Order of Saint John (Bailiwick of Brandenburg)

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Order of Saint John
(Bailiwick of Brandenburg)
Flag of the Order
Type Order of chivalry
Religious affiliation Christianity (Protestant)
Ribbon Black moiré
Herrenmeister Prince Oscar of Prussia
Established 1099, restored 1852

The Bailiwick of Brandenburg of the Chivalric Order of Saint John of the Hospital at Jerusalem (German: Balley Brandenburg des Ritterlichen Ordens Sankt Johannis vom Spital zu Jerusalem), commonly known as the Order of Saint John or the Johanniter Order (German: Johanniterorden), is the German Protestant branch of the Knights Hospitaller, the oldest surviving chivalric order, which generally is considered to have been founded in Jerusalem in 1099.

The Order is led by its thirty-seventh Herrenmeister ("Master of the Knights" or Grand Master), Prince Oskar of Prussia. Each of its knights, about four thousand men worldwide, is either a Knight of Justice (Rechtsritter) or a Knight of Honor (Ehrenritter).[1] Membership in the Order is by invitation only, and individuals may not petition for admission; it is not limited to German citizens or German speakers, and knights include citizens and residents of most major nations. Although membership is no longer limited to the nobility, as it was until 1948, the majority of knights still are drawn from this class.[2] The Order comprises seventeen commanderies in Germany, one each in Austria, Finland, France, Hungary, and Switzerland, and a global commandery with subcommanderies in twelve other countries (Australia, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, Italy, Namibia, Poland, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Venezuela).[3]

Together with the London-based Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (of which the British monarch is Sovereign Head), the Swedish Johanniterorden i Sverige, and the Dutch Johanniter Orde in Nederland, the Order is a member of the Alliance of the Orders of Saint John of Jerusalem. Along with the Roman Catholic Sovereign Military Order of Malta ("SMOM"), these four "Alliance Orders" represent the legitimate heirs of the Knights Hospitaller. They consider other orders using the name of Saint John to be merely imitative, and the Alliance and the SMOM jointly formed a False Orders Committee (renamed and reorganized as the Committee on Orders of St. John), with representatives of each of the five orders, to expose and take action against such imitations.[4]

The Order and its affiliate orders in the Netherlands and Sweden, which became independent of the Bailiwick of Brandenburg after the Second World War, in 1946, are Protestant. The SMOM, headquartered in Rome, admits only men and women of the Catholic faith.[5] The Venerable Order of Saint John, a recreation of the medieval English Langue of the Order of Saint John, was chiefly Anglican at its formation in the nineteenth century but since has opened its membership to men and women of any faith.[6]


Prince Oskar of Prussia leading a procession of the Johanniterorden in 1924

Appearance of the Order of Saint John in German-speaking lands

Soon after the formation of the Order in Jerusalem,[7] supporters in Western Europe began to donate farmland and other assets for the objectives of the order, the military protection and medical aid of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. In time, these landholdings were gathered into regional administrative divisions known as commanderies, each headed by a senior knight, or knight commander of the Order. The first commandery in the Germanies was founded in the mid-twelfth century.[8]

By 1318, the Bailiwick of Brandenburg had been established in the northeastern parts of the Holy Roman Empire, an aggregation of commanderies of the Order under a bailiff, a high officer of the Order. The riches and influence of the Bailiwick (especially after augmentation by properties of the suppressed Order of the Temple) were so sizeable that, in 1382, the Prior of the German Langue (the eight territorial "Tongues" of the mediaeval Order of Saint John were its major subdivisions) in what became known as the Accord of Heimbach recognized the right of the Bailiwick of Brandenburg to choose its own governor (the Bailiff of Brandenburg, more commonly called the Herrenmeister) and preceptors (the commanders of the commanderies constituting the Bailiwick).[9]

Early Modern Europe

During the Protestant Reformation, large parts of the German Langue of the then-undivided Order of Saint John followed the leadership of the Bailiwick of Brandenburg and accepted Lutheran theology while continuing to recognize the headship of the grand master of the Order, who, with the majority of the knights, remained Roman Catholic. The higher officials of the Order, now headquartered on the Mediterranean island of Malta after the successive losses of Jerusalem, Acre, and Rhodes to Muslim Arabs and Turks, evinced a desire to maintain a relationship with the Protestant knights despite the theological and ecclesiological differences between the two groups. But in 1581, then Grand Master Jean de la Cassière called Herrenmeister Martin von Hohenstein before the Chapter (ruling council) of the Order of Saint John in Malta; when the Herrenmeister did not appear, De la Cassière declared the expulsion of the knights of the Bailiwick from the order, though he did so without the agreement of the Chapter.[10]

