The English Masonic Union of 1813: A Tale Antient & Modern


Freemasonry and Britishness

by Prof Andrew Prescott

I am writing just a few days after the spectacular opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. The eccentric and quirky ceremony produced by the Oscar winning film director Danny Boyle provided a distinctive view of British history, which embraced the Industrial Revolution and the National Health Service as well as more popular cultural references such as the Archers, Brookside and James Bond. At the very beginning of the ceremony Boyle paid tribute to the fact that Britain consists of a number of different nations by showing choirs from Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England singing songs associated with each of those countries (accompanied by shots of rugby tries by each of the home nations). Yet, although Boyle (an Irish catholic who studied at Bangor University in Wales) was careful in this way to point to wider ideas of Britishness, the opening words of the ceremony were from Shakespeare, who since the early nineteenth century has been promoted as an English bard, perhaps, it has been suggested, as a counterweight to the rise of Robert Burns as the national bard of Scotland. The first scene of the Olympic ceremony showed a bucolic landscape that looked as if it was lifted from Jane Austen and was also strongly English. This pastoral scene became transformed by the building of factories with smoking chimneys. Again, this was very much an English industrial revolution, directed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel rather than the Scot James Watt or the Crawshays of Merthyr.

Yet although the opening scenes of the ceremony reflected an English – perhaps northern English – view of Britain, subsequent scenes sought to articulate a more integrated narrative of Britishness. The National Health Service, created by one of the most charismatic Welsh politicians on a model drawn from Tredegar, and which the Scottish Nationalist leader Alex Salmon has recently portrayed as a bastion of distinctively Scottish values of fairness and collective provision, took centre stage in Boyle’s Olympic Ceremony as one of the greatest British social achievements. Likewise, the emphasis of the ceremony on the multi-cultural nature of modern Britain can be seen as reflecting the growth of an idea of Britain that consists not of that ‘Island Race’ about which Sir Winston Churchill wrote, but rather of many different linguistic, cultural and ethnic communities engaged in a complex process of rivalry, interchange and negotiation.

I was brought up in the late 1960s and early 1970s and was taught in English schools and university where a view of ‘British’ history prevailed which was essentially English history, in which the Welsh, Scottish and Irish only figured when they forced themselves onto the stage, usually in a warlike or truculent fashion. Such a narrowly national view of history created huge distortions. If the ‘English Civil War’ is seen simply as a struggle between a monarch claiming to rule by divine right and a parliament articulating new legal interpretations of state power, then the fundamental importance in this conflict of the religious struggles in Scotland and Ireland is completely ignored. Rather than the ‘English Civil War’, this was a war between three kingdoms, and in order to develop a rounded understanding of this event, we need to look at the dynamic between England, Scotland and Ireland. Likewise, it is impossible to grasp the dynamics of the British Empire without seeing it as the result of a complex and frequently tetchy joint effort between English, Scots, Welsh, Irish, Cornish and many other groups.

It is no coincidence that this new awareness of British history as a history of four nations took root as the British Empire was dismantled and Britain faced huge economic and political challenges. In the 1970s, as a bitter civil conflict raged in Ulster and as Scotland and Wales agitated for devolution, books and articles began to argue for new perspectives on British history. In a fundamental lecture given in 1973, the New Zealand historian John Pocock argued for the abandonment of separate national histories for England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and their replacement by narratives that examined the interplay between the different parts of the British Isles.[1] He proposed that it would be helpful to talk of the ‘Atlantic archipelago’ rather than the British Isles. Likewise, in an influential book published in 1975, Internal Colonialism, Michael Hechter argued that England was a colonial power which had conquered other parts of the British Isles. However, in 1976 John Le Patourel in The Norman Empire illustrated how the complex relationships between the various parts of the British Isles cannot be reduced to simple narratives by reminding us that the Channel Islands were a legacy of a colonial power which had conquered England, namely Normandy, and discussing how this offers new perspectives on our understanding of how the Norman Conquest affected Britain more widely.

