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The Cross of St John Part I: For the Faith

Published December 11, 2019 by Dr John Mueller

Cross Of St John, St John Ambulance, Order Of St John, Knight Hospitallers, Order Of Malta

Caring Monks & Besieged Knights

The white cross on a black ground is a familiar sight in Britain. Most usually we come across it at large public events, emblazoned on ambulances and on the uniforms of medical staff or, if you look closely, on Dr Who's Tardis. The St John Ambulance service in the UK is governed by the grandly named Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, which also provides health and wellbeing services in almost all Commonwealth countries and the US, including the St John Eye Hospital Group in Israel and Palestine.

The Order of St John, as it is more usually referred to, traces its origins back to the Hospital of St John in Jerusalem, which emerged around 1048. The hospital probably existed before and had the care of sick pilgrims within the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Order is first discernible as a monastic community around 1099, under the Blessed Gerard, who is regarded as the founder of the 'Hospitallers'. The white cross became the symbol of the order around this time, the eight points representing the eight beatitudes given by Jesus at the Sermon of the Mount. This emphasised the role of the Order in caring for the poor 'in spirit', those mourning, the meek, the righteous, the merciful, the pure at heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted. The Grand Master of the Order had the title of 'Most Humble Guardian of the Poor of Jesus Christ'. The Order was given a Papal bull a few decades later and was additionally tasked with the defence of vulnerable and sick pilgrims as part of their duties of care as 'Knight Hospitallers'. The shift towards a defensive role came gradually with the decline of the Christian presence in the Holy Land. The Order was finally expelled after the Siege of Acre in 1291 and fled first to Cyprus and then to Rhodes. The role of the Order shifted further, becoming a powerful military and naval presence centred on Rhodes, defending not just pilgrims, but also joining crusaders. Both lay brothers and priests were recruited into the Order from all parts of Europe, the eight points of the cross being re-interpreted as representing the eight 'Langues' or 'Tongues' from which membership was drawn: Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Aragon, England, Germany, and Castille and Portugal. Each area had its own administration, hospitals, churches and land under the care and administration of Knights Hospitallers. In recognition of their role as the primary Christian naval presence in the Mediterranean, the Grand Masters of the Order were granted the status of princes by the Pope. Thus, across Europe, the Knights were not answerable to the local rules, but to the Grand Master in Rhodes.

After a six months siege the last Grand Master on Rhodes surrendered to Suleiman the Magnificent, leaving the island with the entire Order in 1523. The Order was granted Malta as a new territory in 1530 by the Holy Roman Emperor – the 'rent' for which was a Maltese Falcon. Malta was also besieged, again by Suleiman, in 1565, but defended. The whole of the 16th century was one of crisis for the Order. The Protestant Reformation swept Europe, questioning the authority given to representatives of the Order in the new Lutheran states and England. The Bailiwick (a unit of St John administration) of Brandenburg broke away in Germany and the Orders possessions in Britain seized by the state during the dissolution of the monasteries.

In many reformed countries the Order continued to exist under direct rule of the respective monarch. Prince Otto von Bismarck was one of the most prominent members of the Prussian (Brandenburg) Order. Post-reformation the Roman Catholic part of the Order described itself as the 'Order of Malta' after the island which remained their property until Napoleon, almost literally, walked off his ship and into the Grand Master's Palace, ending the reign of the Order in an afternoon in the late 18th century. By the early 19th century the Order was split, disenfranchised and largely without any purpose, safe possibly as a club for impoverished aristocrats.

Dr John Mueller is Director of Studies in History at St Edmund's College, Cambridge and Alumni & Supporter Relations Manager at the Woolf Institute. Find out more about him. He has recently made a television documentary of the PhD he wrote under Professor Sir Richard Evans. His latest contribution is available from Hentrich & Hentrich here.

A second blog post by John concluding the story is available here.

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