Freemasonry & the Military


VWBro Brig P R Sharpe PGSwdB


This article attempts to summarise the connection of the British Military and British Freemasonry during the formative years of both.  A co-incidence to the benefit of both organisation’s, that resulted in the expansion of British freemasonry worldwide along with the British Empire.   The period of focus is 1700 to 1900, that saw the British Empire rise to its zenith and freemasonry develop into what we would recognise today, entirely speculative or intellectual rather than its operative origins.  

The subject is covered in 4 parts:  the history of the Armed Forces during the period, the development of modern Freemasonry and then bringing them together into the story of the growth of Freemasonry within the military, concluding with a short explanation of military masonry at the present time.

History of the Armed Forces 1700 – 1900

Turning to the first part and military history through the period, the Army is pivotal, as its development during the 2 centuries, had the greatest part to play in the expansion of British Freemasonry.  While the Royal Navy was at the heart of the creation of the Empire Freemasonry was far less significant in this Service. 

The turn of the 18th century saw the re-establishment of a standing Army after the nation almost disbanded land forces post the English Civil War.  An insurgency at home caused a rapid reversal of the policy of parliament that resulted in the formation of the Life, Foot and Dragoon guards who were utterly loyal to the monarch.

The war of the Spanish Succession (1702 – 13) saw the first real test abroad of the post civil war Army.   The rise of John Churchill to become the Duke of Marlborough and his four great victories of Blenheim, Ramilies, Oudenard and Malplaquet established the British Army as a major fighting force in Europe.  The expansion of British interests in its fledgling colonies also became a major focus for military activity.   America, India and the West Indies began to call for garrisons of substantial troops.  The Army therefore began to shape itself around continental and colonial commitments.  The continental army fought along side coalition partners and both Marlborough in Europe and Wellington in the Peninsula 100 years later, commanded more foreign formations than British ones.   Both elements of the Army found themselves involved in the Seven Years war that had European, North American and Indian theatres of operation.  A distinction must be made between this Army and the home force of the militia, fencible regiments and yeomanry.   For the most part the home force focussed on policing type duties, counter insurgency tasks, and assisting revenue officers in preventing smuggling on the coast.  They did not serve overseas indeed, there were laws throughout the period that expressly forbad it.  

It is interesting to note that the reverse was not true, during the war of Austrian succession (1740 – 48) some British forces had to return from Europe to deal with the Jacobite rebellion of 1745.   The Seven Years War (1756 – 63) is one worth dwelling on due to its imperial importance with the resultant expansion of British interests in Canada, India and the West Indies.  This war saw the victories of Clive in India, and Wolfe, who in storming the heights of Abraham, gained Quebec from the French.  The post war treaty saw transfer of St Lucia, Grenada and Florida to British territories in West Indies.

11 years after the Seven Years War, the British Army found itself embroiled in the American War of Independence culminated in the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown. This defeat significantly dented the confidence of both the Nation and its Army.

Cornwallis moved to India and regained his reputation by effectively replacing the Mughal emperors with British rule and established a legal and governmental system that was to survive until 1947.   His period of governance ended in 1793 when he handed over to one Lord Arthur Wellesley who was to learn the art of campaigning by securing the Southern part of India in battles such as Seringapatam.    He mastered his trade, as we know from the successful Peninsula campaign of the Napoleonic Wars followed by his last and greatest victory at Waterloo.  

Throughout the 19th Century the Army continued to expand the existing colonies but if the previous century had India as its focus of expansion then it could be argued that Africa became the growth continent in this one.   South Africa, North and South Rhodesia, Tanganyika, Kenya, Egypt and the Sudan spring to mind.  The century ended with the Zulu and Boer Wars and it was during the latter that an ominous indication was given of the nature of war through modern weaponry and the attrition that it would inflict in the Great War.

Returning to Europe, one campaign was destined to change the Army forever.  The Crimean War attracted great criticism and the culprits were seen as the incompetence of Lord Raglan, his commanders and an inept staff, set against the extreme gallantry of the troops.   A top to bottom reform of the Army was called that resulted under Edward Cardwell the Secretary of State for War who, in 1868 unleashed a profound series of reforms.

