Travelling military lodges – Irish, Scottish, English, and later those of other countries – played a seminal role in the spread of freemasonry. Robert Freke Gould, a former Master of QC Lodge, explored the subject in ‘Sea and Field Lodges’, chapter XXX of volume III of The History of Freemasonry (London, 1887), and again in Military Lodges, The Apron and the Sword (London, 1899); other authors have built on these works.
The first military warrant was granted to The First Battalion, Royal Scots, on 7 November 1732 by the Grand Lodge of Ireland; over the following decades the number of travelling warrants multiplied with charters issued by the Grand Lodges of Ireland, England (Antients and Moderns), Scotland, France, and U.S. State Grand Lodges, among others.
The French and Indian War (1754-1760) brought a number of British regiments to the American colonies under the command of Sir Jeffrey Amherst (1717-1797), later Lord Amherst, an avid freemason and protégé of Field Marshall Sir Jean (John) Ligonier, a Huguenot and one of Britain’s most eminent soldiers. Of the nineteen regiments that served under Amherst in 1760, eighteen had field lodges, ten of which were warranted by the Grand Lodge of Ireland. The exception was the 44th Foot, which chartered a lodge in 1784.
British regulars, officers and men, worked alongside American colonists in battle, military exercises, and in regimental field lodges, with freemasonry as much a part of colonial military life as it was in the British army. Field lodges provided a fraternal space for military sociability and Masonic ritual imbued values that resonated within America’s developing society, stirring idealism and promoting ideas associated with the Enlightenment.
The British military’s association with freemasonry can be traced back to the 1720s. Indeed, within the 3,000 or so names in the Registers of the Grand Lodge of England between 1723 and 1735, the army was represented by over 100 ranking officers, including two who were later Field Marshals, twenty-three colonels, eight majors, and fifty-six captains. The figure includes those freemasons whose military rank is specified in the Minutes or is otherwise known but excludes more than sixty aristocrats and baronets who commanded their own regiments and others of more junior rank or whose rank was not recorded.
Two compelling examples are Sir Adolphus Oughton (1684-1736) and Sir Robert Rich (1685–1768), members of the Duke of Richmond’s Horn Tavern Lodge.
Adolphus Oughton, later MP for Coventry, had served with Marlborough in Europe and was commissioned captain and lieutenant colonel in the 1st Regiment of Foot. He returned to England on the accession of George I and was appointed Groom of the Bedchamber to the Prince of Wales. In 1715, his political loyalty was rewarded with promotion to colonel and appointment as the first major of the Coldstream Guards. He became lieutenant colonel of the regiment two years later. His proximity to the Crown and to Sir Robert Walpole brought promotion to brigadier in 1735 and the colonelcy of the 8th Dragoon Guards from 1733-36. Oughton was also friends with Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his example may have been one of several factors in the latter’s decision to become a freemason.
Like Oughton, Robert Rich, successively MP for Dunwich (1715-22), Bere Alston (1724-27) and St Ives (1727-41), was a political supporter of Walpole and gained preferment accordingly as Groom of the Bedchamber to the Prince of Wales and to George II. Militarily, Rich was promoted colonel and given command of the 13th Hussars (1722-25), 8th Light Dragoons (1725-31) and the King’s Regiment of Carabiniers (1731-33), where he succeeded his fellow freemason and member of the Horn Tavern, Lord Delorraine.
Rich also commanded the 1st Troop Horse Grenadier Guards (1733-35), officers of which regiment were members of the Lodge meeting at the Mitre in Reading, the first Masonic Lodge formed in Berkshire. Rich was promoted brigadier general (1727), major general (1735) and lieutenant general (1739). In 1757 he became commander-in-chief and Field Marshal. The office of Field Marshal, the most senior rank in the army, was created in 1736. A predecessors was Viscount Cobham, appointed 1742, a member of the Lodge at the Queen’s Head, Bath.
Rich’s formidable military and Masonic connections were continued by his son, James, who commanded the 37th Foot at Minden in 1759. James was active in both English and Scottish Freemasonry. He became Provincial Grand Master of Minorca (English Constitution) in 1752 when stationed on the island, and joined Canongate Kilwinning lodge in Edinburgh after being posted to Scotland in 1754. He was Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Scotland (1769-71) while at the time serving as commander-in-chief of British forces in Scotland.
Notwithstanding what was later an extensive presence, there are relatively few studies of the impact and extent of freemasonry within the British military in the eighteenth century other than Gould’s Military Lodges. Peter Clark in British Clubs and Societies deals with the military aspects of freemasonry in passing, noting that ‘for the middle ranks [on leave in London], a large array of military lodges appeared from the 1750s to keep tedium at bay’. Clark recognised the contribution of freemasonry in the military and the importance of colonial freemasonry, commenting that ‘many military lodges played a significant role in the colonies by admitting local civilians to the order’.