The Order owes its existence as such to one instrument, the Papal Bull Pie Postulatio Voluntatis of 15 February 1113. This established it as a religious Order of the Roman Catholic Church, subject to its laws and disciplines and governed by canon law. Over the succeeding centuries this original constitution was augmented by various Bulls conferring privileges and rights, and these are preserved today in the only body which has continuous admitted members under the statutes authorized by canon law, and which has survived without interruption. The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, is based at 68 Via Condotti, Rome, Italy, has reciprocal diplomatic relations with 86 sovereign states and enjoys permanent observer status at the United Nations.
The association with Russia had had its origins in the formation of the Grand Priory of Poland (formed by the amalgamation of a group of Polish commanderies ) in 1774, which, by the absorption of Poland into the Russian Empire, made the concordat of 15 June 1797, between the Czar and the Order, a necessity. This had transformed the Polish Grand Priory into the Grand Priory of Russia and, following the ratification of the Convention by the new Grand Master on 7 August 1797, enabled the Czar to assume the title of Protector of the Order, a title that was entirely inappropriate for a non-Catholic Monarch and properly pertained to the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of the Two Sicilies. The Order, however, welcomed Paul’s support as he seemed to have the best interests of the Order as a priority. On 10 September 1798, Paul had declared that he had taken the Order under his "supreme direction" and, with the assistance of Bailiff (Count) Fra' Giulio Litta-Visconti-Arese, the Order's Minister at Saint Petersburg, he was "elected" as "Grand Master" by the members of the Grand Priory of Russia and certain knights, mainly French exiles, resident in the Russian Empire at the time. Since Paul was neither a Roman Catholic, nor celibate, nor a professed knight of the Order, he was disqualified from holding the position of Grand Master.
That for a brief period the Grand Magistery was held de facto by a disqualified person is entirely irrelevant to its survival, since neither the institution nor the sovereignty of the Order resides in the person of the Grand Master.
Paul was assassinated on the night of 23/24 March 1801 by officers concerned about his continuing mental decline. Four days later, his son and successor, Czar Alexander I, proclaimed himself "Protector" of the Order and commanded the Lieutenant of the Grand Master, Bailiff Nicholas Soltykoff, who had been nominated in succession to the disgraced Litta on 10 April 1799, to continue in his post. Alexander did not maintain this position for long and, on 1 August 1801, he acknowledged in a written communication the authority of the Pope over the Order and the process of selecting a new Grand Master began. On 9 September 1801 the Imperial Russian Government transmitted an official note to all the Foreign Ministers accredited to Saint Petersburg, announcing that the Order “ .. not having a legitimate Head ... the members must (follow) the forms and usages to proceed legally to the election of a Grand Master ... His Imperial Majesty is to give this to all the Courts that could be interested in re-establishing this Sovereign Order in its ancient Constitution.” The Czar and his government evidently recognized that during the past three years the Order had not been governed according to its ancient Constitution.
The recognition of the right of the Order to restoration of sovereignty over Malta in the Treaty of Amiens accelerated the gradual disassociation of the Czar with the Order and, by a decree of 25 April 1803, the Council in Saint Petersburg resigned its powers to the new Grand Master, Tommasi. The Chapter in Russia later recognized Tommasi's successor, Lieutenant of the Grand Master Guevara-Suardo, as Head of the Order on 5 April 1806 and, by an Imperial Act of 10 March 1810, the Grand Priories of Russia were effectively rendered inoperative by a termination of Imperial financial support. Eighteen months later, on 2 December 1811, the commanderies in Russia were dissolved by the Czar and the holders permitted to convert them to private property (following payment of a fee to the Imperial Treasury). That all admissions to the Russian Grand Priories had definitively ceased is affirmed in an Imperial Resolution of 1 February 1817 in which a Russian citizen was forbidden to accept the Cross. Existing members retained their decorations and rank in the Order, and continued to be listed in the Imperial Almanachs as members of the Order of Saint John, but no further nominations were made. An attempt was made subsequently to revive the Grand Priory of Poland but it came to nothing. Catholic subjects of the Czar admitted to the Order were permitted to wear the decoration with official permission and all the Czars since Paul I (except Alexander II), and several Grand Dukes, were Bailiffs Grand Cross of the SMHOM, and various other senior members of the Russian Court received the Cross of Honor and Devotion, which was occasionally conferred on non-Catholics as a particular honor (this practice has now ceased and the Order per Merito Melitense is conferred on non-Catholcis). The late claimant to the Imperial Throne, the Grand Duke Wladimir Kyrillovich was nominated a Bailiff Grand Cross on 18 November 1961; the latter's daughter has received the Grand Cross of Merit with Gold Star.
The death of Paul led Hompesch to revive his claims to the Grand Magistery, in which he was first encouraged by Murat as the French hoped that by supporting the rights of the Order to the islands they could force out the British, whose position there gave them domination of the Mediterranean. The strong opposition to Hompesch's claim on the part of the Holy See, while not at first discouraging the former Grand Master, persuaded the French (who wished to initiate a rapprochement with the Papacy) to drop their support. By then he had lost the allegiance of most of the knights and the Papal nomination of Bailiff Ruspoli as Grand Master on 16 September 1802 made Hompesch realize that his cause was hopeless. Living on an inadequate and infrequently paid pension from the French, Hompesch moved from Trieste to Portschach in Carniola, thence to Porto di Fermo and finally to Montpellier where he died in penury on 12 May 1805. Only three knights attended his funeral at the church of the blue penitents (today the parish of Sainte-Eulalie).
The war between France and Great Britain had been terminated by the Treaty of Amiens of 25 March 1802, ratified on 18 April, and the signatories (France, Great Britain, Austria, Spain, Russia and Prussia) had agreed, by Article 10, that the Island of Malta should be restored to the knights in full sovereignty, while the British solemnly undertook to withdraw from the island and hand it over to the Order within three months of the ratification of the Treaty. It is probable that the British never had any intention of fulfilling this undertaking as they were very suspicious of French intentions and did not trust them to adhere to the agreement not to intervene in the Order's affairs. After carefully orchestrating popular demonstrations demanding the continuation of British rule, the Maltese Assembly formulated a new Constitution, which recognized King George III as Sovereign Lord, on 15 June 1802. Unfortunately the French had failed to abide by the terms of the Treaty in annexing substantial Italian territories to the French Republic and war broke out once more between the Great Powers. Any hope that the knights might recover the islands was finally lost by article VII of the Treaty of Paris of 30 March 1814, by which the islands were permanently attributed to Great Britain ("en toute proprieté et souveraineté à S.M. Britannique"). Although the Order made representations at the Congress of Vienna for their return, the allies ignored it and Britain was confirmed in possession.
Thanks to the generosity of the government of Sweden, the Order had another opportunity to be restored to temporal sovereignty, when it was offered perpetual sovereignty of the Island of Gottland in the Baltic, by a letter of Swedish Minister Baron Armfelt dated 19 September 1806. However, to have accepted the Swedish offer would have meant surrendering their claim to Malta, which had been acknowledged by all the powers in the Treaty of Amiens and, after taking the advice of the Holy See, the offer was rejected. The Holy See's decision may have been influenced by the fact that the Order would be indebted to a Lutheran Sovereign and the Pope may have considered that the status of the Order as an exclusively Roman Catholic institution could have been endangered once again. Had the Order recovered Malta, or installed itself on Gottland, the inevitable consequence would have been future political problems, when the citizens of those islands demanded self-determination and representation in government.
The non-Catholic Grand Priory of Russia of the Order established during the Grand Magistery of Tsar Paul was by the terms of its own constitution a part of the larger, Catholic Order. It was never given an independent constitution as a separate Order, and there is no primary source evidence to show that any person, Russian or non-Russian, was admitted to membership in this Grand Priory after (at the latest date) 1817. There is no Imperial decree, no Russian law (despite the extraordinarily large Russian bureaucracy which produced a mountain of archives) to show that in the eyes of the Tsar, or the Russian State, such a Grand Priory continued to survive independently. There is no surviving patent or diploma of admission to membership in this Grand Priory. There is no communication from the Tsar to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta to suggest that there was an intention to maintain the existence of the Russian Grand Priory. There is no official list of persons supposedly admitted to membership of this alleged survival. There is no document surviving to demonstrate that in the eyes of either Tsar or Government, the Russian Grand Priory survived independently of the Catholic Order in Russia, or that an independent existence was conferred upon it.
The “hereditary commanderies” depended for their existence not simply on the diploma creating this status, but on possession of the properties that had been invested as the original endowment of the commandery. A Commandery was a property of an Order to which was attached the title of Commander. In the entire history of the Order of Saint John these titles have never been honorifics, unlike those of Prior or Bailiff which implied administrative rank (both priors and bailiffs usually held one or more commanderies). It is impossible to disassociate the title of commander from that of tenant of the property of the commandery – hence in the modern Order the only commanders are those knights who are members of Grand Priories where such properties continue to exist (Italy and Austria). No law was ever passed in Russia to accord the title of commander as a separate dignity from possession of the commandery to the descendants of those whose ancestors had endowed property as a commandery of the Order in either the Catholic or non-Catholic Grand Priories.
Hence those persons who styled themselves “hereditary commanders”, by virtue of their descent from a person who had originally endowed such a commandery and had received a diploma entitling them to pass that commandery to their descendants (provided always they were first received into membership), did so as a purely private initiative. That such titles were included in the entries of various persons in the Imperial Almanacs was a decision of the editor, made at the request of the person who submitted the information, and in no way implied Imperial sanction. The use of that title in public acts did not mean that the title of hereditary commander was legally recognized as conferring any official title, privilege or status, as for example membership in the Imperial Orders of Knighthood.
That a group of descendants of those persons who had endowed such commanderies decided to form a private association is totally irrelevant to the alleged survival of any Russian Grand Priory of the Order of Saint John. These persons were indeed entitled to describe themselves as “descendants of hereditary commanders” of the Order of Saint John, but this conferred no right to revive the original Russian non-Catholic Grand Priory of the Order of Saint John.
Most of the so-called "Orders of St John, Knights of Malta" that thrive today claim their legitimacy on the basis of a supposed meeting that allegedly took place in New York in 1908 (another date given for this purported meeting is 1916). The legitimacy ascribed to this meeting is based on the purported presence of HIH Grand Duke Alexander Mihailovich of Russia, a member of the most junior line of the Russian Imperial House, who was married to the sister of the Emperor Nicholas II. The evidence that HIH could not have present on this occasion is provided by his memoirs - these make it clear that in 1908 he was involved in establishing the first training academy for pilots in the Russian Navy (there was as yet no separate air force) and in 1916 he was fully engaged as a senior Russian officer serving in the First World War.
As for the claims of the late King Peter II of Yugoslavia, the last Royal Constitution of the Kingdom specifically forbade him to confer titles. Furthermore, the Constitution required that any royal decree or act be countersigned by the “responsible minister” for it to be valid in Yugoslavian law. In exile the King did not somehow acquire more powers than he would have enjoyed had he continued reigning, hence it is impossible for him to have legally conferred legitimacy on any self-styled Order of Chivalry.
Finally, the claim that the Order is under the protection of the late Prince Michael of Russia is self-evidently impossible, since there is no such person (the two living male line descendants of the Tsars named Michael are themselves descendants of marriages which, having been contracted with persons not of equal rank, automatically exclude them from the right to use the titles of dynasty).