Lionel Jarvis Prior of the Order in England, takes us on a journey across 900 years
The Order of St John of Jerusalem came into existence as a pilgrim hospital in Jerusalem the late 11th Century. The early visitors adopted as their symbol the 8 pointed cross of the Benedictine monks from Amalfi who had travelled to Jerusalem from Italy; this cross is now known variously as the Amalfi Cross, the Maltese Cross and the symbol of both the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and the Venerable Order of St John. Over 900 years after the founding of the Order, today’s home of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem sits at St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell, London, the residual estate of the Priory of England which was founded on the site in the 12th century. The Venerable Order is an Order of Chivalry of the British Crown, a Christian and charitable Order spread across the world, and the parent body of the operational charity St John Ambulance.
Under the leadership of the first Master of the Order, The Blessed Gerard, by 1080 a hospital had been established in the Muristan of Jerusalem near to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and today the Order owns part of that site in the Old City of Jerusalem where an out-patient eye clinic operates as a part of the Order’s subsidiary charity the St John Eye Hospital Group. The Order was a caring organisation, but which had to transform through the 12th century to support the defence of Christianity, with the Knights of St John both defending the city, and caring for its sick and poor, until the city fell to the forces of Sultan Saladin in 1187. The early knights adopted the motto Pro Fide Pro, Pro Utilitate Hominum (For the faith and in the service of humanity), these words retained by the Order nearly 1000 years later.
Expelled from Jerusalem, the knights moved via Acre in modern day Israel, and then Cyprus, then to Rhodes which they held from 1309 until 1522 when eventually defeated by Suleiman the Magnificent. In 1530 Emperor Charles V of Spain granted the Knights permanent residency on the Islands of Malta and Gozo (for the price of one falcon per year), where their reputation grew as they built the City of Valletta, established the great Sacra Infirmeria, and defeated their opponents in the Great Siege. When Napoleon eventually defeated the Knights in 1798 they scattered through European Commanderies before the catholic order was able to re-establish itself in the 19th century, and now has its home in Rome as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
Meanwhile, a great palace of The Priory of St John had emerged in Clerkenwell, London, supporting and serving the work of the knights in the Mediterranean, thriving as a place of great wealth and influence in medieval London. A new Gatehouse was commissioned by Prior Sir Thomas Docwra in 1504, but sadly only 36 years later, after an impressive 400 year history, the Priory was sacked by King Henry VIII in 1540, falling into disrepair over the years, but used in the interim variously as, inter alia, a coffee shop owned by Richard Hogarth (father of William), and the home of The Gentleman’s Magazine (of which Dr Samuel Johnson was an employee).
The work of the latent, now Protestant, Order of St John in England re-emerged in the mid 19th century to help those who were suffering injury and illness in industrial Victorian England. Sir Edmund Lechmere, one of those critical leaders of this revival, purchased the surviving Gatehouse in Clerkenwell in 1873, renovating, and providing a headquarters for the nascent order. A remarkable group of men, recognising deficiency in civilian healthcare, established the first ambulance service in Staffordshire in 1872; an Ambulance department was formed at St John’s Gate in 1874, and thence the St John Ambulance Association in 1877 with the aim of organising instruction in first aid and nursing, and in dispensing items such as bandages and stretchers. The early designs of ambulance were developed by these pioneers, including the Ashford Litter, one of the earliest patient transports designed by Sir John Farley, an example of which is currently in the museum in St John’s Gate. Over the next decade training centres were set up around the country, and then more widely around the Commonwealth, the increasing number of those trained becoming members of the St John Ambulance Brigade. The St John Ambulance volunteers had contributed alongside members of the Red Cross to delivering care in the Franco-Prussian War in the 1870s and the Boer War in the 1890s, and were more than ready to combine forces again for World War 1, with the most famous 750 bed fully staffed hospital in Etaples in France, at which many were killed and injured when bombed in 1918.
In 1931 the Order was able to purchase the old Priory Church of St John, its crypt being one of the few remaining structures from the 12th century, the church having been started in the 1140s, and understood to be the site on which in 1185 the Patriarch of Jerusalem pleaded unsuccessfully with King Henry II for additional funding for the crusades. The church has undergone many changes over the centuries having succumbed to the Peasants Revolt in 1381, and more recently to bombing in 1941. The present external structure was rebuilt in the 1950s, with the large open space used today for services of the Order and investitures into the Order on behalf of Her Majesty The Queen. The medieval crypt is used for worship by members of the Order much as it was in the 12th century.
The Order of St John today is spread across 41 countries, including the work of the St John Eye Hospital Group in the Palestinian Territories. A Royal Charter was granted by Her Majesty Queen Victoria on St John’s Day 1888 formally reconnecting the Order with the Crown after 342 years. The Order now oversees the work of St John Ambulance around the world, committed to supporting young people, with a huge cadet network, delivery of healthcare and humanitarian support, and training in first aid. The Priory of England, still based at St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell remains the parent body in England, overseeing the work of St John Ambulance, retaining an ambulance service, supporting people in communities and at events, training in first aid, and developing young people. As the predominant charity supporting the NHS during the covid pandemic over 1,000,000 hours of volunteering have made a massive difference to the national effort, along with the recruitment and training of over 30,000 new volunteers to support the national vaccination programme. Nearly 1000 years after its conception, the Order of St John continues to care for all that need us, regardless of their faith, race or background, ever committed to care for the sick poor.
Surgeon Rear Admiral Lionel Jarvis CBE KStJ DL FRCR
Prior of the Priory of England & the Islands
St John’s Gate, London