Brief History of the Order: Grand Priory of Australasia

Under the Constitution given by His Late Majesty King Peter II of Yugoslavia

Introduction The Early Beginnings Cyprus and Rhodes The Knights in Malta Dispersal of the Knights to Russia The Papal Order
The English Experience The Order in the 20th and 21st Centuries International Recognition of the Order Current Leadership of the Order The Australian Experience Langues 

 Purpose of Document

The purpose of this document is to provide new or prospective members of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitaller – Australasia, Grand Priory of Australasia, with a brief overview of the continuous historical links of the Order to its origin in Jerusalem. This document is printed by the Grand Priory of Australasia at the request of the Grand Prior, HE Bailiff Peter Wiltshire, OSJ. The text has been compiled by Dame Mary Lewis OAM, DJSJ, Grand Priory Archivist, from a 2009 version and other historical information in August 2011; it was updated in October 2013.


The Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitaller had its origins early in the 11th century and is the oldest surviving International Christian Order of Chivalry. There are other ancient Orders of Chivalry, which include the Dynastic Orders, founded from the 14th century onwards by Popes, Kings and Emperors. Examples of these are the Orders of the Garter, the Thistle, the Golden Fleece which was established in 1430 by Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy and the Order of the Elephant, the highest order of Denmark with origins in the 15th century. There are also many National Orders, largely founded in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the Legion of Honour, The Order of the British Empire established in 1917 and the Australian Honours system established in 1975.

The Early Beginnings

The Order of Knights Hospitaller (or the Hospitallers as the name implies) had at first been a charitable group, which cared for the Christian Pilgrims who came to visit the Holy Places. The traditional date of the inauguration of the Hospice of St John in Jerusalem was in 1048.

Subsequently, during the last quarter of that century this group adopted the community life-style of a religious organization with the BlessedGerard1Order being founded on Augustinian Rules around the year 1087 under the first Grand Prior, Brother Gerard of Amalfi.

The Knights (known as Chevaliers) originally came from the north of France as members of the First Crusade, under Godfrey of Bouillon, who captured Jerusalem from the infidel on 15 July 1099. A number of these Knights then stayed on in Jerusalem, as members of the Order to assist and protect the Pilgrims.  Brother Gerard and his followers began their own Hospice facilities in 1099 after the conquest of Jerusalem. These good works were recognized by Pope Paschal II, who on 15 February 1113 issued a Papal Bull Pie Postulatio Voluntatis placing the Knights and their Hospice under the direct protection of the Holy See.

A church, to honour St John the Baptist, was erected by the Knights on his accepted burial site and became the Conventual Church of the Order. The Order has since then been known as The Order of Saint John of Jerusalem. Saint John the Baptist’s Feast Day, 24 June, is the religious Feast Day of the Order. The Hospitallers continued their charitable and military activities in the Holy Land for the next 200 years.

Cyprus and Rhodes

Toward the end of the 13th  century, when the Christian forces were eventually defeated by Salah-ed-din, at the great Siege of Acre on 18 May 1291, the Order went briefly to Cyprus. In the year 1309 the Order moved on to the Island of Rhodes, after its capture by the Knights. They remained there and prospered for the next 200 years, which was a renowned period in the military history of the Knights. On 1 January 1523, after having been besieged there for many years by the Turks, the Order arranged an honourable withdrawal from Rhodes to the Island of Malta which was then under Spanish control.

The Knights in Malta

In negotiations with King Charles V of Spain, the Knights, on 26 October 1530, obtained sovereignty over the Island of Malta. During their early occupation there was continuous sea fighting with the Turks under Suleimen, who subsequently laid siege to Malta. The Great Siege of Malta was a remarkable victory for the Knights who overcame massive enemy forces on land and sea and after four months of fighting Suleimen was finally repulsed on 8 September 1565, a day which became the Annual Commemorative Day of the Order. The Grand Master, De La Valette, after whom the capital Valetta was named, conducted the famous defence of Malta.

The Knights built three hospital establishments on the Island, which were all in the forefront of medical science. The magnificent church of St John was also built at Valletta. The Knights remained there for some 268 years until they were forced to capitulate to Napoleon on 12 June 1798, prior to his Egyptian campaign.

