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THE ROYAL SOCIETY AND THE FREEMASONS

The Society, the House of Stuart, and Freemasonry

The hypothesis that Freemasonry was instituted in the 17th century and in the reign of Charles II, by a set of philosophers and scientists who organized it under the title of the "Royal Society," is the last of those theories which attempts to connect the Masonic Order with the House of Stuart that we will have to investigate.

The theory was first advanced by an anonymous writer in the German Mercury, a Masonic journal published about the close of the last century at Weimar, and edited by the celebrated Christopher Martin Wieland. In this article, the writer says that Dr. John Wilkins one of the most learned men of his time, and the brother-in-law of Oliver Cromwell, becoming discontented with the administration of Richard Cromwell, his son and successor, began to devise the means of re-establishing the royal authority.

With this view, he suggested the idea of organizing a society or club, in which, under the pretense of cultivating the sciences the partisans of the king might meet together with entire freedom.

General Monk, and several other military men, who had scarcely more learning than would enable them to write their names, were members of this academy. Their meetings were always begun with a learned lecture, for the sake of form, but the conversation afterward turned upon politics and the interests of the king.

And, this politico-philosophical club, which subsequently assumed, after the Restoration, the title of the " Royal Society of Sciences," he asserts to have been the origin of the fraternity of Freemasons. We have already had abundant reason to see, in the formation of Masonic theories, what little respect has been paid by their framers to the contradictory facts of history nor does the present hypothesis afford any exception to the general rule of dogmatic assumption and unfounded assertion.

Christopher Frederick Nicolai, a learned bookseller of Berlin, wrote and published, in 1783, an Essay on the Accusations made against the Order of Knights Templar and their Mystery with an appendix on the Origin of the Fraternity of Freemasons.[i]

In this work, he vigorously attacks the theory of the anonymous writer in Wieland's Mercury, and the reasons on which he grounds his dissent are well chosen but they do not cover the whole ground. Unfortunately, Nicolai had a theory of his own to foster, which also in a certain way connects Freemasonry with the real founders of the Royal Society, and the impugnment of the hypothesis of Wieland's contribution in its whole extent impugns also his own.

Two negatives in most languages are equivalent to an affirmative, but nowhere are two fictions resolvable into a truth. The arguments of Nicolai against the Wieland theory are, however, worth citation, before we examine his own. He says that Wilkins could scarcely have been discontented with the government of Richard Cromwell, since it was equally as advantageous to him as that of his father. He was, and he quotes Wood in the Athena Oxonienses as his authority, much opposed to the court, and was a zealous Puritan before the rebellion. In 1648, he was made the Master of Wadham College, in the place of a royalist who had been removed.

In 1649, after the decapitation of Charles I, he joined the republican party and took the oath of allegiance to the Commonwealth. In 1656, he married the sister of Cromwell, and under Richard received the valuable appointment of Master of Trinity College, which, however, he lost upon the restoration of the monarchy in the following year. Nicolai says:

Is it credible that this man could have instituted a society for the purpose of advancing the restoration of the king; a society all of whose members were of the opposite party? The celebrated Dr. Goddard, who was one of the most distinguished members, was the physician and favorite of Cromwell, whom, after the death of the King, he attended in his campaigns in Ireland and Scotland.

It is an extraordinary assertion that a discontent with the administration of Richard Cromwell should have given rise in 1658 to a society which was instituted in 1646. It is not less extraordinary that this society should have held its meetings in a tavern. It is very certain that in those days of somber Puritanism the few taverns to be found in London could not have been used as places of meeting for associations consisting of men of all conditions, as is now the custom.

There would have been much imprudence in thus exposing secret deliberations on an affair equally dangerous and important to the inspection of all the spies who might be congregated in a tavern.

He asserts that the first meetings of the society were held at the house of Dr. Goddard and of another member, and afterward at Cheapside and at Gresham College. And these facts are proved by the records of the society, as published by its Annalists.

