THE ISSUE OF LEGITIMACY OF THE RUSSIAN GRAND PRIORY.


An Essay.

There seems to be a certain reticence on behalf of the Alliance of St. John Orders (the Johanniterorden and the British Venerable Order) and the Roman Catholic Order (Sovereign Military Order of Malta) to accept any group of Knights who claim to have descended from the Russian Priory as legitimate.
The multiplication of groups claiming a pedigree from the Russian Grand Priory, and their easy fragmentation has done little to commend the genuine tradition for serious consideration.
The fabled beginnings of the Shickshinny group, (an American organisation founded in the 1950s, but with a claim to have been founded in 1908 by Russian Hereditary Commanders) and those groups emerging from that source, are rightly dismissed.
However the organisations claiming a pedigree via the Russian Grand Priory established as part of the Order by Emperor Paul I, are not the only groups to have come under scrutiny.

The following information is only intended as a comparison with the organisations which claim a part in the Russian tradition of St. John. No comments are to be regarded as questioning legitimacy or otherwise, of any organisation mentioned in the text.

"This examination of the essential portions of the pamphlet shows that this charitable society has no valid claim to be recognized as part of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and further shows that the society has endeavoured to establish that claim by false and misleading statements."
This quote could have come from any book seeking to discredit the movement led by Thourot Pichel, creator of the fabled Shickshinny pedigree. However the quote concerns the Royal British Order (the Most Venerable Order), who's early claims were subject to the academic scrutiny by Cecil Torr, a Barrister in one of the weekly editions of The Athenæum (an academic Journal, published in London) of June 7th 1890.

Cecil Torr's comments remained unanswered in The Athenæum . Furthermore, Torr continued in the following week to question the incorporation by Royal Charter of the British Order. In Small Talk at Wreyland, (Second Series, Cambridge University Press, 1921) Torr repeated his accusations.

An examination of an excellent history by Jonathan Riley-Smith on the early beginnings of the British Venerable Order reveals a very torturous route to acceptance by the Establishment; see; The Order of St. John in England, 1827-1858 in; Baker, Malcolm (Editor) The Military Orders - fighting for the Faith and Caring for the Sick. Variorum, Ashgak Publishing Ltd, Gower House Croft Road, Aldershot 1994.
The history of the British Order demonstrates a number of  traits which provide parallels with some groups which claim the Russian tradition. A number of points can be noted of organisations who claim to be part of the historic Order of St. John but with those claims in question or dispute;

(1) Schismatic, especially in their early days of existence. The history is often viewed in terms of the successful or dominant party to schism.
(2) Change of name - perhaps several times - often to meet a change of claims, or to emphasise a new identity.
(3) Unprovable, or weak, claims of pedigree.
(4) The organisation seeks to gain legal or social recognition. i.e., registration as a NGO, Charity at Law, or the organisation may seek to gain social status via patronage of Royalty or from members of the Nobility.
(5) Members of the group may adopt titles to seek to enhance their social status.

Here are the historic facts about the British Order;

(1) Between 1832 and 1837 there were two competing British organisations as a result of schism. The surviving organisation, was the one which had ceased to be recognised by the French Commission.
(2) The organisation had changed its name in 1858, 1871, giving way to an incorporated organisation in 1888, with a further name change in 1926.
(3) Claims of pedigree were opened to question, with a least one critic stating that false and misleading statements had been made.
(4) Approaches to nobility were made, to secure a titled Patron.
(5) Alexander Mortara with whom presidential executive power lay in the early British Order used the title 'Count' and is called a "charlatan" by Jonathan Riley-Smith in The Order of St. John in England, 1827-1858.

Today the claims of the British Order rest more on its Royal Charter than on any claimed descent to the undivided Order via the independent French Knights. It is worth noting that legally (certainly in the UK) that the act of incorporation provides a new organisation, a corporate 'person' in law, contra-distinct from the people or corporations which make up the new 'person' in law. The Royal Charter of Incorporation does however refer to a preceding organisation "a Fraternity for the purpose of performing hospitaller and other charitable work" which had existed "for more than fifty years" - in other words no claim was made directly to the ancient Order.

It is interesting to note that the exiled King of Yugoslavia, Peter II willingly lent his "fons honorum" to a group which had split from the Shickshinny self styled Order, which had changed name, been party to schisms, and with members who adopted noble titles. This action in a certain way mirrors the adoption of the British Priory by Queen Victoria. 

