Click the questions on the right, to see detailed answers to some of our most frequently asked questions.


  • African St John Ambulance volunteers on a red dust road in the sun
  • Poster showing benevolent ghost of Knight of St John watching over St John Ambulance volunteers on a World War One battlefield
  • Cover of the St John Cadet magazine from 1952 showing black and white illustration of girl and boy cadet

The Order

What is the history of the eight pointed cross?

The eight pointed cross, later known as the Maltese Cross, was worn on the black monastic habit of the Hospitaller Brothers as a symbol of Jesus’ crucifixion. The first cross was made of white material, and had long arms with slightly split ends. This was a common way of portraying the cross in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Hospitallers, a religious foundation that ran a Hospital in eleventh century Jerusalem, had grown from a foundation of merchants from Amalfi. On the eleventh century coins of Amalfi, there is a cross with split ends, but it is not known whether the Hospitallers later adapted their cross from that. Similar examples are to be seen in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, next door to the Hospital.

The Brothers, as younger sons of people with land in Western Europe, had military training. When states were set up in the Holy Land by First Crusaders, after 1099, it seemed natural for the Hospitallers to take up arms and help to defend them. To distinguish themselves they wore, over their armour, a long red tunic, or surcoat, which had a plain white cross on it. This was the coat-of-arms of the Hospitallers, of the Order of St. John. It was also on their banner. The eight-pointed cross was used for their church dress, and gradually came to be used as a badge.

The ‘Maltese Cross’

The Knights of St. John moved their headquarters to Rhodes, from the Holy Land, and from there, to Malta. The eight-pointed cross, in the more familiar form we know today, was used by the Knights everywhere on their buildings and other possessions in Malta. Even after they left the island in 1798, the cross was still associated with the island, and today is often known as the Maltese Cross.

The Symbolism of the Eight Pointed Cross

For the Brothers, the different parts of the cross had meanings:

  • Colour: white — purity
  • 4 arms of the Cross — the 4 cardinal virtues:
    • prudence — carefulness
    • justice — doing the right thing by people
    • temperance — moderate behaviour
    • fortitude — courage
  • 8 points of the Cross — taken from the qualities described as Blessed by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount (the Beatitudes).

The Eight Pointed Cross and the British Order of St. John

The British Order of St. John, founded in the 1830s, was inspired by the Hospitallers and used the same symbols.

From 1888 the Cross was embellished by the addition of lions and unicorns. These are the supporters of the Royal coat-of-arms, and their use was a special grant by Queen Victoria, who made the Order of St. John an Order of Chivalry that year. The points were given secular meanings after the First World War, each associated with the qualities of a good First Aider:

“that he may note the causes and signs of injury”
“that he may without thoughtless questions learn the symptoms and history of the case, and secure the confidence of the patients and bystanders”)
“That he may use to the best advantage whatever is at hand to prevent further damage, and to assist Nature’s efforts to repair the mischief already done”
“that he may handle a patient without causing unnecessary pain, and use appliances efficiently and neatly”
“that he may give clear instructions to the patient or the bystanders how best to assist him”
“that he may decide which of several injuries presses most for treatment by himself, what can best be left for the patient or bystanders to do, and what should be left for the medical men”
“that he may continue his efforts, though not at first successful.”
“that he may give real comfort and encouragement to the suffering”

While the language is old fashioned to us today (not only is the first-aider assumed to be male, so are the “medical men”!), the introduction of these non-religious meanings emphasises how the organisation has adapted over time.

The eight pointed cross is still widely used today, helping to make the black and white uniform of St. John Ambulance volunteers so easily recognised by the public.

When was the Venerable Order founded, and by whom?

