English Masonic Influence in France

Although French Freemasonry is commonly associated with Jacobitism, many French freemasons were Anglophiles who favoured the ‘natural liberties’ and Enlightenment philosophical concepts associated with constitutional government, English culture, and Newton’s rationalist science. The Duke of Richmond established English Lodges in Paris and at his country estate at Aubigny which were used to positive diplomatic effect. And other lodges in Paris also adopted English mores including Saint-Thomas du Louis d’Argent, Bussy-Aumont, and Villeroy-Coustos.

Established in around 1727 with an English charter granted in 1732, Louis d’Argent’s members were a combination of French aristocrats and reformist intellectuals, including Judge Davy de la Fautrière, Count Chauvelin, Jacques Pernetti and Jean Gresset, interested in Enlightenment ideas and Newtonian science. Lodge Bussy-Aumont, established some years later in 1736, was a similar aggregation of Enlightenment intellectuals and aristocrats, many of whom were affiliated with the military. The Master of the Lodge was an English painter, Louis Collins, with a membership that included the Duc d’Aumont (Louis XV’s First Gentleman of the Bedchamber), Abbé Le Camus (of the King’s Guards), and the Marquis de Calviere, who later founded lodges in Avignon and Languedoc. The lodges worked English Masonic ritual (albeit in French), and provided a forum for scientific and other lectures similar to those given in English lodges.

The initiation ceremony practiced in French Lodges was the subject of an exposure in the January 1738 edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine:

The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 8 (1738) p. 54
The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 8 (1738) p. 55.

With the election of officers and by-laws enacted on majority vote, a radical concept in Europe, the Lodges set a modest challenge to the monarch-centred institutions that characterised Louis XV’s France. From a British standpoint, such Lodges provided a route along which Britain’s Protestant politicians could bring open-minded French Catholics and others into their social and cultural milieu, creating a bridge across the religious divide and presenting progressive, reformist Catholics with a mechanism to understand the Enlightenment values and the social mores of Whig Britain. Importantly, the three Craft degrees underlined the Whiggish principles of natural liberty, justice and religious toleration.

But English Masonic lodges in France could also serve another purpose. With Jacobite freemasonry gaining traction, London sought to add to its intelligence gathering capability in Paris and within barely a month of Chevalier Ramsay’s Oration, John Coustos, a London Freemason, formed a French-speaking English lodge and initiated the Duc de Villeroy, one of Louis XV’s most senior courtiers.

Coustos (pictured), a jeweller, had moved to France a year or so earlier. He was a member of the Lodge at the Rainbow Coffee House in London and subsequently a founder of the Lodge at Prince Eugene’s Head. The Duc de Villeroy’s initiation gave Coustos’s Lodge status which was reflected in it being renamed ‘Villeroy-Coustos’, with Villeroy installed as Master on 17 February 1737 and Coustos his deputy.

Jacques Levine offers an interesting perspective on eighteenth-century French Freemasonry in his paper in AQC 104 (1991), as does an earlier paper on European Freemasonry by Tunbridge and Batham: AQC 83 (1970).