A final word on the structure of the Army over the 200 years of interest is necessary as it was the regimental system that formed the basis for the formation of military Masonic lodges.  At the time of Marlborough regiments carried the name of their Colonels such as the Green and Buff Howard’s.  This caused huge confusion particularly if the name of the Colonel changed in battle as it often did.   Colonels regarded their regiments almost as private property and commissions were purchased, as were promotions until the Cardwell reforms after the Crimea.  The exception to the practice of naming regiments, were the Life, Foot and Dragoon Guards formed in the late 17th century who were ranked in order of precedence (1st 2nd etc).   The Foot guards were named much later as they are today Coldstream, Grenadiers and latterly Scots and Irish.  At this time another famous regiment of mercenaries was loaned to Britain by the Swedish King Gustav Adolphus, Le Regiment Hebron, and never returned.  They became First, The Royal or Scots Regiment. 

From 1751 all regiments were ranked in order of precedence 1st, 2nd to the 103rd of foot.  This was also applied to the Cavalry, the artillery whilst the militia and fencible regiments were called after the county they were based.   Cardwell changed this and set up a structure that focussed on the county regiment of one or more regular battalions and a home only service battalion formerly the militia.

The History of Freemasonry

Most historians concur that freemasonry, in its current form, probably developed as an adjunct from medieval stonemasons who, in the Middle Ages, formed operative stone masons guilds.  In those times master masons must have been like the quantum physist of today, respected in their society due to their skills in mathematics, mechanics who could read, write and draw.  There are some researchers the suggest that masons box clubs which emerged in the 14th century were the forerunner of the speculative or intellectual lodges that we would recognise.  As well as a guild it was also a social institution that would care for those masons who had lost work or were injured, paid for from the box into which members contributions formed the fund. 

Empirical evidence supporting the existence of non-operative or speculative lodges before the 18th century is hard to find, and theories vary from the plausible to the sensational.  A significant element of the literature that exists links freemasonry and the Knights Templar organisation.  It was a powerful military order that were not only expert at soldiering (to a level not seen since the Roman legions) but also superb castle and church builders and had skills were so advanced that some say they were responsible for the start of the Gothic period in Europe .  It also operated the world’s first bank from which they became exceeding wealthy and powerful.   As such they were seen as a threat to the Monarchy and on Friday the 13th October 1307 there were mass arrests of Knights followed by torture and death in most cases (hence the expression Friday the 13th).  Their assets were sequestrated and they were outlawed as an organisation but a large number managed to flee.  

Many settled in Scotland well away from the tentacles of the Pope bringing with them their traditions, culture and wealth. There is evidence to suggest as a reward for aiding Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn they re-established themselves around Edinburgh but with the understanding that they would adopt a low profile – maybe this is why freemasons place such an importance on secrecy  Perhaps the most compelling evidence are the carvings at Rosslyn Church just outside Edinburgh dated 1440 or thereabouts that seem to depict an initiation ceremony complete with hoodwinked candidate with a cable tow around his neck yet, intriguingly they seem to be dressed in Knights Templar uniform.  There is also strong evidence to suggest that stone masons guilds were flourishing at the same time – more so than in England.   By 1600 the Mother Lodge of Scotland Lodge Kilwinning No 0 existed which indicates that non-operative masonry was in practice at that time.  The migration of the Scots into Ireland and England over the next 100 years may well have been instrumental in the formation of non-operative masonry in those 2 countries. 

What is known with absolute certainty is that the Premier Grand Lodge of England was formed in 1717 and that the first grand masters were Scottish rather than English.  The first records of Speculative masonry in England concern the initiation of Elias Ashmole in 1646 in a non operative lodge, but little is known of Masonic development or activity in England until 1717.  From that point on the popularity of Freemasonry grew in Britain as well as around the world following in the wake of British settlers, merchants and particularly the military.   The first American Grand Lodge obtained its constitution in 1731, the Grand lodge of Pennsylvania thereby starting a huge growth in that continent.

