The Order of St John has a fascinating history of over 900 years.
The Order originated in a hospice for pilgrims in Jerusalem, founded by the Blessed Gerard, “an energetic and saintly man”, from Italy, probably around 1071. The site of the hospice was associated with St John the Baptist, and the Order is dedicated to him. Pope Paschal II recognised Gerard’s foundation in 1113 and made it an independent institution answerable only to the Pope.
The first role of the Hospital of St John was to house poor pilgrims who came to Jerusalem and the original vocation that Gerard taught his followers was to serve ‘Our Lords the Poor’, which soon came to include the sick and injured. They ran a hospital with 2000 beds and served people of all faiths. At this time they were known as the Knights Hospitaller.
The last foothold of the Order in the Holy Land was in the city of Acre which the Knights left in 1291. The Order relocated first to Cyprus, then to Rhodes, eventually settling on Malta in 1530. There it remained until Napoleon took the island in 1798 and told the Knights to leave.
With the change in religious ideas across Europe during the Reformation, the Order of St John in Britain was suppressed in 1540 by Henry VIII. The land and properties owned by the Order fell into the hands of the Crown, including the administrative centre of the Order at St John’s Gate. The Order was revived in the reign of Queen Victoria. With the coming of the industrial age powered by steam and depending on coal the number of accidents in mines, in factories and on the railways were increasing. With frequent work–place accidents, it was rare for workers to see a doctor they could not afford. The training of ordinary people in first aid, so that victims could be treated at the site of the accident, was seen as an innovative way forward. In 1877 St John Ambulance was set up to achieve this objective. In 1888 Queen Victoria made the Order of St John an Order of Chivalry of the British Crown.
Today St John delivers its charitable mission through St John Ambulance and maintains its links with Jerusalem through the work it carries out at the Eye Hospital in Jerusalem. St John volunteers played a vital role during both World Wars here at home and overseas. St John Ambulance is still flourishing in the UK and in over 40 countries around the world.