The Noble Brotherhood of Saint George of Burgundy was created in 1390 by Phillibert de Mollans in Franche-Comte (Burgundy) to honor the relics of Saint-George that he had brought back from the Holy Land. Phillibert de Mollans was squire to Philip II “the Bold”, the Duke of Burgundy. It is helpful to examine the development of the Order in the context of geopolitical and historical developments of the day including that of other great Orders of the time. Burgundy at the time was a fiercely independent kingdom and as such had an ambiguous relationship with France.
The History and Legend of St George
In 1348, George was adopted by Edward III as principal Patron of his new order of chivalry, the Knights of the Garter. St George is the patron saint of England and among the most famous of Christian figures although little is known of the man himself. Early writings, in 322 AD, tell of a soldier of noble birth who was put to death under Diocletian at Nicomedia on 23 April, 303. However, no mention was made of his name, country or indeed his place of burial. It is thought George was in the Roman army and held the rank of tribune and was eventually beheaded by Diocletian for protesting against the Emperor’s persecution of Christians. George rapidly became venerated throughout Christendom as an example of bravery in defense of the poor and the defenseless and of the Christian faith.
The Acts of St George, which recounted his visits to Glastonbury, while on service in England were translated into Anglo-Saxon. George was subsequently adopted as the patron saint of soldiers after he was said to have appeared to the Crusader army in 1098 at the Siege of Antioch, and won a great victory. It was told how George had appeared to Richard the Lionheart during his Crusade against the Saracens and was to serve as a great encouragement to his troops. He became the great “knight in shining armour” to which every young soldier aspired. His legendary tales of heroism were gradually transferred from Palestine by the returning armies through Europe, across to England.
Many similar stories were transmitted to the West by Crusaders who had in turn had heard them from troops in the Byzantine army. Subsequently, these stories were further circulated by the troubadours. In 1191- 92 when King Richard 1 was campaigning in Palestine he put his army under the protection of the banner of St George. This banner, which depicts the red cross of a martyr on a white background, was to become the flag of England and also the White Ensign of the Royal Navy. During Edward 111’s campaigns in France in 1345- 49, pennants bearing the red cross on a white background were ordered for the king’s ship and uniforms in the same style for the men at arms.
The virtues associated with St George and indeed the chivalry of the knights of St. George of Burgundy, such as courage, honour and fortitude in defense of the Christian faith, remain as important as ever. St George is also venerated in the Church of England, by the Orthodox churches, the Churches of the Near East and by Ethiopia. The supposed tomb of St George can be found at Lod near Tel-Aviv and in a convent in Cairo there are personal objects that are believed to have belonged to George.
There are several stories that are associated with Saint George; perhaps most famously, the ‘Golden Legend’ in which a dragon lived in a lake near Silena, Libya. Although whole armies had gone up against this fierce dragon, all were defeated. The villagers pacified the creature by feeding it two sheep each day, however when mutton was scarce lots were drawn in local villages, and maidens were now to be substituted for the sheep. When St George heard about the plight of the villagers and that a princess was to be eaten, he crossed himself, rode to battle against the beast and killed it with a single blow of his lance. George then held a magnificent sermon and converted all the villagers. He was then given a large reward by the grateful King which George swiftly distributed to the poor, before riding away.
St George is venerated as the patron saint in a large number of places today, including Aragon, Catalonia, Georgia, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, Germany and Greece, Moscow, Istanbul, Genoa and Venice where St George is second to St Mark.
The sixth century kingdom of Burgundy was one of the earliest Christian Gallic states but, based at Arles, had little connection with the Capetian duchy established in the fourteenth century, other than its name. In the early ninth century an artificial Burgundian kingdom was created, following the death of the Emperor Charlemagne, to provide a suitable inheritance for his youngest son. This was short lived and, by the middle of the century, it had been divided into what are now generally known as Provence, the Franche-Comté (or County of Burgundy, attached initially to the Crown of Lotharingia but later an immediate fief of the Empire), and the Duchy of Burgundy, which became a fief of the French Crown. This last, with its capital at Dijon, was given by King Robert I of France to his third son Robert before 1043. With the death of the latter’s last male descendant in the male line, Philip I, Duke of Burgundy, in 1361, it returned as a fief to the Crown.
