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The Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem ( ), or simply the Order of St. John, is a royal order of chivalry established in 1831 and found today throughout the Commonwealth of Nations, the United States of Americamarker, Hong Kongmarker, and Irelandmarker, with the world-wide mission "to prevent and relieve sickness and injury, and to act to enhance the health and well-being of people anywhere in the world." The order's approximately 25,000 confrères, supported by 4,000 employees, and 250,000 volunteers, are mainly of the Protestant faith, though those of other Christian denomination may be accepted into the order, and honorary membership is presented to distinguished adherents of other religions. Except via appointment to certain government or ecclesiastical offices in some realms, membership in the order is by invitation only, and individuals may not petition for admission. It is perhaps best known through its largest service organization, St. John's Ambulance, whose membership is not limited to any denomination or religion.


In June 1826, the Council of the French Langues a self-proclaimed revival of the Order of Malta in Francemarker sought to raise through private venture, funded by subscription, sufficient money to restore a homeland for the resurrected society. However, this was essentially a cover under which to create a mercenary army of unemployed Englishmarker soldiers and using readily available cheap war surplus. Philippe de Castelain, a French knight, was thus appointed by the council to negotiate with suitable persons in England, where Scotsmanmarker Donald Currie was given the authority to raise £240,000. While anyone who subscribed to the scheme and all commissioned officer of the mercenary army were granted the right to become knights of the order, this attracted few donations; the Greek War of Independence had been won without the help of the knights of the Council of the French Langues. In response, Castelain and Currie were allowed by the so-called Chevallier de Sainte-Croix to form the Council of the English Langue, which was innagurated on 12 January 1831, under the executive power of a man who called himself "Count" Alexander Mortara, and headquartered at the "Auberge of St. John, St. John's Gatemarker, St John's Square, Clerkenwellmarker." This was the Old Jerusalem Tavern, a public house occupying what had once been the gatehouse to the Clerkenwell Priorymarker, the mediæval Grand Priory of the Knights Hospitaller, otherwise known as the Knights of Saint John.

The Reverend Sir Robert Peat, the absentee Perpetual Curate of St. Lawrence in Brentford, Middlesex, and one of the many former Chaplains to the Prince George, Prince Regent (the future King George IV), was recruited by the council as a member of the society. He and other British members of the group, with the backing of the Council of the French Langues, then, on the grounds that he had been selling knighthoods, expelled Mortara, leading to two competing English chivalric groups between early 1832 and Mortara's disappearance in 1837. Peat was thus credited as being the first Grand Prior of the association, though this is not mentioned in any of his obituaries, leading W.B.H. in January 1919 to write in the journal Notes & Queries: "His name is not in the knights' list, and he was never 'Prior in the Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem": he became an ordinary member of that Order [sic] on Nov 11, 1830." Regardless, Peat died in April 1837 and Sir Henry Dymoke was appointed Grand Prior and he re-established contact with the knights in France and Germanymarker, where the group had also by that time expanded to. However, up to the late 1830s, the British arm of the organization had only considered itself to be a Grand Priory and Langue of the Order of St. John, having never officially been recognized as such by the actual order. Dymoke sought to rectify this by seeking acknowledgement from the Roman Catholic headquarters of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, but that group's Lieutenant Grand Master, then Philippe de Colloredo-Mansfeld, refused the request. In response to this rebuff, the British body declared itself to be the sovereign Order of St. John in the United Kingdom, under the title The Sovereign and Illustrious Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, Anglia, thereby founding the modern myth of the order's direct succession from that Order of St. John that was established in the 11th century.

This new order grew in population over the ensuing decades, during which The Duke of Manchester was in 1861 recruited as Grand Prior and a national hospitaller organization was formed when the Order of St. John acquired a corps of ambulances. In 1871, a new constitution brought about further changes to the group's name, offering the more modest Order of Saint John of Jerusalem in England, and, five years later, Princess Alexandra, Princess of Wales, was recruited into its membership, followed by her husband, Prince Edward, Prince of Wales. In 1877, The order established at large railway centres and mining districts various St. John Ambulance associations, so that railway men and colliers could learn how to treat victims of accidents; in 1882, the Grand Priory founded a hospice and ophthalmic dispensary in Jerusalemmarker; and by 1887, had created the St. John Ambulance Brigade, which undertook practical and life-saving work. The Order of St. John's biggest leap forward, however, came in 1888, when Queen Victoria granted the society a royal charter, yet again renaming the order, this time as the Grand Priory of the Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem in England. This was altered in 1926 to the Grand Priory in the British Realm of the Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, and then in 1936 as the Grand Priory in the British Realm of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. It in 1961 played a role in the establishment of the Alliance of the Orders of St. John of Jerusalem, and thereafter finally received through a concordat in 1963 collateral recognition by the Order of Malta. The most recent royal charter was issued in 1955, with a supplemental charter released in 1974, recognizing the world-wide scope of the organization by setting its present name. In 1999, the order was granted special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.