Though separated from the Roman Catholic main stem of the Order of Saint John, the Bailiwick of Brandenburg continued to flourish. Admitting only noblemen, principally from the Germanies, the Bailiwick maintained hospitals and other institutions to care for the poor, the sick, and the injured. Elections of successive Herrenmeister (including a Roman Catholic, Adam von Schwarzenberg, in 1641) were announced to the Grand Prior of Germany in the Roman Catholic Order of Malta and, in accordance with the requests from the governing authorities of the Order of Malta, responsions (periodic remittances from revenues) were paid to the Grand Priory.[11]

The horrific Thirty Years' War devastated the Bailiwick, resulting in the deaths of many knights and the destruction of much of the wealth of the Bailiwick. By the terms of the Peace of Westphalia ending the conflict, the Bailiwick was effectively placed under the protection of the Prince Electors of Brandenburg, later Kings of Prussia, members of the House of Hohenzollern.[12] Under this protection, the Johanniterorden, as the Order came to be known, came to be headquartered at Sonnenburg Castle in the Neumark of Brandenburg, east of the Oder River, though the Herrenmeister resided in the Ordenspalais in Berlin from its completion in 1738.

As the intense sectarianism of early modern Europe gave way to the Enlightenment, further if sporadic attempts were made to accommodate the Protestant Bailiwick within the Roman Catholic Order of Malta. Despite cordial relations, however, including payment of responsions to Malta and participation of delegates from the Bailiwick in the Chapter General of the Order of Malta in 1776, nominal reunion of the two orders was prevented by the withholding of papal approval.[13]

The Order in the nineteenth century and thereafter

In 1811 and 1812, as protector of the Order, King Frederick William III of Prussia transferred the powers of the Herrenmeister and the Chapter (the governing council of the Order) to the Prussian Crown, effectively dissolving the Bailiwick and confiscating its possessions. In its place he established a similarly named order of merit, the Royal Prussian Order of Saint John which also had similar insignia. The Herrenmeister of the Bailiwick, Prince August Ferdinand, became the first grand master of the new order of merit and continued to reside in the Ordenspalais, the palace of the Bailivick of Brandenburg. All knights of the Bailiwick became members of the new order of merit.[14]

German Emperor William II in ceremonial robes as Protector of the Order of Saint John
Otto von Bismarck wearing neck and breast crosses of a Knight of Honor, circa 1862

In 1852 the order of merit was in its turn dissolved and King Frederick William IV of Prussia, again exercising the powers of the kings of Prussia as protectors of the Order, restored the original Bailiwick. The eight surviving knights of justice of the original Order were among its first members. In 1853, they elected the younger brother of the Prussian king, Prince Friedrich Karl Alexander, the new Herrenmeister of the restored Order. He announced his election to the head of the Order of Malta, who in acknowledgement recognized this restoration as the continuation of the historic Bailiwick.[15] The Johanniterorden and its branches became fully independent of the Roman Catholic grand master in Rome, although the Herrenmeisters then and since have continuously and explicitly recognized the Order's historical connection with the Roman Catholic Order of Malta.[16]

During the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Order created and supported more and more charitable activities. It now owns and operates numerous hospitals, ambulance services, old-age homes, and nurseries and provides first-aid training courses and disaster relief, both within Germany and abroad.

After World War II, with the Neumark given by the victorious Allies to Poland (Sonnenburg has been renamed "Słońsk", and the castle lies in ruins),[17] the Order moved its headquarters to Bonn, West Germany. After the reunification of West and East Germany, the headquarters were moved again, to Berlin.