The Duchy, with all that it possessed in the County of Burgundy, was then granted as a Duché-Pairie(Duchy-Peerage – the premier Peerage of France) by John I, King of France, to his fourth son Philip of France and his heirs and successors 6 September 1363. These required that, like all peerages, it revert to the Crown in the event of the failure of heirs. This donation was confirmed the following year by Duke Philip II’s elder brother, now King as Charles V, 2 June 1364; denying the pretensions to the title of Philip, Duke of Orléans.
In 1369 the new Duke concentrated his power by marrying Marguerite, Countess of Flanders and Artois, the widow of the preceding Duke of Burgundy. She not only brought him these two wealthy Counties, but gave him the opportunity to successfully claim the Imperial County of Burgundy (Franche-Comté).
Duke Philip II (the Bold) died in 1404, and was succeeded by his eldest son, John.
Duke John further consolidated the Burgundian estates, obtaining control of most of the Netherlands, then the wealthiest lands in northern Europe. Assassinated in 1419, he was succeeded by his only son, Duke Philip III the Good. By 1430 Philip was not only Duke of Burgundy and Premier Peer of France, but also Sovereign Duke of Brabant, Lotharingia, and Limburg (acquiring Luxembourg in 1443), Count of Flanders and Peer of France, Count of Artois, Burgundy (Franche-Comté), Hainaut, Holland, Zeeland, Namur and Charolais, Marquess of the Holy Roman Empire, Lord of Frieseland, etc, and wealthier than any contemporary European Monarch.
The Confraternity (1430-1484)
Philip “the Good”, in imitation of the neo-Arthurian Order of his sometime ally the King of England (Order of the Garter, founded by Edward III in 1348 – an order to which Philip II was elected in 1422), and to revive the chivalric traditions that he admired, founded the Order of the Golden Fleece in 1430. Like the Garter, it too was restricted to 24 Knights predominantly sovereigns and princes. Philippe the Good authorized the Brotherhood of St George to wear its decoration, an image in gold of the Saint riding on horseback, killing the dragon with a spear, suspended to a red ruban identical to the one of the Golden Fleece.
In response to the dissatisfaction of the feudal lords who were not admitted, William of Vienna (the first recipient of the Golden Fleece) created another order of St George with the agreement of the Duke. During the subsequent years of wars and unification of the duchy to the crown of France, this second order of St Georges was destroyed with the demise of Charles I around 1477 and the surviving members incorporated into the earlier Brotherhood of St Georges of Burgundy. At least two members of St George were also known members of the Golden Fleece; Guillaume de Vienne and Pierre de Bauffremont
The Governor of the Confraternity around 1435 chose to begin the annual tradition of gathering Knights to honour the relics of St George in a chapel that he owned close to the city of Rougemont on April 23, St George’s day (as does the Order of the Garter gather on April 23rd, at St George’s chapel in Windsor Castle).
It is known that members of the Confraternity were required sixteen quarters of nobility – ten on the father’s side; to be from “Franche-Comte?”, and at least sixteen years old. A donation of 300 livre was also required. The Governor General was elected for life by the Knights. The other officers were a Prelat, a Chancelor, a Treasurer and two secretaries.
Although the Dukes of Burgundy had supported the English in their war with France and Philip “the Good” himself had coveted the French Crown, the Duke was reconciled with his cousin in 1435 and paid homage for his Duchy-Peerage of Burgundy at the coronation of Louis XI in 1461. In 1477 Philip’s granddaughter Mary married the Holy Roman Emperor Maxmilian I (Hapsburg) who gained Franche Comte as a result.
