A MAJOR UK EXHIBITION EXAMINES THE IMPACT OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION ON FREEMASONRY AT THE LIBRARY & MUSEUM OF FREEMASONRY Freemasons’ Hall, Great Queen Street, Covent Garden, London WC2B 5AZ
Wednesday 1st July to Friday 18th December 2009
The French Revolution which began in 1789 changed forever the relationship between freemasonry and the state. In England, freemasonry was non-political and the discussion of politics at Masonic meetings was forbidden (as continues to be the situation today) but after 1789 English freemasons had to deal with the consequences of revolutionary politics and Masonic lodges avoided closure only by agreeing to register lists of their members with local authorities. This remained a legal requirement until 1967 when the Labour Government, led by Harold Wilson, abolished the Unlawful Societies Act. Freemasonry had spread from Britain across continental Europe in the early 1700s and there freemasons were blamed for causing the Revolution and the subsequent political and social unrest which many countries experienced. The suspicion of freemasonry which arose at that time has had a long lasting impact on politics and society. The ‘Freemasonry and the French Revolution’ exhibition at the Library and Museum of Freemasonry at Freemasons’ Hall in London’s Covent Garden traces the impact of the Revolution on freemasonry in England and Europe. Freemasonry and the French Revolution runs from Wednesday 1st July to Friday 18th December 2009 and is free of charge to all visitors.
Before 1789 French Masonic lodges were often dominated by the aristocracy. After 1789 many aristocrats went into exile or died on the guillotine. Napoleon revived freemasonry and annexed it, as part of the machinery for the maintenance and dissemination of the Napoleonic cult, even though he himself never actually joined. Empress Josephine and both of his brothers, Joseph and Lucien, were freemasons. Publication of accounts of Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt touched the popular and Masonic imagination and
encouraged the use of Egyptian architecture and motifs in the decoration of Masonic aprons and documents. Examples of these will be on show together with French ceramics of the revolutionary period, including a double handled Sèvres porcelain cup and saucer and medals celebrating the role of Napoleon’s family and associates in freemasonry.
At the time when the Bastille prison was stormed by the Paris mob on 14th July 1789, English freemasonry was approaching a peak of respectability and prestige. The following year, the Prince of Wales, later King George IV, was elected Grand Master, having become a freemason in 1787. The Grand Lodge commissioned a ceremonial throne and two warden’s chairs, replete with Masonic symbolism, to be used in its new Freemasons’ Hall in central London. The London cabinet maker Robert Kennett charged £157 10s and took three months to complete the set in gilded limewood. It has taken 3 years at a cost of £100,000, to restore this enormous (3.25 metre) ornate throne, together with the other two chairs, to its former glory. Last used in 1992 and only brought out for very important ceremonial occasions, the complete set will be on display until Friday 18 September 2009 only.
France went to war to defend the Revolution. As a result of the land and sea battles against Britain, an estimated 120,000 French soldiers and sailors were brought to England as prisoners of war. Other objects and documents in the exhibition include the intricate miniatures and medallions, known as ‘jewels’, with Masonic symbols produced by them, elaborately crafted from bone, straw and any other scraps they could find, as well as documents and records relating to the lodges established by these prisoners of war in England.
1789 also saw the start of a publishing phenomenon – books about “secret societies” and conspiracy theories - which is one of the Revolution’s most lasting legacies. The display will draw on the Library and Museum’s extensive collection of such material.
Freemasons’ Hall in London has been the centre of English freemasonry for 230 years as the headquarters of the oldest Grand Lodge in the world. The first Hall had just been built when the Revolution broke out. The current Freemasons’ Hall, on the same site, is a magnificent Art Deco edifice which also houses the Library and Museum of Freemasonry, the venue for this latest exhibition ‘Freemasonry and the French Revolution’.
Exhibition dates: Wednesday 1st July - Friday 18th December 2009.
Exhibition free of charge to all visitors
Opening hours: Monday to Friday, 10am to 5pm. Museum closed at weekends.
The Library and Museum of Freemasonry, Freemasons’ Hall, Great Queen Street,
London, WC2B 5AZ
Visitor information: www.freemasonry.london.museum or 020 7395 9257
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NOTES TO EDITORS
Freemasonry is the largest secular, fraternal and charitable organisation in the UK and there are now between four and five million Freemasons around the world. Many significant individuals including kings, presidents and politicians, businessmen, writers, composers, educators, doctors, journalists were, and are, Freemasons.
The “secrets” of freemasonry are concerned with its traditional modes of recognition. It is not a secret society, since all members are free to acknowledge their membership and its constitutions and rules are available to the public. There is no secret about any of its aims and principles. Like many other societies, it regards some of its internal affairs as private matters for its members.
Freemasonry is non-political and the discussion of politics at Masonic meetings is forbidden. Freemasonry is practised under many independent Grand Lodges with standards similar to those set by the United Grand Lodge of England.
There are some Grand Lodges and other apparently Masonic bodies that do not meet these standards, e.g. that do not require a belief in a Supreme Being, or that allow or encourage their members as such to participate in political matters.
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