These academic arguments about British identity fed strongly into more popular studies which influenced the debate about the future of Britain, such as Tom Nairn’s 1977 book, The Crisis of Britain: Break-Up and Neo-Nationalism. The pioneering work of scholars like Pocock and Hechter encouraged the appearance of new histories of the British Isles which sought to create a new ‘four nations’ narrative such as Hugh Kearney’s The British Isles: A History of Four Nations (1989) and Norman Davies’s The Isles (1999). The multiple levels of national myth became more evident through studies like The Invention of Tradition (1989), edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, which showed how many of the most celebrated national emblems such as Scottish kilt and tartans or the Welsh Druidic gorsedd were relatively late inventions. The idea of nationality as a social construct became very influential through such celebrated studies as Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983) and the way in which this interplay of new and constructed perspectives on levels of national identity could produce rich new perspectives is evident in Raphael Samuel’s spell-binding posthumous publication, Island Stories: Unravelling Britain (1998). The playful way in which Samuel explores the interplay of invention and ideas of nationality to illustrate how nations use their past to give meaning to their present and future. The way in which such new perspectives on the nature of British identity can give us fresh perspectives on many different aspects of British social history is evident from Samuel’s throwaway suggestions that one good way of examining the origins of Freemasonry might be to explore its similarities to the Welsh eisteddfodau or that Freemasonry, by giving greater social cohesion to Scottish urban life, helped encourage Scottish separatism.[2]

I tried, in my inaugural lecture for the Centre for Research into Freemasonry at the University of Sheffield in 2001, Freemasonry and the Problem of Britain,[3] to suggest that the issues surrounding the historical construction and subsequent unravelling of British identity provide an important context for analyzing and exploring the history of Freemasonry. I have also attempted to explore elsewhere the ways in which Freemasonry provides a useful test bed for investigating the ways in which national identity was constructed.[4] If the history of Freemasonry is going to have any significance or interest for the wider study of history, it is of vital importance that it is placed in the context of wider historical problems such as these. However, the rise of new forms of British history is not only important in providing analytical contexts for the study of Freemasonry. ‘Four kingdoms’ history reminds us that it is essential for British history to study the interactions between the various ethnic, cultural and linguistic communities inhabiting these islands on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. To study the history of the Welsh, Cornish, Scots, English, Manx or Norse separately and in isolation will always result in a partial and distorted view of history, whatever historical subject we are discussing. An old-fashioned nineteenth-century national straightjacket is an inadequate framework for developing a rounded and convincing interpretation of British Freemasonry.

The history of Freemasonry is generally written as a history of its component administrative units: of its lodges, provinces, grand lodges, chapters, supreme grand chapters and so on. This means that we are always presented with a fragmented view of Freemasonry. For example, I have argued that we cannot understand the emergence of the Mark Grand Lodge in 1856 without considering the disputes within the United Grand Lodge which were precipitated by the general political crisis caused by the poor conduct of the Crimean War.[5] Likewise, the increasing tension between the English Grand Lodge and the French Grand Orient in the 1870s was exacerbated by the activities in England of the Loge des Philadelphes, a group of French masonic exiles who met in London despite a prohibition of the Grand Lodge.[6] In short, we cannot analyse Freemasonry as a historical phenomenon by dividing it up into its administrative parts. We have to consider all aspects of the masonic phenomenon as a whole. In thinking about the Royal Arch at the end of the eighteenth century, it is just as important to investigate why the Ancient Order of Druids, formed in 1781, used the imagery and nomenclature of the Royal Arch as it is to investigate the records and history of the chapters of the Royal Arch associated with masonic orders.