However, the Premier Grand Lodge did not enjoy harmony and coherence, as it was beset by rivalry and poor leadership.   The ritual was significantly changed and many of the passwords altered so that it effectively barred Irish and Scottish as well as many Provincial masons.   A rival group started to form to counter what they saw as a corruption of the ritual and Masonic ideals and ultimately formed their own Grand Lodge of England nicknamed the ancients.   So, by 1751 there were 2 Grand Lodges in England – the Antients and the Premier Grand Lodge that became nicknamed the Moderns.  A period of bitter rivalry began with each grand lodge trying to outdo the other with ritual changes, establishment of additional degrees and poaching each others lodges.   One practice that was taken up by both grand lodges was the issuing of Warrants some 20 years behind the Irish and Scottish counterparts.  The granting of these was taken seriously to ensure that the Order attracted men of the right moral standing and social order.   The Premier Grand Lodge did not regard the military as acceptable, although lodges comprising officers only were considered.   The Moderns particularly viewed travelling warrants with some disdain and consequently did not issue them for many years, thereby making it impossible for regular army Masonic lodges to obtain Modern warrants, although the militia, garrisons and naval shore bases did operate immovable lodges under the modern constitution. 

Eventually, a compromise had to be negotiated between the 2 English Grand Lodges and on 27 December 1813 the United Grand Lodge of England.  It continued the practice of the Ancients of issuing warrants to the Armed Forces although by that stage most army regiments had already established lodges under the Irish and Scottish constitutions.

Masonry and the Armed Forces

There is evidence to suggest that the first senior military figures to become a mason were General Sir Alexander Hamilton and the Quarter Master General – General Sir Robert Moray were received into the Edinburgh lodge No 1 Scottish Constitution in 1641 and although Scottish soldiers, it took place on English soil at Newcastle upon Tyne.  This was some 5 years before Elias Ashmole was initiated in Warrington.   As said before, there is little information on developments in masonry in England between this time and the formation of Premier Grand Lodge.   Equally, regarding military masonry there is little to note until 1732.  Following the formation of the English grand lodge, the Irish Grand Lodge was inaugurated in 1725 and the Grand Lodge of Scotland came into existence in 1736.  Given the turmoil that existed in England, and that it was relatively easy to get a warrant under the Irish constitution, it is hardly surprising that Dublin was the first port of call for Army regiments that were on the move and wished to open a lodge. 

The 1st of foot (Royal Scots) petitioned the Grand Lodge of Ireland in 1732 and became the first regiment to gain warrant No 11 which was dated the 7th of November of that year.   This opened the floodgates and over the next 10 years Irish Warrants were granted to the following regiments of foot: 

17th (Leicestershire),  18th (Royal Irish), 19th (Green Howards), 20th Lancashire Fusiliers, 27th (Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers),  28th(Gloucestershire), 30th (East Lancashire), 32nd (Duke of Cornwalls Light Infantry), 33rd (West Riding (Duke of Wellington’s), 38th (South Staffords), and the 39th (Dorset).  

In 1747 the Grand Lodge of Scotland issued warrants to the 12th (Suffolk), 55th (2nd Border) and, interestingly a Cavalry Regiment 2nd (Scots Greys).  The first Ancient Warrant was issued in 1755 to the 57th of Foot (Middlesex Regiment).  Thereafter all 3 Grand Lodges issued hundreds of Warrants to the Infantry, Cavalry, Artillery and Militia although it is interesting to note that the Artillery was almost exclusively Antient.   In all some 581 ambulatory Warrants have been issued to the Armed Forces, the majority to the Army but some 4 warrants were issue to ship’s companies and the Royal Marines have lodges but are all immovable in garrisons.   There have been about 10 Royal Air Force warrants and about the same number to Combined Service Lodges but they were all conventional (static).

Mention the 4 shipboard lodges is warranted as they operated under the Modern’s due to a strange mandate to Thomas Dunkerly, a commissioned gunner.  Dunkerly had the authority to grant warrants from the Premier Grand Lodge and was responsible for establishing lodges on board HMS Vanguard in 1760.  In the same year, under this mandate,  he installed the first Provincial Grand Master of Canada at Quebec.   He also granted warrants to HMS Canceaux and HMS Guadaloupe in 1762.   There is only one other ship known to have had a warrant which was HMS Ardent that gained a warrant in 1810 under the Scottish constitution and formed the Naval Kilwinning Lodge.

