, the Dutch Republic and the Holy Roman Empire had formed an anti-French alliance to contest the Spanish succession. In this they were soon joined by others, including Portugal. A major fear was that Philip would unite Spain and France as one massive power. And so in his place the allies promoted the claims of Archduke Charles of Austria (born 1685), second son of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I.

The War of the Spanish Succession was to rage from late 1701 to 1713, when the treaties known as the Peace of Utrecht slowly put it to rest. The conflict proved to be an immensely bloody one, extending even to fighting between the great powers’ European colonies in North America. But the Peace that settled it did prevent the possibility of a single monarch ruling both Spain and France.

Philip V of Spain, copper Proclamation Medal (1702) by Ferdinand de St Urbain. On the reverse, Neptune stands in shell holding trident, behind him a map of Italy, with legend above SIC CVNCTVS PELAGI CECIDIT FRAGOR (= Verg. Aen. 5.821, “thus all the raging tumult of the sea subsides”). Image credit: Fritz Rudolf Künker GmbH & Co. KG, Auction 282 Lot 4469 (28 Sep 2016).

In this war Spain did prove successful in preserving most of its overseas possessions. Yet in Europe it lost significant territories to other powers. What is important for our story is that Flanders—and with it Bruges, the ancestral home of the Order of the Golden Fleece—went from Spanish control to the Dutch, who soon ceded it to Austrian Habsburg rule, specifically that of Philip’s rival Charles. Since 1711 he had been reigning as Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor.

Why is the status of Flanders important? There was a strong contemporary view that the Order of the Golden Fleece, founded by the Dukes of Burgundy, belonged to the King of Spain only in his capacity as sovereign of the Belgian territories. When the Bourbon king Philip V lost sovereignty over those lands, with it he lost also his claim to the position of Duke of Burgundy. Indeed, even before the final peace accords, Charles VI assumed that title and with it the mantle of Grand Master of the Order. In his first year (1712) he created 21 new Knights of the Golden Fleece, and even sought to revoke appointments that his rival Philip had made. The Peace of Utrecht was not able to settle the question, and so two branches—under the control of respectively the Spanish king and the Austrian emperor—came into being.

Gold 8 escudos coin issued by Mexico City mint under Philip V of Spain (1743). On the obverse, the king wears the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece; on the reverse, the crowned coat of arms is framed by the Order’s collar. Credit: Classical Numismatic Group, auction Triton XV Lot 1787 (1 March 2012).

Despite some diplomatic efforts, the juridical situation of the Order of the Golden Fleece remained largely unresolved into the 1790s, when it became positively hopeless. In 1794, with French Revolutionary forces poised to overrun the Austrian Netherlands (i.e., the greater part of modern Belgium), the Austrians took away from Brussels the Order’s treasury and archives, and deposited both at Vienna, thus retaining de factο control. However when in 1797 the Austrians formally ceded to France their territories in the Low Countries—the Treaty of Campo Formio—they implicitly surrendered all legal claim to the ancient Burgundian order.

Several sovereigns who later controlled the area of Belgium—Napoleon in 1809, William of Orange in 1815—entertained the opportunity to create a third, more authentically Burgundian, Order of the Golden Fleece, without real results. And that is the genesis of the two branches, Spanish and Austrian, that we have today.

The important point, as Charles Terlinden pointed out now a century ago, is that in 1700 when the Order of the Golden Fleece came under the control of Philip V, “it was effectively a new Order”. Why? “Since no territorial right over the Low Countries existed to justify the transference of the Grand Mastership of the ancient Order to a new King of Spain belonging to the House of Bourbon”.

The fact that the Order of the Golden Fleece at this time faced an existential crisis is what makes the diploma of 25 June 1702 in the Boncompagni Ludovisi Archive so significant. The new King, styling himself as “Duc de Bourgogne” among his titles, as Grand Master and Sovereign of the Order communicates his desire to elevate his “cousin” (the usual term that European sovereigns use for their peers) Antonio Boncompagni to the Knighthood, following ancient precedent.