This need for a holistic approach to the study of Freemasonry in Britain applies equally to the need to study the history of the Grand Lodges (and other masonic organisations) as a whole rather than as isolated units. Just as it is essential to study the history of this Atlantic archipelago as ‘four nations’ history, so likewise the history of Freemasonry must be considered as (at least) ‘three Grand Lodges’ history. It is for this reason that I particularly welcome John Belton’s stimulating, accessible and thought-provoking reappraisal of the relationship between the Premier Grand Lodge and the Ancients Grand Lodge in England and the circumstances which prompted their Union in 1813. Ever since Henry Sadler first revealed how the origins of the Ancients Grand Lodge lay in groups of Irish and Scottish freemasons who had moved to London and been excluded by lodges belonging to the Premier Grand Lodge, it has been evident that the story of the development of the Ancients Grand Lodge and its relations with the Premier Grand Lodge up to the Union in 1813 cannot be considered in isolation from the masonic history rest of Great Britain. John Belton is an indefatigable researcher into Freemasonry who delights in seeking out and exploring new and provocative perspectives on the study of Freemasonry. While John’s roots as a Freemason lie in the north-west of England, he has always enjoyed tasting the delights of Freemasonry in Ireland and Scotland, and John’s affection for the masonic traditions of these countries is evident throughout this book. John draws together into a diverting narrative the Celtic contexts of the creation of the Ancients Grand Lodge. He then goes on to show the importance of the Scottish and Irish dimensions in interpreting the history of Freemasonry in the second half of the eighteenth century and concludes by revealing how the context of the Union of 1813 cannot be divorced from masonic events in Ireland.

This is one of the first ever attempts to give a ‘four nations’ perspective on the history of Freemasonry, and John cannot be congratulated highly enough on making this attempt. We will never understand the history of Freemasonry in these islands unless we break out of the old national straitjackets, and John shows how simply glancing across the Irish Sea provides us with startling new perspectives. At one level, this simply illustrates how adopting a ‘four nations’ perspective gives us completely new insights into British history, as can be seen by looking at the work of some of the historians I have already mentioned such as J. G. A. Pocock and Raphael Samuel. However, the story described by John also reflects the way in which historians of Freemasonry have struggled to escape from the shadow of their illustrious predecessors such as Henry Sadler or William Hughan. It seemed perhaps that Sadler, in his Masonic Facts and Fictions (1887), by destroying the myth perpetrated by William Preston that the origins of the Ancients Grand Lodge lay in a schism from the Premier Grand Lodge had done his work too well and said everything there was to say. Yet, much of Sadler’s work reflected his attempts to draw together and organize the various records and documents that he found scattered around Freemasons’ Hall in London. He paid little attention to the records of other Grand Lodges and neglected non-masonic sources, such as newspapers. John Belton shows how, if we start to explore the records of other masonic jurisdictions and examine the splendid collections of eighteenth-century newspapers which are newly available on-line, we can move considerably beyond the picture presented by Sadler.

Remarkable pioneer of masonic historiography though he was, Henry Sadler was very much a man of his time. This is illustrated by his account of the reasons for the formation of the Ancients Grand Lodge, which he ascribed to Irish pride and passion in the face of snubs from the Premier Grand Lodge:

Does anyone at all familiar with the characteristics of an Irishman imagine that “Pat” would meekly submit to such treatment? If he does, I most decidedly do not. It seems to me much more likely that he would call some of his countrymen about him and open a lodge on his own account … One lodge would, of course, beget others, and so it probably went on until unconstituted Masonic lodges became the rallying points or centres of union of nearly all the Irish mechanics and labourers that came over to seek employment in the English metropolis.[7]


Sadler’s description of the way in which these Irish lodges were formed is quite vague. John Belton’s description of this process encourages us to revisit these events, and I very much hope that one of the results of John’s initiative in looking again at this story will be that new contexts for understanding the emergence of the Ancients Grand Lodge will emerge. It certainly seems that the process of the creation of the Ancients Grand Lodge was by no means without antagonism. In June 1750, the clergyman and hack writer John Entick preached a sermon in the church of St Mildred in the Poultry in London which was afterwards published as A Caution to Free and Accepted Masons.[8] Entick warned the masonic body against the dangers of backbiting, division and dispute, and urges them to remain a united body. Given the formation of the Ancients Grand Lodge a year later, it is difficult not to read Entick’s sermon as a warning against the behavior which gave rise to the formation of the Ancients Grand Lodge. Moreover, these tensions may well have had a political dimension. Entick himself was closely associated with the bookseller Jonathan Scott and the lawyer Arthur Beardmore, and from 1755 they were all associated in the writing and publication of the most notorious anti-government newspaper at the time of the Seven Years War, The Monitor. Indeed, Entick’s rooms were searched and papers seized by government agents because of his contributions to The Monitor, and Entick’s successful legal action against the government was seen as a landmark ruling in  the development of the freedom of the press. Entick, Scott and Beardmore were financed by mercantile factions in London, who were anxious to protect their interests in the West Indies. Entick, Scott and Beardmore seem to have sought to use the Premier Grand Lodge from at least 1754 as a vehicle for promoting the political interests of their masters, and these three men took charge of the process of revising the Book of Constitutions which eventually appeared under Entick’s name in 1756. It appears that wealthy London merchants with West Indian connections were seeking during the 1750s to use the Premier Grand Lodge as a vehicle to promote their political interests. This may perhaps explain Laurence Dermott’s jibe that in Modern lodges tylers would draw two sign posts with chalk, ‘writing Jamaica rum upon one, and Barbadoes rum upon the other’.[9]

