Through Ambassador Waldegrave and other sources, Whitehall was aware that Charles Radcliffe, the titular Earl of Derwentwater (pictured above), a committed Jacobite, was engaged in securing support for the Stuart cause at the French Court. Derwentwater had fought for James Stuart in the 1715 Jacobite Rising. Captured, he had been tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death, but nonetheless escaped Newgate prison while awaiting execution.
The time and place of Derwentwater’s initiation into freemasonry is uncertain but he co-founded a Masonic lodge in Paris in around 1725 whose membership was drawn mainly from the exiled Jacobite community. He was later installed as Grand Master in France.
Historians take opposing views of Jacobite Freemasonry. Some argue that it functioned as a fraternal association for exiled Jacobite aristocrats and those having similar social status; others hold that it was a well-spring of Stuart conspiracies. It was both, and its members’ political views ranged across a spectrum from the overtly revolutionary to the more moderate. But despite many paying lip-service to the Stuart cause, only a minority were ever active insurgents and for many, if not most, loyalty to James Stuart ebbed and flowed.
Outwardly, French Freemasonry had a similar structure to that in England. One of its principal functions was to provide a forum for gentlemanly association and membership of the ‘right’ lodge validated one’s status in Society. Despite opposition from within the Catholic Church and government circles, freemasonry achieved traction within the French aristocracy and among the wealthy to the extent that in September 1737 the Daily Advertiser could report from its correspondent in Paris that
the Order of Freemasons lately established here meets with great success; everyone is desirous of being admitted a member, and numbers are daily taken in at the expence [sic] of ten Louis d’Ors each… There are nineteen lodges already constituted’. Indeed, according to the press, so successful was freemasonry that ‘the ladies are about to establish a counter order in imitation.
Where French freemasonry differed from its Anglo-Saxon counterpart was in its embrace of a more complex, theatrical, and quasi-spiritual chivalric ritual. This found adherents among the aristocracy and Court circles elsewhere in Europe, including the German states, Austria and Sweden, where it would later be transformed by Charles XIII into the Swedish Rite.
The launch point for chivalric freemasonry is frequently identified, rightly or wrongly, with the oration given at Derwentwater’s Paris lodge in December 1736 by Andrew Michael Ramsay: ‘Chevalier Ramsay’. Ramsay inflated the Craft’s lineage, tracing it back to Abraham, the Jewish patriarchs and ancient Egypt. He placed freemasonry within a medieval context, dating the origin of modern freemasonry to the Crusades when ‘many princes, lords and citizens associated themselves and vowed to restore the Temple of the Christians in the Holy Land, to employ themselves in bringing back their architecture to its first institution’.
Ramsay argued that the knight crusaders had ‘agreed upon several ancient signs and symbolic words drawn from the well of religion in order to recognize themselves amongst the heathen and Saracens’, and that ‘these signs and words were only communicated to those who promised solemnly, even sometimes at the foot of the altar, never to reveal them’. The Masonic promise was a ‘bond to unite Christians of all nationalities in one confraternity’ and the essence of Ramsay’s chivalric and muscular freemasonry was ‘after the example set by the Israelites when they erected the second Temple who, whilst they handled the trowel and mortar with one hand, in the other held the sword and buckler’.
Alongside praise for freemasonry’s chivalric and mediaeval origins, Ramsay contended that it epitomised all that was virtuous and Enlightened: a sense of humanity, good taste, fine wit, agreeable manners, and a true appreciation of the fine arts, science and religion. He advanced a holistic concept that appealed to Europe’s elites and validated their self-worth. Ramsay also posited that ‘the interests of the Brotherhood are those of mankind as a whole’ and that ‘the subjects of all kingdoms shall learn to cherish one another without renouncing their own country’. In common with Desaguliers, he saw freemasonry as a movement that could unite individuals ‘of all nations’ and actively proselytised it as such.
Ramsay’s oration was influential but one cannot ignore Europe’s long-standing infatuation with chivalric orders, something that dated back to the Crusades. Among many examples are the Knights Hospitallers (formed in 1099), the Order of Saint Lazarus (1100), the Knights Templars (1118), and the Teutonic Knights (1190). Ramsay’s approach pushed at an open door.
French Freemasonry emulated London’s Masonic lodges and had many shared norms. But Jacobitism was influential and the more elaborate ritual and greater religiosity slowly moved the two organisations apart. And there was another difference: the context in which the Lodges met. Britain’s constitutional structure allowed debate and balanced parliamentary and royal authority. In France, the crown lay at the centre of political power and its influence was nearly absolute.
Freemasonry in England was not a constitutional threat, rather the opposite. But in France it was perceived by the Catholic Church as a subversive if not heretical movement. It was an organisation whose leaders were openly elected, advanced deism as a central credo, and promoted the natural liberties, including justice. And freemasonry advocated a rational, analytical, fact-based approach to education, arguably the ultimate threat to an autocracy.
Ramsay’s oration and the imprimatur of France’s aristocratic and mercantile elites led to an influx of new members. And with Derwentwater as Grand Master in France, Britain was concerned that his lobbying on the Stuarts’ behalf might prove to be successful. After all, in England freemasonry had been reorganised to support the Hanoverians and the Duke of Richmond and Jean Theophilus Desaguliers had only two years earlier established lodges at Paris and Aubigny to promote a Hanoverian and Whiggist political agenda.