Dispersal of the Knights to Russia

Before the fall of Malta however, and by virtue of the Russo-Maltese Treaty of 1797, the Order had been brought under the ProtectionCsarPaulLarge
of Russia with Czar Paul I of the House of Romanoff being its Protector.

As a result of the capitulation of Malta, with most of Europe under the domination of Napoleon, the Knights of the Order were forced to disperse. The majority of the Knights sought refuge in St Petersburg under the protection of Czar Paul 1. On 27 October 1798 these Knights then elected him as the Grand Master of the Order with the approval of Pope Pius VI and acceptance by the Langues of Bavaria and Prussia. Then in March 1802, at the Treaty of Amiens, signed by Britain, France, Spain and Russia, the Order was recognised as that in St Petersburg, headed by the then Czar Alexander 1, its Protector and the Grand Prior of Russia.

The Papal Order

Also after the fall of Malta, a small group of the Knights moved to Messina in Italy, and in the year 1803 the new Pope, Pius VII (being under the domination of Napoleon) created moto proprio (of his own accord) The Sovereign Military Order of Malta under his control, thus contravening the arrangements made by the previous Pope with the Knights in Russia. When this Group moved in 1826 from Messina to Ferrara in the Papal States, this Order became known as, and is now generally referred to as, The Papal Order, being confined to members of the Roman Catholic faith.

The English Experience

The original English Langue, or Grand Priory, of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem was abolished by legislation in 1534 due to conflict between King Henry VIII and Pope Clement VII. This Priory was re-established in 1831, but as it could not obtain recognition from the Papal Order, representations were later made to Queen Victoria, under whose patronage it was chartered in 1888. It thereby separated from the continuity of the original Order, and was titled The Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. The present Grand Master is the Duke of Gloucester, with the overseas Priors being the Vice-Regal Personages in the Commonwealth Countries. The main charitable work of that Order is the administration and support of Hospitals and the Saint John’s Ambulance Service in the Commonwealth Countries.

The Order in the 20th and 21st CenturiesKingPeter

Subsequently, in Russia, the Statutes of the Order were liberalised so that the Orthodox Grand Priory could thereby be founded and the Knights established their Conventual Church at the Palais de Malta in St Petersburg. The continuity and the integrity of the original Order were thereby substantiated by the Czars under Letters patent (as had been an earlier practice in Europe). However, as a result of the social upheavals in Russia during the early part of the 20th century, a number of the Hereditary Commanders emigrated, with many of them going to the United States where they later set up the American Priory.

All the Hereditary Commanders of Europe and America accepted a Legal Charter of the Order in the year 1911, thereby opening up the Order to members of all Christian denominations. French was the official language of the Order. The Order of Knights Hospitaller grew rapidly with the Grand Duke Alexander being elected the Grand Master in 1913.

King Peter II of Yugoslavia was admitted as a Knight in 1961. In April 1962 at a meeting of the Order’s Sovereign Council in Vaud, Switzerland he was installed as Grand Protector. On 1 October 1963, King Peter issued a Charter for the Order. He formally accepted the position of Grand Master by proclamation on Saint John’s day 21 June 1965. As King Peter II of Yugoslavia went into exile and never abdicated the throne when his country was invaded, the Order has maintained fons honorum (fount of honour). This was confirmed by the actions of King Peter through his membership of the Order; issuing the Charter and in the presentation of a new Constitution on 19 March 1964.

Since then the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitaller) has grown throughout the world. (See Structure of the Order)

The Order’s historical link since 1798 with the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem has remained. The title, Protector of the Order, devolved at the death in 1970 of the late King Peter II upon his son, Crown Prince Alexander. However, King Peter’s brother Prince Andrej became Grand Master. In 1991 Bailiff Anthony Zammit of England filled the office of Lieutenant Grand Master and later became Grand Master until his death in 2001. HRH Prince Karl Wladimir Karageorgevitch of Yugoslavia, son of Prince Andrej then became Grand Master. The Lieutenant Grand Master of the Malta-based Order of OSJ – Malta, is HE Bailiff Paul Borg OSJ. He was elected at the Sovereign Council held in Malta on 6th April 2019.

