Modern Memories of the Order of St John’s Crusading Past, c.1914–1995

William Purkis

This essay introduces the collection of twentieth-century images at the Museum of the Order of St John that allude to the Order’s medieval crusading past. The essay is adapted from the text of a public lecture delivered at the museum on 29 March 2017. A film of the lecture will be available here in due course.


Fig. 3: The interior of the priory church of the Order of St John, as photographed in 1941

Fig. 2: The exterior of the priory church of the Order of St John, as photographed in 1941

Fig. 1: The exterior of the priory church of the Order of St John, as photographed in c.1900

In May 1941 bombs fell on the priory church of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell, London. Comparison of external and internal photographs taken in c.1900 and 1941 respectively (Figs. 1–3) reveal that the church was all but obliterated during this raid.

In the years that followed the destruction in 1941, the Order established at St John’s Gate the Priory Church Rebuilding Fund. The Fund’s activities ran for more than a decade, between 1943 and 1955, and resulted in the construction of the new priory church directly above the twelfth-century medieval crypt.


Fig. 4: ‘Help Rebuild!’ (1943–1955). © Museum of the Order of St John, LDOSJ 9004


Among the ways the Priory Church Rebuilding Fund promoted its cause between 1943 and 1955 was a striking poster campaign. The poster (reproduced here as Fig. 4) depicts a medieval knight of the Order of St John staring outwards and beckoning viewers towards the ruins of the priory church. The remaining wall of the building itself is emblazoned with an eight-pointed cross, the symbol of the Order of St John. The eight-pointed cross is then replicated and amplified with the priory church itself at the centre of the cruciform shape. A caption in the foreground identifies the cause of the damage (‘Destroyed by Enemy Action, 1941’), while in the background, on the right, the familiar outline of St Paul’s Cathedral can clearly be seen, surrounded by flames. The knight’s gaze is intense, his expression grave; and while his lips are sealed, it is almost as if the poster’s succinct call for support is emanating from the knight himself, reaching out from across the centuries: ‘Help rebuild!’

Fig. 5: ‘The Order of St John, 1099–1914’ (1914), Museum of the Order of St John, LDOSJ 9118

This use of medieval imagery by the Order of St John in the mid-twentieth century was not particularly new. In a poster produced around thirty years earlier (Fig. 5), for example, the ghost of a medieval knight of St John watches over the activities of two members of the St John Ambulance Brigade as they provide care for a wounded soldier on the battlefield. The chronology provided at the top of the poster – 1099–1914 – seeks to provide a further connection between the caregiving practices of the medieval Order of the Hospital of St John and their modern-day descendants. The fact that the knight is holding his sword by the blade, giving it the appearance of a cross, is striking. Not only does it indicate that the medieval warrior is giving his blessing to his modern counterparts; it also serves as a reminder that as well as providing for the welfare and medical needs of pilgrims to Jerusalem, the medieval brethren of the Order of St John were committed to performing acts of violence as an expression of Christian devotion. Indeed, the chronology on this poster, which situates the origins of the Order of St John in 1099, is particularly worthy of note. For although this year holds no direct significance for the Order of St John itself, it was of course in 1099 that the armies of the First Crusade conquered Jerusalem and established Latin Christian control over the city. The poster therefore not only illustrates the Order of St John as having a longstanding tradition of providing medical care to those in need; it also points to the Order’s intrinsic links with the medieval crusading movement.

Fig. 6: ‘We Encircle the World’ (1914–59), © Museum of the Order of St John, LDOSJ SJA2072-1

These two posters are not the only examples of modern attempts to draw a straight line between the Order of St John’s medieval past and its twentieth-century present. A third poster (Fig. 6), produced at some point in the first half of the twentieth century, shows a mounted medieval knight of St John leading a contingent of men and women from the St John Ambulance Brigade through a very modern industrial landscape, complete with the slogan ‘We Encircle the World’.

Fig. 7: ‘You Too Can Have the Knowledge’ (1995), © Museum of the Order of St John, LDOSJA2018

Most recently, in 1995, the Order produced a poster that demonstrates a desire to introduce younger members of St John Ambulance to their organisation’s medieval roots (Fig. 7). Here, an armed and robed medieval knight of St John winks, knowingly, at his viewers as he shares ‘the Knowledge’ of the Order’s past with two St John Ambulance cadets. A third cadet is pictured so that we can see over his shoulder. He is engrossed in reading what is identified, quite simply, as ‘History’.

Taken together, these posters from across the twentieth century point to the Order of St John maintaining a clear awareness of its medieval and crusading past. Although at points ghostly, the Order’s origins in and association with crusader Jerusalem, and its history as a military-religious order, are commemorated here as an integral part of the Order’s institutional memory.

You can find an overview of the museum’s poster collection by clicking here.

To examine a poster in more detail, click on the individual images to see each poster’s electronic object file.