Officers and grades

The reigning monarch of each of the Commonwealth realms is at the apex of the Order of St. John as its Sovereign Head, followed by The Duke of Gloucester, as Grand Prior since 1974. He, along with the four or five other Great Officers the Lord Prior of St. John, who acts as the lieutenant and deputy to the Grand Prior; the Prelate, an member of Episcopal rank in the Church of England; the Deputy Lord Prior or Priors, depending on the Grand Prior's needs, who act as lieutenants and deputies to the Lord Prior; and the Sub-Prelate, who has interests in the Commanderies and associations of the organization as well as the Priors and Chancellors of each of the order's eight priories, and the Hospitaller, make up the Grand Council. On recommendation of that body, the Grand Prior appoints all the Grand Officers, besides himself, and may also appoint members of either Grade I or Grade II as other officers, known as the Principal Officers, such as the Secretary-General, and honorary officers, such as the Genealogist, who all hold office for a period not exceeding three years. The Grand Prior may also appoint a Secretary of the order, who holds office at the pleasure of the Grand Prior or until resignation. A subset of the Grand Council is the Honours and Awards Committee, which considers all recommendations for appointment or promotion into the grade of Bailiff or Dame Grand Cross, appointment or promotion into any grade of a person not resident within any priory's territory, and advises the Grand Council in respect of the award of the Life-Saving Medal and Service Medal.

Thereafter follows the members of the order, who are divided into six hierarchical grades, all having accordant post-nominal letters. Grade I is limited to only the members of the Grand Council plus no more than 21 others, though any heads of state and members of the royal family of a Commonwealth realm, other Commonwealth of Nations member-state, or foreign country, may be appointed as a Bailiff or Dame Grand Cross without counting towards the total population; All Priors, should they not already be in the grade or higher, are made a Knight or Dame of Justice upon their assignment; this formerly enabled them, along with all Bailiffs and Dames Grand Cross, to nominate two personal Esquires, just as each Knight or Dame of Grace could nominate one personal Esquire, subject to the Grand Council's scrutiny. This has now been discontinued, although priories may appoint Priory Esquires (who are not members of the order) for ceremonial purposes.

Grades of the Order of St. John:
Grade Grade I Grade II Grade III Grade IV Grade V Grade VI
Title (English) Bailiff/Dame Grand Cross Knights/Dames of Justice or Grace Commander Officer Member Esquire
Title (French) Bailli/Dame grand-croix Chevallier/Dame du justice ou grâce Commandeur Officier Membre Esquire
Post-nominal letters GCStJ KStJ/DStJ CStJ OStJ MStJ EsqStJ
Knights and Dames receive the accolade from the Grand Prior when they are touched on the shoulder with a sword and are given their robes and insignia. However, no title or post-nominal letters of the order are used outside the organization itself, and a Knight and Dame may not use the prefix sir or dame, though they may request from their local heraldic authority a personal coats of arms, should they not already possess any, and have it adorned with emblems of the Order of St. John. Further, membership in the order only grants precedence within the society, which is as follows:

  1. The Sovereign Head
  2. The Grand Prior
  3. The Lord Prior of St. John
  4. The Prior of a Priory or the Knight or Dame Commander of a Commandery when within the territory of the establishment
  5. The Prelate of the Order
  6. The Deputy Lord Prior or the Deputy Lord Priors and if more than one in the order of seniority in their grades
  7. The Sub-Prior of the Order
  8. Former Great Officers
  9. Bailiffs and Dames Grand Cross
  10. The Prior of a Priory or the Knight or Dame Commander of a Commandery outside the territory of the establishment
  11. Members of the Grand Council not included above in the order of seniority in their grades
  12. The Principal Officers in the order of their offices
  13. The Sub-Prelates and the Honorary Sub-Prelates
  14. The Hospitaller of the Order
  15. Knights and Dames
  16. Chaplains
  17. Commanders
  18. Officers
  19. Serving Brothers and Serving Sisters
  20. Esquires

Precedence within each grade is dictated by dates of appointment, save for those in Grade I who are either a head of state or a member of the royal family of a Commonwealth realm, another Commonwealth country, or foreign state, in which case they all precede the other members of the grade in the following order:

