Tsar Paul I: The Unlikely Grand Master

Museum of the Order of St John Sarah Wilkinson, Museum Assistant

Tsar Paul I was born in St Petersburg in 1754 and named Pavel Petrovich. He was the son of Peter III and of Catherine the Great, although she did suggest at times that he was fathered by her lover Sergei Saltykov, another Romanov descendant. Peter III died after a short, unpopular reign as Tsar in 1762, when Paul was only seven years old. Catherine the Great assumed the throne, becoming Catherine II, and maintained a distant relationship with her only son throughout her life.

Paul grew up with a variety of caregivers in a number of different homes, and was seen as an intelligent but needy child. It is believed he cultivated a great interest in and love of heraldry and chivalric stories – including those of the Order of St John – during his youth. This interest continued into his adulthood and his reign as Tsar. As a result of this fascination, and partly as a response to the actions of his mother during her reign, he considered the Russian nobility to be dissolute and dishonest, and wanted to mould them into the image of the disciplined, principled, loyal classes of a medieval chivalric order. The few people at court who supported his chivalric ideals were given multitudes of gifts and serfs, while those who did not were dismissed or had their titles taken away.

Tsar Paul I’s first contact with the Order itself came in 1796, shortly after he assumed the throne. The Order of St John at the time had established priories in the various Catholic nations in Europe. These priories contained large estates that generated their own revenue, which was transferred back to the Order. The Priory of Poland had long fallen into disrepair and had not given any of its revenue to the Order for a century. The Order approached Paul about this Priory, as it was now on Russian land. As Paul knew of the Order and admired their long chivalric history, he decided to move the Priories of Poland to St. Petersburg in January 1797 to ensure they would be maintained. As a sign of gratitude, the Order gave him the title of a Protector of the Order in August of that same year. Tsar Paul I was delighted to be recognised by one of the organisations he had so idealised as a child, and was eager to maintain a positive relationship with the Order of St John.

ALT="Portrait of Tsar Paul I wearing a black jacket with a blue sash, with eight pointed cross hanging on front"
©MOSJ Tsar Paul I wearing eight-pointed cross insignia of the Order

He did not have to wait long for another opportunity to work alongside the Order. General Napoleon Bonaparte had become a well-established military figure in France by the end of the eighteenth century. In June 1798, Napoleon was sent by the French government to take control of Egypt, so as to protect France’s trading interests in the Mediterranean. As the island of Malta was on Napoleon’s route, it was decided he would capture it too, despite the neutrality of the Order of St John, who had occupied the island since 1530, almost three hundred years ago. The Grand Master of the Order, Ferdinand von Hompesch, had only been in office since the previous year. He had been warned a few days prior to Napoleon’s arrival that an invasion was imminent, but he did not, or perhaps could not, prepare the island to repel the attackers. The Knights Hospitaller were obligated not to take up arms against any other Christian nation, and the Order had not used its military arm for some time. As a result, the defences on Malta and its neighbouring islands were old, with cannons more likely to injure the user than the enemy, and were manned by relatively untrained, untested Knights, who were greatly outnumbered by the French fleet.

The Maltese citizens of Mdina, the fortified former capital of the island, surrendered without resistance, and the neighbouring island of Gozo was quickly taken as well. When Grand Master Hompesch sent a delegation to negotiate a compromise with Napoleon, they returned with a document from the general that demanded the surrender of Malta. Hompesch initially refused, but later agreed to meet with Napoleon in Valletta. Upon arriving at the city, one of Napoleon’s aides commented “it is well, General, that there was someone within to open the gates to us.” There was little compromise, and Hompesch was forced to surrender the islands and flee. Napoleon seized the treasures of the Order and loaded them onto his flagship to return to France, however this ship was promptly sunk by Admiral Nelson at Aboukir Bay. It is believed that Grand Master Hompesch was relying on the fact that he knew Nelson and the Royal Navy were nearby to rescue Malta from its invasion, however he had not been able to deter Napoleon for long enough for this hopeful rescue to materialise.

ALT="Man in red mantle with fur lining over armour with Order symbol, eight-pointed cross hangs over chest"
©MOSJ Grand Master Hompesch

Tsar Paul I was reportedly furious at the news of Napoleon taking over the islands of the Order with such apparent ease and speed. He considered sending the Russian Imperial Navy, flying the flag of the Order of St John, to the Mediterranean to help protect the Order’s interests, but was persuaded against the idea. While a number of the French knights of the Order had decided to join Napoleon and travel on to Egypt, many others had fled to various other priories and protectorates of the Order. Some of these travelled to the Russian priories, seeking protection from the sympathetic Tsar. Emboldened by their anger towards Hompesch, the knights, supported by Tsar Paul I and the Priory of St Petersburg, declared that he had betrayed the Order by his surrender and should be deposed as Grand Master. Hompesch had relocated to Trieste in Italy upon leaving Malta, and had attempted to set up a new headquarters of the Order there. However, he accepted the ruling and abdicated his role as Grand Master in July 1799.

