The Orders of St John of Jerusalem


A Brief History of the Orders of St John of Jerusalem

The Hospital of St John of Jerusalem origi­nated in the second half of the eleventh century as a dependency of the Benedictine abbey of St Mary of the Latins. With the success of the First Crusade in 1099 and the Christian occupation of Jerusalem, it was endowed in Europe as well as in the Levant. In 1113 Pope Paschalis liberated it from Benedictine control and during the next fifty years its rule was composed, it became privileged as an exempt order of the church, military obligations were added to hospitaller functions and an international structure developed, based on priories (later called grand priories) and commanderies. In everything the order expressed the radical ideal of the lordship of the poor and the sick.

Driven from Jerusalem in 1187 it established its seat of government in Acre on the Palestinian coast. By now fully developed, it had become a major military and political force. With the loss of the Holy Land in 1291 it moved its headquarters to Limassol in Cyprus, before transferring them to the island of Rhodes in 1309. Governing Rhodes for over two centuries as a frontier order-state, it added to its own extensive possessions in Europe most of the properties of the Knights Templar, whose order had been dissolved in 1312.

Rhodes fell to the Turks in 1522. Granted Malta by the emperor Charles V, the Order moved there in 1530, famously withstood a Turkish assault in 1565 and created another order-state, over which it assumed full sovereignty until the end of the eighteenth century. The fall of Malta to Napoleon in 1798 ushered in nearly forty years of stagnation, but with the establishment of its headquarters in Rome in 1834 the Order, by then known as The Sovereign Military Hospital/er Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, embarked on a work of restoration in which its structure was reformed and the care of the sick again became its priority. Since its move to Rome the Order’s international status and rights to sovereignty have been even more widely confirmed through their recognition by many countries throughout the world.

Two circumstances gave birth to the Orders of St John in the Alliance. The first of these was the Reformation. The Order lost estates and position in those countries which had adopted the Reformed Faith, but the bailiwick of Brandenburg, now known as Die Balley Brandenburg des.Ritterlichen Ordens Sankt Johannis vom Spital zu Jerusalem, which already in the middle ages had enjoyed a measure of independence from the grand priory of Germany, remained in being as a Lutheran institution. lt bought its freedom from the grand magistry, but maintained quite close ties with Malta in the eighteenth century. Converted into a civil order in 1812, its surviving knights provided the basis for its revival in its earlier form by the crown of Prussia in 1852. lt is recognized as an Order by the Federal Republic of Germany. lts members include Protestant nobles from neighbouring countries. Two of its foreign commanderies transformed themselves into independent Orders in 1946. The Johanniter Orde in Nederland had Prince Bernhard as its head. Johanniterorden i Sverige had the King of Sweden as Herre och Mästare; the present king is the high protector.

The second circumstance was engendered by the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and the consequent loss of Malta. The control of the provinces by the Order’s government was tenuous. After the restoration of the monarchy in France those knights of Malta who were resident there offered knighthoods to certain persons in Great Britain, as part of a larger plan and without the authority of the lieutenant Grandmaster. The body which thereby came into being was not recognized by the Grand Magistry as a revival of the grand priory of England, which, together with the grand priory of lreland, had been dissolved in the Reformation, but its charitable achievements led in 1888 to its reconstitution as an order of the British crown as The Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem.

A Shared Tradition

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta and the four orders in The Alliance of Orders of St John of Jerusalem – Die Balley Brandenburg des Ritterlichen Ordens Sankt Johannis vom Spital zu Jerusalem, The Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, De Johanniter Orde in Nederland and Johannniterorden i Sverige – share a commitment to the traditions established by The Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem in the Middle Ages.

The Medieval Order

The Hospital of St John of Jerusalem was an order of the Catholic Church, which expressed love of God and neighbour in practical action. lts brothers and sisters were committed to a radical version of the Christian ideal of service to poor pilgrims, ‚the holy poor of Christ‘, whom they cared for when they were sick and treated as their ‚lords‘, irrespective of their religion. In time they extended this care to every sick person, whatever his or her condition. To them a sick man or woman really represented the person of Christ and should be treated as such. And so they aimed to provide nursing and medical care of the highest quality in appropriate surroundings.

The order also came to express its vocation in helping to defend the poor, and, by extension, all Christians, when they were physically threatened. lt developed into a ‚military order‘, which played a prominent part in the defence of Christian Europe until the late eighteenth century. In that role, it paid that attention to excellence which it had already shown in its care of the sick.

lt was, therefore, a Christian religious order, the functions of which were expressed in the phrases tuitio fidei (defence of the faith) and obsequium pauperum (allegiance to the poor), as well as in the motto pro fide et pro utilitate hominum (for the faith and the service of humankind).

The Modern Orders

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta is the original order. lt is an order of the Roman Catholic church. The four orders in the Alliance, stemming from the same root, are orders of chivalry as well as being Christian confraternities. The Balley Brandenburg and the Dutch and Swedish Orders are Protestant. The Most Venerable Order has members drawn from all Christian denominations. In all these orders there is the obligation to uphold and exemplify the Christian faith.

Military functions have been abandoned, but values which are traditionally associated with nobility and chivalry are still of central importance. They are reflected in terminology, such as in the use of the title of knight; in discipline; and in very strict conditions for membership.

Sharing a unique vocation to subject themselves to the lordship of the sick and the poor, these five orders are committed to treating the infirm, whatever their religion, as their superiors, rendering to them that respect and quality of treatment which would be due to Christ himself. This, and their centuries-old tradition, distinguishes them from other international or national bodies engaged in similar charitable work.

(Source: Annex to „The Orders of St. John, Agreement on International Co-operation“, Rome 22 October 2004)