More than the location of the seat of the Order changed in the aftermath of the Second World War. The Swedish and Dutch commanderies separated from the direct oversight of the Bailiwick (though continuing in loose association with it through the Alliance since 1961) in 1946, and two years later, the Bailiwick itself began to admit commoners as knights, because the post-monarchical German nobility was seen as a "frozen caste". The Finnish commandery, however, remains a purely noble society, as do the now independent Swedish and Dutch orders.[18]

Although the Herrenmeister is now elected and no is longer nominated by the king of Prussia or emperor of Germany, each holder of the office since 1693 has been a member of the House of Hohenzollern, the family of the former Prussian kings and last German emperors.[19]

The present status of the Order under German law derives from its incorporation in 1852, and from official recognition by the German government in 1957 and 1959 of the badges of rank in the Order as German decorations of merit. [20]



There are three active classes in the Order: Commander (Kommendator), Knight of Justice (Rechtsritter), and Knight of Honor (Ehrenritter). There are also classes of Honorary Commander (Ehrenkommendator), given to Knights of Justice who have rendered distinguished service to the Order, and Honorary Member (Ehrenmitglieder), which can be bestowed on men (including non-evangelical Christians) who do not belong to the Order but have given it some extraordinary service.[21]

Charitable works

Through its Johanniter-Unfall-Hilfe ("Saint John Accident Assistance"), its hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, and other institutions, the Order today is a major provider of medical and rescue services in Germany and, to a lesser extent, of comparable services elsewhere in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. These services are similar to the St. John Ambulance in many Commonwealth nations, and to various organisations affiliated with the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. All are carried out under the auspices of the Christian faith.

Additionally, spiritual retreats and other activities of the Order concentrate on the spiritual formation and development of Christian citizens in the modern world.[22]


Cloak of a Knight of Justice worn over the now obsolescent dress uniform of the Order
The cross of a Knight of Justice.
File:Order of Saint John (Bailiwick of Brandenburg) Star Cross 001-1.jpg
Star or breast badge of the Order, which is worn on the left jacket breast.

The cloak of the Order is plain black with a large, white, linen eight-pointed cross on the left breast. For most knights, the cloak is black woollen (to which French knights add distinctive white woollen collars) with a plain lining, but the Herrenmeister’s cloak is of black velvet lined in satin. The cloaks of most knights are closed only at the neck, but the Herrenmeister, Commanders, Honorary Commanders, and Knights of Justice also wear a long black cord called a cingulum.[23]

The insignia, also known as crosses of honor,[24] are no longer bestowed by the Order automatically (reception into the Order now involves only ceremonial robing with the cloak in a church service). Knights of Honor now must have rendered five years of service to the Order before a cross of honor is granted. Promotion to Knight of Justice requires at least seven years of distinguished service.

The basic insignia of the Order is a white-enamelled Maltese cross. The crowned Brandenburg (later, Prussian) eagles between the arms of the crosses date from 1668; they are gold for Knights of Justice, Honorary Commanders, Commanders, and the Herrenmeister, but, on the crosses of Knights of Honour and Honorary Members, the eagles are enamelled black with only the tiny crowns on each eagle's head left unenamelled gold. The closed crown of the king of Prussia on the Herrenmeister's cross and the crosses of Commanders, Honorary Commanders, Knights of Justice, and Honorary Members dates from the time of Frederick the Great, when his government authorised it to be used on the insignia.[25] Excluding the crown, the cross of a Knight of Justice is 5 cm in diameter; the cross of a Commander, Honorary Commander, or Honorary Member, 5.5 cm; and the cross of the Herrenmeister, 7 cm The uncrowned cross of a Knight of Honour is 6 cm in diameter. Each cross is worn from a black-moire, 4.5-centimeter-wide ribbon worn about the neck.

All members of the Order may also wear a plain, Maltese cross as a star or 'breast badge'. Most such stars are of plain linen, though enamelled stars in either silver or silver gilt, of about 5.5cm in diameter, also are worn in formal evening attire.

A white-enamelled Maltese cross in either gold (generally about 1.8 centimeters in diameter) or silver (1.3), may be worn on the left lapel of a knight's suit coat or sportcoat.[26]

From the late eighteenth century, the Johanniter have had a uniform similar to the Knights of Malta. Though not abolished, this uniform has not been worn since before the Second World War.[27]

Related orders

In 1946, the Dutch and Swedish commanderies of the Order separated from the direct oversight of the Bailiwick to form distinct, though related, orders.

