‘We come with passports instead of swords’: The 1926 Pilgrimage of The Order of St John to Jerusalem, Cyprus, Rhodes and Malta

Posted September 15, 2017 10:13 am by Abigail Turner under Guest blogs History

In the latest guest essay for the Bearers of the Cross project blog, Dr Mike Horswell (Royal Holloway, University of London) explores the history and material culture of the Order of St John’s 1926 pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

‘Pilgrims aboard the S.S. Asia, March 1926’, Box 13: 17(4), © MOSJ.

On the morning of 4 March 1926 over a hundred men and women – many members of the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem in England, as well as friends, well-wishers and photographers – stood on the platform of Victoria station in London awaiting the two o’clock train which would begin their four-week tour of the Mediterranean.[1] The Order had hired the SS Asia to take the party from Venice to Jaffa, from where they would visit Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and then return via Rhodes and Cyprus. The Earl of Scarbrough, Sub-Prior and leader of the party, wrote in the Order’s official history of the expedition that it was a ‘voyage of outstanding significance in the history of the Grand Priory of England’.[2]

The pilgrimage, as it became known, was more than an aristocratic pleasure cruise or historical tour. As a landmark occasion – the first return of the Hospitallers to ancient properties since their departure claimed Scarbrough – the visits were marked with ceremony and expressions of devotion denoting their gravity. For example, upon their arrival at Jaffa and disembarkation, the leaders of the expedition dropped to their knees and recited the Lord’s Prayer before taking the train to Jerusalem.[3] As well as praying in the Holy Sepulchre and taking in, among other sites, the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane the Order conducted ceremonies of investiture in the Anglican St George’s Cathedral – similar ceremonies were held in Rhodes and Malta. The Anglican bishop in Jerusalem, Rennie MacInnes, considered the pilgrimage to have had a ‘deep spiritual atmosphere’, while the pilgrimage’s historian and the Order’s Librarian, Colonel E.J. King, concluded that, ‘The Pilgrimage of 1926 must stand out for all time as one of the greatest and most significant events in the modern history of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.’[4]

‘Map of the pilgrimage route’, Box 13: 18(5), © MOSJ.


‘An Official Pilgrimage of the Order’[5]

Regularly described as a ‘pilgrimage’ by both national press and members of the Order, the trip had precedence in the years following the First World War. Ever since the devastation caused by the 1914–18 conflict people had travelled to the sites of significant battles for a plethora of reasons. Some went to see where a loved one had fought or died, some wanted to see for themselves what it had been like and some wanted to commemorate – to remember and honour appropriately – the sacrifice of so many. ‘The French,’ wrote a reporter in The Times in 1920, ‘have a better term for what are described in this country as battlefield tours. They call them pilgrimages.’[6] The prominent trip of King George V in 1922 to the battlefields of northern France and Belgium was publicised in a book of pictures of the trip titled The King’s Pilgrimage, and included Rudyard Kipling’s verse of the same name.[7] Moreover, as the tourism industry picked up and travel became easier, traditional pilgrimage sites came within the means of many: an Anglo-Catholic pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1924 exemplifies this trend.[8] The British administration of Palestine under the League of Nations Mandate, beginning with its capture in 1917, has been credited with transforming the potential of Jerusalem for tourism.[9] The Order’s 1926 pilgrimage encapsulated the feasibility of travel and expressed the desire of building post-war connections with the past, potentially bridging and thereby mitigating the traumatic damage done to history by the war.[10] It was the Hospitaller past to which the Order turned to assert continuity.


