Cataloguing the Museum’s Historic Library

Museum of the Order of St John Adriana Celmare - Project Librarian


Thanks to a recent donation from a generous Museum supporter, we have recently embarked on an inventorying and cataloguing project of our Historic Library, a collection of approximately 1200 early printed books and manuscripts currently housed in the West Tower of St John’s Gate.


Fig. 1: The Historic Library in its current location (1970)


The beginnings of the Library of the Order of St John in England can be traced to more than 180 years ago. There is evidence that, as early as the year 1838, a small number of books gifted by members of the Order were being kept in a locked box at one of the higher Officers’ houses. Throughout the years, the collections gradually grew and diversified, mostly due to the generosity of the Order’s members, but also thanks to a newly adopted acquisition policy at the beginning of the 20th century, which allowed the librarian to purchase items of special value and significance to the history of the Order. Nowadays, the library is divided into two main collections, the Historic Library, containing volumes published before the year 1900 and the Reference Library, which houses modern materials and also a large number of pamphlets, periodicals, catalogues and related publications to the foundation and ongoing development of the international first aid charity, St John Ambulance.


Fig. 2: The Library housed in the Priory Room (ca. 1903)

The project started with an inventory of the historic collection and that gave us a chance to sort, appraise and audit the existing holdings against the old card catalogue system. During this stage, we discovered many unique and special materials that are representative for the Order’s history and continuous existence through the centuries. Some of the major themes that are reoccurring in the collection are: the history of the Order of St John since its founding in Jerusalem by the Knights Hospitaller to its modern revival in England, the ecclesiastical, administrative and legislative aspects of the Order, the history of the crusades and of the military and religious orders in Europe and elsewhere. Also well represented are geographic and historic descriptions of the main landmarks associated with the Knights Hospitallers (the Holy Land, Malta, Cyprus and the Priory of Clerkenwell in London), as well as various accounts of the sieges of Rhodes (1480 & 1522) and Malta (1565 & 1798-1800). There are several biographical and fictional works in the library, as well as publications on heraldry, genealogy, archaeology and numismatics. As we work through the collection, we will keep you updated with our findings, looking in detail at special items and highlights from this unique library.


Fig. 3: Gold-tooled red morocco with the arms of Cardinal Altieri and a Maltese Cross superimposed on them

The Historic Library is also home to a surprisingly large number of manuscripts (about 115 of them), written in languages such as Italian, French, Latin, English and German and ranging in date from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Many of the manuscripts deal with legislative aspects of the Order including the rules, statutes and privileges governing different langues, priories and commanderies throughout Europe. Others contain homage and patent rolls (in original or copied), hand-painted coat-of-arms of the Knights and Masters of the Order, letters and genealogical notes, Chapter minutes and deliberations of the Order in England, and there is even an old Roman Breviary written in Latin.


Fig. 4: The Profession Ceremony: illuminated illustration from a 17th century French MS. on vellum (“Professions des Chevaliers de S. Iean de Hierusalem”)

The second phase of the project will involve cataloguing the collections inventoried and making them accessible on-line through a public catalogue that will be fully searchable by keyword, author or title. The catalogue will be integrated into a library website, where information and details about the collections will be made available to researchers, members of the Order and the general public interested in the history of the Knights Hospitaller and the Order of St John in England. If this sounds interesting to you, don’t forget to keep an eye on this blog and our social media for updates on the project and more news and pictures from the collection catalogued.



Latest blog posts