Order of Saint John in the Netherlands

The mediaeval Dutch Bailiwick of Utrecht and Commandery of Haarlem formed parts of the German Langue (one of the "Tongues", the major divisions of the mediaeval Order of Saint John) until, during the Reformation, they associated themselves with the reformed Bailiwick of Brandenburg. Both the Bailiwick of Utrecht and the Commandery of Haarlem were suppressed in 1810, during the Napoleonic occupation.

Dutch knights of the Bailiwick of Brandenburg formed their own commandery within the Johanniterorden in 1909, when the Dutch monarch afforded it royal protection; and the commandery separated from the German Johanniterorden in 1946. The commandery became an independent order in 1958 and is known as Johanniter Orde in Nederland, now admitting noblewomen as well as noblemen. The Dutch monarch is an honorary commander. With the German and Swedish orders, the Dutch order helped found the Alliance of the Orders of St. John of Jerusalem on June 13, 1961.[28]

Dutch insignia of the Johanniter Orde in Nederland replace Prussian eagles with the Dutch lion.

Order of Saint John in Sweden

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A Swedish commandery of the Order of Saint John had been established by 1185, but laicized in 1530 as a result of the Reformation. Some Swedish noblemen had become knights of the Johanniterorden by the early nineteenth century; by 1920, when King Gustav V placed them under his protection as a union of Swedish knights of the Order, they were 54 in number.

In 1946, the union of Swedish knights separated from the German Johanniterorden and a Swedish order was established. Known as the Johanniterorden i Sverige, and with the Swedish monarch as its High Protector, it helped found the Alliance of the Orders of St. John of Jerusalem on June 13, 1961. Even though it is still a semi-official chivalric order of the Swedish state, membership of the Swedish order in practice remains limited to noblemen.[29]

Swedish insignia of the Johanniterorden i Sverige replace Prussian eagles with the sheaf of the House of Vasa.


Prince Friedrich Carl Alexander, Herrenmeister from 1853 to 1883, wearing the breast cross of a Knight and the neck cross of his office
Prince Oskar of Prussia, Herrenmeister since 1999

Following is a list of the men who have headed the Order, with the title of Herrenmeister, from the beginning of the institution as a subdivision of the Knights Hospitaller.[30]