March 1926 Pilgrimage Itinerary
Thursday 4th: Departed from Victorian station.
Saturday 6th: Visited the Grand Priory of Venice.
Sunday 7th: Departed from Venice aboard the SS Asia.
Tuesday 9th: Stopped at Corfu; met the British Consul.
Saturday 13th: Arrived at Jaffa, took the train to Jerusalem. Visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Mount of Olives, Bethany, and the Garden of Gethsemane.
Sunday 14th: Mass at previous Hospitaller church, known as Mar Hanna; service in St. George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem.
Monday 15th: Drove to Bethlehem, tour of Jerusalem. Evening reception hosted by Lord Plumer, the High Commissioner of Palestine, at Government House with Investiture Ceremony.
Tuesday 16th: Visited Jericho, Jordan, the Dead Sea or Ain Karin, the Church of St. John. Afternoon reception at Opthalmic Hospital of the Order. Evening tour by Sir Ronald Storrs, Governor of Jerusalem, of Solomon’s Quarries.
Wednesday 17th: Departure from Jerusalem via Nablus and Nazareth and embarked aboard the SS Asia for Cyprus.
Thursday 18th: Arrived at Cyprus; evening reception held by the Governor.
Friday 19th: Visited Famagusta and Cyrenia; departed Cyprus.
Monday 22nd: Arrived at Rhodes; investiture of the Italian Governor into the Order, followed by reception.
Tuesday 23rd: Departed Rhodes.
Thursday 24th: Arrived at Malta; dinner for senior members of the Order hosted by the Governor; evening Investiture Ceremony.
Friday 25th: Sightseeing in Malta; departed in the evening.
Tuesday 30th: Disembarked at Venice.
Wednesday 31st: Arrived back in London.


The idea of the trip, wrote Scarbrough later:

developed into a veritable pilgrimage designed to revive in our minds the heritage of the past, and to bring home to our members and workers the close connection between that heritage, and the present day work of the Grand Priory carried on throughout the Empire in the service of mankind by its two great branches, the ambulance Association, and the Ambulance Brigade.[11]

This was borne out in the mixture of devotional and ceremonial activities of the Order on tour. Trips to traditional pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land, such as Bethlehem, the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane and the Holy Sepulchre, evoked the life and passion of Jesus Christ, while visits to the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock completed the tourist itinerary.

‘Interior of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem’, Box 6: 80(71), © MOSJ.

‘The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem’, Box 6: 43, © MOSJ.

‘Inside the Mosque of Omar, Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem’, Box 6: 78(A72), © MOSJ.












The route was laden with historical resonance for the Order from start to finish: Venice was ‘a favourite port of embarkation for Crusaders in the days when the Christian Kings of Jerusalem still reigned in Palestine’;[12] passing through the strait of Corfu engendered a tale of the sixteenth-century Hospitaller admiral Leo Strozzi;[13] and the sights of Jerusalem generated a cacophony of classical, biblical and crusading history – the latter expressly covered by a display of artefacts from the crusader kingdom at the museum run by the Department of Antiquities. Cyprus, Rhodes and Malta all evoked the events of the Order’s past as the pilgrims could walk the same streets as their spiritual ancestors and imaginatively engage with their actions, thereby reinforcing the historical associations for each member.

‘Pilgrims tour the walls of Jerusalem’, Box 13: 34(19), © MOSJ.

A significant aim of the tour was to conduct three ceremonies of investiture. The Sub-Prior was specifically empowered to induct new members by the Chapter-General, and they took the processional Cross, Sword and Standard of the Order with them. The ceremony in Jerusalem was conducted in the High Commissioner’s Residence, as its occupant, Field-Marshal Lord Plumer, was a Knight of Grace of the Order. Those who became members included Bishop MacInnes; John Strathearn, Warden of the Order’s Eye Hospital; Professor John Garstang, Director of Antiquities at the Museum of the Department of Antiquities; and Lady Storrs, wife of Sir Ronald. Present were many local dignitaries: the Consuls-General of France, Italy and Greece, representatives of the Orthodox and Armenian Patriarchs, and other religious, civil and military leaders.[14] In his account, King took pains to emphasise that the investiture bridged the gap between the Hospitaller ceremonies of the medieval crusader kingdom of Jerusalem and the present, calling it an ‘historic and never to be forgotten occasion, the first reception of new knights in to the Order of St. John that Jerusalem has seen, since its capture by Saladin in 1187’.[15]

