The Russian Grand Priory
Order of Saint John of Jerusalem.


Information on the Russian Grand Priory at a glance.
by Dr Michael Foster.


Historical Précis.

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 (1312), where it ruled as a sovereign power, then to Malta (1530) as a sovereign/vassal power.

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 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 canonically as Grand Master from the Roman Catholic point of view. However, Paul I of Russia, without question, was Grand Master from the point of view of International Law, and accepted as so, by various nations.

As de-facto Grand Master, Paul I of Russia created a Russian tradition within the Hospitaller Order - the "Russian Grand Priory" 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).

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). The Russian Order was now akin to the German JohanniterOrder, a Johannine tradition, but legally separate.

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".

The Russian Nobles in exile claimed to be continuing the activities of the "Russian Grand Priory of the Order of St John of Jerusalem" and incorporated their organisation in France in 1955, under that name. 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 history of the survival of this tradition has been complicated by various Russian 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 within the Russian tradition of the Knights Hospitaller and dated to 1908, a spurious claim, but which never-the-less misled many including some academics. These organizations have led to scores of other mimic Orders. Two offshoots of the Pichel Order have been successful in gaining the backing of exiled Monarchs, King Peter II of Yugoslavia, and King Michael of Romania.


Timeline Précis.

YEAR

DETAILS

HEADQUARTERED IN ST PETERSBURG.

1798


29th November (Old Style) / 10th December, Emperor Paul I, was instituted as the Grand Master of the Order of St John, and his first act as Emperor and Grand Master was to proclaim the creation of 98 Commanderies for Russian and other Nobles of any Christian Denomination.
This was in addition to the Roman Catholic Grand Priory of Russia, existing from 1797.

1799


26th June Emperor Paul I had added a further 20 Commanderies to the 98. The 118 Commanderies were then styled "The Russian Grand Priory".

1801


22nd March, Paul I was murdered and his son, Alexander I was placed on the throne.

1803


9th February Giovanni Battista Tommasi di Cortona  was appointed as the Grand Master of the Order, restoring a Roman Catholic Grand Master and Roman Catholic Headquarters.

1810


26th Feb (OS) under Emperor Alexander I, a Imperial Decree (known as a Ukase) removes income from both Russian Grand Priories, but allows continued activities, funded by the State.

1811


20th Nov (OS) Ukase allows the property of Family Commanderies of the Order, to be redeemed by the Family Commanders as personal property or become State properties. However the Family (a.k.a. Hereditary) Commanders maintain the traditions of the Russian Grand Priory.
1917/18

Russian Revolution brings all activities of the Russian Grand Priory to an end in Russia.

HEADQUARTERED IN EXILE - PARIS - COPENHAGEN

1928


June 24th The Hereditary Commanders meet in Paris to found an Association of Hereditary Commanders and to re-establish the activities of the Russian Grand Priory in exile.

1939


Creation of the Priory of Dacia (in Denmark) by members of the 1928 Paris group as a sub-Priory of the Russian Grand Priory. Not fully established until after the War in 1950 when conditions allowed normalised communications.


Last updated 2nd September 2003


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