  1. Members of the Commonwealth realms' royal family
  2. Heads of state from the Commonwealth of Nations
  3. Foreign Heads of State
  4. Members of other Commonwealth royal families
  5. Members of foreign royal families

Priories and commanderies

Following constitutional changes made in 1999, the Priory of England and The Islands was established (including the Commandery of Ards in Northern Irelandmarker) alongside the existing Priories of Walesmarker, Scotlandmarker, Canadamarker, Australia (including the Commandery of Western Australiamarker), New Zealandmarker, South Africa, and, since 1996, the United Statesmarker, each of which is governed by a Prior and a Priory Chapter. Commanderies, governed by a Knight or Dame Commander and a Commandery Chapter, may exist within or wholly or partly without the territory of a Priory, known as Dependent or Independent Commanderies, respectively. Any country without a Priory or Commandery of its own is assumed into the "home priory" of England and The Islands, many of these being smaller Commonwealth of Nations states in which the order has only a minor presence.

The Order of St. John is said to have arrived in Canada in 1648, as the second Governor of New France, Charles de Montmagny, was a member of the original order, but it was not until 1883 that the first branch of the modern organization was established in the country, at Quebec Citymarker, growing to 12 branches by 1892. The Order of St. John today forms part of the Canadian national honours system, and the Priory, established in 1946 out of the Commandery of Canada, is the largest outside of the United Kingdom, with some 6,000 members. The Canadian monarch's viceroy, the Governor General, serves as the Prior and Chief Officer in Canada, while the provincial viceroys the Lieutenant Governors act as the Vice-Priors, overseeing the administration of the order in their respective province. These individuals thus automatically become Knights or Dames of Justice or Grace upon their swearing-into viceregal office.

An American Society of the Order of St. John was established in 1957 as a foundation to assist the order with charitable work, after 1961 focusing its efforts specifically on the St. John Opthalmic Hospital in Jerusalem and some other organizations aiding the sick. This branch was successful enough that Queen Elizabeth II in 1996 officially created the Priory of the United States of America, the seventh Priory at the time, with John R. Drexel as the first Prior. By late 2000, the US Priory had approximately 1,100 members. As citizens of a country that did not have the sovereignty of the Order of St. John vested in its head of state, American inductees who first joined the new Priory were specifically asked to only "pay due obedience" to the governing authorities of the order "in all things consistent with your duty to your own country," thus eliminating any question of loyalty to a foreign head of state superseding American postulants' duties as US citizens.

Vestments and insignia

Upon admission into the Order of St. John, confrères are gifted various insignia of the organization, each level and office being represented by different emblems and robes for wear at important occasions for the order. Common for all members except Esquires is the badge, consisting of an eight-pointed Maltese cross embellished in the four principal angles alternately with two lions passant guardant and two unicorns passant. That for the Sovereign Head is gold with arms of white enamel and the embellishments rendered in gold, all surmounted by a jeweled St. Edward's Crown, while those for the officers of the order are the same save for the Grand Prior's having the crown made only of gold; the Lord Prior's having in place of the St. Edward's Crown the coronet in gold of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales; and the Prelate's having instead a representation of a Mitre in gold. Thereafter, the badges are prescribed as follows:

Badges of the Order of St. John:
Grade Bailiffs/Dames Grand Cross Knights/Dames of Justice Knights/Dames of Grace Commanders Officers Members
Material Enamel Enamel Enamel Enamel Enamel Silver
Backing and embellishments Gold Gold Silver Silver Silver Silver

All Bailiffs and Dames Grand Cross may wear their badges either at the left hip on a (for men) or (for women) wide, black watered silk ribbon over the right shoulder or from a wide black band at the collar. Male Knights Justice or Grace must carry their badges on a 16.5mm wide ribbon at the neck, and Commanders, Officers, and Members have theirs on a straight ribbon suspended from a medal bar on the left chest, while females in all grades may wear their insignia either on a ribbon bow pinned at the left shoulder or hung from a medal bar in the men's fashion, depending on the circumstance and clothing worn. Bailiffs and Dames Grand Cross, Knights and Dames of Justice or Grace, and Chaplains may all also wear a breast star, which appears the same as their badges, only at a diameter of and without embellishments for those in Grade I and for those in Grade II. Further, those in these groups are also given a button for wear on the lapel of non-formal civilian clothing, for events such as business meetings of the order. In general, the insignia of the Order of St. John may be worn at all occasions where other decorations are worn, not only those connected with the ceremonies of the order.