As to the statement that Monk was one of the members of the society - a fact that would be important in strengthening the theory that it was organized by the friends of the monarchy and with a design of advancing its restoration - he shows the impossibility that it could be correct, because Monk was a prisoner in the Tower from 1643 until 1647, and after his release in that year spent only a month in London, not again visiting that city till 1659, when he returned at the head of an army and was engaged in the arrangement of such delicate affairs and was so narrowly watched that it is not possible to be behaved that with his well-known caution he would have taken part in any sort of political society whatever, while the society would have acted very inconsiderately in admitting into its ranks military men who could scarcely write, and that too at a time when distrust had risen to its height.

But a better proof than any advanced by Nicolai, that Monk had nothing to do with the establishment of the Royal Society, whatever may have been its object, is that his name does not appear upon the list of original or early members, taken from the official records and published by Dr. Thompson in his history of the society.

Finally, Nicolai asserts very truthfully that its subsequent history has shown that this society was really engaged in scientific pursuits, and that politics were altogether banished from its conferences. But he also contends, but with less accuracy, that the political principles of its members were opposed to the restoration of the monarchy, for which statement there is no positive authority.

Hence, Nicolai concludes that:

There is no truth in the statements of the anonymous writer in Wieland's Mercury, except that the restoration was opposed in secret by a certain society.

And now he advances his own theory, no less untenable than the one he is opposing, that this society:

… was the Freemasons, who had nothing in common with the other, except the date of foundation, and whose views in literature as well as in politics were of an entirely opposite character.

This was the theory of Nicolai - not that Freemasonry originated in the Royal Society, but that it was established by certain learned men who sought to advance the experimental philosophy which had just been introduced by Bacon. But, the same idea was sought by the originators of the Royal Society, and as many of the founders of this school were also among the founders of the Royal Society, it seems difficult to separate the two theories so as to make of each a distinct and independent existence.

But, it will be better to let the Berlin bookseller explain his doctrine in his own language, before an attempt is made to apply to it the canons of criticism. He commences by asserting that one of the effects of the labors of Andrea and the other Rosicrucians was the application of a wholesome, criticism to the examination of philosophical and scientific subjects. He thinks even that the Fama Fraternitatis, the great work of Andrea, had first suggested to Bacon the notion of his immortal work on The Advancement of Learning.

At the same time in which Bacon flourished and taught his inductive philosophy, the Rosicrucians had introduced a system of philosophy which was established on the phenomena of nature. Lord Bacon had cultivated these views in his book De Augmentis Scientiarum, except that he rejected the Rosicrucian method of esoteric instruction.

Everything that he taught was to be open and exoteric. Therefore, as he had written his great work in the Latin language, for the use of the learned, he now composed his New Atlantis in English, that all classes might be able to read it. In this work is contained his celebrated romance of the House of Solomon, which Nicolai thinks may have had its influence in originating the society of Freemasons.

In this fictitious tale, Bacon supposes that a vessel lands on an unknown island, called Bensalem, over which in days of yore a certain King Solomon reigned. This King had a large establishment, which was called the House of Solomon or the College of the Six Days' Work, in allusion to the six days of the Mosaic account of the creation. He afterward describes the immense apparatus which was there employed in physical researches.

There were deep grottoes and tall bowers for the observation of the phenomena of nature; artificial mineral-waters; huge buildings in which meteors, the wind, rain, and thunder and lightning were imitated; extensive botanic gardens, and large fields in which all kinds of animals were collected for the study of their instinct and habits, and houses filled with all the wonders of nature and art.

There were also a great number of learned men, to whom the direction of these things was entrusted. They made journeys into foreign countries, and observations on what they saw. They wrote, they collected, they determined results, and deliberated together as to what was proper to be published. This romance, says Nicolai, which was in accord with the prevailing taste of the age, contributed far more to spread the views of Bacon on the observation of nature than his more learned and profound work had been able to do.

