Order briefly restored 

Museum of the Order of St John Rachel Job, Museum Assistant
Letters Patent of Queen Mary Tudor and King Philip II, LDOSJ:K28/36

In 1540, after Henry VIII declared himself the head of the Church of England, the English Priory of the Order of St John was dissolved. Just 17 years later, Henry’s Catholic daughter, Queen Mary I, issued this beautiful illuminated manuscript restoring the Order. But the restoration was short-lived… 

King Henry VIII was once Protector of the Order of St John and held the Order in high regard. In 1528, he requested a divorce from his wife, Katharine of Aragon, from Pope Clement VII. However, Katherine’s nephew was the influential and powerful Emperor Charles V, and so the Pope felt unable to grant the divorce. The quarrel continued for many years and in the end resulted in the King’s excommunication in 1534. In response, the King denied the Pope’s supremacy over the Church and declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England. Unsurprisingly, the newly formed Church of England dutifully granted Henry VIII his divorce from Katharine.  

Henry VIII then began the dissolution of the Catholic monasteries, both as an attack on his enemy the Pope and in order to add to the resources of his Treasury. For some time the Order of St John remained untouched, but it became untenable for the King to allow such a powerful Order to exist when it was loyal to the Pope, and so finally the Order of St John in England was dissolved and its properties seized in 1540.  

The Priory buildings here in Clerkenwell were then so magnificent that they were often referred to as a palace and Henry VIII allowed his daughter, Mary, to live there. Following Henry VIII’s death in 1547, and then King Edward VI’s death in 1553, Mary became Queen. Mary was a Catholic and so she sought to reverse the persecution and suppression of the Catholic faith. One of her earliest acts as Queen was to send a representative to Malta, where the Order was based at the time, to open negotiations for the restoration of the Priories of England and Ireland.  

Despite their goodwill, it took until 1556 before any religious houses in England were re-established and it was not until 2nd April 1557 that Royal Letters Patent were issued by Mary I and her husband King Philip II of Spain, declaring in Latin: “Since with the most undoubted right we claim to be the Defenders of our Sacred Faith… We are most earnestly desirous… to renew, restore, create, institute and establish the sacred Order and religion of the English brothers of St. John of Jerusalem in this Kingdom of England…” 

These letters patent thus authorised Cardinal Pole as Papal Legate to reinstate the Order in its old position and hand back all possible property. The first sheet of the manuscript, shown above and on display in our Chapter Hall, depicts Queen Mary I of England and Ireland and King Philip II of Spain within the illuminated P. It also depicts a pomegranate, the symbol of Spain, and the Tudor rose which symbolises the ruling dynasty of which Mary was a part. 

It was not until 1st December 1557 that a new prior of England, Thomas Tresham, was formally inducted in the great hall of the priory in Clerkenwell. Thomas Tresham had not been a Knight of the Order before his appointment, but these were exceptional times and he had proved himself through great service to Mary since she had become Queen. 

The young Edward VI’s Protector, Duke of Somerset, had blown up much of the Church in 1549 to provide materials for his new palace of Somerset House on the Strand. The chancel and crypt were therefore all that remained when the Order was restored, and they were brought back into use. 

The reasons for the restoration of the priories of England and Ireland have been debated, but certainly Mary I, her husband Philip II, and Papal Legate Cardinal Reginal Pole all played important roles in the restoration of the Priories and each had their own reasons for wanting to make it happen. 

The Queen’s own interest in restoring the Order may have simply been a matter of piety. She was determined to re-establish both the English Church’s obedience to Rome and the position of the religious orders within it, and the Order of St John served as a useful emblem of each.  

As King of Spain, Philip II’s part in the negotiations can easily be explained by self-interest. The maintenance of the Order in Malta was crucial to the defence of the western Mediterranean, and therefore of Spain, against Turks and Barbary consairs, and the restoration of its English estates would boost the Order’s finances and increase its manpower.  

For Pole it may well have been a personal project, and he probably had some say in the choice of the men who were received as brethren in 1557. The restored Order was subordinate to the crown in a way that it had not been at any time before 1537: the restoration of 1557 specifically stated that the Order was a new foundation in which the crown was sole founder and patron. The effect was to give the Crown, acting through Pole, free reign to appoint whom it saw fit to the langue’s dignities. 

The revived Order was, of course, short-lived. In November 1558 Queen Mary died, and with the accession of her Protestant sister Elizabeth the policy of the Government was again reversed. The Order of St John in England was not again suppressed as it had been by Henry VIII, but the confiscation of its property had more or less the same effect and it speedily became dormant. Nonetheless, the fact that no formal decree dissolving the hospital was ever issued excited the nineteenth-century enthusiasts who sought to restore its English langue.  

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