All members of the Order of St. John are also required to wear specific robes for formal occasions of the society, including a mantle, sopra vest, and hat. The mantles of the Sovereign Head and Grand Prior are all of black silk velvet and lined with white silk, the former's differentiated by an additional train. Bailiffs and Dames Grand Cross and, prior to 1926, Knights of Justice formerly wore black silk robes with a lining of the same material and colour; these members now wear the same mantle as Commanders, Officers, and Esquires, which are made of black merino wool faced with black silk. The only other unique mantles are those of the Medical Officer of the St. John Ophthalmic Hospital, which bears a special pattern, and of Chaplains, which is a black silk robe with full sleeves. Each cloak also bears on its left side a rendition of the order's star in white silk: the Sovereign Head, Grand Prior, and those in the first two grades of the order all have a diameter emblem; the Sovereign's and Grand Prior's are of white silk with gold adornments, the former's also surmounted by a St. Edward's Crown, while those for Bailiffs and Dames Grand Cross, Knights and Dames of Justice, and Knights and Dames of Grace are rendered in white linen, the first two groups having embellishments in gold silk, the latter in white silk. Similarly, the star for Commanders and Officers is of white linen with white silk ornamentation, though they are only and in diameter, respectively. The Secretaries of the order, the priories, and the commanderies also wear the badge superimposed upon two goose quill pens embroidered saltire-wise in white silk.

The sopra (or supra) vest is a long drape of thin, black cloth that buttons close down the neck and to one side, falling to the ankles and cut so as to entirely cover the body. It is similar to a cassock, though it is actually derived from the supra vesta a black surcoat worn in the mid 13th century by the Knights of St. John. Confrères in Grade I have a plain, white, 300mm diameter Maltese cross on their sopra vests, while members of Grades II and III, plus Chaplains, have a plain garment, though the wearer's Order of St. John medallion hangs outside the vest, 152mm below the collar. Clerical inductees of the order may, when officiating, wear over their cassock and surplice a tippet of black with red lining, edging, and buttons, a 76mm wide star worn on the left breast and the accordant badge suspended at the neck. When full mantles and sopra vests are worn a black velvet Tudor style hat is included.

Eligibility and Appointment

The Sovereign makes all appointments to the order as she, in her absolute discretion, shall think fit, though the constitution does impose certain limitations: the maximum number of members is set at 35,000, and appointees to the level of Esquire may not be under the age of 16, nor appointees to all other grades under the age of 18. Recommendations are made by the Grand Council, and those selected have generally acted in such a manner as to strengthen the spirit of mankind as reflected in the order's first motto, PRO FIDE and to encourage and promote humanitarian and charitable work aiding those in sickness, suffering, and/or danger as reflected in the order's other motto, PRO UTILITATE HOMINUM.

To be inducted, new members must recite the organization's declaration:
"I do solemnly declare that I will be faithful and obedient to The Order of St. John and its Sovereign Head as far as it is consistent with my duty to my [Sovereign/President] and to my country; that I will do everything in my power to uphold its dignity and support its charitable works; and that I will endeavour always to uphold the aims of this Christian Order and to conduct myself as a person of honour."

Notwithstanding the order's devotion to Christian ideals of charity, and its official position that the order has a "Christian character," its Grand Council has since 1999 affirmed that "profession of the Christian Faith should not be a condition of membership of the Order." The issue of the order's Christian character and the issue of "inclusive membership" was dealt with in the Grand Council's Pro Fide Report in 2005, wherein it was said that the order's life is shaped by Christian faith and values, but that "[r]ather than the emphasis being primarily upon 'spiritual beliefs or doctrine' it is on works of mercy rendered through St. John;" therefore, while the Great Officers are required to profess the Christian faith, the same is "not an essential condition of membership" and "[t]he onus is on the man or woman who is invited to the privilege of membership to decide whether he or she can with a good conscience promise to be faithful to the stated aims and purposes of this Christian lay order of chivalry." On the subject of inclusive membership, the report stated "Christian hospitality is a criterion which can be applied to the Order's relationships to persons of other religious faiths," and "the Order needs to be characterized by a hospitable disposition towards other faith traditions while holding fast to its own origins and foundational identity in Christian faith."

Precedence in each realm

As the Order of St. John is open to the citizens of sixteen different countries, each with their own system of orders, decorations, and medals, the order's place of precedence varies from country to country. Some orders of precedence are as follows; unlike with other multi-level orders, all the Order of St. John's grades rank between the society's predecessor and successor:

Country Preceding Following
Order of precedence
Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM)
Order of precedence
Member of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO) Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec (GOQ)
New Zealandmarker
Order of precedence
Royal Red Cross (RRC) Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM)

See also


  1. Order of St. John, Grand Council Pro Fide report, 2005.



See also: Orders, decorations, and medals of Canada > Further reading

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