While there was no ceremony in Cyprus, the members of the Order were hosted by the Governor, Sir Malcolm Stevenson, at Government House. At the Italian-ruled island of Rhodes, the hall of the knights was used for their ceremony and the local governor made an honorary knight. Again, the historical echoes resonated for King:



There can have been few present who were not deeply moved by the privilege of taking part in an investiture of our English Order in the very hall at Rhodes, in which the English Knights of a past age had fulfilled that part of their vows, which related to the poor and the suffering. It would be difficult to imagine a more beautiful and impressive scene, set in more appropriate surroundings.[16]

He complemented the Italians on their stewardship of the Hospitaller sites, as compared to their condition under the Turks. Heritage preservation (or lack of), Astrid Swenson has argued, was a marker of civilisation and a feature of imperial competition, particularly between the older imperial powers of Britain and France and the newly ambitious Italy.[17]

‘Fincham in the Street of the Knights, Rhodes’, Box 8: 53(14), © MOSJ.

At Malta the pattern repeated. The senior members were entertained by the British Governor, Sir Walter Congreve, and met the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet on board the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth.[18] The investiture included the Maltese painter Edward Caruana Dingli (more of whom below), who memorialised the event on canvas, and the historian Hannibal Publius Scicluna, whose collection of books has eventually found its way to the Bodliean Library in Oxford. These events simultaneously conducted the business of the Order – adding new members – and were statements of prestige: high profile events in historically significant sites and which, in Malta at least, drew local ire. Considering that the trip was facilitated by the British Foreign and Colonial Offices and that upon its conclusion the Order received notes from the Italian sovereign and King George V, as well as other British and Italian dignitaries, it could be considered a success on several fronts.

‘Investiture at Malta, Grand Master’s Palace’, Edward Caruana Dingli, LDOSJ 1780 © MOSJ.

I have great pleasure in congratulating you, the Grand Prior, and the Members of the Grand Priory, upon the completion of their very successful Pilgrimage to those places especially connected with the history of the Order. This undertaking creates a new incident in its tradition and will increase the interest taken in its general welfare and activities.

King George V, 1926


Material Devotion: Objects of Memory

As visitors to the Holy City, Holy War exhibition will know, traditional pilgrimages would often involve the acquisition of material objects which could act as the focus of remembrance of the devotional journey – these might be explicitly made en masse and sold to pilgrims or be something that had individual meaning. Unsurprisingly, the Order’s pilgrimage attracted a range of material which is represented in the Museum’s archive. In addition to the published account of the trip, two large scrapbooks contain newspaper cuttings, memoranda, dinner seating plans, correspondence and printed photos from the pilgrimage.[19] Glass slides of the photographs taken are meant for slideshow displays. Members of the Order clearly treated the trip with reverence, as much of this ephemera has been preserved with an eye for posterity.

Most permanently, the Order sought to cement the memory of the pilgrimage in stone. A plaque commemorating the communion taken in St. George’s Cathedral was installed in the same church, while at the suggestion of Henry Pirie-Gordon the Pro-Jerusalem Society produced a series of five tiles which could be purchased by members of the Order. They were especially made – said the President of the Society – on the site of the Roman Garrison on the Temple Mount and included a central tile with ‘Jesus’ written in Aramaic script, flanked by the arms of the Order, the kingdom of Jerusalem, the Holy Sepulchre and the cross of the Order of St John.[20]

‘Plaque commemorating the 1926 Pilgrimage, 14 March 1926, St. George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem’, © MOSJ.






The impulse to appropriately mark the pilgrimage extended to the painting by Dingli of the investiture at Malta mentioned above, which is now in the Museum of the Order of St John. Dingli’s work found sufficient favour that he was commissioned to paint King George V in the regalia of the Order.

‘King George V’ by Edward Caruana Dingli, LDOSJ 1739 © MOSJ.