Notable members


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Knights of Justice

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Knights of Honour

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Honorary Members

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See also


  1. Verzeichnis der Mitglieder der Balley Brandenburg des Ritterlichen Ordens St. Johannis vom Spital zu Jerusalem; Berlin: Johanniterorden, September, 2008; page 88.
  2. Verzeichnis der Mitglieder der Balley Brandenburg des Ritterlichen Ordens St. Johannis vom Spital zu Jerusalem; Berlin: Johanniterorden, October, 2011; passim.
  3. Verzeichnis der Mitglieder der Balley Brandenburg des Ritterlichen Ordens St. Johannis vom Spital zu Jerusalem; Berlin: Johanniterorden, October, 2011; pages 22-23.
  4. Sainty, pages 63, 108-112, 145.
  5. Joint Declaration of SMOM and the Alliance of the Orders of St John of Jerusalem, Rome 22 October 2004
  6. As explained in the article of this Wikipedia on "the Venerable Order", citing the Pro Fide report for 2005 of the Grand Council of that organization, profession of the Christian faith is now "not an essential condition of membership" in it.
  7. The precise date and circumstances of the establishment of the confraternity that became the Order of Saint John remain unclear; the interested reader may find some details in the article on the Knights Hospitaller, the name by which members of the Order commonly were known during the Middle Ages. Sainty, pages 1-2.
  8. Clark, pages 1-2; Storm, page 21.
  9. Sainty, pages 4, 84-85, 89; Clark, pages 7-9.
  10. Clark, pages 11-14 (noting that the Roman Catholic Grand Prior of Germany, nominal overlord of the Bailiff of Brandenburg, did not advise the Bailiff of this expulsion because he was attempting to keep the Bailiwick within the Order of Malta); Sainty, pages 84-86; Storm, pages 21-22. See also the article [de:Johanniterorden|"Johanniterorden"] in the German Wikipedia.
  11. Sainty, pages 85-86; Clark, pages 17-18.
  12. The order was the subject of Article XII, section 3, of the Treaty of Osnabrück; http://www.lwl.org/westfaelische-geschichte/portal/Internet/finde/langDatensatz.php?urlID=740&url_tabelle=tab_quelle#art12, viewed November 5, 2011.
  13. King Frederick II ("Frederick the Great") of Prussia and Grand Master Manuel Pinto da Fonseca of the Order of Malta agreed in 1764 to such a reunification, but Pope Clement XIII would not allow admission into a Roman Catholic organization of men he viewed as heretics; nevertheless, members of each order continued to regard the others as confreres. Clark, pages 18-25; Sainty, pages 86, 89-90.
  14. Clark, pages 27-28; Freller, page 216; Sainty, page 90; Storm, page 22.
  15. Clark, pages 28-31; Freller, pages 217-218, 223; Herrlich, pages 235-236; Pierredon, page 277. From 1805 until 1889, the Order of Malta was headed by a "Lieutenant", as Roman Catholic Popes withheld confirmation of elections of grand masters; the announcement from the Bailiwick thus was made to Philip von Colloredo as Lieutenant of the Order of Malta, and he responded with an implicit recognition of the Bailiwick as a continuing part of a greater Order of Saint John.
  16. Johanniter.de
  17. de:Słońsk
  18. Sainty 95-96, 99, 103.
  19. Clark, pages 110-111; see also Johanniter.de.
  20. Clark, pages 52 and 55-56.
  21. Clark, pages 63-64.
  22. Johanniter.de; [1], viewed on November 5, 2011; Clark, pages 62, 70–105. As of 2011, the Johanniter-Unfall-Hilfe counted 1,200,000 members in Germany alone; the Johanniter-Schwesterschaft (Saint John's nursing sisterhood) had about 600 nurses, all trained in the Order's nursing schools and most working in the hospitals and other institutions of the order in Germany; the annual financial turnover of the Order and its associated institutions exceeded a billion euroes.
  23. Clark, page 64.
  24. Clark, page 63.
  25. Clark, page 65.
  26. Clark, page 66.
  27. Clark, pages 63-65.
  28. Sainty, pages 98-101; Clark, page 57; website of the Dutch order, http://www.johanniterorde.nl/, accessed November 5, 2011.
  29. Sainty, pages 102-104; Clark, pages 57, 86-87; website of the Swedish royal house, http://www.kungahuset.se/royalcourt/monarchy/orders/theordersinsweden.4.396160511584257f2180005761.html, accessed April 9, 2012; website of the Swedish order, http://www.johanniterorden.se/, accessed November 5, 2011.
  30. Clark, pages 110-111.
  31. Codex diplomaticus Brandenburgensis: Hauptth. Urkunden-Sammlung für die Orts, by Adolph Friedrich Johann Riedel


  • Article on "Johanniterorden" in the German-language Wikipedia.
  • Clark, Robert M., Jr., The Evangelical Knights of Saint John: A History of the Bailiwick of Brandenburg of the Knightly Order of St. John of the Hospital at Jerusalem, Known as the Johanniter Order; Dallas, Texas: 2003.
  • Freller, Thomas. The German Langue of the Order of Malta: A Concise History; Santa Venera, Malta: Midsea Books Ltd., 2010.
  • Herrlich, Carl Hugo. Die Balley Brandenburg des Johanniter-Ordens von ihrem Entstehen bis zur Gegenwart und in ihren jetzigen Einrichtungen; Berlin: Carl Heymanns Verlag, 1904 (fourth edition).
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  • De Pierredon, Michel. Histoire Politique de l'Ordre Souverain des Hospitaliers de Saint-Jean de Jérusalem dit de Malte, depuis la chute de Malte jusqu'a nos jours; Paris, 1926.
  • Sainty, Guy Stair. The Orders of Saint John: The History, Structure, Membership and Modern Role of the Five Hospitaller Orders of Saint John of Jerusalem; New York: The American Society of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John in Jerusalem, 1991.
  • Staehle, Ernst. Geschichte der Johanniter und Malteser; Gnas, Austria: Weishaupt Verlag, 2002 (in four volumes).
  • Storm, Robert. "A Brief History of the Bailiwick of Brandenburg of the Chivalric Order of St. John of the Hospital at Jerusalem", in Volume XXVIII, No. 1 (Easter, 2011), of Johanniter Herald (quarterly journal of the North American Subcommanderies of the Balley Brandenburg).

External links