The House of Solomon attracted the attention of everybody. King Charles I was anxious to establish something like it, but was prevented by the civil wars. Nevertheless, this great idea, associated with that of the Rosicrucians, continued to powerfully agitate the minds of the learned men of that period, who now began to be persuaded of the necessity of experimental knowledge.

Accordingly, in 1646, a society of learned men was established, all of whom were of Bacon's opinion, that philosophy and the physical sciences should be placed within the reach of all thinking minds. They held meetings at which - believing that instruction in physics was to be sought by a mutual communication of ideas - they made many scientific experiments in common.

Among these men were: John Wallis, John Wilkins, Jonathan Goddard, Samuel Foster, Francis Glisson, and many others; all of whom were, fourteen years afterward, the founders of the Royal Society. But, proceedings like these were not congenial with the intellectual condition of England at that period. A melancholy and somber spirit had overshadowed religion, and a mystical theology, almost Gnostic in its character had infected the best minds.

Devotion had passed into enthusiasm and that into fanaticism, and sanguinary wars and revolutions were the result. It was then that such skillful hypocrites as Cromwell and Breton took advantage of this weakness for the purpose of concealing and advancing their own designs. The taint of this dark and sad character is met with in all the science, the philosophy, and even in the oratory and poetry of the period. Astrology and Theurgy were then in all their glory. Chemistry, which took the place of experimental science, was as obscure as every other species of learning, and its facts were enveloped in the allegories of the Alchemists and the Rosicrucians.

A few learned men, disheartened by this obscuration of intellectual light, had organized a society in 1646; but as they were still imbued with a remnant of the popular prejudice, they were the partisans of the esoteric method of instruction, and did not believe that human knowledge should be exoterically taught so as to become accessible to all. Hence their society became a secret one.

The first members of this society were, says Nicolai, Elias Ashmole, the celebrated antiquary; William Lilly, a famous astrologer; Thomas Wharton, a physician; George Wharton; William Oughtred, a mathematician; Dr. John Hewitt, and Dr. John Pearson, both clergymen, and several others. The annual festival of the Astrologers gave rise to this association. It had previously held one meeting at Warrington, in Lancashire, but it was first firmly established at London. Its object was to build the House of Solomon in a literal sense but the establishment was to remain as secret as the island of Bensalem in Bacon's New Atlantis. That is, they were to be engaged in the study of nature, but the instructions were to remain within the society in an esoteric form. In other words, it was to be a secret society.

Allegories were used by these philosophers to express their ideas. First, were the ancient columns of Hermes, by which Jamblichus pretended that he had enlightened all the doubts of Porphyry. You then mounted, by several steps, to a checkered floor divided into four regions, to denote the four superior sciences, after which came the types of the six days, which expressed the object of the society. All of which was intended to teach the doctrines that God created the world and preserves it by fixed principles, and that he who seeks to know these principles, by an investigation of the interior of nature, approximates to God and obtains from His grace the power of commanding nature.

This, says Nicolai, was the essence of the mystical and alchemical doctrine of the age, so that we may conclude that the society which he has been describing was in reality an association of alchemists, or rather of astrologers.

In these allegories, for which Nicolai may have been indebted to the alchemical writings of that period, to which he refers, or for which he may have drawn on his own imagination. We are uncertain which, as he sees no authorities, we may plainly detect Masonic symbols, such as the pillars of the porch of the Temple, the mystical ladder of steps, and the mosaic pavement, and thus it is that he seems to find an analogy between Freemasonry and the secret society that he has been describing. He still further pursues the hypothesis of their identity in the following remarks:

It is known that all who have the right of citizenship in London, whatever may be their rank or condition, must be recognized as members of some company or corporation. But it is always easy for a man of quality or of letters to gain admission into one of these companies. Now, several members of the society that has just been described were also members of the Company of Masons. This was the reason of their holding their meetings at Masons' Hall, in Masons' Alley, Basinghall Street. They all entered the company and assumed the name of Free and Accepted Masons, adopting, besides, all its external marks of distinction.

