The origins of the Order date back to shortly after 1050, and has focused on aiding the sick and the poor and developing methods to improve survival rates and patient care. A convent was built in Jerusalem which became the Benedictine monastery of St. John the Baptist, later as John of Jerusalem, the patron of the Order. It was on the adjacent site that the first Hospice was built.
After the successful occupation of Jerusalem by the first Crusade, a group of knights discovered the hospice run by Brother Gerard in 1099. This hospice used very advanced techniques for the day. It kept clean facilities, each resident slept in an individual bed and food dishes were not shared, all of which led to a superior survival rate.
The group of knights joined in the hospice’s charitable works, thus strengthening what would evolve into the Sovereign Order of Saint. John. On February 15, 1113, Pope Pascal II, through his Papal Bull, recognised this Knight Hospitaller order as a self-governing organisation.
The Order evolved into a Christian, chivalric, ecumenical and sovereign military Order which continued the work of helping the sick and the poor while also defending Christians in the Holy Land. In Western Europe, the Order embodied the essence of the Crusades, uniting arms and religion to serve where needed in the name of the Faith and for Humanity.
After Jerusalem was lost in 1187, the Order moved to Acre in Palestine, then to Cyprus and then on to Rhodes. After 200 years in Rhodes, the Order was driven out in 1524. In March of 1530, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, signed the Act of Donation of Malta, giving the islands to the Order. In return, the Order made an annual payment of a single falcon, given on All Saint’s Day.
Siege of Malta
The possession of Malta, with its strategic location, helped the Order keep the seas open between Malta, France, Spain, Italy, and Palestine.
In 1565, 600 knights and 6,000 men-at-arms, led by Grand Master Jean de la Valette, faced 40,000 Ottoman Turks, and despite great losses, drove off the enemy. This, and the defeat of the Turks in the naval Battle of Lepanto, which also involved the Order, would stop the Ottomans from further expanding their empire in the Western Mediterranean and slowed their movement through Western Europe.
The Order separated into smaller groups after being forced from Malta by Napoleon in 1798. The modern day Order is descended from Grand Master Tsar Paul’s Russian Priories after the Fall of Malta.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 resulted in another forced relocation of the Order headquarters. The Order’s relics were smuggled to the Russian Royal family’s cousins, the Royal family of Yugoslavia. Today’s Order is based on the 1963 Charter and the 1964 Constitution of King Peter II of Yugoslavia.
The primary principle laid out in the 1964 Constitution is that of universal charity, regardless of race, religion or class. The militant aspect of the Order faded after the forced exile from Russia.
In 1998, the King Peter II Constitution was amended to remove all restrictions on women members (Dames). They have since filled many of the senior roles in the organisation.
Grand Master Jean de la Valette
Painting in St John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta, depicting the siege of 1565
Arrival of the Turkish fleet
Painting by Matteo Perez d' Aleccio