One journalist reported that three tons of cannonballs used in the siege of Rhodes were being shipped to Clerkenwell, a number of which still reside in the archive.[21]

On an individual level, at the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem members of the Order were permitted to each pick three violets and were presented with a sprig of olive and rosemary: these could well have served as personal devotional reminders of the pilgrimage.[22] Similarly, the pilgrims were given small metal badges in Malta featuring the head of St John the Baptist; one of these badges is currently on display as part of the Holy City, Holy War exhibition. Upon their return from the East, the Order commissioned medals commemorating the pilgrimage and the further royal charter granted in 1926; these medals were sent to members of the Order, especially those who had been involved in the pilgrimage.[23]

‘Pilgrimage badge depicting the head of St. John’, LDOSJ 432.6 © MOSJ.

‘Commemorative medal issued for the 1926 pilgrimage and new royal charter’, © MOSJ.

‘Commemorative medal issued for the 1926 pilgrimage and new royal charter’, © MOSJ.












Reception: ‘New Crusade: From Clerkenwell to Jerusalem’[24]

The pilgrimage was not merely of interest to members of the Order. The Order’s royal connections ensured the touring party could expect the hospitality of British officials wherever they went; indeed, many were already members of the Order or became such on the trip. The archbishop of York wrote prayers for the pilgrimage and it attracted the attention of the international press and their reporters in the places visited.[25] Many dwelt on a romantic history of the crusades and presented the Order – at least in their headlines – as new crusaders.

This association, built on the perception of continuity between the medieval military order born in the crusades and the modern order of chivalry, fired the imagination of reporters. The Yorkshire Press ran an article in December 1925 titled ‘Old Crusades Revived’, while the Daily Chronicle wrote of the ‘Glories of the Crusaders Revived’.[26] The historical roots of the Order were repeated unquestioningly in many accounts: the sites visited were ‘ancient strongholds’ of the Order, the pilgrims were ‘modern crusaders’ and their banner was the same one ‘borne by the Crusaders in the eleventh century’.[27] According to the Belfast Telegraph the Order was the ‘oldest and sole survivor of the many orders of knighthood formed in connection with the Crusades’.[28] The articles often repeated a standard text which included the observation that noted the Foreign Office assistance for the trip and often recalled a quirk of maritime law: ‘An old Admiralty order of 1700 directs all ships of the Navy to salute the flag of the Order, and as this has never been repealed, presumably they will do so during the present cruise.’[29]

The newspapers continued to track the progress of the pilgrimage, with W.M. Duckworth of the Daily News publishing several articles, suggesting his own participation. Indeed, he seemed to have thoroughly engaged with the pilgrimage and the spirit in which it was undertaken.

Hardly any of us had imagined it possible to organise a Twentieth Century Crusade with real Knights wearing black mantles and carrying their Sword of State and other insignia with which they intend to revive the mediæval panoply of their venerable order. It will take some little time for a too rapidly moving world in which mere chivalry counts for so little to assimilate half-forgotten romance of this kind. Yet here we are, over a hundred of us, distinguished and undistinguished, making our pilgrimage in the luxury of a modern liner […]
We do not intend to march or ride on horse or palfrey through the windswept wastes of Asia Minor. We come with passports instead of swords, but with the same dauntless spirit of healing brotherhood that has made the Order of St. John of Jerusalem the most honoured of all Orders of Knighthood.
W.M. Duckworth, ‘Pilgrimage to Holy Land; Under Cross of St. John; New Crusade; From Clerkenwell to Jerusalem’, Daily News, 8 March 1926, RS.

The Times published the Order’s itinerary and posted reports from Jerusalem, Malta and Rhodes while The Guardian included a picture of the procession in Jerusalem and the Daily Mail noted the progress of the pilgrimage.[30] Even commentators at home could vicariously experience the thrill of the pilgrimage. One contributor to The Graphic wrote that:

It is with the keenest interest that we will follow them on their pilgrimage to the Holy City […] surely the deep thrill of sacred feelings that every Christian is bound to experience on reaching the city of holy memories will be intensified by the very fact of their being the perpetuators of this most ancient Christian Knighthood, whose valiant deeds in defence of the Holy Sepulchre against the infidels are well known in history.[31]

The level of newspaper coverage demonstrates that the pilgrimage resonated beyond the members of the Order – there was broad interest in the pilgrimage amongst the British public it seems.

