The Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem originated in a hospice founded around 1070 to care for pilgrims. The brothers and sisters of the Hospital, which was recognised as a religious Order by the Pope in 1113, nursed the poor and sick of any faith. The brothers also took on the role of defending Christians. When Jerusalem was lost in 1187, they established their headquarters in Acre on the coast of Palestine, before moving to Cyprus, and then in 1309 to Rhodes. In 1530 they were given Malta, which they governed until they were expelled by Napoleon in 1798.
The Order’s lands throughout western Europe were managed by communities of its members called Commanderies, which were gathered into provinces called Grand Priories. In Britain the estates were administered from a Commandery at Clerkenwell, London, from about 1140. This became a Priory in 1185, with responsibilities for other Commanderies that had been set up in Scotland and Wales as well as throughout England. Ireland became a separate Priory.
In 1540 the Order was suppressed with other monastic and religious institutions by King Henry VIII. It was restored by Queen Mary I in 1557, but Queen Elizabeth I again confiscated all its estates in 1559. The influence of the Reformation ended the Order’s activities in Scotland in about 1564.
The Roman Catholic Order of the Hospital of St John, which is now known as The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta (or simply the Order of Malta) survived its expulsion from Malta. In the 1820s its Knights living in France offered knighthoods to supporters in Great Britain, irrespective of their Christian denomination. This initiative was not ratified by the Order of Malta, but the English Knights devoted themselves to charitable services. They were recognised by Queen Victoria and their Order became an Order of the British Crown in 1888. They had founded an eye hospital in Jerusalem in 1882. They had already set up St John Ambulance to train people in first aid in 1877 and in 1887 their volunteers were organised into a uniformed Brigade to serve at public events. The Ambulance Association and the Brigade were amalgamated in 1974. In many parts of Britain, St John was the first and only provider of an ambulance service up to the middle of the 20th century.
The Order of St John is active in over 40 countries across the world. Under a Grand Council, it consists of 8 St John Priories, 33 St John Associations, and the St John Eye Hospital Group which still has its main hospital in Jerusalem.