During our period Regiments came and went as their nation stood them down after war only to resurrect them when in need.   Consequently, warrants also came and went, and in some cases there were more than one lodge in Regiments.  Regiments that settled for a long period on garrison duty often surrendered their warrants as travelling lodges and set up an immovable lodge, mostly under the overseas province in which they were garrisoned.    Life for regimental lodges was dictated by the fortunes of war not least of which was lodge members failing to return from the battles in which engaged.    The lodge chest or warrant could also become a casualty of war.  The lodge box of the 25th of Foot (KOSB) was lost in transit to Germany in the Austrian Succession War and a new one was consecrated at Berwick in 1763.   The Lodge of Social and Military Virtues (46th of  Foot (DCLI)) had its lodge box captured by the enemy in the American War of Independence and luckily, it was returned, under a flag of truce, by its commander – Bro George Washington.   The 22nd of Foot (Cheshire’s) lost its warrant in a skirmish with a Indian tribe in 1764.  At Gibraltar in the same year, the Spaniards captured the warrant of the 59th Foot (East Lancs).  In the Flanders campaign in 1794 to 95 the 6th Dragoon Guards and 38th Foot (South Staffords) lost theirs to the French.   Two Scottish Lodges lost their charters in action in the Seven Years War: the Scots Greys Killwinning and Masons Lodge and the 23rd of Foot (Royal Welch Fusiliers).  In 1812 the 2nd Battalion of the 59th of Foot (East Lancs) were in 2 troopships that were wrecked in a storm after which both the Battalion and its lodge chest ceased to exist.  

As the empire expanded so did the requirement to secure the appropriated lands through establishing garrisons.   This encouraged many travelling lodges to settle and there are many temples today that can trace their history back to regiments.  The artillery established lodges in Canada, India and Gibraltar.  There is evidence that 46th of Foot (DCLI), that lost its box in the American War of Independence, after 95 years of travelling settled in Canada and later became No 1 of the Grand Lodge of Quebec.  It had also been instrumental some years earlier in the establishment in Sydney of another Irish Lodge that survives today as Australian Social Lodge No 1 of New South Wales. 

Many Colonial Regiments that had British Officers and NCOs similarly established lodges under the Irish and Scottish Constitutions.   Most have long since disappeared but their history survives as in the West Indies with the Bermuda Garrison Lodge No 580 of Ireland.  Examples exist in India, Pakistan, Zambia, Kenya and South Africa.  

Perhaps the greatest example of this is the story of New York when 3 Antient Lodges were joined by several travelling lodges – 3 Antient, one Irish, one Scottish and another working under dispensation.   The Antient Grand Lodge of England therefore warranted a Provincial Grand Lodge of New York No 219 in 1781 and in 1784 it became the Grand Lodge of America about 9 months after independence. 

Military Masonry Today – Circuit of Service Lodges

There appear to be about 70 lodges in Britain that can currently be regarded as military lodges – 60 English, 2 Irish and 8 or so Scottish.  The term military means that they retain an ethos and culture of the Armed Forces of the Crown, which in practical terms means that about 60% of the membership, should be servicemen or veterans.  The two Irish military lodges are today also the last remaining travelling lodges. No 322 Lodge Glittering Star warranted in the 29th of Foot (Worcestershire’s and Sherwood Foresters) on  3rd May 1759 travels across the land during its Masonic year.  No 295 St Patrick’s is the last truly regimental lodge of the Royal Dragoons (fomrely the 4th/7th  Dragoon Guards.  During their recent operational tour in IRAQ they held 3 meetings in Basra.  There is also a Circuit of Service Lodges  which comprises 24 Lodges: 3 Naval,  11 Army (HAC, REME, R Sigs, RA, Special Forces, Airborne Forces, Middlesex Yeomanry, Imperial Yeomanry, RAMC, Infantry and RLC),  3 RAF  and 7 Combined Service.  It also has its own installed masters lodge – Victoria Rifles, which was a famous dying lodge, saved just in time for its 150th anniversary.  

List of British Military Lodges consecrated 1732 – 1932

(Copyright Ray Sheppard, 2005) Link to PDF document