Situated between France and Germany, the ducal territory of Lorraine was strategically significant. Vienna saw it as a buffer that safeguarded Austria’s sphere of influence in the west and limited French territorial ambitions. France saw the duchy through the opposite side of the same prism. Lorraine had been occupied by France from 1669 until 1697, when the Treaty of Ryswick forced a French withdrawal. And although the then Duke of Lorraine was married to Elisabeth d’Orléans, the daughter of the Duke of Orléans, Louis XIV’s younger brother, and maintained a policy of good relations with France, he also had connections to the Habsburgs. The duke’s mother was Eleonora Maria Josefa, a daughter of Ferdinand III and half-sister to Leopold I, both Holy Roman Emperors.
Any change to this delicate balance of power would have consequences and an independent Lorraine or a Lorraine within the Habsburg’s circle of influence posed a threat to France that was deemed severe. Such a change soon occurred. Francis Stephen, the Duke of Lorraine’s eldest surviving son, was chosen by Charles VI, the Holy Roman Emperor, to be the consort of Maria Theresa, his daughter, and it was accepted across Europe that this would lead to his election and coronation as Holy Roman Emperor.
From a French standpoint, were Francis to marry Maria Theresa it would tie Lorraine to the Habsburgs, raise a barrier to French expansion, and presage a military threat that would bring Austrian influence to France’s borders. The prospect haunted French foreign policy for two decades and catalysed two pan-European conflicts: the 1733 War of the Polish Succession and the War of the Austrian Succession that followed in 1740.
Francis Stephen (pictured) succeeded as Duke of Lorraine in 1729 and was courted by France and other European powers, including Britain. His initiation into Freemasonry in 1731 by Desaguliers at the British ambassador’s residence at The Hague, and his raising a few months later at Houghton Hall, Prime Minister Walpole’s country estate, was designed to cultivate the duke as a potential ally and to cement a politically strategic relationship between Britain and Austria. London was tilting away from its past accord with Paris towards an alliance with Vienna and in this context the duke was the target of a government-sanctioned Masonic embrace, a soft diplomatic component of a broader political engagement.
Lorraine’s admission into English Freemasonry was a means to bind the duke more closely to the British political establishment. The Duke of Richmond’s involvement is particularly telling. Highly personable, fluent in French, and holding French and English titles in his own right, Richmond had been an exponent of political freemasonry for more than a decade. A former Grand Master, he was a member of the Duke of Lorraine’s retinue on his journey from London to Houghton Hall and was present at his Raising. Richmond also hosted him in London and later proposed the duke as a Fellow of the Royal Society.
The death of Augustus II, the Polish king, in 1735 triggered the War of the Polish Succession. France and Spain supported the claims of Louis XV’s father-in-law, Stanisław Leszczyński, as did much of the Polish aristocracy and Prussia. Austria and Russia favoured the Augustus, Prince Elector of Saxony, Augustus II’s only legitimate son.
With continental Europe in chaos and tens of thousands of troops engaged in Poland, the Rhineland and Italy, the British and Dutch attempted to intermediate to secure peace. A preliminary settlement was agreed and hostilities eventually ceased, with the settlement ratified with the Treaty of Vienna in 1738. But peace came at a high cost to the Habsburgs. Spain recovered its former possessions, Naples and Sicily, and France’s price for accepting Augustus III as the uncontested king of Poland was to gain control of the Duchy of Lorraine. The territory was ceded to Stanislaw Leszczyński on the basis that following his death it would revert to France, assuaging French concerns that Lorraine would join the Habsburg Empire.
Francis Stephen was compensated with the Duchy of Tuscany. His marriage to Maria Theresa took place in February 1736 but France and Spain’s acceptance of the 1735 peace accord did not translate into supporting his election as Holy Roman Emperor. That crown went instead to Charles Albert, Prince-Elector of Bavaria, the husband of Joseph I’s younger daughter. Charles Albert was crowned Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia and with French and Spanish backing reigned as Charles VII until his death in 1745. Only after the Treaty of Füssen in April 1745 was Francis Stephen elected to co-reign alongside Maria Theresa as Francis I.
Francis Stephen retained a commitment to freemasonry throughout his life and was later a member of Lodge Aux Trois Canons in Vienna. The lodge survived only briefly before being closed at Maria Theresa’s order. Although the Papal Bull was not in effect in Austria, Maria Theresa was turned against freemasonry by her Jesuit advisers who considered it subversive and under the influence of foreign governments. Given the circumstances of her husband’s initiation and raising, it can be argued that they had a point.
The sanctions against freemasonry in Austria were nonetheless short-lived and over the following decades with Francis I as Holy Roman Emperor, freemasonry became an extension of Austrian polite society and the number of lodges expanded. Freemasonry also took root more broadly in Europe, with lodges established in the Austrian Netherlands, Bohemia, Galicia, Bratislava, Hungary, and elsewhere. Many were exclusive and dominated by the nobility and the wealthy. Members of Lodge Zur Wohltätigkeit in Vienna, for example, included a prince, thirty-six counts, one marquis, fourteen barons, and more than forty court officials, aristocrats, and ambassadors.
The London press recorded the congratulations of the Grand Lodge of England to Francis Stephen on his wedding to Maria Theresa, noting that ‘the Duke of Lorraine, having been made a Freemason when in England, the Society has been pleas’d to send him their Compliments upon his Marriage with the Archduchess’. The Duke responded via his Masonic mentor, Desaguliers, and ‘the Rev Dr Desaguliers deliver’d to the Society a very obliging Answer, on behalf of his Royal Highness’.