However, independent from the Shickshinny group emerging from America in the 1950s onwards, are the Hereditary Russian Knights of St. John of the Paris group of 1928 which provided a genuine link with the Grand Priories, Grand Master Emperor Paul I had founded in 1798 and 1799.  Despite the loss of the property sequestrated in 1810 by Emperor Alexander I, the Knights continued, and were listed in the Court Almanacs, up until the Revolution. Exiles continued the life of the Russian Priory in the West.  It was that after learning about this group Pichel leader of the Shickshinny organisation, was able to concoct his fabled antecedents for the group that he led.

Often in the context of the Order of St. John, the elements to legitimacy are confused. There is;

A. The bona-fides of a group;
B. That a  tangible, provable link can be made to the Order of St. John preceding the Order's ejection from Malta in 1798;
C. That the organisation acts within the hospitaller tradition, namely that it is a Christian, and humanitarian organisation;
D. The recognition by the State as a recognised Order.
It is easy to forget the distinctions of meaning, and to confuse the issues. When people write, or talk about a group's legitimacy - what do they mean?

There are various groups which claim to be Orders of St. John, and have either one of the elements without the others.
For example, the Royal Charter of the British Venerable Order, only cites a previous 50 years plus of existence prior to incorporation. It provides a form of legal recognition. No claim is laid beyond this. It was literature outside of this Charter which make additional claims. This legitimacy is at best, as a quasi State Order. The British Order is incorporated by Royal Charter, and has the Queen as its head,  but lacks the distinction of being a State Order. Also in the UK, the Scout Association, and the British Legion are incorporated by Royal Charter and have the Queen as their patrons - this does not make them Orders of State! As for the group which the Reverend Sir Robert Peat founded, the Royal Charter was an historical accident. If the Crown had not been influenced by the 7th Duke of Manchester, it would have remained very much just a surviving part of what had grown out of an independent group of French Knights.
On the other side of the coin, if any group has indeed descended from the non Catholic Russian Grand Priory, then they would have the required link to the Order predating 1798, but (thus far) with the absence of any recognition by a State or reigning Monarch.

It can be argued that vocation is an element in legitimacy. "A common devotion to a historical tradition and a unique vocation: the lordship of the sick and poor " (a statement from the Alliance of St. John Orders and the Roman Catholic Order) whilst intrinsically being laudable values, does not provide any Order with proof of  being an historical continuation of the Order Brother Gerard founded. However any group claiming to be part of the Order founded by Brother Gerard, ought to demonstrate charitable work amongst the poor and those in need, but, this alone cannot prove descent from the Order Brother Gerard founded. It is also true, that those Orders wishing to be accepted as legitimate must be able to demonstrate their Christian nature.

In questioning their legitimacy of descent of the Russian Priory there are two issues;

1. Did the the Russian Grand Priory survive the alleged suppression by Alexander I in 1810.
2. Does any group in existence today have a lineal descent from the Russian Grand Priory.

The arguments about the lack of legitimacy of the Russian Priory form a hierarchy;

1) The issue of papal authority. This is not exactly the same as the arguments that surround the Pope's ability to approve, or reject a Grand Master. It is to do with the notion that the Order was, and is, and can never cease to be, any other than a Roman Catholic Institution.
This means put the least charitably, no Order of St John can exist without papal authority. Rephrased more charitably, that the Order under papal authority, which can trace its history to the Order of pre 1798, has unquestionable descent from Brother Gerard. However, Orders not under papal authority, and not acknowledged by the Grand Magistracy of that with, are not of unquestionable descent.
There has been a modification of this thesis since the London Declaration of 1987 between the Roman Catholic Order, the Anglican/Ecumenical Royal British Order and the JohanniterOrden. the modification is that the mantle of the Roman Catholic Order is extended over the other Orders and provides a form of acceptance by the Grand Magistracy.
2) Emperor Alexander I suppressed the Russian Priories. Therefore no Order can emerge from Russian Nobility after 1810/11.
3) With the suppression of the Russian Priories, and the abolition of the Family Commanderies in 1811, the Hereditary Commanderies came to an end. To enable the Family Commanderies to exist, there must be a Priory existing in which to receive the membership of the descendants. As the Priories were abolished, this cannot happen.
4) Many groups claiming descent via the Russian Priories are either, tenuous, or fraudulent in their claims.
5) That members of self styled Orders have been subject to criminal proceedings, or seek to sell their Knighthoods, or are otherwise disreputable.