While the Irish and Scottish contributions to the formation of the Ancients Grand Lodge are well known, less attention has been paid to the ‘four nations’ elements in the story of the Ancients Grand Lodge up to 1813, and it is in providing this context that John makes a fundamental contribution. In his important study of British Clubs and Societies, 1580-1800 (2000), the distinguished historian Peter Clark analysed the respective distribution of Moderns and Ancients Lodges. He suggested that the Ancients were far more successful than the Moderns in the emerging industrial towns of the North and Midlands, and emphasised the different social profile of their membership. However, while Clark briefly compared the distribution of lodges in England and Ireland, there was scope here for a more extended ‘four nations’ perspective. While Clark and others have linked the growth of Freemasonry in England in the eighteenth century to urbanization, it is striking that in Scotland and Ireland there was significant masonic activity in rural areas. Given the close links of the Ancients Grand Lodge to Ireland and Scotland, it is perhaps worth wondering why rural Freemasonry failed to develop in a similar fashion in England.

The complexities and anxieties generated by Irish Freemasonry were of fundamental importance in shaping the development of Freemasonry on the British mainland, as John Belton richly illustrates. The supreme flashpoint was of course the Irish Rebellion of 1798. The adoption of masonic methods of organization by the various United revolutionary groups at this time was seen by William Pitt’s government as a new and terrifying means of spreading social tumult and revolution – the late eighteenth-century equivalent of Al Qaeda. With their close links to Ireland and Scotland, the Ancients Grand Lodge felt particularly at risk of revolutionary infiltration.[10] Following a meeting of the English and Scottish Grand Lodges with Pitt, the Ancients suppressed all masonic meetings except scheduled lodge and chapter meetings and ordered that brethren should disperse as soon as lodges ceased to be tyled. Nevertheless, it was the Ancients who saved the day when, as the Unlawful Societies Bill made its way through parliament, there was a risk that the amendment allowing masonic lodges to continue meeting would be defeated on constitutional grounds, so that Freemasonry would be effectively outlawed. The Duke of Atholl, Grand Master of the Ancients and a former Grand Master Mason of Scotland, leapt to the breach with a vigorous speech in defence of Freemasonry which led to a new amendment being hastily cobbled together to allow Freemasons to continue meeting – possibly the high spot in the history of the Ancients Grand Lodge and a story which John Belton recounts with great verve.

The success of the Ancients in defending Freemasonry in this way perhaps rankled at Great Queen Street. In 1802, following the collapse of talks about Union between the two English Grand Lodges, pamphlets against the Ancients Grand Lodge were printed which included copies of a series of resolutions against the Ancients passed by the Premier Grand Lodge in 1777. Robert Leslie, the Grand Secretary of the Ancients wrote to the Master of a lodge in Peterborough:

I was wholly ignorant that the records in Queen Street contained any such personalities and reflections against His Grace the Duke of Atholl or so much rancour against our Grand Lodge. His Graces Conduct in Parliament when he recently and nobly defended the Principles of Ancient as well as Modern Masonry Merited no such New insult as the Republication and delivery of the above Letters: and if such Rancour remained upon the Records of the Grand Lodge in Queen St it ought then if not long before been blotted out or buried in oblivion.[11]

Leslie continued:

