The exact date when the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem first came into being is unknown although it was about 1080, when a hospice – a place of care – was established in Jerusalem by monks from a neighboring Benedictine abbey to care for the growing number of pilgrims making the long and dangerous journey to the holy city.
The hospice soon developed into a hospital and in 1113 the Pope confirmed its independence. Over the next forty years it developed into a religious and military order, with its brothers and sisters (commonly known as Hospitallers of St John or Knights Hospitaller) providing care to the poor and sick of any faith. They also took on the additional role of defending all Christians and others within their care when they were threatened.
The Order was driven from Jerusalem in 1187 and established its headquarters on the coast of Palestine, before moving to Cyprus and then on to Rhodes. In 1530 it moved to Malta, where it governed until it was expelled by Napoleon in 1798.
Throughout their sovereign years on Rhodes and Malta the Knights’ medical work continued. In Rhodes the hospital had separate wards for infectious disease and maternity care. In Malta the Order ran a health service for the Maltese people and set up a famous school of anatomy and surgery. The great ward in Malta’s hospital was the longest room in 18th century Europe
From the beginning the Order grew rapidly and was given land throughout Western Europe. Its estates were managed by small groups of religious brothers and sisters who lived in communities that provided resources to the headquarters of the Order. These communities were gradually gathered into provinces called Priories or Grand Priories.
In Britain these estates were first administered from one of the communities (called a Commandery) at Clerkenwell, London from about 1140 and the original Priory Church was built at the same time.
However, over time, the extensive amount of land the Order owned in Britain meant that it needed to be managed by several different Commanderies. In 1185 the Commandery at Clerkenwell became a Priory, and had responsibility for Commanderies that had been set up in Scotland and Wales as well as the ones in England. Ireland became a separate Priory.
In 1540 the Order was suppressed by King Henry VIII, as part of the process known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It was restored and incorporated by Queen Mary I in 1557, but when Queen Elizabeth I again confiscated all its estates in 1559 she did so without annulling its incorporation. These acts by English Sovereigns did not directly affect the Order in Scotland, but the influence of the Reformation ended the Order’s activities there in about 1564. The Order in Britain then fell into abeyance.
The religious Order of the Hospital of St John, which is now formally known as The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, went through a time of disarray after it was expelled from Malta, but it had recovered by the middle of the nineteenth century, when its headquarters were established in Rome. It is still often called “The Order of Malta” and its members are frequently referred to as “Knights of Malta”.
In the 1820s the Knights of Malta living in France offered knighthoods to specific people supporting the Order in Great Britain, irrespective of their Christian denomination.
Their approach was not part of the official policy of the Order of Malta, but the English Knights devoted themselves to charitable activities, which were organised into what became known as Foundations. It was this British group, carrying out very substantial charitable activities, which Queen Victoria recognised and incorporated in 1888 and which became the modern Order of St John. Victoria ruled the largest empire the world has ever known and the Order saw it as part of its role to spread Western medical practice to the colonies. Today St John is still active in over 40 countries across the world.
Britain was one of the first countries to become industrial and in the 19th century there were many dangerous workplaces. Conditions and machinery were hazardous and workers were exhausted by the long hours. Accidents were frequent but workers rarely saw a doctor in time. Death or disability from untreated injuries was common.
Members of the British Order wanted to find a way to help. They decided to train ordinary people in first aid so accident victims could be treated quickly and on the spot, and in 1877 they set up St John Ambulance to do this. Classes were set up across the country, particularly in workplaces and areas of heavy industry, but also in villages, seaside towns and middle class suburbs.
In 1887 trained volunteers were organised into a uniformed Brigade to provide a first aid and ambulance service at public events. In many parts of Britain, St John was the first and only provider of an ambulance service right up to the middle of the 20th century, when the National Health Service was founded. When there were far fewer doctors and hospital beds than today, St John nurses looked after the sick and injured in their own homes.
There were originally three charitable foundations of the modern Order. One, which became The St John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital Foundation, was established in 1882. The St John Ambulance Association, which was concerned with training the public in first aid, was established in 1877. The third was the St John Ambulance Brigade, which provided first aid care to the public. It had its origins in 1873, and became a Foundation in 1887. The St John Ambulance Association and the St John Ambulance Brigade were amalgamated in 1974 to form the present St John Ambulance Foundation.
There was a major re-structuring of the Order’s constitution in 1999. This introduced a new governing body called the Grand Council. The Order today consists of 11 St John national organisations known as Priories, 29 St John national organisations known as Associations and the St John Eye Hospital Group which has its main hospital in Jerusalem.
The Museum’s diverse collections explore all aspects of the Order’s history and include rare manuscripts, silver and armour, as well as historic first aid equipment and ephemera from St John’s role in the First and Second World Wars.
The Museum occupies the Order’s historic buildings in Clerkenwell.