April 19, 2021

Secret Societies, Women, and their Ever-present Values

Secret Societies, Women, and their Ever-present Values

I have a lifelong passion for history, understanding institutional history and being curious. My conscious journey began with a Masters in Art focused on philanthropic studies at Indiana University at The Centre on  Philanthropy, now known as The IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, that is globally recognized as the 1st of its kind. 

During my masters my historical interests and research centered on secret societies and voluntary associations aligned around the period 1700-1900 in Bermuda.  A rich landscape for philanthropy, expansion of global business and charting family kinship ties opened up.

Freemasonry and Women

Contrary to popular belief and current practice, women were, at one time, very involved in Freemasonry lodges as members. Historian, Margaret C. Jacob wrote that this involvement occurred largely in France and, to a lesser degree, in the Netherlands in the 18th Century where women, particularly those whose husbands or close relatives were already Freemasons sought out the opportunity to put into practice the ideals of the Enlightenment: equality, liberty, and fraternity.

Freemasonry provided women with a meeting place where they might gain an understanding of the basic tenets of government, feel the ‘individualizing concept’ of friendship outside the immediate circle of relatives and near neighbors and stand with men on a more equal footing according to Jacobs. She adds that the interest in Freemasonry among the “new, government-service nobility, and particularly their wives’ activity in lodges of adoption, suggests that these ambitious women and men were building up a network of social connections and power within and between lodges.”

While all this activity around women forming or being allowed into French lodges was taking place, Masonic charitable initiatives were becoming increasingly directed toward the general public. Jacob describes this period, by the late 1780s, while noting that the tenor of the Enlightenment began to change from:

  • ideas to action,
  • philosophy to utility, and
  • philanthropy

Jacob goes on to opine that if the salonnieres and their philosophes were the intellectual leaders of the Enlightenment in philosophy. These women freemasons were leaders and models of the Enlightenment and philanthropy. Charity was at the heart of their work and their dogma.

Jacob substantiates the centrality of philanthropic activity in the women’s lodges in France with the following oration given by a member of the women’s lodge in Dijon:

“... to the extent that you can, you console the afflicted,

 you help the miserable, you nourish the indigent.

Even those who are not initiated into our mysteries

are the recipients of your charity;

and the special chain that links you to all your brothers

also attaches you to the great chain of humanity

which links you to everything that exists.”

This spirit of equality that allowed women to join lodges or create their own in France, did not extend at least publicly, to the British or Bermuda lodges. Women in these countries who were interested in philanthropic endeavors would have had to satisfy themselves with other avenues.  Or did they?

Freemasonry is a thread that is woven throughout the colorful and intricate fabric of the British Empire. Although women were not documented as Freemasons in Britain, the Empire, and then Commonwealth it does not mean they were not part of the secret societies in one manner or another.  It just means evidence has not come to the fore. 

Yet in plain sight we can see that Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and Queen Elizabeth, as heads of the Royal Family do play pivotal and powerful roles over the centuries in Freemasonry.

The Queen of the Empire: Queen Alexandria Victoria

 Personally, as the daughter, niece, mother and grandmother of Freemasons, Queen Victoria demonstrated the extensive ties to the largest voluntary association at that time. The Queen’s grandfather, Edward, Duke of Kent was a Freemason.  Victoria was an only child. Her father according to , John Daniels author of The Scarlet and the Beast, George III (1738-1820) was the last Grand Master of the ‘Ancients’ in England (1813).  When Queen Victoria’s father died she appointed herself as Royal Patroness of the Masonic Fraternity of the British Empire . 

Victoria’s eldest son Edward VII (1841-1910) in 1868 in Stockholm was initiated into Freemasonry by King Adolphus Frederick, who was the Grand Master of Sweden according to Daniels.  In 1875 Edward VII was the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England until 1901 when he was crowned King.

Queen Victoria was the head of a web that influenced economic hubs around the world. Her Majesty’s Britannic Navy sailed the world protecting her subjects in the pursuit of free trade. Travelling Masonic military lodges were on board naval vessels. Freemason lodges were seen as a school for democracy.  Lodges were useful tools for civilizing and controlling the colonies, and expanding international business networks.  These hives of capitalism were monitored through Her Majesty’s Britannic Navy and Masonic organizations.

Freemasonry served as a cultural network between the British Empire and its colonies. Freemasonry lodges were homes away from home for an immigrating or the globally mobile Mason, who could have found himself, for example, in Canada, Great Britain, Jamaica, India, New Zealand, Australia or the United States of America. The Royal Navy and Masonic lodges also provided a training ground for members of the royal family.

On receipt of the Masonic Diamond Jubilee Address at Osborne on the 2nd August 1887, Queen Victoria astutely commented that expansion of the Empire mirrored the proliferation of Masonic membership.

Daniels (2012) walked through history explaining that Queen Victoria’s sixtieth year of her reign and Diamond Jubilee were “celebrated even more grandly and widely” by their members because the Empire stretched over “even more of the terrestrial globe … and the number of lodges on the role of this Grand Lodge alone had grown from 646 in 1837 to 2,220 by 1897.”