Controversially, Tsar Paul I was then nominated by Priory of St Petersburg to be the new Grand Master. Since the beginning of the Order, Grand Masters had always been Roman Catholic, a knight of the Order and unmarried, dedicating their lives instead to the service of God. As Tsar Paul I was married, not a knight and a practitioner of the Russian Orthodox Christianity, he seemed an unlikely choice. Additionally, this was also the first time that the Grand Master would also be the head of a nation – and Tsar Paul I was the head of an empire that had the third largest population in the world at that time!

As a result of these many differences from tradition, Tsar Paul I’s appointment was contested by Pope Pius VII and numerous Priories of the Order. However, he did garner some support from other leaders in Europe; King Louis XVIII, currently in exile, instructed his knights to recognise the Tsar, as did the kings of Naples and Portugal. The Kaiser in Vienna also acknowledged the Tsar’s nomination, although not without some encouragement. Tsar Paul I was thrilled to receive the nomination and created a new Grand Priory in Russia for the Orthodox nobility, to better have the aristocracy conform to his chivalric ideals. He also dismissed the Pope’s ambassador in Russia, as he was determined to defend the legitimacy of his new title and rejected the Pope’s disapproval.

ALT="Circular cast, the arms of the Order surmounted by a Royal crown superimposed upon the Russian Eagle, about all the Russian crown"
©MOSJ Seal of the Order in Russia

Newly installed as Grand Master of the Order of St John, Tsar Paul I turned his attention to reclaiming the island of the Malta for the Order – and potentially shore up his own influence in the Mediterranean. This campaign also allowed him to justify going against the French Republic, which he detested even more than when France had been a religious monarchy. However, by September 1800 the British had taken over control of Malta from the French – a situation that was formalised by the Treaty of Paris, which held that Britain would return control of the island to the Order. However, as Malta is so strategically placed within the Mediterranean, Britain did not actually grant the Maltese people their sovereignty until 1964.

This refusal to return the islands to the Order of St John infuriated Tsar Paul I to the extent that he ordered that all British vessels were to be barred from Russian ports. Those that had already entered ports must be seized, with their crews sent to detention camps and British traders taken hostage until the situation was resolved. Ships that attempted to avoid the embargo were impounded and set on fire. Given the internationally-recognised strength and skill of the Royal Navy in its recent encounters with Napoleon’s forces, the Tsar’s actions seemed unbelievable and would surely invite the wrath of the British forces upon the Russian empire.

Tsar Paul I was becoming increasingly unpopular amongst the rest of the ruling classes in St Petersburg. His aggressive stance towards Britain made them afraid of retaliation from a stronger foreign power, and his domestic reforms favoured the lower classes, rather than the policies of his mother that bolstered the power of the nobility. Plotting began amongst several people, including some of the knights of the Order of St John that had fled from Malta, to assassinate the Tsar and replace him with his more moderate son, Alexander. In early 1801, a group of such plotters got drunk and sneaked into St Michael’s castle, where Tsar Paul I was asleep. The Tsar was notoriously paranoid and constantly feared attack, so upon hearing the men approach his room he hid behind the drapes. Despite their drunkenness, the attackers found the Tsar and tried to force him to sign a letter of abdication, then killed him when he refused. His son and successor, Alexander I, was in the castle at the time and was reportedly told by one of the assassins “Time to grow up! Go and rule!” when the plotters told him of his father’s death.

Tsar Alexander I assumed the title of Protector of the Order that was granted to Tsar Paul I in 1797. However, the new Tsar had no desire to become Grand Master and entangle himself with the fate of Malta. He removed the embargo on British ships entering and leaving Russia and maintained in isolationist foreign policy as the relationship between Britain and France deteriorated.

The death of Tsar Paul I marks the end of a short, strange chapter in the history of the Order of St John. The Order today would not exist in its current form were it not for its expulsion from Malta in 1798, and it was only a few short decades later that plans were made to re-establish the Order’s presence in England, on the same site it originally housed in Clerkenwell, the same site the Museum of the Order of St John stands in today.

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