St Petersburg

There had been some sporadic military and political intercourse between the Order in Malta and Russia in the second half of the 18th century but it was not until the 1795 partition of Poland between Prussia, Austro-Hungary and Russia that real contacts between the two parties were made. In 1775 the Order had established a Priory in the part of Poland which had become a Russian possession. Initial overtures with Empress Catherine the Great to regularise the income from the priory came to nothing. The death of Catherine in 1796 however completely changed the situation. Her son and successor, Paul I had a passion for all things chivalric and  for the Order of Malta in particular and immediately used the Polish Priory as a means to gain a foothold in the Order. The 1797 Convention between Paul and the Order not only saw the enlargement of the Polish Priory from six to ten Commanderies but resulted in the transfer of its Seat to St Petersburg and its renaming to the Grand Priory of Russia.

The relationship between Paul and the Order continued to wax. He accepted to become a Protector of the Order and was made not only a Grand Cross of the Order but with the entitlement to wear the Habit. His status therefore was tantamount to that of a full member. On the 1st June 1798 a Treaty1  was agreed to between the Order and  the Emperor for the creation of a new establishment consisting of 84 Commanderies for the Nobility of the Greek Religion. The report2 on the agreement submitted to the Sacred Council propounds the arguments in favour of sanctioning a non-Catholic Grand Priory within a Roman Catholic Order.  

On June 12, Napoleon invaded Malta and expelled the Order before the treaty could be ratified.

Rendered homeless after 263 years in Malta, most of the knights made their way to St Petersburg where they were made welcome by their Protector, the Emperor and in September 1798, the Order now based in St  Petersburg voted to depose Hompesch and on the 27th October proceeded to elect Emperor Paul I as their Grandmaster which he accepted on the 13th November.

Controversy3 within the Order over the election of Paul I as Grandmaster of the Order whilst Hompesch was still Grandmaster was resolved  on 6th July 1799 when Hompesch abdicated under pressure from the Austrian Emperor who was an ally of Russia, leaving Paul I undisputed Grandmaster, albeit without Papal approval.

Now Grandmaster, Paul I resurrected a modified plan of creating Commanderies based on the Treaty previously  agreed between the Order under Hompesch and Paul I . This duly came into force with the imperial Proclamation of 1798. (Fuller details under Russian Grand Priory)

Worontzoff Palace
Lithograph by H. Avnatomov from a drawing by Joseph Charlemagne 1858

Paul presented the Order with the Worontzoff Palace which had its name changed to 'Palais de Malte' with a later designation of 'de St Jean'. Two Chapels were added to the Palace, one for the Catholic Priory and the other for the Russian Institution.4

It may be argued that the Russian Priories and, to some extent, the Order had been subsumed into a monarchy. This however may already have been the case during the last phase of Order in Malta, where the Grandmagistry had all but tranmogrified into a monarchy, even to the adoption of a royal crown as a symbol of power.

On July 21st 1799, Paul issued a decree (ukase) governing the family commanderies. This gave hereditary rights  not only to the commanderies but also to the heirs of those commanderies. As Monarch and Grandmaster, Paul had ensured that the new establishment formed part of Russian rather than Roman Catholic tradition.

Paul's Grandmagistry came to an end with his assassination on 23 Mar 1801. His son and successor, Alexander declined the Grandmastership but continued his Protectorship, appointing Count Nicholas Soltikoff Lieutenant Grand Master and instructing him to organise the election of a new Grand Master - as a consequence deferring for one time only (but which later became the pattern) the choice to the Pope.

Alexander continued to support the cause of the Order on the international stage to the extent that, at Russian insistence, the 1802 Treaty of Amiens provided for the restoration of Malta to the Order of St John, and the election of a Grandmaster. Throughout the period after the Order's expulsion from Malta, there can be no doubt that, were it not for the Russian factor, the Order may well have disappeared without a trace. Only the might of the Russian Empire and its money pouring into the Order's coffers ensured its survival. The ineffectual government by the Sicilian Priories later during the first quarter of the 19th century, when opportunities for rejuvenation and revival were lost, only proves that, without Russian intervention, they would have been incapable of seeing the Order through this most difficult period in its history.

Soltikoff organised a Sacred Council of the Order which sought to ask all the Priories that could be contacted to submit names for a list of candidates for the office of Grandmaster. The Napoleonic campaigns in Europe during that period made communication difficult with  and between all the Langues and Priories and a practical solution was adopted whereby the Pope agreed to ask the Catholic Priories to submit a list of candidates from which he would designate one person as Grandmaster. The words from the English translation of the Decree are "that this is only the case on this one occasion, and without derogating in any degree from the rights and privileges of the sovereign order." 5 

All but Spain took part in the submission of names to St Petersburg where a list was compiled and transmitted to Rome in May 1802. It was not until 16th September that the Pope declared for Marquis-Prince Bailiff Bartolomeo Francesco Maria Ruspoli 3 who declined on the grounds of age and infirmity

As a result, the Pope consulted the few remaining members in Messina and appointed Giovanni Battista Tommasi di Cortona as Grandmaster on the 9th February 1803. He was approved by the French Minister in Rome, Emperor Alexander, and Lieutenant Grandmaster Count Soltikoff, who announced that the provisional Sacred Council at St Petersburg would cease its function on the resumption of power by the new Grandmaster.6

With Tommasi's appointment, the Seat of the Order moved to Messina and the role of St Petersburg ended. All that remained within the Russian Empire was the Russian Grand Priory which Paul I had created and whose progress thereafter is followed under the Russian Grand Priory page.

More detailed information  on A Short History of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem by Dr MJ Foster

For details of the Grandmasters who ruled the Order, go to Grandmasters

1. National Library Malta, Arch. 2196 pp. 87-105.
2. National Library, Malta. Arch 2196.  1798.  pp. 77-85
3. A precedent had been established in 1319 when Foulques de Villaret, who had become dictatorial and morally corrupt, was deposed.
4. Smith/Storace, page 70.
5. Boisgelin, Volume 3, Appendix No. XXI, p. 294. Also see Smith/Storace, pages 203, 204.
6. Smith/Storace, pp. 40,41.


Boisgelin, Louis de. Ancient and Modern Malta, and the History of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, 3 Volumes bound together. G & J Robinson, London 1804.

Foster, Michael John: A Short History of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Part Two. The Order of St John of Jerusalem since 1798

National Library Malta, Arch. 2196

Smith, Harrison, and Storace, Joseph E, Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, Second Edition, Akker Print, Delft, The Netherlands 1977.