International Recognition of the Order

In the year 1960, the International Commission of Chivalry was set up at the Fifth Congress of Genealogy and Heraldry in Stockholm. As a result of the Commission’s detailed scrutiny in assessing the validity of the Orders of Chivalry, the Congress of 1978 pronounced the following six Orders of Saint John Of Jerusalem as being legal and valid for inclusion in the Registry of Orders of Chivalry: the Sovereign Military Order of Saint John of Jerusalem (called Rhodes, called Malta); the Most Venerable Order of Saint John of Jerusalem in the British Realm: the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitaller) under the Protection of King Peter II of Yugoslavia; the Venerable Order of Saint John in Prussia; The Venerable Order of Saint John in the Netherlands and The Venerable Order of Saint John in Sweden. Since then there has been a difference of opinion with some people concerning the exact position of the Order internationally. However, it is generally well recognised as King Peter’s significant Order with full fons honorum and chivalric status. In 1999, the “recognition” in the ICOC Register was deleted.

Current Leadership of the Order

The Lieutenant Grand Master of OSJ Malta is HE Bailiff Paul Borg OSJ. The Grand Prior of the Grand Priory of Australasia is HE Bailiff David Wilckens OSJ.

The Australian Experience

The history of the Grand Priory of Australia, which is relatively short, began in 1969 when Chevalier Roland Podesta was commissioned by HE Bailiff Professor Gaston Tonna-Barthet, Grand Prior of Malta, to form a Commandery in Australia. Thus the Queensland Commandery was established.

The Commandery became a Priory in 1974, within the Grand Priory of Malta. In 1977 it achieved independent status as a Grand Priory under the first Grand Prior, Roland Podesta with Priories in Victoria and Queensland and Commanderies in Geelong, South Australia and the Darling Downs. Following this, a Commandery was established in Canberra, ACT. Later South Australia and New South Wales both achieved full Priory status.

Following the death of Roland Podesta, Dr Douglas Hodges of Brisbane was elected as the next Grand Prior of Australia. His term of office saw a period of growth and consolidation which brought Australia into the mainstream of the Order. Bailiff Hodges died suddenly in 1989 and HE Bailiff Sir Hubert Opperman became Acting Grand Prior until HE Bailiff Robert Halliday was elected Grand Prior of Australia in Sydney in April 1989. In 1991 Grand Prior HE Bailiff Robert Halliday moved the Grand Priory of Australia to the London-based administration.

On the death of HE Bailiff Robert Halliday OAM, GCSJ, in May 2001, the Grand Master appointed HE Bailiff Ian Vassie AM, GCSJ, CMSJ, of Victoria, the fourth Grand Prior of the Grand Priory of Australia. The appointment was confirmed in August 2001 at a meeting of the Order’s Sovereign Council held in Ypres, Belgium.

In 2004 the Rhodes Sovereign Council granted equal rights to Knights and Dames. This decision was welcomed in Australia as it was congruent with the Australian Government’s legislation and acceptance of the principles of equality, in conforming to the declaration of the United Nations. Dames of the Order now had the right to hold all ranks, attend meetings, and vote, a privilege not granted under the King Peter II Constitution of 1964.

Bailiff Vassie retired from office in March 2006 and in June of that year, the Grand Master informed members of his decision to divide the Grand Priory of Australia into two Grand Priories, that of Southern Australia, being the States of Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia and that of Northern Australia consisting of the State of Queensland and the Northern Territory.

HE Bailiff Victor Techritz AM, GCSJ of South Australia was appointed Grand Prior of the Grand Priory of Southern Australia to succeed Bailiff Vassie and under his leadership Commanderies were re-established in the Australia Capital Territory (Priory of New South Wales), and established in Tasmania (Priory of Victoria) and Western Australia (Priory of South Australia).

Following Bailiff Victor Techritz’s retirement as Grand Prior of the Grand Priory of Southern Australia in October 2009, Bailiff John Robb AM, GCSJ, as Senior Deputy Grand Prior, assumed the office of Acting Grand Prior, a role he served with distinction for 13 months.

In view of widespread disquiet among many members of the Order concerning the imperious attitude of the leaders of the London-based Order, their failure to recognise the company’s Constitution and the absence of, or at best their poor standard of governance, it was deemed appropriate to seek affiliation with the Malta-based Order.

