The Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem
Knights of Malta
and the « Corps des Pages », Russia's Dream of Chivalry

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
(Pajesky Corpus)

One 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 !
Russia indeed, had known military valour of the highest degree, her warriors being inspired with an ardour akin to that of the finest crusaders of the West; yet, that mystical, romantic concept of the warrior which consecrated him as a Knight, that servant of Good and Justice against Evil and Injustice - as sung by the minstrels, troubadours and Minnesingers of the West, had in Russia's case for ever remained a closed book. In one of his greatest novels, « The Possessed », Dostoevsky deplores this spiritual gap in the soul of his people, in particular the absence in the Russian folklore of the knightly cult of the Dame ; Russian epics depict her no more than an astute, practically-minded, generously proportioned creature - lovable, but never raised to the pedestal of an aloof ideal, an object of romantic devotion and knightly service.

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At 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 !
After the great Emperor's death, grim and depressing times followed ; the pages were taken little notice of and their Company continued to exist simply as an inconspicuous part of the numerous, often idle court retinue.
A new and significant chapter in the life of the Company of Pages began. with the ascension to the throne of Empress Elisabeth, a daughter of Peter the Great : the new Tsarina proved most eager to emulate the splendours of Versailles and Louis' XV pomp and circumstance. The Pages became a special object of Elisabeth's care, being assigned for the first time in their history a special, fine building ; the Historian and Member of the Academy of Sciences Miller is appointed their general adviser and

reorganiser of their education ; the Company becomes the « Court School of Pages » (20th October 1759).
Catherina II, in her turn, includes the School of Pages into her cherished scheme of « regenerated breed of mankind » and both the Academy Member Miller and the great pedagogue Betzky are busy redesigning the young men's educational programme' it is formally established in 1785 and the School is given its final designation of CORPS DES PAGES, but without any accent upon military training.

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 œcumenical - 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.

Alexander, 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 whole atmosphere of this noble building was permeated with the spirit of the Order and Alexander I himself as well as all his successors put great stress upon

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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 :

1. Thou shalt believe the teaching of the Holy Church and obey all her admonitions ;
2. Thou shalt defend the Church ;
3. Thou shalt show regard for the weak and defend them ;
4. Thou shalt love the country of thy birth ;
5. Thou shalt never retreat before the enemy ;
6. Thou shalt lead an unceasing and uncompromising war against the Infidel ;
7. Thou shalt never tell a lie and shall stay true to thy word;
8. Thou shalt be generous and charitable ;
9. Thou shalt always and in all places be champion of Good and Justice against evil and iniquity.

In 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.
The course of training of the Corps des Pages consisted of two sections : the « General » and the « Special » classes, which corresponded to a cadet school and an officers' training course ; the former took on boys, preferable from other cadet corps, from the age of 10-11, so that after 7 years course the young man could join the « Special » classes ; in peace time, no outsiders could join these superior two Companies of the Corps des Pages ; during the first World War, this rule was waived and the « Special » classes extended into a war-time training Course some 160 men strong, the rules of admission being more rigorously observed than ever, i.e. only noblemen, sons or grandsons of Generals or Civil dignitaries of equal grade could join the exclusive school ; significantly, the 1916-1917 Special Classes included over 40 young men bearing titles of nobility from Baron to Prince of Royal blood.
The Corps des Pages was both a military and a Court institution ; Pages of the upper two classes were in regular attendance at all major Court Functions, the majority of them being to this effect given the Court rank of « Kammerpages » - « Privy Pages », ; the chief among these, the s.c. « Sergeant-Major » of the Corps des Pages was ipso facto the Privy Page of the Tsar himself and at all ceremonies had to attend to the person of the Emperor ; the Tsarina and each member of the Imperial Household had a Privy Page assigned to them, and so had all Grand Dukes and Grand Duchesses. Many a glittering and glamorous story is recorded in connection with the Pages' service at the Court !
The Graduates from the Corps des Pages had the unique privilege of joining any regiment of their own choice regardless of the existing vacancies (though, as a matter of etiquette, the consent of the Unit's officers was sought long beforehand). They wore, on the left side of their tunic, the White Maltese Cross of the Corps des Pages, which was plain until 1902, but after that (Jubilee) year, the initials of Alexander I and Nicholas II were added, as well as the dates 1802-1902. War-time Pages had, moreover, a circle added to the cross with the year of their training. Thus, the Authors badge carries the circle with the inscription : « Accelerated Course 1916-1917 ».
This white enamelled Cross was a tribute to the intention of Emperor Paul to perpetuate the Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem in Russia by the institution of Hereditary Knights-Commanders ; this conception eventually merged into that of promotion of Corps des Pages graduates to Commissioned rank.
It would be however totally wrong to imagine that. Maltese Knighthood had become just a cherished memory : in fact, none of the Emperors who succeeded Paul I had in any way renounced to support the Order : Alexander II openly wore the Grand Cross of the Order ; as late as December 6, 1916, the late Tsar Nicholas had conferred the Knighthood of St. John of Jerusalem upon two French noblemen.
It is equally significant that, on the 1902 Jubilee Day

(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 ;


The author in the uniform of a
Lieutenant of the horse artillery, with
Maltese Cross and the insignia
of the Russian White Army
of the Nord-West


every little cadet knew by heart the Nine Rules, as witnessed by a touching incident : once, some officer in the street, dissatisfied with the reply to his query addressed to a little Page, accused him of not telling the truth. « Sir , » stiffened the boy « may I remind you that I am His Majesty's Page and hence CANNOT LIE , ».

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 !

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NOTES:
This claim by another former page Daniel E. A. Perret, where he states; "Needless to say that the pages themselves were convinced of being the carriers of the ancient Knighthood" needs to be contrasted with the recollections of others who were pages at the same school.

Such recollections are provided by the following book;

Berry, Dr Thomas E, (Trans & Ed) Memoirs of the Pages to the Tsars, Gilbert's Royal Books, Alberta, Canada 2001.

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.


Updated 22nd November 2005.

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