In Gatchina, the former residence of the Russian emperors in the vicinity of St. Petersburg, on the shore of the "Black Lake", stands a small palace which bears the name "Priory Palace". Although it was originally intended to serve for only twenty years, it is already in its third century of existence. The Priory Palace is so exceptional that it surely ought to be in the "Guinness Book of Records". Everything about this building is unusual: its name, its architectural appearance, the materials and techniques of its construction, as well as the legends which are bound up with it.
Constructed for a prior of the Maltese Order, the palace never actually became a priory, although it was presented to the Order of St. John of Jerusalem by a decree of Paul I dated 23 August 1799. In the 19th century, the Priory was occupied first by the Court choristers, then by the master of the royal hunt; in Soviet times it became a place for outings, a "house of rest", a Pioneers' house, then a museum of local history. Then the palace was closed, being by now in a state of such disrepair that it seemed about to collapse into the Black Lake. At that time the palace bore a new name - people called it the "Crumbling Castle".
A romantic page of Russian history is bound up with the knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta. The year 1999 was the 900th anniversary of the founding of the order, which today numbers about 12,000 members, as well as the 200th year since the election of Tsar Paul I as the order's Grand Master.
It is in Jerusalem, the "city of cities", that the tomb of Our Lord is located. Thousands of Christian pilgrims made their way to the Holy Land to visit it. In the pilgrims' refuge attached to the church of St. John the Baptist, not far from Jerusalem, monks tended the pilgrims and received donations from them as a mark of their gratitude. The emblem of the order is a white eight-pointed cross, symbolising the eight virtues - faith, charity, truth, justice, innocence, humility, sincerity and patience. The monks were bound by their rules not only to provide help for the injured, but also to defend Christianity against the followers of Islam. Thus the order became an order of warrior-monks, who were known as "Knights of St. John" or "Knights Hospitallers". But the crusades undertaken by the order ended in failure and they were forced to flee to the island of Rhodes, which was their home for two centuries. In the year 1522 the forces of the Turkish sultan Suleiman the Magnificent attempted to capture Rhodes. After a six-month siege the Grand Master of the order, Philippe de l'Isle-Adam, surrendered the island. Full of admiration for the knights' courage, Suleiman allowed them to leave the island by ship.
A new place of refuge for the knights was found in 1530, when Charles V, king of Spain and Sicily, gave the island of Malta to the order in return for a symbolic annual payment of one hunting falcon. During the years of its residence in Malta the order of St. John developed into a very powerful and wealthy community; its knights combined a high degree of monasticism with a code of knightly honour. In the north-east of the island they built a fortress which, during the 400 years of its history, no-one has ever succeeded in taking by storm. The name of its builder - Grand Master Jean de La Vallette - has been immortalised in the name of Malta's capital, Valletta.
The French Revolution drove the knights from Malta and deprived the order of its wealth; its estates were confiscated for the benefit of the people. On 6 June 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte, on the way to Egypt, raided Malta. The order allowed the general's forces to enter the harbour, and the invulnerable fortress of Valletta fell without a shot being fired. By Napoleon's decree, all the silver from the churches built by the Hospitallers was melted down. The Grand Master von Gompesch was exiled, and the knights were compelled to leave the island within 72 hours.
Relations between the Russian state and the Maltese order were first established in 1698, when Peter I's ambassador Boris Petrovich Sheremetev was received with honour in Valletta by the head of the order Grand Master Raymond de Pereylos, and, though he was not a Catholic, became the first Russian knight of this Catholic order. During the reign of Catherine II an alliance was formed between Russia and Malta against Turkey. In the Turkish war several officers of the order fought on Russia's side. One of these was Count Yuliy Pompeevich Litta, who received a golden sword "for valour" and the third degree of the Order of St. George. And it was Litta who brought the insignia of the order to Russia for Paul I, with the request that he should take the order under his patronage. On the 29th November 1798 the solemn ceremony took place by which the Russian emperor assumed the title of Grand Master. From Malta certain holy relics were brought to Gatchina - a piece of Christ's cross, the icon of the Mother of God from Philerma, the right hand of John the Baptist.
Paul I was a great admirer of the order. From childhood he had read and re-read the Abbot Vertot's "History of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem". He was shaken by the fate of Malta and came to the aid of the order. An agreement was signed by which the Polish priorate became the Great Russian priorate. Two priorates were established - a Polish, Catholic priorate and a Russian, Orthodox priorate. The Maltese knights came to Russia, where they were granted lands and high office. The residence of the order was transferred to St. Petersburg. Paul judged that this powerful knightly order would be of assistance in the struggle against the revolutionary ideas which were then spreading in Europe. An institute of honorary commanders was established, admission to which was not dependent on proof of noble origin. The cross of the order was awarded for services to the state, either military or civil.
Paul gave to the knights of the Russian priorate the church of St. John the Baptist on St. Petersburg's Stone Island, and the Vorontsov Palace (now the Suvorov Military Academy). Next to the Vorontsov Palace the architect Giovanni Quarenghi built a Maltese chapel, and in Gatchina the architect N. A. Lvov created the Priory Palace for the French emigre Prince Conde, a former prior of the order. (A "prior" is one of the main officials of the order, and "priory" is the designation of a prior's residence.) Before succeeding to the throne, during his travels in Europe Paul had visited the country residence of Prince Conde at Chantilly. He recalled that in Paris Louis XVI had received him as a friend, but that in Chantilly Prince Conde had received him as a king. Mindful of the prince's hospitality, Paul wanted to construct a palace for him in his beloved Gatchina. But Conde never came to Gatchina, and the palace was used by the Maltese knights for meetings of the order under the presidency of their Grand Master, and as a "spare" palace.