Not all the reception abroad was positive, however. While in Malta the Order managed to secure the Throne Room of the Grand Master’s Palace for their final investiture. Local papers reveal that there was some opposition to the staging of the English Order’s ceremony at the centre of the original Order’s home. The Malta Herald suggested that the ceremony going ahead would be ‘very indelicate’; another piece translated from Italian more strongly called the Order’s intention a ‘profanation’ of the Palace.[32] The Daily Malta Chronicle fought back and labelled the opposition to the Order’s investiture ‘anti-British and pro-Italian’ agitation which the Herald denied.[33] Any objections – whether political or religious – came to naught as the Order held its investiture without incident.

‘Pilgrims at Rhodes’, Box 13: 78(74), © MOSJ.


The 1926 expedition of the Order of St John to significant sites of its history deserves its title of ‘pilgrimage’. In visiting both traditional holy places in Jerusalem and Mandate Palestine, as well as previous homes of the Hospitaller Order, the touring party were both spiritual pilgrims and ‘roots tourists’ seeking their own heritage.[34] For the public, the image of the modern crusade of a medieval knightly order carried weight. It placed the pilgrimage in a romantic narrative of British crusading which had become entwined with British self-perception in the Victorian and Edwardian periods and persisted through the First World War.[35] In the context of the post-war world the trip of the high-profile Order sought to build continuity with the past and look to the future with ceremonies of investiture of new members. The pilgrimage was clearly understood by contemporaries to be of lasting historical significance and members of the Order, both those who undertook the journey and those at home, saw it as a moment of long-awaited homecoming for the British Order to its Mediterranean roots.

Mike Horswell completed his doctorate on the memory of the crusades in Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he was supervised by Prof. Jonathan Phillips. He previously studied at the University of York and his first book The Rise and Fall of British Crusader Medievalism, c.1825–1945, will be published in 2018 by Routledge, as will Engaging the Crusades, a collection of essays on how the crusades have been used in the modern era, co-edited with Jonathan Phillips.

