The Order of St John


This post shines a light on the fascinating Order of St John – the Knights Hospitaller – which feature prominently in Tom’s memoir.

Around half way through Slave to Fortune, Tom has his first encounter with Sir Edward Hamilton. As first meetings go, it couldn’t have been much worse – you’ll need to read the book to find out why!

Edward is a Knight of the Order of St John – a ‘Knight Hospitaller’ – shorthand for the Order’s full title, which varied over time but in Tom’s day would have been something like: the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta.

Flag of the Order of St John

Flag of the Order of St John

The Order of St John has existed for almost a thousand years and continues to this day in various guises. In its Catholic guise it retains its sovereignty – though it now has no country to call its own, it has observer status at the United Nations, maintains diplomatic relations with many countries and issues its own passports, vehicle number plates, stamps and coins.

The Order also exists in other guises – many originating in the Protestant revival of the Order in the 19th century – most notably the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, which is headed by HM Queen Elizabeth II. The Order is active across numerous countries and is renowned for the work of the St John’s Ambulance.

The eight-pointed cross - symbol of the Order of St John

The eight-pointed cross – symbol of the Order of St John

A Brief History of the Order of St John

The Order traces its origins back to the Holy Land in the early middle ages. In the early 11th century, monks from Amalfi in modern-day Italy founded a Benedictine abbey in Jerusalem. By 1080 the abbey provided a house of refuge or hospice for poor pilgrims. The hospice was located near the abbey on the site where, according to tradition, the Angel Gabriel announced the conception of John the Baptist, hence the association with St John. The hospice grew in importance during the first crusade in 1095. In 1113 the Pope formally recognised the hospice: servants of the abbey and its hospice became known as ‘Hospitallers of St John’.

The Hospitallers followed the example of the Knights Templar and became a military order in addition to their medical role. The Prior of the Order became the Grand Master and the Order was given tracts of land in the Levant which they protected with fortresses, including Krak des Chevaliers in modern-day Syria – one of the greatest castles of all time. The Order also acquired properties throughout Europe, making it very wealthy. It had a priory in London, part of which still stands to this day in Clerkenwell, where you can visit a museum about the Order of St John.

St John's Gate in London

St John’s Gate in London

The Kingdom of Jerusalem ended in 1291 with the fall of Acre. The surviving Hospitallers escaped to Cyprus before taking Rhodes for their new headquarters. At the start of the 1300s, the Order was organized in seven Langues: Provence, Auvergne, France, Aragon, Italy, England, and Germany. (The English Langue included Scotland and Ireland.) The administration of the Order was divided into priories, subdivided into bailiwicks, which in turn were divided into commanderies, which are shown in the following map. (Torphichen is the red dot in Scotland.)

Commanderies of the Order of St John in 1300

Commanderies of the Order of St John in 1300. Source: Marco Zanoli, Wikipedia.

The Order of St John remained in Rhodes until it was forced out by the Turks in 1522 after a six-month siege involving – it is claimed – 400 ships and 100,000 men under the command of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Against this force, the Order, led by Grand Master Philippe Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, numbered about 7,000 men-at-arms. At the end of the siege the defeated Hospitallers were permitted to withdraw to Sicily. (Readers of Tom’s memoir will recognise the name of Villiers de L’Isle-Adam as significant in the events that unfold in his adventures.)

After seven homeless years, the Order of St John regained a home in 1530 when Charles I of Spain, gave them Malta in exchange for an annual fee of a single Maltese falcon. From Malta, the Hospitallers continued their actions against Muslim adversaries and especially Barbary corsairs. Although they had relatively few ships, the Order became masters of naval warfare. (Detailed models of some warships of the Order are on display in the Royal Museum of Scotland.) Their exploits antagonised the Ottomans, who were unhappy to see the Order resettled.

In 1565 the Ottoman Sultan sent an invasion force of about 40,000 men to besiege Malta so as to expel the Order and gain a new base from which to be able to launch an assault on Europe. Malta was defended by only 700 knights and 8,000 soldiers. Their defence of Malta during this ‘Great Siege’ is now regarded as one of history’s most heroic defences. When the Ottomans finally departed, the Hospitallers had only 600 men still able to bear arms. Of the Ottoman force, only around 15,000 eventually returned to Istanbul. After the siege a new city, Valletta, was constructed as a defensible home for the Order, named in honour of the Grand Master – Jean Parisot de Vallette – who had personally led the defence during the Great Siege. Today it is Malta’s capital, a masterpiece of renaissance architecture and military engineering, and is well worth a visit.