Free is the title which every member of this body assumes in England; the right or franchise is called Freedom. The brethren call themselves Freemen - Accepted means, in this place, that this private society had been accepted or incorporated into that of the Masons, and thus it was that chance gave birth to that denomination of Freemasons which afterward became so famous, although it is possible that some allusion may also have been intended to the building of the House of Solomon, an allegory with which they were also familiar.

Hence, according to the theory of Nicolai, two famous associations, each of a character peculiar to itself, were at the same period indebted to the same cause for their existence. These were the Royal Society and the Freemasonry. He says:

Both had the same object and the difference in their proceedings arose only from a difference in some of the opinions of their members. The one society had adopted as its maxim that the knowledge of nature and of natural science should be indiscriminately communicated to all classes of men, while the other contended that the secrets of nature should be restricted to a small number of chosen recipients.

The former body, which was the Royal Society, therefore held open meetings; the latter, which was the Society of Freemasons, enveloped its transactions in mystery.

"In those days," says Nicolai, " the Freemasons were altogether devoted to the King and opposed to the Parliament, and they soon occupied themselves at their meetings in devising the means of sustaining the royal cause.”

After the death of Charles I, in 1649, the Royalists becoming still more closely united, and, fearing to be known as such, they joined the assemblies of the Freemasons for the purpose of concealing their own identity, and the good intentions of that society being well known many persons of rank were admitted into it. But as the objects which occupied their attention were no other than to diminish the number of the partisans of Parliament, and to prepare the way for the restoration of Charles II to the throne, it would have been very imprudent to communicate to all Freemasonry without exception, the measures which they deemed it expedient to take, and which required an inviolable secrecy. Accordingly, they adopted the method of selecting a certain number of their members, who met in secret, and this committee, which had nothing at all to do with the House of Solomon, selected allegories, which had no relation to the former ones, but which were very appropriate to their design.

These new Masons took Death for their symbol. They lamented the death of their master, Charles I; they nursed the hope of vengeance on his murderers; they sought to re-establish the Word, or his son, Charles II, for they applied to him the word Logos, which, in its theological sense, means both the Word and the Son; and the queen, Henrietta Maria, the relict of Charles I., being thenceforth the head of the party, they designated themselves the Widow's Sons.

They agreed also upon private signs and modes of recognition, by which the friends of the royal cause might be able to distinguish each other from their enemies. This precaution was of great utility to those who traveled, and especially to those of them who retired with the court to Holland, where, being surrounded by the spies of the Commonwealth, it was necessary to be exceedingly diligent in guarding their secret.

Nicolai then proceeds to show how, after the death of Oliver Cromwell and the abdication of his son Richard, the administration of affairs fell into the hands of the chiefs of various parties, whence resulted confusion and dissensions, which tended to render the cause of the monarchy still more popular. The generals of the army were, however, still opposed to any notion of a restoration and the hopes of the royalists centered upon General Monk, who commanded the army in Scotland, and who, it was known, had begun to look favorably on propositions which he had received in 1659 from the exiled King.

It then became necessary to bind their secret committee still more closely, that they might treat of Scottish affairs in reference to the interests of the King. They selected new allegories, which symbolized the critical state to which they were reduced, and the virtues, such as prudence, pliancy, and courage, which were necessary to success.

They selected a new device and a new sign, and in their meetings, spoke allegorically of taking care, in that wavering and uncertain condition of falling, lest the arms should be broken.

It is probable that, in this last and otherwise incomprehensible sentence, Nicolai refers to some of the changes made in the High Degrees, fabricated about the middle of the 18th century, but whose invention he incorrectly, but like most Masonic historians of his day, attributes to an earlier date.

 As some elucidation of what he says respecting the fact of failing and the broken arm, we find Nicolai afterward quoting a small dictionary which he says appeared about the beginning of the 18th century, and in which we meet with the following definition:

Mason's Wound: An imaginary wound above the elbow, to represent a fracture of the arm occasioned by a fall from an elevated place.

Nicolai says:

This is the authentic history of the origin of the Society of Freemasons, and of the first changes that it underwent, changes which transformed it from an esoteric society of natural philosophers into an association of good patriots and loyal subjects; and hence it was that it subsequently took the name of the Royal Art as applied to Masonry.

He concludes by affirming that the Society of Freemasons continued to assemble after the Restoration, in 1660, and even made, in 1663, several regulations for its preservation, but the zeal of its members was diminished by the changes which science and manners underwent during the reign of Charles II. Its political character ceased by the advent of the king, and its esoteric method of teaching the natural sciences must have been greatly interrupted.

The Royal Society, whose method had been exoteric and open, and from whose conferences politics were excluded, although its members were, in principle, opposed to the Restoration, had a more successful progress, and was joined by many of the Freemasons, the most prominent of whom was Elias Ashmole, who, Nicolai says, changed his opinions and became a member of the Royal Society.

But, to prevent its dissolution, the Society of Freemasons made several changes in its constitution, so as to give it a specific design. This was undertaken and the symbols of the Society were altered so as to substitute the Temple of Solomon in the place of Bacon's House of Solomon, as a more appropriate allegory to express the character of the new institution.

Nicolai thinks that the building of St. Paul's Church and the persecutions endured by Sir Christopher Wren may have contributed to the selection of these new symbols. But on this point, he does not insist. Such is the theory of Nicolai.

Rejecting the idea that the origin of the Order of Freemasonry is to be traced to the founders of the Royal Society, he claims to have found it in a society of contemporaneous philosophers who met at Masons' Hall, in Basinghall Street, and assumed the name of Free and Accepted Masons, and who, claiming, in opposition to the views of the members of the Royal Society, that all s6ences should be communicated esoterically, therefore held their meetings in secret, their real object there for being to nourish a political conspiracy for the advancement of the cause of the monarchy and the restoration of the exiled King.

Nicolai does not expressly mention the Astrologers, but it is very evident that he alludes to them as the so-called philosophers who originated this secret society, and to them, therefore, he attributes the invention of the Masonic system, as it now exists, after the necessary changes which policy and the vicissitudes of the times had induced.

Nicholas de Bonneville, the author of the essay entitled The Jesuits chased out of Freemasonry, entertained a similar opinion. He says that, in 1646, a society of Rosicrucians was formed at London, modeled on the ideas of the New Atlantis of Bacon.

It assembled in Masons' Hall, where Ashmole and other Rosicrucians modified the formula of reception of the Operative Masons, which had consisted only of a few ceremonies used by craftsmen, and substituted a mode of initiation founded in part on the mysteries of Ancient Egypt and Greece. They, then fabricated the first degree of Masonry as we now have it, and, to distinguish themselves from common Masons, called themselves Freemasons.

Thory cites this without comment in his Acta Latomorum, and gives it as a part of the authentic annals of the Order. But ingenious and plausible as are these views, both of Nicolai and Bonneville, they unfortunately cannot withstand the touchstone of all truth, the proofs of authentic history. It will be seen that we have two hypotheses to investigate.

First that advanced by the contributor to Wieland's Mercury, that the Society of Freemasons was originated by the founders of the Royal Society, and that maintained by Nicolai and Bonneville, that it owes its invention to the Astrologers who were contemporary with these founders. Both hypotheses place the date of the invention in the same year, 1646, and give London as the place of the invention.

We must first direct our attention to the theory which maintains that the Royal Society was the origin of Freemasonry, and that the founders of that academy were the establishers of the Society of Freemasons.

This theory, first advanced, apparently, by the anonymous contributor to Wieland's Mercury, was exploded by Nicolai, in the arguments heretofore quoted, but something may be added to increase the strength of what he has said. We have the explicit testimony of all the historians of that institution that it was not at all connected with the political contests of the day, and that it was founded only as a means of pursuing philosophical and scientific inquiries.

Dr. Thompson, who derives his information from the early records of the society, says that:

It was established for the express purpose of advancing experimental philosophy, and that its foundation was laid during the time of the civil wars and was owing to the accidental association of several learned men who took no part in the disturbances which agitated Great Britain.[ii]

He adds that:

About the year 1645, several ingenious men who resided in London and were interested in the progress of mathematics and natural philosophy agreed to meet once a week to discourse upon subjects connected with these sciences. These meetings were suspended after the resignation of Richard Cromwell, but revived in 1660, upon the Restoration.[iii]

They met at first in private rooms, but afterward in Gresham College and then in Arundel House. Their earliest code of laws shows that their conferences were not in secret, but open to properly introduced visitors, as they still continue to be. Weld, the librarian of the society, says that to it "attaches the renown of having from its foundation applied itself with untiring zeal and energy to the great objects of its institution."

He states that, although the society was not chartered until 1660, " there is no doubt that a society of learned men were in the habit of assembling together to discuss scientific subjects for many years previous to that time." [iv]

Spratt, in his history of the society, says that in the gloomy season of the civil wars they had selected natural philosophy as their private diversion, and that at their meetings " they chiefly attended to some particular trials in Chemistry or Mechanics."

The testimony of Robert Boyle, Wallis, and Evelyn, contemporaries of the founders, is to the same effect, that the society was simply philosophical in its character and without any political design Dr. Wallis, who was one of the original founders, makes this statement concerning the origin and objects of the society in his Account of some Passages in my own Life:[v]

About the year 1645, while I lived in London (at a time when, by our civil wars, academic studies were much interrupted in both our Universities), besides the conversation of divers eminent divines, as to matters theological, I had the opportunity of being acquainted with divers worthy persons inquisitive into natural philosophy and other paths of human learning, and particularly what has been called the New Philosophy or Experimental Philosophy. We did, by agreements, divers of us meet weekly in London on a certain day to treat and discourse of such affairs.

Wallis says that the subjects pursued by them related to physics, astronomy, and natural philosophy, such as the circulation of the blood, the Copernican system, the Torricellian experiment, etc.

In all these authentic accounts of the object of the society there is not the slightest allusion to it as a secret organization, nor any mention of a form of initiation, but only a reception by the unanimous vote of the members, which reception, as laid down in the bylaws consisted merely in the president taking the newly elected candidate by the found and saluting him as a member or fellow of the society. The fact is that at that period many similar societies had been instituted in different countries of Europe, such as the Academia del Corriento at Florence and the Academy of Sciences at Paris, whose members, like those of the Royal Society of London, devoted themselves to the development of science.

This encouragement of scientific pursuits may be principally attributed to many circumstances that followed the revival of learning; the advent of Greeks into Western Europe, imbued with Grecian literature; Bacon's new system of philosophy, which alone was enough to awaken the intellects of all thinking men; and the labors of Galileo and his disciples.

All these had prepared many minds for the pursuit of philosophy by experimental and inductive methods, which took the place of the superstitious dogmas of preceding ages.

It was through such influences as these, wholly unconnected with any religious or political aspirations, that the founders of the Royal Society were induced to hold their meetings and to cultivate without the restraints of secrecy their philosophical labors, which culminated in 1660 in the incorporation of an institution of learned men which at this day holds the most honored and prominent place among the learned societies of the world.


[i] "Versuch uber die Besschuldigungen, welche dem Tempelherrn orden gemacht worden und uber dessen Geheimniss; nebst einem Anhange uber das Enstehen der Freimaurergesellschaft," Berlin and Stettin, 1783.

[ii] "History of the Royal Society," by Thomas Thompson, M.D., F.R.S., LL.D. London, 1812, p. 1.

[iii] "History of the Royal Society," by Thomas Thompson, M.D., F.R.S., LL.D., London, 1812, p.1.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] In Hearne's edition of Langsteff's chronicle.

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