All of these arguments can be found in one publication or another which is dismissive of those groups which claim to be a continuation of the Russian Order.

In summary the answers are as follows in reverse order;

5) Criminals in any organisation cannot be defended. The selling of Knighthoods is also regrettable. These are, however, separate issues from that of legitimacy in terms of lineal descent. The fact that the Church under the papacy advocated selling, and sold indulgences (a medieval system of remission of time in purgatory) did not invalidate the succession to St Peter as Bishop of Rome!  Nor does the fact that the papacy sanctioned torture for the Inquisition.
4) The various claims, of bone-fide charitable groups are worth examining. Christians have a duty to establish the truth.  It is acknowledged that groups (in American and elsewhere) exist on questionable pedigrees, and their traditions were exported to Europe. However this cannot discount that there exists a genuine group which continued from the non-Catholic Russian Grand Priory, with an excellent pedigree. Whilst the histories of many of  these various group are complex and interwoven, and part of their claimed foundations questionable or mythical, and that these groups have confused themselves with the genuine surviving Russian tradition, this does not negate what is real and genuine. In this regard, the article by Cecil Torr in the June 7th 1890 publication of  The Athenæum, ought to be required reading by members of the British Venerable Order who seek to discredit any genuine surviving Russian tradition due to the fact that Pichel embroidered his claims.
3) Information on the Russian Grand Priories' existence under succeeding Russian Emperors is not hard to find. Certainly the Russian Knights kept the Order in being in Russia, and after the Revolution, in exile. A number of initiatives have sprung from the surviving non Catholic Grand Priory, extending its survival beyond the original territory, much in the same way that the Royal British Order, in terms of any claim to be an Order of St John, is a survival of the independent French Commission, and has been exported beyond Commonwealth Countries with membership of foreign nationals, such as the Priory in the United States of America.  The Russian Imperial Court Almanacs provide the names of members of the Order, continuously. Any Court Almanac published after 1799 until the last one in 1913/14 will provide such names. This provides over 100 years of a continuing Russian tradition, after the alleged suppression. See the Almanac for 1913/14; Page 178; DEMÍDOV, (Demidoff), Paul Alexandrovitch. ancien officier du rég. des chevaliers-gardes; commandant héréditaire de l'Ordre de Malte. British Library Ref: 2458 yaa.
The claim to any hereditary title is dismissed as a misunderstanding of the term 'jus patronat'. In entertaining these assertions of the critics, what is important, is not what a Westerner in the late 1990s believes about the term 'jus-patronat', but what the official accounts make of the term, contemporary to the events. N.N. Bantys-Kamenskij compiled a digest of official documents dealing with foreign relations up until 1800. This was completed in 1802. The work was not published until 1896 in Moscow. According to this official work the 'rodovye, or jus-patronatskie komandorstva' were founded in favour of the holder's descendants, with permission to extend the right of inheritance*. Added to this reference is the 1785 Charter of Nobility of Catherine the Great, which reinforces the hereditary rights of Russian Nobility. Thus the jus-patronat commanderies, according to an official account complied under Emperor Alexander I, carried the notion of an hereditary principle.
*see Bantys-Kamenskij, N.N. Obzor Vnesnix Snosenij Rossii, Moscow 1896, pages 228 and 229. 
2) No Decree exists ordering the suppression and extinction of the non-Catholic Russian Grand Priory. It is acknowledged that Alexander certainly sequestrated the property and funds of the Order in Russia. The alleged Ukase of suppression of 1810, mentions that the Order continues and that its expenses are to be met by the State! Also evidence on the existence of the Russian Grand Priories after the alleged suppression is available, both internal and external to the Russian Empire. This evidence is simply ignored - or discounted.
For more discussion on this debate consult the essay on the Hereditary Commanders see .  
1) Any examination in the questions of legitimacy, cannot leave untouched the legitimacy of papal claims for dominance over religious institutions.
Much of the claimed power of the papacy, such as that over all other early Patriarchates; as judge supreme of the clergy; temporal ownership of lands in the west; imperial power in Italy, all rested on a document called the 'Donation of Constantine', a series of gifts from the Emperor Constantine to Pope Silvester I dated 30th March 315. From the 9th Century onwards the Papacy's claims became more and more inflated to become the final court of appeal for all matters here on earth. Although by the 15th Century the 'Donation of Constantine' had been proved to be an utter forgery of the eight century or later, papal propagandist had already underpinned much of the doctrines of the 'Donation' with theological rationales so the various claims could stand alone. Incidentally, was not Pichel in good company when he invented the pedigree of the USA Russian Priories!!
Without the Donation of Constantine, the Pope was one of a number of Patriarchs, although considered, primus inter pares (first amongst equals). The behaviour of the papacy to western society was one of overlordship. It is natural that both the military Orders, and religious Orders, wherever they were situated, saw the Pope as their superior, given the papal claims, which were accepted as the bedrock of western society. In particular, this arrangement suited the Hospitallers (as it did the Templars) because it provided many privileges. In the West from the fourteenth century onwards, the acceptance of a papal overlord was questioned. The Reformation was a rude shock to such a pompous institution. The Johanniterorden of Germany had demonstrated in common with other Christian institutions, that the Order could become Protestant. It is little wonder that the Pope dispatched an Inquisitor to Malta as part of the counter-Reformation culture. The Order had evolved and changed over the centuries. In theory, it would not have been impossible for the whole Order to have become Protestant, or at least wholly independent from the Pope, once the Order had ceased to gain revenues from Catholic Countries. Indeed, on the eve of the Order's ejection from Malta, a treaty was signed between the Catholic Order and the Orthodox Emperor of Russia, Paul I, establishing Commanderies for Orthodox and other nobles, with concomitant generous revenues. The treaty was never ratified under a Catholic Grand Master purely because the expulsion of the Order from Malta, by the French halted its execution.
With the uncertainties of the age, during the first few decades of the nineteenth century, it is little wonder that the papacy drew what was left of the Order in Naples, Sicily, and Italy, to itself, to ensure that this did not happen to the very heart of the Order, the Convent, as it once had under Emperor Paul I. Already, groups had emerged outside of the control of the papacy; the German and Russian Knights. The process continued with the creation of the Venerable Order in Britain via the independent French commission, or council, spreading throughout the British Empire/Commonwealth.

We can now state the following;

1. Fact: The Russian Grand Priory survive the alleged suppression by Alexander I in 1810.
What is incontrovertible, is that a Russian tradition of the Order of St John of Jerusalem existed in Russia, continuously from the time of Paul I until 1917. The transmission of that tradition was from generation to generation. These are the incontestable facts; (a) that Priories of the Order with formal organisations existed in Russia from 1798/9 until 1810/11 when their incomes are expropriated; (b) that Russian institutions bore witness to a continuing tradition lasting up until the revolution; (c) that continual lists of Russian Nobles carrying the title of the Order, appeared in the Court Almanacs from 1799 up until 1914; (d) that Imperial documents authorising the wearing of medals exist as late as 1912; (e) that there were annual religious ceremonies venerating a relic of the Order, up until the last days of the Monarchy; (f) that a member of the Russian Senate who was a Professor of Law in St Petersburg in the pre-Revolutionary days provided testimony of the survival of the Russian Grand Priory (Baron Michel de Taube) and; (g) that a number of books published both from the middle of the 19th Century and throughout the early 20th Century, gave witness to the existence of the Russian Priories.

2. Fact: There is a group in existence today which has a lineal descent from the Russian Grand Priory.
What is also well established and documented, is that the tradition continued in the west with the gathering of exiles at Paris in 1928. At least one signatory (Paul Alexandrovitch Demidoff) can prove that the gap between 1917 and 1928 is bridged, as his name appears both in the Court Almanacs of 1911 to 1914, and the 1928 document establishing the continuation of the non-Catholic Russian Grand Priory's activities in exile. Added to this testimony are the recollections of Russians going back to pre-Revolution days recalling a continued tradition.

Having established the fact that the non-Catholic Russian Grand Priory continued after 1810/11, and again after 1917, with the re-establishment of the activities of the Russian Priory in exile, any group of Knights in continuous succession to the non-Catholic Russian Grand Priory established by the Hereditary Commanders in the west, are continuing the Order, in the same manner as the Royal British Order continued as a group of Knights, after being established by the French Knights. It must be remembered that although the Most Venerable Order in Britain, has for its patron the Sovereign of the United Kingdom which in itself provides a form of legitimacy, between 1831 and 1888 this was not the case. It was simply a group of Knights continuing the traditions of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, much in the same way that the groups of Knights, established by the exiled Russian Priory exist today. If Britain ever became a Republic,  the British Order may be placed in exactly the same position as the Russian Grand Priory, with having to relying upon the patronage of nobility of a monarchy long abolished.


Updated 19th November 2004

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