Even today, in predominantly Roman Catholic countries the word Mason, or Francmason or Masonería is taboo in polite society. Spanish people assure you that Masons are only one step better than the Devil, that they have been behind every evil conspiracy, that their presence among politicians spells disaster etc. But in protestant countries Masonry is as acceptable as Methodism, and in England, for example, the Masons finance and manage charitable organisations of the best kind, such as the Royal Masonic Hospitals, schools and universities.
The origins of Freemasonry are mysterious; some kind of continuity exists between guilds of stonemasons, responsible for the building of most of the vast cathedrals to be found everywhere in Europe, and the Masonic lodges of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The process, and the order, continues to the present day, though not so openly in Catholic countries.
Medieval masons had their lodges, or huts where they kept their tools and held meetings. They did indeed have initiation rites, and elaborate legends concerning the history of their craft. They were ‘free’ in that they were not slaves and were not bound by a contract to one single employer. Some historians insist that the word ‘freemason’ is nothing more than a shortening of the words ‘freestone mason’, or a corrupted version of the French word for ‘brother’ – frère.
Additional myths claim that they descend from the Knights Templar (q.v.) and/or the Rosicrucians, and that they area kind of direct line to the ancient wisdoms of the Near East. The Templars were a military/religious order founded in the early part of the twelfth century to guide and protect pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land, but they became very rich indeed, and were accused of practising secret rites of the nastiest kind. The Order was put down firmly and bloodily by King Philip IV known as ‘The Fair’ in 1307. The Rosicrucians were an infinitely more secret and mysterious order founded, apparently by a German, Rosenkreuz who had studied ‘wisdom’ in eastern countries at the end of the fourteenth century. There are no facts to establish the truth of an association between the Templars, the Rosicrucians and Masonry.
Around 1600 lodges in Scotland began admitting men who had not actually learned stonecraft, or were not working stonemasons. We are informed therefore that Freemasonry was invented in Scotland by a mixture of working masons’ club traditions with a kind of Renaissance mysticism which attracted upper-class adherents. The first ‘Grand Master’ was the King’s master of works. He was succeeded by members of Rosslyn’s St.Clair and Sinclair families, and here comes the ‘connection’ we were searching for – these two families had had a long association with the Templars! This is probably nonsense but Freemasonry had spread into England by the middle of the seventeenth century, and later Ireland, though the latter is predominantly Catholic. Mysteriouser and mysteriouser.
Records show that men like Ashmole (1617 – 92), an alchemist and Rosicrucian was a Mason in the late seventeenth century. It was his collection that (among others) was used to found the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. A distinction was now drawn between ‘operative’ lodges (practising artisans) and ‘speculative’ lodges (those interested in the mystique and techniques of the Craft). It is said that by the early eighteenth century there were ‘speculative’ lodges than ‘operative’ ones. In 1717 it is a fact that four lodges joined together to form a ‘Grand Lodge’, rather like four coffee houses joining together to make a gentleman’s Club. Whatever, the history of modern Freemasonry starts here.
In the eighteenth century Freemasonry in its strictly English form spread rapidly through Protestant Europe and beyond.It was widely accepted in the British Army, and lodges were founded while officers served abroad. In 1733 the first American lodge was established in Boston. It was claimed that a true spirit of brotherliness existed in Freemasonry, bonded by by the myth of a universal religion older than the established religions of this world. Members took their subject very seriously, and Masonic ideals inspired their work, a good example being Mozart, perhaps expressed best in his work The Magic Flute. Masonry worked hard towards the Enlightenment, though it tended, like enlightenment, to be elitist. One fears that there is the fount of all that hatred for it: inverted snobbery.
‘Exposures’ of Masonry began around 1730, and attempts were made to ban it in Holland in 1735, Sweden in 1776 and France (Catholic) in 1777. In 1778 a Papal Bull was issued prohibiting Roman Catholics from becoming Masons on pain of excommunication. The Pope concerned was Pious VI. However, in the great Catholic monarchies this was considered beyond papal control and there were plenty of Masonic lodges in France, Spain, Italy and Portugal. Frequently members of the clergy were members. The effect of this was to strengthen the tie between Freemasonry and ‘enlightened’ opposition to the Church and auhoritarian regimes it supported. In America, both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were Masons proiminent in the struggle for independence. In France, Danton (q.v.) and Desmoulins were Masons during the Revolution though their membership did not save either of them from the knife. In the movement towards unification in Italy in the next century both Garibaldi (q.v.) and Mazzini (q.v.) were Masons. The modern, popular idea of Freemasonry as a vast, revolutional, revolutionary and anti-clerical conspiracy seems to have been born at this time, especially in France, where the Revolution was seen by many writers and thinkers as a huge Masonic Plot.
It probably wasn’t, and anyway Freemasonry continues today as a fraternal and charitable organisation except in Spain and France, where it is still seen as unpopular by the upper classes. Attempts to suppress it are frequent, and it has been suggested that Masonic loyalties take precedence over official duties, or regard for justice, especially where members serve in the armed forces or the police. An Anti-Masonic Party existed in the United States between 1827 and 1835. This happened because a former Mason was killed by other Masons when he said he would publish a book about Masonic secrets. After failing in the presidential elections of 1832 most of the former members joined the Whig Party, which is the ancestor of the Republican Party. Not to be left out, the Nazis banned Freemasonry in Germany in 1933.