The key to understanding eighteenth-century English Freemasonry (and Modern Freemasonry) is an appreciation of the context. It explains why over barely a decade English Freemasonry was remoulded to become a predominantly pro-Hanoverian organisation promoting Enlightenment values.
Freemasonry’s leadership was influenced by several factors, among them the Jacobite threat to the Hanoverian succession; persecution by France of its Protestant Huguenot minority, and a sea-change in intellectual thought.
It has been argued that the fear of Protestant persecution should a Catholic monarch be crowned in England was misplaced and that the Pretender, James Stuart, would have favoured religious toleration and ruled in accord with his father, James II’s Declaration of Indulgence. But while this is a possibility, it is more reasonable to believe that James would have found it difficult to disregard the influence of his main supporters, France and Spain, both of which continued to persecute their non-Catholic subjects. Britain’s Whig establishment and émigré Huguenot community feared with some justification that a Jacobite rebellion and Stuart restoration would lead to religious persecution and the wholesale demolition of their political, social and financial capital.
The 1723 Constitutions were written against this backdrop. British politics had shifted following the English Civil War and the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. James II had been removed and replaced with William and Mary, who placed parliamentary rule at the heart of government and embraced the idea of a constitutional monarchy. Nonetheless, the death of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs who had succeeded William and Mary, and the accession of George I, created constitutional instability and a large minority in Britain claimed that the throne should have gone to James, Anne’s half-brother and closest relative, albeit that as a Catholic he had been barred from the throne by the Act of Settlement, which restricted Britain’s monarchs to Protestants alone.
In the early decades of the eighteenth century, Britain was beginning to embrace revolutionary ideas in agriculture, mining, manufacturing and finance, and commencing a climb towards the foothills of an industrial revolution. With the benefit of relatively peaceful relations with Europe, international trade and economic growth accelerated and over the following half-century London would be cemented in place at the centre of an international trading empire. Protecting prosperity became a central political objective for successive governments and was linked inextricably to safeguarding constitutional government and the Enlightenment beliefs that sustained it.
Freemasonry was part of this project from the early 1720s. Rather than remain a low-key forum for fraternal sociability, the Grand Lodge of England emerged at the leading edge of eighteenth-century Society with Freemasonry becoming a vector for the Enlightenment in several of its different guises.