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St John Ambulance logo, click to visit siteA Brief History

11th Century Jerusalem

Growing numbers of Christians were making the long and difficult pilgrimage to the Holy City. Many arrived weak and ill, and a hospice was set up close to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to care for them. The hospital was run by monks from the local Benedictine Abbey. As their work became better known, the brothers of the Hospital of St John received gifts of money and land. Increasingly wealthy, and with their special nursing role, the brothers moved away from their Benedictine origins. The Pope confirmed the new Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem in 1113. The brothers and sisters of the Order were known as Hospitallers. They took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and also vowed to care for the sick and poor.

The Crusades

Hospitallers were committed to caring for poor pilgrims, and during the Crusades this also meant defending them with force. Following the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 by the First Crusade, Christian states were set up throughout the Holy Land. Keeping them was difficult. As Muslim forces grew stronger again, the Order of the Hospital of St John, set up to care for sick and poor pilgrims, took up arms to protect them. These Knights Hospitaller, along with the Knights Templar, were among the main defenders of the Holy Land. After Acre fell in 1291 the Hospitallers sailed to their estates on Cyprus, and then seized the island of Rhodes. Here they re-established their headquarters and hospital, and developed their navy to continue their defence of Christianity.

Great Medieval Hospitals

The Jerusalem hospice, run by the Hospitallers in the 12th century, was one of the first great medieval hospitals. Each hospital was run by a knight. Nursing the sick was part of the duty of all knights. Some of the Hospitallers� medical methods in the Middle Ages are similar to ideas in modern health care. They believed that quality of nursing care was the key to recovery in most cases, and used surgery only as a last resort. They had an excellent knowledge of natural and herbal medicines and understood the importance of hygiene, calm and isolation.

Rhodes and Malta

After the fall of the short-lived Christian states in the Holy Land, the knights became rulers of island states. They seized Rhodes in 1306 and established their headquarters and hospital, and were given Malta in 1530. The Turks, led by Suleiman, attacked the island in 1565. Despite having a much smaller army, the knights and the Maltese people won through the siege. The city of Valletta was built and fortified by the knights after the Great Siege, and was named after the Grand Master. It is still the capital of Malta. The knights of Malta, as they became known, continued to rule the island until they were driven out in 1798 by Napoleon.

Henry VIII

Henry VIII ended centuries of Hospitaller wealth and power in England when he seized all their property. The Order was a major power in medieval England and by the 14th century was one of the greatest religious landowners in the country. Priors were advisors to the king and often held high government positions. This was not always to their advantage � Prior Robert Hales, Treasurer of England, was beheaded during the Peasants� Revolt in 1381. In 1511 the young King Henry VIII was named Protector of the Order, a role he did not uphold. When he established the Church of England he dissolved all the Roman Catholic Orders and took their estates for the Crown. The Hospitallers were the last order to be dissolved in 1540.

Industrial Revolution

As the number of factories grew, so did concern at the dreadful injuries caused by machinery, and at the lack of help available to workers. In the 19th century, there were moves to revive the Order of St John to care for the sick in the Hospitaller tradition. The suffering of workers was one of their main concerns. Accidents were frequent but workers rarely saw a doctor in time. Death or disability from untreated injuries was common. Members of the British Order decided to train ordinary people in first aid so that accident victims could be treated quickly and on the spot, and in 1877 they set up St John Ambulance to do this. In 1887 trained volunteers were organised into a uniformed Brigade to provide a first aid and ambulance service at public events. In many parts of Britain, St John was the first and only provider of an ambulance service right up to the middle of the 20th century, when the National Health Service was founded. When there were far fewer doctors and hospital beds than today, St John nurses looked after the sick and injured in their own homes.

Modern War

During the Crimean War in the 1850s, newspapers began to carry graphic reports of the battlefield carnage. The public was faced with the harsh reality that wounded soldiers were left to suffer and die. The Red Cross movement grew out of the resulting outrage. Volunteer members of the British Order of St John responded and took great personal risks to bring first aid and ambulance transport to the various battlefields. They also helped to found the British Red Cross. St John Ambulance provided trained reserves for army hospitals. Its first official role was in the Boer War, 1899�1902, when nearly a quarter of the Army Medical Service in South Africa were St John Reserves, acting as medical orderlies. In World War One, 1914�18 there was a huge response to appeals for volunteers to help care for the wounded and dying. An extensive system of medical services and hospitals was put in place, at the front, behind the lines and back in Britain. Most of it was run by the Joint War Committee of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St John. In World War Two, 1939�45 again St John and the Red Cross worked together to meet medical and welfare needs on the home front and overseas. St John�s roles included organising the national anti-gas training programme; running first aid posts, e.g. in London�s Tube stations during the Blitz; assisting prisoners of war and providing medical reserves and volunteer nurses to serve with the forces. In current conflicts, St John welfare workers are sent out to give humanitarian help.

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