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.