I bear no animosity to the very respectable Grand Lodge in Queen St but they have business enough of their own without any the least interference with our Grand Lodge. By the statement of their funds published 7 April last it appears their Fund of Charity was then exhausted and in debt to their Treasurer £50 18s 3d. Their Hall has been shut up some time with a very large accumulation of debt which all our Funds Resources and Inestimable Charities great and increasing as they are – in case of a Union – must in one moment be much alienated and for ever lost with ourselves without hardly affording them even a temporary relief. They have great resources and riches in themselves competent to redeem their funds and charities without intermeddling with our Grand Lodge or its concerns…

In Leslie’s view, then, the Ancients Grand Lodge was flourishing, and there was certainly no financial or other imperative which impelled them towards union with the Premier Grand Lodge. Union was only ever likely to have occurred because of overriding political anxieties at a time of great turmoil and disturbance, and this is the story which John Belton tells.

Before handing you over finally to John, one final reflection on the way in which the story of the two English Grand Lodges forms an aspect of ‘four nations’ history.  As I have mentioned, London (oddly) did not figure significantly in the new narrative of British history presented by Danny Boyle in the 2012 Olympics. Yet London is in a way at the heart of the ‘four nations’ dynamic. In the eighteenth century, Wales lacked any major city, and London provided the focus of urbanization for the Welsh population. Many Welsh people went to seek work and prosperity there and it became a major centre of Welsh language culture, leading to the formation of such Welsh fraternal organisations such as the Honourable Society of the Cymmrodorion (of which, as Susan Mitchell Sommers has recently shown, the celebrated English Freemason Thomas Dunckerley was a member) and to the first appearance on Primrose Hill of Iolo Morgannwg’s druidic fantasy, the Gorsedd of the Bards of the Isle of Britain. By contrast with Wales, Scotland possessed important and growing urban centres such as Edinburgh and Glasgow, but the role of London as a primary centre for credit made for a complex symbiosis between the mercantile classes in Scotland and London. An important Irish immigrant population had developed in London from the seventeenth century. London, in short, was a multi-cultural melting pot for Britain in the eighteenth century in much the way that it is today a multi-cultural expression of the remnants of the British Empire. In thinking about historical London, it is just as important to adopt a ‘four nations’ perspective as in looking at Britain more widely. This is nowhere better illustrated than in the story, so ably told by John Belton, of the Grand Lodge created by those Irish masons excluded and snubbed by their brethren and of the process which led to the Union of the two Grand Lodges two hundred years ago.


Andrew Prescott

31 July 2012









[1] J. G. A. Pocock, ‘British History: A Plea for a New Subject’, Journal of Modern History 47:4 (1975), pp. 601-621.


[2] R.Samuel, Island Stories: Unravelling Britain (London: Verso, 1998), p. 32.


[4] For example in ‘Inventing Symbols: the Case of the Stonemasons’ in Signs and Symbols: Proceedings of the 2006 Harlaxton Conference in Memory of Janet Backhouse ed. A. Payne and J. Cherry (Donington: Shaun Tyas, 2009), pp100-118.


[5] ‘Marking Well: Approaches to the History of Mark Masonry’ in Marking Well, ed. A. Prescott (Hinkley: Lewis Masonic, 2006), pp5-44.


[6] ‘”The Cause of Humanity”: Charles Bradlaugh and Freemasonry’, Ars Quatuor Coronatorum 116 (2003), pp15-64.


[7] Henry Sadler, Masonic Facts and Fictions (London: Diprose and Bateman, 1887), p127.


[8] For all of the following, see my entry on Entick, forthcoming in La Monde Maçonnique, ed. C. Revauger and C. Porset.


[9] Sadler, op. cit., p108.


[10] For the following, see my article ‘The Unlawful Societies Act of 1799’ in The Social Impact of Freemasonry on the Modern Western World, ed. M. D. J. Scanlan, The Canonbury Papers I (London: Canonbury Masonic Research Centre, 2002), pp116-134.


[11] R. Leslie to Worshipful Master and Wardens of Antients Lodge No. 160, 16 September 1802: Library and Museum of Freemasonry, Returns (SN 1600).