13 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 46

Parfit knights

From Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith Sir: Since in Damian Thompson's article on the Order of St John ('Out of Order', 30 October) I was criticised for 'glossing over' history, I would like to put the record straight. Mr Thompson made two asser- tions: the first was that the Most Venerable Order of St John has no right to share in the history of the Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, represented today by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. The second was that it was taking advantage of the commemoration of 900 years of history to misrepresent its own part in them.

The modern Order of St John was born out of an extraordinary project thought up by the French provinces of the Order of Malta in the 1820s. It involved raising a large sum of money by selling bonds on the London market and equipping a mercenary contingent to sail from England to assist the Greek rebellion against the Turks, with the aim of restoring the order's rule over Rhodes, which had been lost in 1522. Any- one in England who invested in this adven- ture or became an officer in the expedi- tionary force was to be made a knight of Malta. This was to be a step towards the restoration of the Hospitaller grand priory of England, which had been suppressed during the Reformation.

Not surprisingly, the great powers inter- vened and the order's headquarters in Italy refused to confirm the knighthoods, point- ing out later that most of the new English knights were Protestant. The English were very nearly recognised in 1858, but the negotiations were wrecked by the malicious allegations of two knights of Malta, which frightened off the grand magistry in Rome. It was left to Queen Victoria to legitimise the English order by royal charter in 1888. The resulting institution is an order of the crown and a Christian confraternity rather than the province of a Catholic religious order. Its situation can be compared to that of an illegitimate child who has not only been legitimised but also raised in status by the crown, and its members have every right to claim a share in the traditions of the mother order.

Their legitimacy as members of an order of the British crown and their attachment to the history of the Hospitallers was acknowledged in 1987 by the grand master of the Order of Malta, when he and the heads of the four non-catholic Orders of St John signed a declaration of mutual recog- nition. Several knights of Malta, including myself, are also knights of St John and feel privileged to belong to both orders.

The idea of celebrating a nonacentenary, involving the three recognised Protestant orders in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, as well as the Orders of St John and of Malta; came not from London but from Germany and was endorsed by the grand magistry in Rome. Joint celebrations have been held throughout the world and all orders involved have displayed solidarity • by attending those organised by the others. What unites the orders is a radical commit- ment to service of the poor and sick which evolved in the early 12th century and was restored as an absolute priority in the 19th. It is this that makes them unique. How could they do otherwise than stress it? Jonathan Riley-Smith

Emmanuel College, Cambridge