Russian tradition of the Knights Hospitaller

From Academic Kids

Brother Gerard created the Order of St John of Jerusalem as a distinctive Order from a previous Benedictine Establishment of Hospitallers. It provided for pilgrims visiting Jerusalem. After the success of the First Crusade, it became an independent monastic Order, and then as circumstances demanded grafted on a military identity, to become an Order of Knights. The Home or Convent of the Order moved to Rhodes in 1312, where it ruled as a sovereign power, then to Malta in 1530 as a sovereign/vassal power.


18th Century

In 1797, Paul I, Emperor of Russia signed a Treaty with the Order of Malta, establishing a Roman Catholic Grand Priory of 10 Commanderies in Russia in compensation for the loss of income from the former Polish Grand Priory (of 6 Commanderies), which lay in the Polish territory annexed by Russia.

In 1798, following Napoleon's taking of Malta, the Order was dispersed, but with a large number of refugee Knights sheltering in St Petersburg, where they elected the Russian Emperor, Paul I as their Grand Master - a rival Grand Master to Ferdinand Hompesch then held in disgrace. Hompesch abdicated in 1799, under pressure from the Austrian Court, leaving Paul as the only Grand Master. As the Order was under the obedience of the Roman Catholic Church, Paul I as an Orthodox Christian and of another obedience could never be accepted as Grand Master under Roman Catholic Canon Law. However, Paul I of Russia, without question, was Grand Master from the point of view of International Law, and accepted as so, by the community of nations.

As de-facto Grand Master, in addition to the Roman Catholic Grand Priory, Paul I created a Russian tradition within the Hospitaller Order - the "Russian Grand Priory" of no less than 118 Commanderies dwarfing the rest of the Order. The Priory was open to all Christians - which whilst it could not be accepted as a canonical part of the Roman Catholic Order, it was never-the-less a de-facto part of the ancient Order (the Roman Catholic HQ was only too happy to receive money from the Russian Grand Priory from 1798 to 1810).

19th Century - Bolshevik Revolution of 1917

Following Imperial Decrees of Alexander I of Russia in 1810/1811, a fiscal and legal separation of the Russian tradition of St John from the main Roman Catholic HQ was created (The main motive of the Decrees was undoubtedly to gain the property and money of the Russian branch for Alexander's war chest in his struggle against Napoleon). As early as May 1802, Lord St. Helens (British Minister to the Court of Russia) informed the Hon. Arthur Paget (Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of Austria) that the Russian Emperor was going to make the Russian Priory "an independent and separate Community", which would have stripped “perhaps nine-tenths of the Revenues that constituted the” Order’s principal income! Although the Emperor did not take this action in 1802, by 1810, necessity forced the independence. The Russian Order from 1810, was akin to the German JohanniterOrder, a Johannine tradition, but legally separate.

Some authors have claimed that Emperor Alexander I abolished the Russian Grand Priory/and or the Order based on Decree for 1810, which has been badly misread, Misleading even Russian Authors such as V.A.Durov. In fact the Decree of 1810 Ukase 24.134 - February 26th, 1810, which removed the Order’s property, specifically states that the Order is still to continue, and that “All the expenses connected with the maintenance and running of the Order should be paid from the State Treasury” cited from the Ukase .

A further decree was issued in 1817 forbidding Army Officers from wearing their decorations because they received them from outside of Russia, from a foreign Bailiff of the Roman Catholic Order, which no longer existed in Russia, post 1810. No such decree was ever issued concerning members of the non Roman Catholic Russian Grand Priory, and in fact the reverse was true.

One of the leading French Bailiffs of the Military Order of Malta, who had studied the Russian tradition provided a footnote in his book; “Nevertheless, the Tsars have exceptionally authorised the eldest sons of the descendants of hereditary commanders to wear the decorations. Such an authorisation can be cited in the military service records of 19 October 1867. One can also find the name of Demisoff, in his quality as hereditary commander in the Almanach de Gotha (1885, p. 467 and 1923, p. 556) and in the Almanach de St Petersbourg, 1913/14 p. 178” Pierredon, Count Marie Henri Thierry Michel de, Histoire Politique de l'Ordre Souverain de Saint-Jean de Jerusalem, (Ordre de Malte) de 1789 ŕ 1955, Vol 2, page 197

In the Division of Petitions of His Imperial Majesty's Chancery, for 1912, Record No. 96803 (to Count Alexander Vladimirovitch Armfeldt), there is this citation; “His Majesty, having heard my respectful report about Your petition, this day of November 15, has Most Graciously acceded to grant you the right to wear the insignia of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, with the transfer of this right, after your death, to your son, Count Vladimir Armfeldt, but not before he attains majority.”

20th - 21st Centuries

This Russian Hospitaller tradition of St John continued within the Russian Empire, and then into Exile following the Revolution in 1917. Headquartered in Paris (from 1928) under the leadership of Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovitch to 1933, and Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovitch to 1956, both holding the title of "Grand Prior". In 1939, the Union agreed to the creation of a Priory in Denmark; the Priory of "Dacia". On the 9th December 1953, the Hereditary Commanders held a reunion in Paris and drew up a Constitution for the Russian Grand Priory in exile. In February 1955, the exilic Grand Priory based in Paris was registered as a Foreign Association under French Law as "The Russian Grand Priory of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem".

Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovitch became the "Protector" to the Union of Descendants in 1956, but refused the title of Grand Prior. Commander Nicholas Tchirikoff became the Dean of the Union until 1974, followed by Prince Nikita Troubetzkoy. Although the original leadership of the Paris Group died out, the tradition is maintained by the Priory of Dacia and the regular members of the Union.

Paul I had created under Russian Laws Family Commanders of the Russian Grand Priory with Hereditary Rights. It is the descendants of these Commanders who have, with the support of members of the Imperial family, continued that Russian tradition in exile. The Commanders organised within the "Russian Grand Priory", the "Union of Descendants of Hereditary Commanders and Knights of the Russian Grand Priory of the Order of St John of Jerusalem".

Self Styled / Mimic Orders

The history of the survival of this tradition has been complicated by various Mimic Orders. The large passage fees (alleged in some cases to be in the region of $50,000) collected by the American Association of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta in the early 1950s seemed to have tempted a Charles Pichel to create his own "Sovereign Order of St John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitaller" in 1956. Pichel avoided the problems of being an imitation of "SMOM" by giving his organization a mythical history by claiming the American organization he led was founded in Russia and dated to 1908; a spurious claim, but which never-the-less misled many including some academics. In truth, his organization had no connection to the genuine Russian tradition of the Knights Hospitaller. This organization and others have led to scores of other mimic Orders. Two offshoots of the Pichel Order were successful in gaining the backing of two exiled Monarchs, the late King Peter II of Yugoslavia, and King Michael of Romania.


& which exists on the old Prestel pages;

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