The Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem was founded sometime before 1099 — perhaps as early as 1020 — as a hospice in Jerusalem to aid pilgrims to the Holy Land. The beginning of the First Crusade in 1099 began to change the character of the hospice. In 1113 Pope Pascal II issued a bull establishing a hospitaller order under the patronage of St. John the Baptist, with Bl. Gerard as its head. By 1126 the Order had begun to take a military role in defense of pilgrims. In 1142 the Order acquired Krak-des-Chevaliers, its famous headquarters in Palestine. Thereafter, the Order took a leading role, with the Templars and the Order of Saint Lazarus, in the defense of the Crusader kingdoms in Palestine.
When the Crusader kingdoms collapsed after the Fall of Jerusalem on 2 October 1187, the Order retreated to Cyprus. Tripoli fell to Islam on 26 April 1289. On 18 May 1291 St. Jean d’Acre fell. It was the last remaining Christian stronghold in the Holy Land. The Christian states of Europe did not succeed again in achieving hegemony there until the Fall of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.
In 1310 the Order retreated to Rhodes, and in 1530 to Malta. With the loss of Palestine, the crusading orders lost their focus, becoming increasingly aristocratic. The Bl. Gerard had been Rector of the Order (1100-1118). His successor Bl. Raymond du Puy was Master (1125-1158). Roger de Moulins, in the last days at Jerusalem became the first Grand Master (1183-1187). Philippe de Villiers de L’Isle Adam, who presided over the retreat to Malta, was the first to regularly use the style Excellency. In 1572 the Grand Master began to use a coronet in his coat of arms. In 1601 Alof de Vignacourt assumed the title Prince Grand Master and the style Serene Highness. In 1630 Prince Grand Master Antoine de Paule was granted the style Eminence, normally reserved to Cardinals. In 1741 his successor Manoel Pinto de Fonceca adopted the style Eminent Highness and began to use a closed (sovereign) crown in his coat of arms. Malta itself became a city of palaces.
Suppression of Protestants
During and after the Reformation the Order lost Protestant members through both expulsion and disaffection. The Order’s property was confiscated in England (1540) and Scotland (1564). The German Bailiwick of Brandenburg became Protestant in 1577 but continued as part of the Order until 1812.
In 1798 the Order surrendered the island of Malta to Napoléon. The following years were confusing. A part of the Order — now recognized as having been the legitimate body of the Order — went to Sicily, in 1826 to Ferrara, then in 1834 to Rome, where it found a permanent home.
The original Order of Malta, recognized as such by the Holy See, has retained its sovereignty in international law with extraterritorial sovereignty over its headquarters at Palazzo di Malta in Rome. The Order has diplomatic representatives in 81 countries and has Permanent Observer status at the United Nations General Assembly. The current Prince and Grand Master is Frà Matthew Festing (2008- ). He has diplomatic precedence as a head of state, nobiliary precedence as a prince, and ecclesiastical precedence equal to a cardinal.
After the fall of Malta, during the period of Napoléonic ascendancy, many splinter groups arose, typically along national lines. Although some of these survive, they are not sovereign, and many are not considered to be legitimate survivals.
After the fall of Malta to Napoléon in 1798 Czar Paul I assumed protection of the Order’s knights in Russia and was elected Grand Master. His action was not sanctioned by the Holy See. In 1810 Czar Alexander I seized the Order’s property in Russia and discontinued appointing new knights. The surviving knights — perhaps — took steps to preserve their part of the Order, giving rise to several splinter groups.
- For information about the possible continuation of the Russian Grand Priory, see A Brief History of the Order of St. John.
In 1812 the King of Prussia founded the Royal Prussian Order of Saint John, which incorporated the Protestant members of the Sovereign Order. In 1853, it was reconstituted as the Bailiwick of Brandenburg (”Die Balley Brandenburg des ritterlichen Ordens St Johannis vom Spital zu Jerusalem”). It became the mother group for Protestant orders of St. John throughout Europe organized along national lines. Thus, it is now commonly called the German Johanniter Order and its daughter orders are also Johanniter orders. In the German order, noble proofs are not required to become a knight, but membership is limited to members of the Lutheran and Reformed faiths.
After the restoration of the Bourbons to the throne of France in 1815, the French knights organized a Capitular Commission to order their affairs. The Commission admitted new members, which were then confirmed by the Sovereign Order. However, the Commission admitted Protestant members in contravention of the statutes of the Order. A conflict developed between the Commission and the Order by 1817. In 1824 the French government dissolved the Commission. Nevertheless, the Commission continued to operate until 1830. Thereafter, the members recognized by the Sovereign Order presumably submitted to it, while those not so recognized attempted to continue as a splinter group.
English knights admitted by the French Capitular Commission organized themselves into an English splinter group. It received a royal charter from Queen Victoria in 1888 as the Most Venerable Order of St. John. The current Grand Master is HRH Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
In 1797 a group of Scottish Knights of Malta allied themselves to the Orange order under the name of the Royal Black Association of the Religious and Military Order, Knights of Malta. In 1807 HRH Prince Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland was elected Grand Master in separate elections by both organizations, but then resigned in 1820 following a parliamentary inquiry. He became King of Hanover in 1837.
The patronage of a royal prince gave an aura of legitimacy, but the origin of the Scottish body is not clear. It seems likely they were originally a quasi-Masonic organization who accepted Chevalier Ramsay’s assertion the Scottish Hospitallers survived the dissolution of the Order in 1564 by entering Freemasonry.
The Scottish order established branches in Canada (1829), England (1842), Australia (1868), and the United States (1874). These branches gave rise to dozens of splinter groups of varying character, some as nobiliary associations, some as confraternities, and some as simple fraternal orders.
United States and Canada
A branch of the Scottish group in Canada and the United States, called the Knights of St. John and Malta, has similarly given rise to many splinter groups, including the Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitaller. My grandfather George W. Carroll Place was Commander 1914-1958 of Rock Island Commandery in the Knights of St. John and Malta.
- For information about the many dubious Orders of St. John, see Guy Stair Sainty’s The Self-styled Orders of Saint John.