The Equestrian Order (1485-1788)
At the request of Philip “the Good” the Confraternity in 1485 was made Canonically into an Equestrian Order, approved by Pope Innocent VIII.
Throughout its history, the Order had benefited from Royal prerogatives and members of notable profile included Cardinal Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, the right hand man of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and one of the most influential diplomats and churchman of the 16th century. As a man of humble non-noble birth, his membership in the Order – despite strict prerequisites – demonstrates that the Order had the good sense to value the merit of outstanding personal achievement and character.
In 1648, the Order established itself in Besancon, the capital of Franche-Comte, rather than at Dole, then the capital of Burgundy as the Knights aligned themselves in political opposition to the parliament in Dole. The basis for this is thought to be a natural opposition between the knights, composed of “nobles de l’epee” (nobles of the sword), the very old nobility descended from feudal lords or even earlier, and the parliament, composed of the “noblesse de robe” (nobility of dress), the enriched commoners that achieved nobility through political office or bought patent-letters. However, it is also thought that political or economic interests played as much a part of this as pure class strife.
A room was dedicated to the Order in the Tower of Montmartin. Knights of St George were the only nobles of the city to benefit of this privilege. The Confraternity also gathered often at Vesoul and on April 23rd 1661 at Salin. Subsequently, meetings were held again in Besancon at the covent of the Grand Carmes, founded by a noble knight Jean de Vienne.
After the French conquest in 1668 and the annexion of Franche-Comte to France, with the treaty of Nijmegan in 1678, Louis XIV chose to tolerate the knights of the Order, despite their resistance to the invaders. The King authorized the knights to wear their medal of St George suspended to a blue moir? (watered) ruban, identical to the Order of the Holy Spirit created by the French crown to rival the Burgundian order of the Golden Fleece; this in order to gain the support of the nobility of those territories.
Louis XV and Louis XVI maintained the same privileges even gave their own Portrait to the Order with the mention “Given by the King to the Knights of St George”. The portraits decorated the room of the covent of the Grands Carmes along with the portrait of Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Prince de Conde, who occupied an important place in the French court, where he was Chief of the House of the King. He was also Governor of Burgundy and a general in the French army. Unfortunately the room was destroyed during the Revolution.
The Order’s Coat of Arms was registered in 1696. New Statutes were written during the general assembly of the 25th of April 1768.
From the French Revolution to the Abolition (1789-1824)
The Revolution and Napoleonic wars virtually wiped out the Order; only 25 members remained in 1814. In 1816, at the end of the war, the survivors gathered under the control of a Colonel of the Dragoons, Charles-Emmanuel, Marquis of Saint-Maurice (1735-1839), Baron de Chatenois et de la Villeneuve, comte de Saulx et Genevrey, then Marshal of the armies of the King and Inspector General of the National Guard.
The statutes written on the 25th of April 1768 are changed and new knights are made for a total of 78 in 1817, the last investiture ceremony.
Thereafter, all orders of chivalry from the Ancien Regime were abolished by a decree from King Louis XVIII on the 16th of April 1824, and the Order was forbidden to wear the insignia of the Order. The last knight was the Marquis Jouffroy d’Abbans who died in 1869.
The Confraternity of the Knights of Saint George of Burgundy (1825~Present)
Throughout the 19th and 20th century, the Order had lapses in periods of warfare and geopolitical instability, but through the effort of dedicated individuals such as the new Governor General, H.E. Louis-Francois Saumon, elected in June 2004, the Confraternity has renewed its sense of mission and place in history.
The Governor General has established an international network of delegates, the efforts of which are supported by many prelates of the Catholic Church including two Bishops. The Confraternity has further been registered as a Faithful Association in Italy accordingly to Canonic Law.
The rich history of the Order of St George continues to motivate men and women to who share these values of chivalry throughout the world with regular events held in Italy, Germany, France, Japan and other locations. It has survived, as it originated, as a private association of gentlemen of good will – a Confraternity; a Brotherhood.