Charles-Louis, Baron Montesquieu

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689-1755), is generally known simply as ‘Montesquieu’. A jurist and judge, he was a writer and political philosopher who developed the principle of the separation of constitutional powers, a radical concept in a Europe dominated by autocratic monarchies. Montesquieu held the title of President de le Parlement de Bourdeaux, a hereditary legal office broadly equivalent to a member of a regional Court of Appeal. A member of the French Academy of Sciences (elected 1728), his family had been courtiers in France for over a century.

Montesquieu’s association with English Freemasonry began with an introduction to Earl Waldegrave, a prominent English freemason and later Britain’s ambassador to France, when the latter was in Paris, and the two became close friends. In 1728 Montesquieu accompanied Waldegrave on the first part of his journey to Vienna, where Waldegrave was to take up the post of ambassador. They travelled via The Hague where Waldegrave introduced Montesquieu to Lord Chesterfield, Britain’s ambassador to the Low Countries, who invited Montesquieu to London. Montesquieu stayed in London for some two years, was presented at Court, elected FRS, and in 1730 was initiated into freemasonry at the Horn Tavern lodge.

Montesquieu’s progressive political and social views (he was married to a Protestant), authorship of the satirical Lettres Persanes, and stance on the separation of powers within government, marked him out as a potentially useful political ally for Britain in its quest to influence the French aristocracy and Louis XV’s court circles. The lodge provided a discrete forum for conversation and the attraction freemasonry held for Montesquieu is evident in the initiation of his son, Jean Baptiste Secondat de Montesquieu, by the Duke of Richmond and Desaguliers in Paris in September 1734, and in his personal correspondence with Richmond.