Seats of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta

An article contributed by our member Dr. Peter Martinez

The Grand Priory of Bohemia

Knights of the Grand Priory of Bohemia and Austria:


Professed Knight
at the beginning of the 19th century

Professed Bailli

The origin of the Sovereign Military Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta may be traced to the founding of the Order of St John in Jerusalem in 1099. As the Order grew it became necessary to organize itself locally into Priories and Grand Priories. The Grand Priory of Bohemia was founded in 1183.

The history of the Order of Malta in Prague is commemorated in several place names in the Little Quarter at the west end of the famous Charles Bridge. Until 1741, Charles Bridge was the only crossing over the Vltava. The Bridge was commissioned by Charles IV in 1357 to replace the Judith Bridge (built in 1158), which was destroyed by a flood in 1342.  The gateway to the  Charles Bridge is flanked by two towers of different height. The taller  pinnacled tower on the north was built together with the Charles Bridge. To the south is a shorter tower, the remains of the Judith Bridge Tower, built in 1188 to guard the entrance to the original Judith Bridge.

A short walk from these towers lies Maltese Square and Grand Priory Square. At the northern end of Maltese Square is a statue of St John the Baptist  - part of a fountain erected in 1715 to mark the end of a plague epidemic. At the northern end of Grand Priory Square is the former seat of the Grand Prior. In its present form the palace dates from the 1720s. A large mural of pop musician John Lennon has decorated the wall of the Grand Prior's garden since his death.

The wheel of the Grand Prior's Mill has been totally restored and runs in a short side-channel of the Vltava river known as the "Venice of Prague."

Also in this area is the Church of Our Lady Beneath the Chain, which has two massive towers dating from the time when this was a fortified priory. The Church, founded in the 12th century, is the oldest in the Little Quarter and was presented to the Knights of St John by King Vladislav II. It stood in the centre of the Knights' heavily fortified monastery, which guarded the approach to the old Judith Bridge, precursor of the Charles Bridge. The church's name refers to the chain used during the Middle Ages to close the monastery gatehouse.

A Gothic presbytery was added in the 13th century, but in the following century the original Romanesque church was demolished. A new portico was built with a pair of massive square towers but the work was abandoned and the old nave became a courtyard between the towers and the church. The church was given a baroque facelift in 1640 by Carlo Lurago. The high altar  features a painting depicting the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist coming to the aid of the Knights of Malta in the famous naval battle at Lepanto in 1571.

In spite of adversities encountered during the French revolution and during the  Napoleonic wars that followed, the Bohemian Grand Priory survived down to the 20th century, arguably the most testing century of its long existence.

During World War I the Order operated a hospital train which circulated throughout Europe treating the casualties of war. Over 27000 operations were conducted in the field.

In 1938 the (independent) Grand Priory of Austria was formed as a consequence of the Anschluß of Austria by Hitler. During the Nazi occupation of Bohemia the activities of the Order were banned and its properties were confiscated. Although the Order's activities were suppressed by the Nazis, the Regent Schwarzenberg used his political influence to ensure the survival of the order.

Following the war, the socialist state did not return the properties confiscated by the Nazis but instead nationalized them.  A minimum level of activity was tolerated by the communists until 1950, when the Order, together with other Church orders, was dissolved and banned. The majority of the Order's members went into exile. A small group of knights remained in Bohemia and continued the Order's charitable and hospitaller activities with the support of their confreres abroad. They were headed by Prince Charles Schwarzenberg (1911-1986) as Regent of the Grand Priory of Bohemia, who untiringly defended the right of the Grand Priory to survive. In 1981 Fra Charles Paar was elected Grand Prior in exile.

Following the Velvet Revolution in 1989 the Order immediately resumed its activities. New members were inducted and the first steps were taken towards securing the return of the Order's buildings in Prague, namely the Grand Prior's Palace and the Church of Our Lady Under the Chain. Finally, Maltese Help was formed as the relief  organization of the Order in the Czech Republic.

In 1991 the Order established diplomatic relations with the Czech Republic. The Order's embassy today stands next to the Church of Our Lady Under the Chain.  Thus, once again the eight-pointed cross serves as a symbol of assistance and comfort for those suffering in body or spirit and reminds us of the Order's motto, Tuitio fidei et obsequium pauperum.


This page was last updated on Friday, 18 September 2015 22:07:57


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