At a meeting of the Grand Chapter on 31 July 2010, members voted to apply to the OSJ Malta to become a Grand Priory within that Order and if accepted to terminate the association with the London-based administration of the Order of Saint John. The application for affiliation to OSJ Malta was granted on 25 August 2010.

The World Headquarters of OSJ Malta is at St Paul Street 223, Valletta VLT 1213, Malta.

A second Grand Chapter meeting on the 30 October 2010 voted to amend the Constitution of the Company to enable the transfer of the Grand Priory of Southern Australia and the Company to OSJ Malta. The Petit Conseil of the OSJ Malta confirmed the appointment of Chevalier Royce R Pepin AM, MBE, GCSJ as Grand Prior of the Priory of Southern Australia effective from 12 November 2010.

The name of the Grand Priory was changed in June 2011 from the Grand Priory of Southern Australia to the Grand Priory of Australasia, a change that will more accurately represent the boundaries of the Order both within Australia and if and when the Order extends to New Zealand. The anachronistic term ‘Sovereign’ was also removed from the Order’s title in 2011.

Bailiff Pepin retired as Grand Prior on 24 August 2015; his rank became Bailiff Emeritus. Bailiff Peter Wiltshire was elected as Grand Prior in August 2015 until he retired in October 2019 because of ill health. The Constitution of the Grand Priory was amended by the Grand Priory Chapter at its Meeting in Adelaide on 18th June 2016, primarily to define retirement ages for Grand Priors and Priors. Chevalier David Wilckens was elected as the new Grand Prior on 1st November 2019 at a Meeting of the Grand Priory Council.

The global pandemic had an impact on all our lives with Priory and Grand Priory meetings continuing unabated through the use of video-conferencing software. Australia can be justly proud of being able to hold the only investiture in the world during that time. Well done South Australian Priory.

At the 2021 Petit Conseil meeting in Malta, Australia, it was noted, was the largest Grand Priory in the world, with more than 260 members, expected soon to grow to 300.

In June 2022 Grand Prior of Australasia, David Wilckens was promoted to the rank of Knight of the Cross, and then on 1 July 2022 was further promoted to be Bailiff. In October 2022 at the OSJ Sovereign Council meeting in Malta, Bailiff David Wilckens OSJ was appointed Grand Marshall Conventual Bailiff of the Order.

At the March 2023 Petit Conseil meeting Chevalier Judge Peter Herriman of the SA Priory was reappointed an OSJ Supreme Court Judge for a further term of three years. There are two other OSJ Judges, one from Europe and the other from the USA.

Over the 2022-2023 period, careful strategic planning has seen the implementation of governance disciplines and obligations required by both the Australia Charities and Not-for-profit Commission (ACNC) and Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), including streamlining the number of Grand Priory Council members to be 8, and establishing that the Grand Prior need only physically attend one Petit Conseil meeting in Malta each year, the other three being by video-conferencing.

In October 2023 Bailiff David Wilckens’ four-year term as Australasian Grand Prior concluded and nomination were called by the Chancellor. Bailiff David was the only one nominated and he was re-elected unanimously.  

In mid-December 2023 a group of NSW based OSJ Chevaliers, from the Ordre Souverain de Saint-Jean de Jérusalem, Chevaliers de Malte (descended from refugees to Russia from Malta in 1798 via France and the USA) led by Bailiff Sydney Borg OSJ were incorporated into the Australasian OSJ by the signing of a Concordat between the NSW group, our Australasian OSJ and the Malta OSJ authorities.


In the early 14th century, with the acquisition of Rhodes, the Order of St. John took on the features of a State. Governed by the Grand Master, the Order minted its own money and maintained diplomatic relations with other States. New knights came to Rhodes from all over Europe and it was natural for them to associate with those who spoke their language.

In 1319, the Order resolved to group the Hospitallers according to homogeneous language systems, the so-called “Langues” or Tongues. The Langues did not follow the pattern of national states but rather the national-linguistic identities of western Europe.

There were initially seven Langues: Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Aragon, England and Germany. In 1492, Castille and Portugal split off from the Langue of Aragon and constituted the eighth Langue. Each Langue, first on Rhodes and then on Malta, possessed an “Auberge” or inn, used for accommodation, meals and meetings. The loss of Malta in 1798 ended the ancient division into Langues.

The following diagram shows the banners of each Langue: