by Daniel E. A. Perret, Ex-Page of the 1916/17 War Time Course
In the very heart of the former capital of Russia, next to the world-famous Public Library, stands a magnificently proportioned, medium sized palace, created in mid-eighteenth century by the Italian architect Bastrelli who, together with his compatriot Guarengi, was responsible for so many of the finest landmarks of Saint Petersburg. Painted dark red, it stood majestic and aloof behind its elaborate Baroque railing, an old, shady garden spreading in its background. Prim, well-groomed cadets in black greatcoats with thick, gold-braided epaulets were seen entering or leaving the building through its inconspicuous left-wing entrance ; sometimes, closed Imperial Court carriages with liveried coachmen and footmen would drive up majestically to the ornate main entrance to collect a group of young men in gold embroidered court uniforms, with plumed helmets, Wellington boots and court swords ; the string of carriages having driven off, a monumental gate-keeper would close the entrance and the palace resume its dignified and serene silence, proudly conscious of the inscription that ran along its fronton :
HIS MAJESTY'S CORPS DES PAGES
might refer to this unique institution either as the world's most exclusive
Court and Military school, or as select hot-house for rearing commissioned
officers for the Imperial Brigade of Guards and other outstanding units of
Russia's military might, or else, ironically, as a Nursery of dyed-in-the
wool supporters of the Monarchy. As to the writer of this brief account,
he sees in his old school, above all, a symbol embodying Russia's aloof dream
of something she has been sadly lacking all through the course of her tortuous
history, something for which, in the person of many of her greatest sons
and daughters, she has been secretly yearning : that spiritual flower of
the Western Christianity and civilization - Chivalry !
the court of the earlier Romanoff, select young men drawn from amongst the
high nobility underwent training as future courtiers ; these youthful attendants
were known as « Noviki » (Novices). In 1697, on his return
from a State visit to Versailles and to various German courts, Peter I, in
his dynamic drive for « westernisation » of every Russian institution
except the Church, turned his attention to the company of the « Noviki
»: they were re-named « Pages », and elaborate arrangements
were designed for their general education and especially for their training
in the exquisite manners of their Versailles counterparts. Outwardly, we
are told, the scheme appeared successful, but underneath the elaborate
court-dress, the boys remained semi-civilized and coarse !
reorganiser of their education ; the Company becomes the « Court
School of Pages » (20th October 1759).
Yet, the truly momentous period in the life of the Corps des Pages dawns with the ascension to the throne of Emperor Paul I, especially from the time he assumes the dignity of Grandmaster of the Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, the Knights of Malta. All the policy of the new Tsar is dictated by his fear and hatred of the French Revolution, to which he seeks to oppose a united Christendom ; he takes active steps to promote a Union between the Eastern and the Western Churches which - he hopes - will be joined by the Protestants as well. The Maltese Cross becomes a symbol of the planned new crusade, the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem - the carriers « par excellence » of its ideology. The Order is to become cumenical - open to all Christians of noble descent ; to swell the ranks of the Western Maltese Knights who took their refuge in Russia, Paul creates 118 new Knight-Commanders, and allows the creation of Ancestral/Hereditary Commanders among the highest nobility of his Empire and - by his Ukase of 4th (l5th new style) December 1797, establishes THE RULES FOR THE EDUCATION AND MILITARY UPBRINGING of these Knights' descendants : this training is to begin at the age of 15, the rank of Commissioned Officer AND KNIGHT-COMMANDER of the Order to be attained at the age of 22 ; the Graduate is to wear the White Maltese Cross.
PARALLEL with these measures, the Emperor decrees THE CONVERSION OF THE CORPS DES PAGES INTO MILITARY SCHOOL, appoints a new Director and pays concentrated attention to the educational programme of this cherished institution of his, which is from now on destined for ever to bear the imprint of his personality. Although the Tsar does not explicitly name the Corps des Pages as the educational centre of Maltese Knight-Commanders, there can be no shade of doubt that this is what he had in mind. It must be remembered that the pages were recruited in their turn from the hereditary nobility of Russia and had to be either sons of at least Lieutenant Generals or Grandsons of full Army Generals. There were NO OTHER SOURCES FROM WHICH such highly privileged youth could be drawn.
However, it was not given to Paul I to implement his most cherished plans of implanting hereditary Maltese Knighthood in his Empire : in October 1801, he fell under the blows of court conspirators led by Count von Palen who, let it be said, firmly believed to be acting in the true national interests of Russia.
Emperor Paul's eldest son and heir to the throne, was certainly involved
in this plot, although he had made Count von Palen promise on oath that his
father would be only made to abdicate and suffer no violence. The tragic
issue of the conspiracy had remained a never-healing wound in Alexander's
memory ; he never ceased feeling torn by remorse. Secretly admiring Napoleon,
against whom he had at first to continue his father's war, the young Monarch
shunned the Sovereign Order of St. John of Jerusalem as the most irreconcilable
enemy of France, whether Jacobin or Imperial (though he greatly honoured
Count Litta, who distinguished himself in the Russian navy and subsequently
acted as its reformer). However, possibly as the late tribute to his fathers
cherished knightly ideals, Alexander the First, on l0th October 1802, promoted
the formal organization of the Corps des Pages as a military and Court school
and upon the final departure of all non-Russian Maltese Knights, in 1810,
settled the Corps des Pages in the magnificent palace, formerly the Emperor
Paul's gift to the Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem.
the knightly heritage of Their Pages : both the Catholic and the Orthodox Chapels of the Palace had the Maltese Cross as a conspicuous decorative motive ; the very sacred utensils were marked by Maltese Crosses : Emperor Paul's life-size portrait in robes of the Order's Grandmaster hung in one of the chief halls of the palace (even in the writer's time, i.e. in 1916-17, the legend was alive that sometimes, at midnight, this portrait would come to life and the Emperor pace the Hall !) Yet, the unmistakable sign of the close connection of Corps des Pages and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem was the marble tablet in the principal hall with the engraved nine capital rules of the Knighthood of St. John :
order to remind the Pages of the monastic origin of their School, they were
made to wear, off duty, a red, green-tasselled CORD in lieu of a military
belt ; before each meal, the grace was not said, but SUNG, and a brief hymn
of thanksgiving was equally sung when the meal was ended.
(12.12.02), the Emperor Nicholas II conferred upon the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovitch (then heir to throne), Michael Nicolaevitch and Constantine Constantinovitch (the well-known and much beloved poet, known mainly under the initials « K.R. ») the Honorary Membership of the Corps des Pages ; in other words, the Corps des Pages was much more than a Military School ; it was a Fellowship, wearing the Maltese Cross - a symbol embroidered in gold in the four corners of the Banner of the Corps des Pages.
Needless to say that the pages themselves were convinced of being the carriers of the ancient Knighthood ;
In conclusion, it should be mentioned that noble descent and ancestral merit alone did not admit a cadet into the select Corps des Pages : the entrance examinations were extremely severe, special stress being laid upon Mathematics and languages ; at least two foreign languages had to be known really well, so that the Pages could be attached to the persons of visiting members of alien ruling houses. Actually, out the maximum of « 5 » marks, the average required was at least « 4 ½ », with full marks in at least two principal subjects. General appearances, conduct, etc. were equally determining factors. This rigidity of selection in war and in peace alike was not surprising, as normally only about 40 candidates were admitted yearly ; during the war, the number admitted into the Special Classes (War-time course) was about 160, while Russia had called-up 17 million young men !
It is also only fair to add that however proud the boys felt to become youthful « Knights of the Cross », they took the greatest care to avoid all marks of ostentation or snobbery : unlike other cadets, they travelled mainly by tramway or bus, and if they took a cab or a sledge, it was the humble one-horse « Izvostchik , », never a showy « Likhach », with two horses and a roomy, glittering new vehicle. During the summer stay at the Krasnoye Selo Camp, the Pages were noted for the somewhat shabby, off-colour khaki tunics they wore as distinct from the spic-and-span cadets of other schools.
In the course of its existence, the Corps des Pages produced a long row of outstanding Generals and Statesmen ; in the austere, gold-and-black St. George's Hall adjoining the Orthodox Chapel, one could read the names of over 80 former pages who fell in battle and 103 names of those decorated with Russia's highest distinction for valour - the Officer's St. George's Cross. These are most impressive figures, considering that during the whole course of its existence as a military school since 1802, only under 4000 pages had been promoted to commissioned rank !
Article Copyright Control
Such recollections are provided by the following book;
This book is about the Corps des Pages of Russia, which occupied the Palace used by the Order, which was altered to accommodate the School, with this completed as late as 1810, when the pages moved in. The Maltese Crosses which adorned the palace had not been moved and the was adopted as the symbol of the pages. Within the pages is a brief overview of the history of the institution, and a series of recollections by former pages, with the last recollection on a revisit in 1959, by Prince N A Obolensky.
What is clear, from these recollections, that although the Pages borrowed the Maltese Cross from the Knights of Malta, non a single reflection of the 28 stories provides the view, that these pages saw themselves in any way being somehow connected to the Order of St John, or the school even being a nursery for future Knights, apart from occupying the former premises of the Order, inheriting its emblem and precepts which were displayed in the Palace.
Daniel E. A. Perret appears to have been a member of the Cassagnac Order, and it could be argued that his testimony became biased, in terms of the continual need to produce an apologetic for the Cassagnac Order. His article first appeared in the Bulletin of the "Sovereign Order of Saint-John of Jerusalem, Knights of Malta", No. 1 - 1962 Château de Grandson VD, Suisse, which was the Journal of the Cassagnac Order. Contrasted with this suggestion is that fact that the testimonies in the book, appear unbiased, and are produced as recollections, which are not pressed into the service of justifying any claim. It is via the Cassaganc/King Peter Order, that the claim has been made about a close identification of the School for Pages with the Order of St John.
This of course reveals the need to be thorough in testing out claims, which may only represent opinions rather than solid facts.
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