Thursday 29th June 2006
I have the honour of being a Commander of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem. In addition, I have the privilege of sitting on the Chapter of the Order’s Priory of England and the Islands (www.sja.org.uk/history ).
Several times per year the Chapter meets in the Chapter Hall at the historic St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell, London. Following a morning of deliberating business appertaining to the running of the St John Ambulance (www.sja.org.uk ), the Eye Hospital in Jerusalem ( www.stjohneyehospital.org/ ) and the St John Care Homes Trust (www.osjct.co.uk ) , the members of Chapter re-convene after lunch in the Priory Church for the investiture of new members of the Order.
The Order is the oldest Order of Chivalry within the British Honours system, with membership of the Order being bestowed following approval by the Queen. As with other Orders under the Crown, there are various grades of membership, namely, Serving Brother and Serving Sister (both soon to be replaced by the title ‘Member’), Officer, Commander and then Knight or Dame. Knights are further divided between Knights of Justice (who are armigerous and have the right to appoint two Esquires) and Knights of Grace (who are not armigerous and have the right to appoint one Esquire). The highest honour within the Order is to be appointed a Bailiff or Dame Grand Cross.
The occasion of an investiture is one of glorious pomp and circumstance. It is a ceremony which never fails to delight and impress all those who attend.
At the opening of the ceremony, the members of Priory Chapter are announced and process into the Church, dressed in the traditional black sopra vests (a form of cassock) and black mantles, the latter bearing the white, eight-pointed cross of Amalfi on the left side. They take up their positions in two semi-circles in the north-east and south-east of the Church, there to await the arrival of the Prior.
Within a few minutes the Director of Ceremonies announces ‘The Prior of the Priory of England and the Islands’ and everyone stands for his procession. Preceded by the Church Cross and the Sword of Justice and accompanied by the Principle Priory Officers (Dean, Chancellor, Chief Commander, Chief Commissioners, Hospitaller and Almoner) and the Chapter clergy, the Prior’s procession make its way to the East of the Church, each armigerous member being followed by an Esquire bearing a banner depicting that individual’s Coat of Arms. It is a display of colourful, but solemn, pageantry which encapsulates so much of the historic significance of the Order of St John under the English Crown.
Following opening prayers, the National Anthem and a few words of introduction by the Prior, each postulant (i.e. a person to be invested) is summoned in turn and is invested by the Prior with the insignia of his or her grade within the Order.
For the postulants, as for many of their family members and guests within the audience, it is a moving occasion representing the recognition of years of outstanding service to the Order in one or more of its charitable arms. For all recipients, it is a moment to take pride in and one which will never be forgotten.
After the completion of the ceremony, the postulants and their guests are able to mingle with members of the Priory Chapter amidst the splendid surroundings of the Chapter Hall and partake in afternoon tea.
Finally, before departing from the St John’s Gate, visitors may take the opportunity of visiting the Priory’s Museum, where the Order’s 900 years of history, dating back to the Knights Hospitallers of the Holy Crusades, is displayed. The museum is open to the public, details of which can be found at: www.sja.org.uk/museum/visit .
Today’s investiture was of particular significance for me as a close friend, who is also a colleague within the St John Ambulance and will already be known to readers of this blog as ‘Harlequin’, was invested as a Serving Brother of the Order. Needless to say, it was a matter for celebration. Accompanied by our wives and following champagne in the garden of Over Seas House (www.rosl.org.uk ), overlooking Green Park in St James’s, we adjourned to Le Caprice (http://www.le-caprice.co.uk/ ), a restaurant which has previously featured in this blog (see Dinner with Melvyn Bragg, 11th May 2006).
As always, this popular rendezvous was packed with diners well up to midnight. Although not an evening for the presence of either of the Lords Melvyn Bragg or Jeffrey Archer (both devotees of Le Caprice), we did notice Sir Alan Sugar with a party of guests on the table adjacent to ours. The evening must have pleased him as well as us, for none of the waiting staff was fired before the night was over.