While the English Priory and branch of the Order was dissolved in England by King Henry VIII in 1540, the other Priories throughout t Europe remained strong. In was only in the eighteenth century, with the French Revolution and the invasion of the Knights headquarters on Malta by Napoleon, that the Order left the Mediterranean for good. The remaining members retreated to Rome, where they remain as direct descendants of the first Hospitaller Brothers in Jerusalem. They are known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

In the 1820s, a group of French Knights from the Order in Rome began recruiting new members of the Order in Britain, as part of an unsuccessful attempt to raise funds to restore the Order’s naval presence in the Mediterranean. However, the new Priory formed in Britain was not recognised by the Order in Rome, due to the fact that the new members recruited in England were a mix of both Anglican and Catholic. However, the new members in England felt that they were a part of Order, and established their own, new order, known as “The Order of St John of Jerusalem in England”.

It was only in the 1860s that the new order became more purposeful. Inspired by the original caring role of the first Hospitaller Brothers, they sought a humanitarian role. They acted as observers ain the Geneva Conferences that set up the Red Cross, and by 1877 had set up the St John Ambulance Association to train people in First Aid. In 1888, they set up the St John Ambulance Brigade as a uniformed volunteer organisation, treating people injured in industry and everyday life, and they established an Eye Hospital in Jerusalem.

This work was officially recognised by Queen Victoria in 1888, when she made the Order and official Royal Order of Chivalry, with the right to use the lions and unicorns, bearers of the Royal coat of arms, and the name “Venerable”.

Is St John’s Church still used?

The Church is a private chapel of the order of St John, used for investitures ceremonies and other occasions such as the Communion service on St John’s Day in June, and the annual carol service in December. The Church is a “peculiar” of the Diocese of London, hence its occasional services are Anglican. Weddings and christenings, which need a special licence from the Bishop of London, are occasionally held for Order and St John Ambulance members.

It was a second parish church for Clerkenwell from 1722/3 to 1932, by which time the population of the area had decline and two churches were no longer needed.

Is St John a Christian Organisation?

The Order of St John — the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem — has a Christian ethos, but welcomes members into the Order and Ambulance for all faiths. From the very first hospital in Jerusalem in the twelfth century, St John has had a long tradition of treating patients of all creeds.

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta, the direct descendant of the original Order of St John, is an Order of the Roman Catholic Church, under the jurisdiction of the Pope. Some of its members are “professed” — having sworn the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience — while others have taken a special vow of obedience though the great majority of Knights and Dames are lay members.

What are the links with the Knights Templar?

The Templars and Hospitallers shared many characteristics, both being military religious orders. They worked together in some instances during the defence of the Holy Land, but were two entirely separate orders.

In 1307, the Templars were arrested and charge with a list of crimes, which have been cast into doubt by modern historical research. The Templars were not a secret society, but were a large and well-known order of the church, most of whose members could not have engaged in bizarre practices without widespread knowledge. They were completely disbanded in 1312, and their property was transferred to the Knights Hospitaller.

Is the Order very rich?

The order in England, Ireland and Wales lost all its property as a result of the Dissolution of the monasteries. The modern day Most Venerable Order is a registered charity that devotes all its resources to its two foundations, St John Ambulance and the St John Eye Hospital in Jerusalem. All funds generated by or belonging to the Order are put to charitable use.

St John Ambulance

Are St John Ambulance Members volunteers?

Yes! The St John Ambulance members that you see at sports matches and other events are volunteers who give their time and expertise for free.

As well as First Aid duties, St John Ambulance also runs other services and projects including community support programmes (such as mobile units providing primary care and first aid to homeless people in Brighton), and supports the statutory NHS ambulance service, especially in times of emergency. It also works to develop young people, through youth schemes and First Aid training in schools.

Its income is derived from its commercial First Aid training and First Aid Supplies divisions, and charitable donations.

General FAQs

What are St John’s links with the Royal family?

Donations to the Museum

Find out what the Museum is able to accept with these downloadable PDFs

Is this a St John Medal?

Identify each medal with these downloadable PDFs

Uniform FAQs

Find out more about each uniform with these downloadable PDFs