Detail of patent (25 June 1702) signed by King Philip V of Spain, directing that Antonio Boncompagni be inducted into the Order of the Golden Fleece = Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi Prot. 588 No. 37. Credit: HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi Archive, Villa Aurora, Rome

The diploma is written in French (the traditional language of the Order’s documents of appointment), and is signed at Milan. (Philip V spent most of the year 1702 touring Spanish holdings in Italy.) Antonio Boncompagni will have been one of the first dozen or so inductees under the new system.

Portrait (and early 20th century photo of that portrait) of Antonio Boncompagni (1658-1731) wearing the medal of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Collection HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Villa Aurora, Rome

There is one surprise. The ceremony itself will be held in Naples, and the King will not attend. Instead Philip here delegates his powers to the senior member of the Order, the Duke of Matalon, and in the event of his absence, the Count de Lemos—“the most senior of the order, after the Duke of Matalon, of those who are in the kingdom of Naples.” The references are to Dominico Marzio Carafa, 8th Duke of Maddaloni (Campania), a Knight since 1681, who had officiated over King Philip’s own induction ceremony in 1701; and Fernando de Castro Portugal (1666-1741), 11th Count of Lemos (in Galicia) and a Knight since 1692.

Detail from reverse of patent (25 June 1702) signed by King Philip V of Spain (and here specifically titled “Duke of Burgundy”), directing that Antonio Boncompagni be inducted into the Order of the Golden Fleece = Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi Prot. 588 No. 37. Antonio de Ubilla—who apparently dispatched the patent—was the king’s secretary, and accompanied him to Italy in 1702. Credit: HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi Archive, Villa Aurora, Rome

As it happens, we have a good documentary source on how the occasion turned out. A letter dated 25 November 1733, written by Antonio Boncompagni’s wife (and niece) Eleonora Boncompagni Ludovisi (1686-1745, Princess of Piombino from 1733) to their son Gaetano, details how the Knighthood was granted in Naples. She reveals that all did not go to plan. The substitute to the King’s substitute conducted the ceremony, in which Antonio Boncompagni did not even manage to receive the all-important collar.

“I don’t positively remember,” says the Princess, “why your father did not have the collar. But what I am able to say in truth is that our King, when he came to Naples, wanted himself to give the Fleece, but since your father had returned to the Isola [i.e., Isola del Liri, the spectacular site of a Boncompagni palace in southern Lazio], he was not able, on account of who knows what impediment, to make his way back to Naples.”

“And for this reason”, Princess Eleonora continues, “after His Royal Highness had departed, at Naples [Duke Antonio Boncompagni] took the Fleece from the Count of Lerna [sic], who was at that time chief of the group. But before departing from Naples, His Majesty had given it to the Duke of Atri [= Giovanni Girolamo Acquaviva d’Aragona, 15th Duke of Atri (1663-1709, who indeed was made a Knight in 1702)] and I don’t know who else. So I imagine that those necklaces that he [i.e., the king] had brought he gave to those men, and to my Duke it should have come from Spain, and since I do not believe he ever sought it, so it was forgotten.” (Letter transcribed by Giuseppe Felici in Antonio Boncompagni, VI Duca di Sora, e Eleonora Boncompagni Ludovisi, Principessa di Piombino vol. I [1947, unpublished MS] pp 41-42.)

Detail of portrait of Antonio Boncompagni (1658-1731) wearing the medal of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Collection HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Villa Aurora, Rome

Antonio Boncompagni apparently did possess the Golden Fleece medal, for it appears on his portrait in the Villa Aurora (see image above). Yet this sad episode of the missing collar may explain why for his part, Gaetano Boncompagni Ludovisi in 1736 made it a point to travel to Spain and receive his Golden Fleece personally from the hands of King Philip V.

But all this detail is simply by way of background. In Part II of this post, Madhumita Kaushik presents the 1694 text that outlines the (private) induction ceremony for the Order of the Golden Fleece.

Hyacinthe Rigaud, detail from portrait of Philip V of Spain (1701), wearing collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Versailles, Musée national du château. MV8493 (ancienne collection). In the next year king Philip was to induct Antonio Boncompagni into the Order.


  1. Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi says:


    Sent from my iPad Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi


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