The world’s largest surviving order of knights from the Crusader period is once again poised for expansion.
The Sovereign Military Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta – known since Medieval times as the Hospitallers – is busy re-connecting with its past in the Middle East, in Western Europe and in Malta itself. It is also currently in discussion with several countries with a view to establishing diplomatic relations with them.
At just eight acres, the Order’s headquarters in Rome is the world’s smallest sovereign state. But for the first time in 500 years, it’s about to launch joint international operations with other orders of chivalry which broke away from it at the time of the Reformation.
What’s more, the Hospitallers are expanding their presence in the Middle East, having recently established diplomatic relations with Jordan, although it is a far cry from medieval times when it was an occupying power in the region, helping to control a series of Crusader states in what are now Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.
The Order is also once again more active in Malta – the island it ruled between 1530 and 1798 before it was expelled by Napoleon.
The Maltese government recently gave it extra-territorial rights to once again carry out its sovereign functions in what, during much of the 16th century, was the Hospitaller Grand Master’s palace in Valetta – Fort Angelo. The Order is now busy restoring it, and for the first time over 200 years the Hospitallers’ Crusader period battle flag flutters over the ancient fortress. The Order’s campaign for diplomatic recognition has been tremendously successful over recent years. Indeed 29 new countries have established diplomatic links with the Hospitallers over the past decade bringing the current total to 93. Bizarrely it is the Order’s medieval heartland – Western Europe – where it is least recognised. Apart from Italy, Spain, Austria and Portugal, it has no full official diplomatic links with any other western European countries. Its diplomatic ties tend to be with the countries of Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa- and it enjoys permanent observer status at the UN.
Despite being 12 times smaller than the Vatican (the second smallest state), the Order issues its own stamps (recognised by 51 countries), mints its own coins and has an annual “national budget” of many millions of pounds. The Order started life almost 1,000 years ago as a hospital for sick pilgrims in Jerusalem. Over its long history, it has governed or ruled – at various times – parts of Syria, the island of Rhodes and Malta. But today it has reverted entirely to its original purpose – the care of the sick and needy. Supported by 80,000 Hospitaller volunteers from around 100 countries, it runs relief services, ambulance corps, hospitals, clinics and medical programmes as well as care projects for the poor, elderly and homeless in dozens of areas across the globe.
Backed by this volunteer “army”, it has just signed a historic co-operation agreement with those parts of the Hospitaller movement which broke away at or after the Reformation. For many centuries, the Order regarded Protestant breakaway elements as illegitimate and technically heretical. But now, after several decades of improving relationships, co-operation agreements have been reached between the Sovereign Order and its Protestant or multi-denominational equivalents.
These include the German-based Bailiwick of Brandenburg of St John and Jerusalem which broke away in 1538, the Order of St John in Sweden which separated in 1530 and the Order of St John in the Netherlands which was re-formed as a Protestant Order by the 18th century. They also include the London-based Venerable Order of St John (which runs the St John Ambulance Brigade), which was founded by wayward French knights of the Sovereign Order in the 1820s (as a successor to the medieval Order in England, suppressed by Henry VIII) but due to Protestant connections, was never recognised as part of the Order by the Sovereign Order’s headquarters.
The Sovereign Order (the original Catholic one now based in Rome) and its four mainly Protestant equivalents have, between them, some 400,000 volunteers and employees – a vast human resource which the five orders plan to deploy in a more co-ordinated way to relieve suffering worldwide, thus expanding the Hospitaller vision first established in the movement’s very first hospital in Jerusalem back in the 11th century.