Her Majesty was a patron of various Masonic charities.  In 1875, Queen Victoria appointed herself as Royal Patroness of the Masonic Fraternity in the British Empire that included the Royal Masonic Institution of Boys formed in 1798.  Eventually Queen Victoria became Chief Patroness in 1882 of the Royal Masonic Institution of Girls.

The Royal Masonic Institution of Girls was established in 1788 to “educate the daughters of indigent brethren” according to Harland-Jacobs.  Gould provides a deeper explanation for the forming of the Royal Masonic Institution for Girls:  “…for maintaining, clothing and educating the female children and orphans of indigent Brethren.”

As documented by Gould, at a Grand Lodge held on February 10, 1790, an annual subscription of £25 was voted to go to the Royal Masonic Institution for Girls and on a motion by the Grand Treasurer, it was resolved unanimously “as a Charity highly deserving this support.”  Milbourne explains the charity went even further, explaining that “the prime object…is support for the children of distressed or deceased Freemasons, the aim being to give them the start in life they would have received had distress not befallen their families.” Milbourne documents that “the second object is to provide help to children not connected to Masonic families and to support charities connected with children.”  Gould notes that “fifteen girls between the ages of 5 and 10 were admitted to a school in a rented house near Euston Station.  In 1795 a new, larger school was built at St. George’s Fields [in England] to accommodate 65 girls.”

Given that this institution was established as Harland-Jacobs writes, to “educate the daughters of indigent brethren” one does wonder why the initiative for females established in 1788 began a decade earlier than that of the boys?  Could it be that masonically educated women could assist the brethren and/or convert those in the colonies to the benefits of “fellowship in new environments, and secure employment and assistance when in need” as opined by Harland-Jacobs.  This strategy was definitely under full steam by the nineteenth century very much resembling an emigration program.

Royals in Training and Visits to Bermuda

During Queen Victoria’s reign according to Willock the “search for security was extended … commensurate with the changing needs of an extremely complex and diversified oceanic empire, based upon the principles of free trade …” The Victorian influence on trade and the training of Royals can be seen through Colonial visits. Queen Victoria’s children were her ambassadors demonstrating leadership training with royal visits not to mention the influence on international trade and tourism. With increased trade and continued interaction with Bermuda, the British came to realize that possession of the islands were the key to all the British Western Colonies. Bermuda historian Zuill noted it was written in the Royal Gazette (1827) that “if another country of any maritime strength controlled Bermuda, British trade would have been subjected too much annoyance, if not altogether stopped.”

Freemasons, opened networks and developed relationships with members of the British Royal Family, depended on Royal visits to Bermuda. In 1883, Bermuda tourism was given a major boost with the arrival of the daughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Louise (1848-1939).  The  photo included is of Princess Louise and hangs on the upper balcony of the Princess hotel. Again, she was the granddaughter, sister and cousin to Freemasons.  In the late 1880s Bermuda moved from being viewed as a ‘Pest hole’ to ‘Nature’s Fairyland’ according to McDowall and Duncan.   Much of this transformation may have borne from The Little Ice Age that occurred in the 1880s in North America and Climatotheraphy, opines Jean Groves. McDowall and Duncan wrote that Bermuda had a reputation for being “the land beyond icy grip of winter, a place of perpetual spring.”  

The then Governor, General John Henry Lefroy, may have been the one to tempt Princess Louise to visit, using his phrase “this green oasis in the desert of Atlantic waters.”  Her well-publicized visits helped to place Bermuda on the road to being a top tourism spot. The Island’s first waterfront hotel, the Princess, (1884) was named for Louise.   

On the upper-level balcony of the Princess Hotel, photographs of her earlier visits escaping the cold Canadian winter hang today in proud display with other memorabilia showing the hotel’s development from a wooden two story veranda building to the multi-storied luxury resort today. One photo caption capture’s the Princess’ enjoyment of her twelve week visit where she was recorded to have said:

 “My sojourn upon these islands, in that eternal spring

 ... among such ... genteel people, will,

 I assure you, be ever gratefully remembered by me.”

Due to the influence of these Bermudian families, the British Protectorate of Bermuda has stayed under the British flag. Bermudians of British lineage have long recognized the political and economic benefits of staying within the British Empire. Although the sun has long since set on the “Empire” Bermudians managed to combine the best of British and Bermudian intellectual capital to raise Bermuda to new economic heights by using the international web of Freemasonry and Knights Templar to the benefit of the colony and the motherland in the twenty-first century.

The Rule of Woman Royalty continues with Queen Elizabeth II who was crowned in 1952. She is the Grand Patroness of three Royal Masonic Benevolent Institutions among other roles.

Another example of women’s engagement is reference by John Daniels. He mentions Annie Besant who was the sister-in-law to Sir Walter Besant (1836-1901) an English novelist. She was a noted speaker at Masonic functions and known for her initiatives around birth control.  Annie Besant was a member of  population control Malthusian League

Although little is documented, this missive brings together women from French nobility, Queens of England and different walks of life showing different forms of engagement, influence, and impact.  Invisible, yet these women have been or are in plain sight.

Sources & Resources

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