[1] Edwin James King, The Pilgrimage of 1926: Being the Official Journal of the Knights of St. John (St. John’s Gate, London: Athenaeum Press, 1926), p. 24.
[2] Earl of Scarbrough, ‘Introduction’, in King, The Pilgrimage of 1926, p. vii.
[3] King, Pilgrimage of 1926, p. 38.
[4] Ibid., p. 114.
[5] Ibid., p. 16.
[6] Quoted from The Times, 7 June 1920, in David William Lloyd, Battlefield Tourism: Pilgrimage and the Commemoration of the Great War in Britain, Australia and Canada, 1919–1939 (London: Berg, 1998), p. 13.
[7] Frank Fox, The King’s Pilgrimage (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1922).
[8] W.M. Bull, Pilgrimage Papers: Some Impressions of the Anglo-Catholic Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, 1924 (London: A.R. Mowbray & Co., 1924).
[9] Kobi Cohen-Hattab and Noam Shoval, Tourism, Religion and Pilgrimage in Jerusalem (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015), pp. 41–42.
[10] For an analysis of another, smaller, Order’s attempt to grapple with the challenges of the First World War, see Mike Horswell, ‘Crusader Medievalism and Modernity in Britain: The Most Noble Order of Crusaders and the Rupture of the First World War, 1921–49’, in Studies in Medievalism XXV: Medievalism and Modernity, ed. Karl Fugelso, Joshua Davies and Sarah Salih (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2016), pp. 19–28.
[11] Scarbrough, ‘Introduction’, p. vii.
[12] ‘Order of St. John’, The Times, 12 February 1926, p. 15.
[13] King, Pilgrimage of 1926, pp. 30–31.
[14] Ibid., pp. 53–56.
[15] Ibid., p. 55.
[16] Ibid., p. 88.
[17] Ibid., pp. 90–94; Astrid Swenson, ‘Crusader Heritages and Imperial Preservation’, Past and Present 226 (2015), pp. 27–56.
[18] King, Pilgrimage of 1926, pp. 109–11.
[19] The Blue and Red scrapbooks are in the collection of the Museum of the Order of St John, and will be referred to as BS and RS respectively.
[20] See note from the President of the Pro-Jerusalem Society, 16 March 1926, in the BS, titled ‘Pilgrimage of St John, 1926’. The ‘Tiles of Jerusalem’ are catalogued in the Museum of the Order of St John as items LDOSJ 3537–3541/1.
[21] W.M. Duckworth, ‘New Crusaders’ Pilgrimage: Visit to Ancient Stronghold’, Daily News, 20 March 1926, RS.
[22] King, Pilgrimage of 1926, p. 42.
[23] The badges are catalogued in the Museum as LDOSJ 432.6 (3020). Letters of thanks for the medals in the RS include one from Buckingham Palace on behalf of the king, as well as letters from Storrs, MacInnes, the British Museum, and the Patriarch of Jerusalem.
[24] From the headline of an article by W.M. Duckworth in the Daily News, 8 March 1926, RS.
[25] King, Pilgrimage of 1926, p. 28.
[26] ‘Old Crusades Revived; Order of St. John of Jerusalem; Pilgrimage to Jerusalem & Malta’, Yorkshire Press, December 1925, RS; ‘Crusaders’ Glories Revived; Pilgrimage by Knights & Ladies of St. John; To Jerusalem; With 500-Years-Old Silver Cross’, The Daily Chronicle, 24 December 1925, RS.
[27] ‘Another Crusade to Jerusalem; 1926 Pilgrimage’, Calcutta Statesman, 24 January 1926, RS; ‘Crusaders in Great Coats; English Pilgrimage to the Holy Land; The Silver Cross’, Daily Express, 5 March 1926, RS; unidentified cutting, ‘New Crusaders; Knightly Pilgrimage to Holy Land; Remarkable Ceremonies’, 12 February 1926, RS.
[28] ‘Glories of the Crusaders Recalled; Ancient Knightly Order; Pilgrimage and Romance’, Belfast Telegraph, 24 December 1925, RS.
[29] ‘Old Crusades Revived’, Yorkshire Press, December 1925, RS.
[30] ‘Order of St. John’, The Times, 12 February 1926, p. 15; ‘Order of St. John’, The Times, 18 March 1926, p. 18; ‘Arrival at Malta’, 26 March 1926, p. 13; ‘Order of St. John’, The Times, 26 March 1926, p. 13; ‘The Order of St. John of Jerusalem’, The Guardian, 25 March 1926, p. 7; ‘A New Crusade’, Daily Mail, 3 February 1926, p. 9; ‘Knights of St. John’, Daily Mail, 15 March 1926, p. 7.
[31] ‘A Crusade of the White Cross: The Journey of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem’, The Graphic, 6 March 1926, RS.
[32] Malta Herald, 26 February 1926, RS; translation in RS.
[33] Daily Malta Chronicle, 9 March 1926, RS; Malta Herald, 12 March 1926, RS.
[34] For ‘roots tourism’ see Ellen Badone, ‘Crossing Boundaries: Exploring the Borderlands of Ethnography, Tourism, and Pilgrimage’, in Intersecting Journeys: The Anthropology of Pilgrimage and Tourism, eds Ellen Badone and Sharon R. Roseman (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2004), p. 184.
[35] For more on British use of the crusades in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, see Mike Horswell, The Rise and Fall of British Crusader Medievalism, c.1825–1945 (Abingdon: Routledge, forthcoming 2018).

One Comment

Mr Gavin Jensen

Thank you for this wonderful piece of our Orders history. I so wish that pilgrimages could still continue through the Order but perhaps there is a reason they do not occur now. I am a Commander in the Order and very proud of our history of service and care in so many areas throughout the world.Would love to purchase this book when it is published.

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