Valletta, Malta. 2012

Valletta, Malta. 2012

Towards the end of the 16th century, the Order assumed an air of invincibility following both the successful defence of Malta and the victory of the combined European naval forces over the Ottoman fleet in the great Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The Order set about protecting Christian merchant shipping to and from the Levant and freeing Christian slaves captured by Barbary corsairs. These naval exploits became known as the ‘corso’. (Edward frequently describes his adventures on the corso in Tom’s memoir). In 1630, the Grand Master of the Order was elevated to the equivalent rank of a cardinal, a prince of the Catholic Church.

Antoine de Paule, Grand Master, Order of St John (1623-1636)

Antoine de Paule, Grand Master, Order of St John (1623-1636)

This was the high water mark of the Order after which it entered both moral and material decline. The ethical conduct of many knights of the Order lapsed. The newly Protestant domains in Reformation Europe largely severed their links with the Catholic Order (see below for what happened in England and Scotland). European powers that had previously supported the Order as a bulwark against Ottoman expansion lost interest and focused instead on fighting each other during the Thirty Years War (much to Edward’s regret in the memoir, given the continuing external threat to Christendom posed by the Ottoman Empire).

The Order’s control over Malta was ended ingloriously by Napoleon in 1798 during his expedition to Egypt, when the Order surrendered to a French invasion. The knights were dispersed, though the Order continued to exist in a diminished form and negotiated with European governments for a return to power. In 1879, Pope Leo XIII restored a Grand Master to the (Catholic – Sovereign Military) Order, signalling the renewal of the Order as a humanitarian and religious organization.

Knight of St John

Playmobile Knight of St John (Playmobile figures are made in Malta)

History of the Order in Scotland

In the 5th century, St Ninian brought Christianity to the lowlands of Scotland and had a small chapel built in Torphichen in West Lothian. Around 1124, the Order of St John was granted Torphichen by King David I. His successor, King Malcolm IV granted the Order a house in every burgh in Scotland.

The Knights of St John established their Scottish headquarters – or Preceptory – at Torphichen. They incorporated St Ninian’s chapel into their new Norman church in 1168, dedicating the church to St John the Baptist. A hospital was established on the upper floor of the transept. (Only the transept, chancel and tower now remain of the original Torphichen Preceptory. They are in the care of Historic Scotland and are worth a visit – members of the Order still run the kiosk.) When the Knights Templar were suppressed in the 14th century, the Order of St John acquired their property in Scotland, further adding to its wealth.

Torphichen Preceptory - Historic HQ of the Order of St John in Scotland.

Torphichen Preceptory – Historic HQ of the Order of St John in Scotland.


In addition to Torphichen, the Order of St John are closely associated with  St John’s Town of Dalry in Galloway, which was named after them. The town, often referred to simply as Dalry, was on the pilgrimage route to Whithorn. The Order of St John gained possession of much of the land upon which the town is built following the suppression of the Templars.

The Order of St John in Scotland was part of the English ‘Langue’. The Protestant Reformation led to the downfall of the Catholic Order in Britain. Suppression of the Order in England began under Henry VIII in 1540 and was completed under Elizabeth I in 1559. The Priory of Ireland surrendered in 1540. For a while only Torphichen remained.

In 1547 Sir James Sandilands, a Catholic knight of the Order, became Preceptor of Torphichen and Prior of the Order in Scotland. He was elevated to Lord St John by the Grand Master and was confirmed in his temporal Lordship of Torphichen by the Scottish monarch.

By 1560, the Reformation in Scotland had taken hold and Sir James had become increasingly isolated as the Order’s last remaining preceptor in Britain and Ireland. His father and elder brother had converted to the Protestant faith. Sir James handed over Torphichen Preceptory and its lands to the Scottish Crown. Queen Mary – a relation – granted the lands back to Sir James in his own name, for 10,000 crowns and an annual rent of 500 marks, and gave him the secular title of Lord (St John of) Torphichen. Consequently the former lands of the Order became the hereditary possession of the Sandilands family. The Order transferred nominal control of the preceptory to Sir James’s Catholic cousin – also a member of the Order in Malta – but Sir James retained possession of the Order’s former property in Scotland. In 1564, Sir James ceased to be a Catholic Knight of the Order of St John.

As a result of the Reformation, the Order of St John in the British Isles was suppressed for over 200 years. (In Tom’s memoir – set in the 1620s – Edward comments that there are very few knights left from the former English Langue. Edward himself is strongly associated with the French Langue, owing to the Hamilton family’s history, which included a spell of exile in France.)

St John's House, Edinburgh

St John’s House, Edinburgh

Today, the Order of St John is active in Scotland once more. The (Venerable) Order of St John formed a Scottish Priory in 1947 and has its headquarters in St John’s Street, just off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. You can find out more about their work which includes providing defibrillators, patient transport and support for mountain rescue teams and the St John Eye Hospital in Jerusalem at: Meanwhile the Sovereign Military Order of Malta also has a presence in Scotland as part of their broader British association. You can find out more about their work at: