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by Dr ANDREW PRESCOTT
IOLO MORGANWG AND FREEMASONRY
In March 1765, that mordant and acerbic observer of South Welsh life, the schoolmaster and clerk William Thomas of Michaelston-super-Ely, described in his diary an unusual event in the small town of Cowbridge: ‘The first of this month was held at the Bear in Cowbridge, the Society of Free Masons, being in all about 24, and went to Cowbridge Church by two and two, in their white aprons, with their trowels, hammers, and other instruments as belong to masonry, according to their rank in the fraternity, and had a sermon preached them by the Revd. Mr John Williams of the Breach [Farm] in Cowbridge … A great crowd admiring and looking at the sight, being the like never seen before’.
It is possible that among the crowd watching this exotic event was the young Iolo Morganwg, whose home at Flemingston was not far from Cowbridge. Certainly, Iolo would have heard about the procession and knew many of those who took part in it. The suggestion that Iolo in establishing the gorsedd was himself creating a form of freemasonry and that, even if he was not himself a freemason, his bardic vision was profoundly influenced by freemasonry was first made in Iolo’s lifetime and has been repeated ever since. Freemasonry and the other fraternal orders which were such a marked feature of British town life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries remain under-investigated and poorly-understood phenomena, as exotic today as they were to William Thomas. This afternoon, I should like to discuss the fraternal context of Iolo’s bardic vision and consider how far Iolo drew on the traditions of freemasonry or other fraternal orders. I would also like to examine the other side of the coin, and consider the influence of Iolo’s inventions on the fraternal orders of nineteenth-century Britain, and the ways in which these societies helped make Iolo’s ‘castles in the air’ more widely known outside Wales.
Freemasonry derived from the guild and craft organisations formed by working stonemasons. Iolo frequently described himself as a ‘freestone mason’, that is to say a mason who could carve decorations and figures in soft freestone, and the term freemason is simply a contraction of freestone mason. By the fifteenth century, English stonemasons had developed an elaborate legendary history which claimed that the craft had been established by the sons of noblemen in ancient Egypt and introduced to Britain by St Alban. It was also alleged that the Anglo-Saxon King Athelstan had given masons a charter allowing them to hold their own assemblies, a claim still believed by some modern freemasons. The first steps by which modern freemasonry emerged from the medieval guilds occurred in Scotland at the end of the sixteenth century. The Master of the King’s Works, William Schaw, reformed the organisation of stonemasons, establishing regular meetings of masons in lodges which were organised on a territorial basis and kept minutes. Within the lodges, rituals were performed which taught members the legendary history of the craft. In the course of the rituals, secret passwords and signs were taught to the initiate, which enabled him to establish his credentials when visiting other lodges and indicated the level of knowledge he had attained. During the seventeenth century, in order to maintain their financial viability, the Scottish masonic lodges increasingly admitted members who were not working stonemasons. Many of these honorary masons, such as the royalist army officer and antiquary Sir Robert Moray, became fascinated with the esoteric knowledge apparently possessed by the stonemasons.
In England, the organisation of stonemasons remained more ad hoc, but the legendary histories handed down from the medieval masons were widely transmitted in documents known as the ‘Old Charges’ and as in Scotland non-masons were admitted to lodge meetings. In 1643, Elias Ashmole, the founder of the Ashmolean Museum, was initiated in a lodge in Warrington in Cheshire. The London Company of Masons had a special group of co-opted masons of this type, known as the Acception, which Ashmole afterwards joined. In 1717, four London lodges met at the Goose and Gridiron Tavern near St Paul’s Cathedral (intriguingly the same tavern where the Cymmrodorion was founded thirty four years later) and established the first Grand Lodge, electing the most senior member of the company as Grand Master. The new Grand Lodge quickly attracted interest from many nobles and intellectuals, such as John Theophilus Desaguliers, a Huguenot refugee who was a close associate of Sir Isaac Newton and who as Curator of the Royal Society was an influential populariser of Newton’s work. In 1721, the eccentric Whig dilettante, John, 2nd Duke of Montagu, became the first noble Master of the Grand Lodge. The Grand Lodge issued a Book of Constitutions containing a fantastic elaboration of the legendary history of the craft, compiled by the presbyterian minister James Anderson and published by the prominent scientific publisher John Senex. The rituals were reformed and elaborated in order to provide moral and philosophical education, and during the 1720s rituals were introduced which told the story of the murder of Hiram Abiff, the mason who had supposedly built Solomon’s Temple.
Freemasonry became a social craze, attracting members ranging from William Hogarth to the Prince of Wales, who was initiated by Desaguliers in 1737. The new Grand Lodge insisted that it alone could authorise the formation of new lodges. By 1755, over 450 lodges had been warranted throughout England and Wales. In Wales, a lodge was established in Carmarthen in 1724, just seven years after the creation of the Grand Lodge. The first Provincial Grand Masters for North and South Wales were appointed in 1727, among the earliest references to this office. The success of the new Grand Lodge created problems, however. Irish and Scottish masons in London found that they had been effectively barred from lodges because of the changes introduced by the new Grand Lodge. In 1751, they founded a rival Grand Lodge, called the Ancients Grand Lodge, which also quickly became very popular, and over 350 Ancients Lodges were established before the two Grand Lodges were finally reconciled in 1813 to form the present United Grand Lodge of England (still emphatically ‘of England’, even though it covers Wales, which merely forms three masonic provinces).
Freemasonry was such a popular social activity in the eighteenth century that special warrants were issued to soldiers allowing them to hold lodges which travelled with the regiment. As these military lodges moved from country to country, they initiated local residents, who then established permanent lodges in their towns. By such means, freemasonry spread rapidly through the British Empire, from India to North America. British merchants, travellers and diplomats also spread freemasonry through continental Europe. This process was assisted and complicated by the fact that many Jacobite exiles had become freemasons in Britain and took their freemasonry into exile with them, where they sought to develop a form of freemasonry which was less explicitly Whig and Hanoverian than that associated with the London Grand Lodge. It has been estimated that by the time of the French Revolution there were about 100,000 freemasons in Europe. Freemasonry was one of the major vehicles by which such Enlightenment ideals as fraternity, tolerance, philanthropy and the pursuit of reason had been spread through Europe and beyond. Freemasonry claimed to be a society in which men of all races and religions could meet in common contemplation of a ‘Great Architect of the Universe’. Such an outlook had already by the middle of the eighteenth century led to Catholic accusations that it was promoting deism, and very quickly after 1789 it was claimed that freemasonry had helped pave the way for the French Revolution and that masonic orders had been the hidden hand behind the revolution. Freemasonry was outlawed in a number of European countries. British freemasons loudly protested their loyalty to King and country, and freemasonry escaped the restrictions imposed in 1799 on meetings behind closed doors by societies administering oaths, providing that the membership of lodges was registered with the clerk of the peace.
The 1799 legislation can be seen as perhaps the first stage in the process whereby freemasonry became a pillar of the Victorian middle classes. During the nineteenth century, freemasonry continued to go from strength to strength and remained the largest fraternal organisation in the English-speaking world, a position which it retains. It became, together with public schools, gothic architecture and organised games, one of the cultural bonds which held together the British Empire. Indeed, freemasonry can be seen as one of the social movements of British origin which has had the biggest international impact. Yet curiously the history of freemasonry has been largely neglected by British historians. As long ago as 1969, Professor John Roberts published an article in the English Historical Review, ‘Freemasonry: the Possibilities of a Neglected Topic’, in which he contrasted the situation in countries such as France and Spain, where freemasonry was the subject of intensive professional scholarly investigation, with Britain, where most masonic research is undertaken by amateur scholars, and tends to be very inward-looking and antiquarian. Although there have been some important studies since Roberts wrote, most notably by Margaret Jacob, David Stevenson and Peter Clark, the history of freemasonry still tends to be regarded by most British historians as a marginal, even slightly embarrassing, subject, and no distinctive historiographical debate or tradition has been established.
A major exception to this, however, is Wales. In 1979, Phillip Jenkins published an important and provocative article in the Welsh History Review, ‘Jacobites and Freemasons in Eighteenth-Century Wales’. Jenkins noted the importance of social clubs such as the Society of Sea Sergeants in sustaining High Tory organisation and sentiments among the Welsh gentry up to the 1750s. He pointed out that, following the decline of the Sea Sergeants, there was an upsurge in the formation of masonic lodges in Wales, and that many of these were in old Tory centres, such as Holywell, Wynnstay, Monmouth and Swansea. He suggested that there may have been overlaps of membership between the Sea Sergeants and the masonic lodges, and that the masonic lodges preserved some of the older political traditions. Moreover, Jenkins argued that the more widely-based membership of the masonic lodges encouraged the transformation of the older Jacobite form of political opposition into new channels of dissent. At first, this was expressed in support for Wilkes (who was initiated into a masonic lodge in London). Eventually, in Jenkins’s view, this tradition of opposition transmuted into a radical Jacobinism, with Welsh freemasons for example taking the lead in the campaign to undermine the hold of the Duke of Beaufort over parliamentary representation in Glamorgan. Jenkins declares that the ‘poet laureate’ of this movement was Iolo Morganwg. Jenkins notes that Iolo was ‘a stonemason by occupation, but it is not clear whether he also followed the speculative side of the craft’.
While Jenkins convincingly illustrates the wider historical potential offered by the study of freemasonry, he was unfortunately writing at a time when the membership registers and archives of the United Grand Lodge were closed to outsiders. This situation has now changed, and it is possible to examine the membership records of the lodges discussed by Jenkins. Unfortunately, they do not bear out his thesis. Most of the Welsh lodges were short-lived and attracted limited support from the local population. Thus, the lodge at Holywell was established in 1761, but within nine years had fallen badly behind with its subscription and was defunct by 1787. As far as can be established, the masonic lodge in Holywell was patronised chiefly by visitors taking water treatment at the spa. Similarly short-lived was the lodge established at Wynnstay in 1771, which Jenkins sees as particularly significant because it was the seat of the powerful Tory landowners, the Williams Wynn family. However, the freemasons’ lodge at Wynnstay was established by the 4th Baronet who, in contrast to his famously backwards Tory father, was a man of fashion and culture. He was fond of music and dramatic performances, a member of the Dilletanti Society, and a friend of Garrick (a freemason) who stayed at Wynnstay. The 4th Baronet built a theatre at Wynnstay, and it seems that the masonic lodge was, like the theatre, an amenity for those who came to enjoy Wynnstay’s celebrated hospitality. It did not long survive the 4th Baronet’s death, being erased by 1790.
Even where it is possible to see some link between the development of masonic lodges and broader political concerns, it is by no means clear that the lodge played the sort of role that Jenkins suggests. The Beaufort Lodge in Swansea was established in 1769, but only began to flourish after Gabriel Jeffreys took over as Master the following year. Jeffreys was a member of the town council and afterwards served as portreeve. He was clerk to the board for the improvement of Swansea Harbour. Jeffreys’ interest in the lodge was clearly connected to his concern with town improvements, and he sought to build a masonic hall at Swansea which would rival any in the kingdom. It is therefore tempting to connect the development of the masonic lodge with the campaign protesting at the Duke of Beaufort’s unwillingness to support town improvements. This culminated in the election of Thomas Wyndham as MP against the wishes of the Duke, and indeed Wyndham became a member of the Beaufort lodge. However, Wyndham only joined the lodge three years after his election, and throughout its existence the lodge struggled to recruit new members, relying chiefly on members initiated elsewhere. This makes it difficult to see the lodge as a cradle of the reform movement in the town. By 1795, the lodge was virtually defunct, and the revival of freemasonry in Swansea after 1800 was the work of freemasons from outside Wales who felt that this busy port should have an active masonic lodge.
This picture appears time and time again in the history of freemasonry in eighteenth-century Wales. Lodges briefly flourish then as rapidly disappear again. At a time when freemasonry was spreading like wildfire across Europe, Wales was one country where it failed to take hold. George Bowen, the London painter who sought to revive freemasonry in Swansea in 1800, wrote to the Grand Lodge of London complaining of the difficulty of conducting a lodge without the support of the experienced officers normally found in English lodges. Likewise, Benjamin Plummer, a London merchant who engaged in an energetic campaign to establish freemasonry more firmly in Wales between 1807 and 1815 described how when he started his work ‘there were but two lodges, one of them in Swansea, which was very thinly attended, and the other at Brecon in a dormant state’. Plummer was to establish eight Ancients lodges in Welsh towns, and initiated over two hundred masons. Again, Jenkins cites the lodges established by Plummer as evidence of a connection between freemasonry and radical movements in Wales, a point also made by Gwyn Williams, but there is little indication of any radical connection in the membership of these lodges, and their establishment seems rather to reflect the personal ambition of Plummer to create his own masonic jurisdiction in Wales, an aspiration in which he was ultimately unsuccessful. After Plummer withdrew from the scene, many of the lodges he had created collapsed, and those which survived struggled to maintain their membership. Throughout the eighteenth century and up until about 1840, freemasonry in Wales was a sickly English implant. The reasons for this are not entirely clear. The close connection between freemasonry and Anglicanism and the apparent non-conformist suspicion of freemasonry may be one reason. The modest scale of urbanisation in Wales may be a further explanation. Language was probably another. Freemasons conducted their meetings in English; friendly societies which permitted the use of Welsh flourished.
Jenkins’s thesis that a freemasonry derived from old Jacobite groupings underpinned the development of radical movements in Wales from 1789 onwards was enthusiastically taken up by Gwyn Williams. In his Search for New Beulah, Williams declares of the Welsh Jacobinism of the 1790s that ‘Freemasonry and Unitarianism run as underground currents throughout this first phase in the recreation of the Welsh’, a comment repeated in his book on the Madoc myth. In this way, Williams placed freemasonry at the heart of the development of a Welsh national identity. However, the evidence offered by Williams in support of this elevated claim is flimsy. He does not discuss freemasonry in Wales at all. He cites a letter using masonic imagery written by William Arundel, a frontier merchant in Canada, to John Evans while Evans was engaged in his search for the Welsh Indians. However, this does not establish that Evans himself was a freemason, and in any case, like many other travellers at that time, he may have joined the fraternity in America after he left Wales. Williams also refers to the establishment of a masonic lodge in the Welsh settlement at Beula in Pennsylvania and to the donation of land to build a masonic hall there. However, there is a mystery about the Beula lodge. There is no record of it in the archives of the grand lodges in Britain or America, and it cannot be found that the founders of it were ever masons. Any link of the Beula masons to international freemasonry was therefore very tenuous. The fact that the Pennsylvania Grand Lodge has no record of the Beula lodge suggests that it was short-lived and small. Indeed, the masonic hall may never have been built.
For both Jenkins and Williams, the pivotal figure in any relationship between freemasonry and Welsh radicalism in the 1790s was Iolo Morganwg. Immediately after emphasising the importance of freemasonry and unitarianism in his books on Beula and Madoc, Williams declares that ‘the instincts which found expression in Druidism, masonry and unitarianism could cohere around a half-acceptance of Iolo. Intimations of his creed could begin to shape a half-formed ideology around which a new Welsh intelligensia could unite in common action’. This hints that Iolo was a freemason, without explicitly saying that he was. In the light of the analyses of Jenkins and Williams, the question of Iolo’s relationship to freemasonry assumes an importance beyond its influence on the creation of the gorsedd. It is central to our understanding of the roots of the whole Welsh radical movement of the 1790s.
Iolo was certainly a working stonemason – an operative mason as opposed to the ‘speculative’ freemasons. How far as an operative mason would he have been aware of the traditions associated with freemasonry? The relationship between working stonemasons and freemasonry at this time is a difficult area. As has been seen, freemasonry derived from the traditions of working masons, but the freemasonry which emerged in England in the first half of the eighteenth century would have been unrecognisable to men like those who initiated Elias Ashmole. Nevertheless, freemasonry still retained a substantial artisan and craft membership, and included many working stonemasons. In Scotland, working stonemasons exerted considerable influence on organised freemasonry up to the end of the nineteenth century. Although English freemasonry was governed by members of the nobility and middle class, there were still a number of ‘operative’ lodges consisting largely of stonemasons until the middle of the nineteenth century, particularly in the north of England. The precise character of these lodges is unclear, but there are hints that some at least used the older and more extended form of ritual known as the Harodim which was the source of many later masonic rituals. Apart from these organised lodges, there are indications that working stonemasons retained some simple form of ceremony of initiation until relatively recently. A working stonemason may also have had some acquaintance with the traditions recorded in the ‘Old Charges’. Unfortunately, we have no information as to how far these traditions prevailed among Welsh stonemasons. All indications are that these traditions were strongest in Scotland and the north of England. Nevertheless, it seems a reasonable assumption that Iolo’s father may have passed on to his son some of the traditions recorded in the ‘Old Charges’ or even the Harodim. Indeed, it may have been essential for Iolo to have known these secrets to prove his credentials when he was seeking work as a mason in London, Kent and elsewhere. Williams claims that Iolo referred to the ‘secret books’ of the freemasons and, in doing so, Iolo may have been thinking of the ‘Old Charges’ or Harodim.
Iolo would have found many aspects of these stonemason traditions very much to his taste. They claimed to show how ancient legends and secrets could be transmitted by oral tradition. Possibly some of the passwords may have purported, like some of those in speculative freemasonry, to represent the ineffable name. They suggested that even ordinary craftsmen could be the heir to ancient truths. However, no matter how far Iolo was aware of these operative traditions, they would not have given him access to the networks of speculative freemasonry associated with the Grand Lodges. They would not have admitted him to the Cowbridge masonic lodge or to any of the masonic lodges in the inns he visited in London. It is tempting to see in other aspects of Iolo’s thought an awareness of speculative freemasonry. The ‘Old Charges’ present a traditional Christian view of God, but Iolo’s view of God as a generalised supreme being seems to recall the ‘Great Architect of the Universe’ of speculative freemasonry. However, Iolo’s view of God may reflect the unitarianism of the later part of his life rather than an awareness of freemasonry. There was a strong link between unitarianism and freemasonry and many unitarians were keen freemasons. Even the Duke of Sussex, the first Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge, has been claimed as a unitarian. However, of course not all unitarians became freemasons. Indeed, Iolo’s early interest in quakerism may have discouraged him from becoming involved with freemasonry. Although a few quakers did later become freemasons, they were unwilling to swear oaths and special dispensation had to be made so that they could dispense with the normal masonic oaths.
If anything, there are hints that Iolo took pleasure as a working stonemason in mocking the pretensions of the freemasons. Iolo’s frequent declaration that he was skilled in ‘freestonemasonry’ sounds like a tease, and his insistence on wearing a stonemason’s apron and carrying a trowel when attending the Prince of Wales, who was at that time Grand Master of one of the London Grand Lodges and had performed public ceremonies to lay the foundation stone of buildings such as the Drury Lane Theatre, seems very much like an attempt to score a point against a Grand Master of Masonry who did not know one end of a chisel from the other. Iolo had a profound respect for the physical craft of stonemasonry and for the skill of stonemasons, and would have had little sympathy with an organisation which had annexed the symbolism of the mason’s craft with little understanding of its nature or sympathy for its practitioners. Such an outlook is evident in his stonecutters’ song of 1785, written specially for the use of a little club of journeymen masons at Cowbridge. This club enabled local stonemasons to ‘meet weekly to spend a cheerful hour at the moderate, and restricted, expense of fourpence’. Far from engaging in the kind of esoteric games which the respectable freemasons enjoyed, the Cowbridge club was intended, in Iolo’s words, ‘to blunt and soften that irritability of mind which, from their condition in life, must necessarily often be experienced by those who form the great majority of mankind, persons that subsist by manual labour, who are not always treated as well as they should be’. The lines in this song ‘We seldom the boon of benevolence find/Yet we taste the sweet feast of an innocent mind’, seem like a side-swipe at the songs of the freemasons, which loudly proclaimed their generosity, charity and superiority to other clubs.
So, what did Iolo himself have to say about freemasonry? I am very grateful indeed to Geraint Phillips for drawing my attention to the following note by Iolo and providing me with a transcript of it:
‘A Gent of the Society of Free Masons assured me that there [is] a very great affinity between Bardism and Freemason. If it is so I would thence conclude that the origin of Free Masonry is from Bardism, but masked under the term Masonry, from the necessities of the times when it appeared, as the spirit of the popish persecuting ages would not admit of the open undisguised profession of Druidism. We can not enquire satisfactorily into this, I think, curious circumstance, for the fraternity of Free Masons admit none to the knowledge of their mysteries but under oath, or at least solemn injunction of secrecy, of not divulging these mysteries. For my own part I must confess that should I ever become a Freemason I should consider my oath, or whatever it is, of so singular a nature as to be not in the least binding. Some have charged freemasonry, I hope and believe unjustly, with being a thing of bad even pernicious tendency. I should on finding it so think it more my duty out of good will to Mankind and for stopping in its progress a very great evil divulge it to all the world, and believe it less a sin to do so than otherwise. On the contrary should I find it to be of that very moral and benign tendency that some pretend it is, I should think myself obliged in duty towards a good conscience to proclaim it, as some writer observes from the housetops. Was it only discovered to be a mere frivolity in itself neither good nor bad, still I should think it more laudable than otherwise to divulge it.’
Iolo’s reference to proclaiming the secrets of freemasonry from the housetops is taken from a letter published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in September 1794 as part of a correspondence discussing Abbé François Lefranc’s attacks on freemasonry, the first books explicitly to claim that freemasons were responsible for the French Revolution. A correspondent who had referred to Lefranc’s works had been urged to become a freemason to find out the truth for himself. He replied that ‘I can never reconcile it to my conscience to swear I will keep a secret, the tendency and extent of which I am not acquainted with beforehand. If on the other I were to discover that it was, which your correspondent terms it, “the purest and most immaculate institution the world has ever produced”, and that it was even as pure and immaculate as that old-fashioned institution called Christianity, I should never be at rest until I had proclaimed the same from the housetops, and called upon all mankind to participate of my advantage.’ These comments were approvingly copied by Iolo. This suggests that Iolo’s own note on freemasonry dates from sometime after this letter appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine, giving a date for Iolo’s note of sometime between late 1794 and 1800, a date which Geraint assures me is consistent with the handwriting of this extract.
Iolo’s own note thus seems to confirm that he was not a freemason, at least in 1794. However, it is of course not beyond the bounds of possibility that Iolo was concealing his membership. Indeed, it might be argued that the gorsedd represented a means of proclaiming aloud the ancient secrets of bardism (and thus freemasonry). Moreover, this note also does not exclude the possibility that Iolo became a mason sometime after 1794, especially given Benjamin Plummer’s formation of a number of lodges in South Wales after 1800, of which Iolo would have been aware. Now that the membership registers of the English Grand Lodges are available for consultation by scholars, a definitive answer to this question can at last be given, and it can be firmly stated that there is no evidence that Iolo ever joined a masonic lodge. A number of men named ‘Edward Williams’ are listed as members of masonic lodges under both Grand Lodges in different parts of the country, but the information given as to their occupation or age generally establishes that they are not to be identified with Iolo. Indeed, a striking feature of the membership lists of lodges at this time is that, while the membership of English masonic lodges includes a wide range of social and national groups, Welsh names are few and far between. This is particularly noticeable in London, where there are few lodges with significant groupings of London Welsh, suggesting that the popularity of existing London Welsh societies and clubs discouraged an interest in freemasonry among the London Welsh. An intriguing exception to this is one of the first lodges established by the Ancients Grand Lodge, No. 5 which met at the Castle Eating House in Cornhill from 1769 (now Albion Lodge No. 9). Its first master was John Morris and in 1774 its Master was John Jones. Jones’s successor was named Edward Williams but no further information is given about him. It seems unlikely that the itinerant craftsman Iolo would have achieved the august rank of Master as early as 1774, and this is probably not our man. Nevertheless, there are interesting hints of a London Welsh connection in the Ancients Lodge No. 5 which suggest that some Welsh may have joined with Irish and Scots in London in developing the Ancients Grand Lodge. Indeed, the first Grand Secretary of the Ancients Grand Lodge was named John Morgan, who served in the Navy.
The most fascinating aspect of Iolo’s note about freemasonry is the way it anticipates the theory that freemasonry was a form of Druidic survival which was to become a commonplace of British radical thought in the nineteenth century. Such claims had been intermittently made ever since the formation of the Grand Lodge. It seems that William Stukeley was the first to suggest a link between freemasonry and the Druids. Stukeley became a freemason in the hope that it might assist him in his investigations in the Druids by teaching him the mysteries of the ancients. Goronwy Owen alarmed the Morris brothers by joining a masonic lodge in Liverpool in 1754. He tried to reassure them by writing that ‘the chief thing that urged me to look into this secret craft was that I fully believed it to be a branch of my old ancestors, the Druids of yore, and I didn’t guess badly’. In 1766, John Cleland, the author of Fanny Hill, using one of those false etymologies which so exasperated Iolo, proposed that the word freemason was derived from the same root as a maypole, and thus of Druidic origin. Cleland’s spurious etymology achieved considerable currency, being cited for example by a correspondent to the European Magazine in 1792. Such claims of a link between the Druids and freemasons even found their way into official masonic publications. The 1756 edition of the Book of Constitutions, compiled by John Entick, claimed that the Druids had ‘many of the uses of masons amongst them’. William Preston began his influential history of freemasonry, first published in the 1775 edition of his Illustrations of Masonry, with an account of the Druids, strongly hinting that there were many parallels between Druidic and masonic rites. Likewise, another popular masonic writer, William Hutchinson claimed in his Spirit of Freemasonry, which received a Grand Lodge sanction in 1774, that freemasonry existed in the time of King Solomon and that Phoenician traders had initiated the Druids.
In suggesting that there was a link between freemasonry and the Druids, Iolo was repeating a commonplace of eighteenth-century writers on freemasonry, but in going further and arguing that the freemasons were more or less underground Druids whose secrecy had been forced upon them by Christian opposition to the Druidic religion, Iolo was anticipating by many years a remarkable pamphlet by Thomas Paine. At the time of his death in 1809, Paine had left unfinished a reply to the Bishop of Llandaff’s attack on his Age of Reason. This included an essay on the origins of freemasonry, which was a detailed and powerful exposition of the view that freemasonry was a survival of the ancient sun religion. Paine's proposition is laid out clearly at the beginning: 'It is always understood that Free Masons have a secret which they carefully conceal; but from everything that can be collected from their own accounts of Masons: their real secret is no other than their origin, which but few of them understand; and those who do envelope it in mystery.' The mystery was, according to Paine, as follows: 'Masonry...is derived, and is the remains of the religion of the ancient Druids; who, like the magi of Persia and the priests of Heliopolis in Egypt, were priests of the Sun. They paid worship to this great luminary, as the great visible agent of a great invisible first cause...' Paine’s pamphlet on freemasonry was first published in an expurgated form in America in 1810 in the Theophilanthropist (a group in which Elijah Williams suggests that Iolo had taken an interest). It was first published in full in 1818 by the radical publisher and writer Richard Carlile, who was afterwards imprisoned for publishing the Age of Reason.
Paine’s pamphlet exerted a powerful influence on Carlile, who spent the rest of his life seeking to rediscover this ancient sun religion, seeing the rituals of freemasonry as the key. In this mission, Carlile was associated with the renegade clergyman Robert Taylor, known as ‘The Devil’s Chaplain’. Carlile published a huge collection of masonic rituals, while Taylor preached on the way in which freemasonry showed that Christianity was a perversion of the ancient religion. Together, they planned to hold public demonstrations of masonic rituals. Carlile and Taylor were also profoundly influenced by the work of Godfrey Higgins, whose pioneering works of comparative religion, most notably the Celtic Druids (1826) and Anacalypsis (1833), argued that the Druids were the stonemason priests of a black empire which once ruled Egypt and Asia. The chief features of their primordial religion were, according to Higgins, sun and phallus worship. Higgins claimed to have found proof of the links between freemasonry, Druids and the ancient religion in a masonic lodge in York. The work of Higgins, as popularised by Carlile and Taylor, was familiar to late-Victorian radicals such as Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, and exerted a profound influence on theosophy. Higgins’s intellectual concerns, which he described as an inquiry into ‘the origins of languages, nations and religions’, were in many ways similar to those of Iolo, whose History of the British Bards also purports to provide an account of the origin of letters, language and thus of religion. Higgins systematically excluded bardic evidence from his work on the grounds that it was likely to be unreliable, suggesting that, even if it he did not know Iolo personally, he had taken his measure. Higgins was certainly familiar with the gorsedd. In 1792, a meeting of the gorsedd was held in the fields behind the British Museum, immediately adjacent to Higgins’s London house.
Iolo’s note on the origins of freemasonry thus places him firmly in a British radical tradition which saw freemasonry as a form of underground Druidism, whose true character was barely understood by the freemasons themselves and which held the key to understanding the spurious nature of organised Christianity. It is interesting to speculate whether Iolo was influenced in this view by conversation with Paine, or vice versa. Either way, Iolo is one of the earliest witnesses of this important and forgotten aspect of the British radical tradition, and perhaps even one of the fonts of it. Although Iolo was himself not a freemason, he was clearly engaged with and interested in freemasonry. Information about masonic ritual was readily available in the many exposures by disaffected masons which had been published since 1730. If Iolo saw freemasonry as an ancient Druidic survival, he might have felt it appropriate to draw on masonic ritual in devising the ceremonies of the gorsedd. However, there is little in the detail of gorsedd ceremonial which appears to be drawn from freemasonry. A freemason has suggested to me that the use of banners in the ceremony recalls the use of the banners of the lost tribes of Israel recalls the ritual of the masonic order known as the Royal Arch, but the layout of the banners in the Royal Arch follows different and stricter rules than those in the gorsedd. Like the gorsedd, the geographical orientation of a masonic lodge room follows precise rules, with the Master in the east, but these features probably reflect general religious practice. For the bulk of the gorsedd ceremonial, there is no parallel in masonic ritual.
Any relationship between the gorsedd and freemasonry is of the most general kind. Both respect ‘the ineffable name’ and give prominence to the idea of a supreme being, but do not link this to any specific religion. Both claim to be heirs to ancient oral traditions reaching back to the dawn of human history. Both seek to hand down and illustrate this tradition through the performance of a set ritual. Membership of both orders is by means of a ritual initiation, and both the gorsedd and craft freemasonry consist of three ranks, which are distinguished by the wearing of regalia or costumes of different designs and colour. The idealised description given of the three degrees of craft freemasonry by William Preston in the correspondence which Iolo read in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1794 certainly anticipates the division of the gorsedd into ovates, bards and druids. The first class of freemason, the Entered Apprentice, according to Preston, consisted of worthy men drawn from the community at large who were taught the duties of morality. Preston described the second degree, the Fellow Craft, as comprising those members of the first rank who had earned the good opinion of their brethren and were capable of more deeply exploring science and philosophy. The third class, the Master Mason, were selected from the Fellow Crafts for ‘eminent talents, exemplary conduct or distinguished works’. Splendid though the system described by Preston sounds, in practice freemasons were at that time frequently rushed through the ritual of the different degrees with little selection or preparation, often in a single evening. Nevertheless, the coincidence that both craft freemasonry and the gorsedd were organised into three degrees is very striking. Although general parallels of this kind between freemasonry and the gorsedd can be found, there are also important contrasts. Above all, masonic ceremonies take place behind closed doors, in a lodge room guarded by a tyler with a sword, with the exception in Iolo’s time of occasional public processions and stone-laying ceremonies. The gorsedd of course takes place ‘in the face of the sun and the eye of the light’. Some nineteenth-century masonic authors refer to an old and unsubstantiated tradition that masonic ceremonies were once conducted in the open air on the top of hills, but it seems unlikely that Iolo was aware of this tradition. If he was thinking of masonic ceremonies at all in devising the ceremonies of the gorsedd, it is more likely that he wanted the ceremonies of the gorsedd to proclaim its ancient truths ‘from the housetops’.
These general organisational features were not, however, unique to either freemasonry or the gorsedd. They were shared by many other clubs and societies in the eighteenth century. In particular, friendly societies such as the Oddfellows, Foresters and Free Gardeners also had invented histories which purportedly stretched back hundreds if not thousands of years. They all initiated members using special rituals reflecting their legendary history and members worked their way through different grades of membership. Unlike freemasonry, these friendly societies were regarded with suspicion by the government because of their closed meetings, and from the time of the French Revolution onwards came under increasingly legislative pressure to abandon their secret oaths and ritual. At the time of the 1799 Act which allowed freemasons to continue meeting in secret providing they registered their membership, the Oddfellows were forced to abandon many aspects of their ritual. This process continued throughout the nineteenth century, and the friendly societies became divorced from their ritual roots and increasingly concentrated on the provision of welfare benefits.
In considering the ritual development of the gorsedd, it is necessary to look at this wider fraternal context and not simply to concentrate on freemasonry. One particularly interesting body may perhaps be seen as an intermediary between freemasonry and the gorsedd. Emrys Jones, in his recent volume on the London Welsh, has pointed out that a commemorative plaque in the Old King’s Arms Tavern in Poland Street in Soho records that the Ancient Order of the Druids was revived there on 28 November 1781. The Druids were to become one of the most popular friendly societies in England and Wales. We have little reliable information about their earliest years. In 1833, a magazine for members of the society was begun which first records the tradition that the founder of the Ancient Order of Druids was a man named Hurle, who had taken part in a series of meetings in taverns about the formation of a new society and eventually conceived the idea of an order based on the Druids. The Gentleman’s Magazine also records the death in 1839 of a man called Richard Elliot, who was supposedly worked for Hurle and was the last survivor of the founders of the order. By the time of Elliot’s death, the Ancient Order of Druids and its successor organisations claimed over a million members. In the 1930s, a member of the order called William North attempted to find out more information about Hurle. He argued that the only man who could possibly be identified with the founder was Henry Hurle, a surveyor and builder who developed property in Pentonville near Islington and lived in Garlick Hill in the city of London, just north of Upper Thames Street. Hurle served on the common council of London and died in 1795. This identification has been repeated ever since, but North selected Henry Hurle because he was convinced that the founder of such a venerable order must have been a person of substance. There were other less prosperous Hurles in London at this time who have an equally strong claim to be identified with the founder of this order.
The Ancient Order of Druids quickly became very popular. Like freemasonry, it prohibited discussion of religion and politics, and an early controversy occurred in 1784 when Charles James Fox was reprimanded for making a political speech when he was admitted to No. 3 Lodge. The first lodge outside London, the seventh, was established at Ipswich in 1787. Hurle’s family may have been from the West Country and three lodges were founded in Bristol and Bath over the next two years. Druids from these lodges established a lodge at Hereford in 1809, which in turn lead to the establishment of the first lodge in Wales at Monmouth. By the time of the foundation of the Druids lodge in Merthyr in 1837, there were over 230 lodges in the order. The Ancient Order of Druids was very popular in Wales in the first half of the nineteenth century, although Welsh interest in the order subsequently declined. The order spread through America and the British Empire. Druidism also became popular in Germany.
The Ancient Order of Druids stressed that the ‘the great aim and end of druidism’ was ‘universal friendship, philanthropy and brotherly love’. It insisted that, like freemasonry, its primary concern was not with benefits but with moral education and self-improvement. As one official of the order put it, ‘we have no benefit principle in its usual acception in our constitution, but exactly resemble the freemasons in this respect’. The order grandiosely saw itself as a direct revival of the Druids and declared that, in establishing a grand lodge, its aim was to preserve information about the Druidic community and to promote the practice of those fraternal precepts which had distinguished the Druids. Another tradition within the order stated that the founders were masons under the Ancient Grand Lodge, but no freemason called Hurle has yet been traced. However, the masonic influence on the order is evident in its terminology. Senior Druids were known as Arches, a term drawn directly from freemasonry. Masonic terminology was reworked to give it a Druidic flavour, so that the ‘Great Architect of the Universe’ became ‘the Great Archdruid of the Universal’. Masonic symbolism was also reinterpreted in Druidic terms. No early ritual of the Druids survives, but the masonic component of the earliest surviving rituals is very clear; lines from masonic ritual are mixed up with specious Druid references. The ritual and symbolism of the Ancient Order of Druids suggests strongly that its founders held the view that the origins of freemasonry lay in the Druids. It seems that in creating their order they were trying to create a form of freemasonry which reinstated its lost druidic component.
However, unlike freemasonry, the Ancient Order of Druids enjoyed no legal protection and was strictly speaking illegal under the terms of the 1799 Unlawful Societies Act. Attendance at meetings was in theory punishable by transportation, a risk brought home by the prosecution of the Tolpuddle Martyrs under the same legislation. A sizeable group of the Ancient Order sought to regularise the position by registering as a friendly society, which would ensure the payment of regular benefits. This led to a split in 1833, which inaugurated an increasingly fissorous process which led to the formation a large number of different Druid friendly societies. However, an Imperial Grand Lodge of the Ancient Order of Druids still met in England in the 1950s. The Ancient Order held initiation ceremonies at Stonehenge at the beginning of the twentieth century and its members included Winston Churchill. A number of modern Druid groups trace their origins back to the Ancient Order, some tracing the modern revival of Druidism to the legend of a proclamation made by John Toland on Primrose Hill in 1717 (which magnificently mixes up modern writers on the druids, the formation of the masonic grand lodge and the first meeting of the gorsedd).
Writers on the history of the gorsedd such as Dillwyn Miles have suggested that Iolo was influenced not by the Ancient Order but by other Druidic organisations. However, they seem to have been misled by the various legendary histories claimed by some Druid groups. It was the Ancient Order which was the first in the field, pioneering Druid revivalism and the public performance of Druidic ceremonies in the 1780s. Something of the flavour of their activities is apparent from a procession held by the Ancient Order in Burnley in 1833. The highlights of this parade included an ancient Briton on horseback, with flesh-coloured dress and sandals, carrying an ancient spear, a Druid on horseback surrounded by a double garland of oak, various emblems of Druidic faith, and the Noble Arch, the senior Burnley Druid, in full regalia, supported by his bard, fully robed. The procession formed up in the market place where the Noble Arch explained how Britain was indebted to the Druids for its knowledge of philosophy and religion. The ancient Briton then described the first entrance of the Druids into Britain and demonstrated the antiquity and respectability of the order. Such Druidic processions were a common feature of British town life until at least the Second World War. Unfortunately we do not have any descriptions of such processions from the eighteenth century, but such processions were a feature of all friendly society activities at this time, and almost certainly Iolo would have witnessed such a Druidic procession while he was in London. We can only imagine his reaction.
Iolo however was to have the last laugh. In 1836, the Revd. D. James, the curate of Almondbury in Yorkshire, called The Patriarchal Religion of Britain or a Complete Manual of Ancient British Druidism, dedicated to the Ancient Order of Druids in the West Riding of York. James explained that the AOD was devoted to cultivating the social and moral virtues which distinguished the original Druids. James had no doubt as to the best place to look for information about Druids: Wales. And he also had no doubt as to the Welshman who was best informed about the Druids: Iolo. James’s tract, which is in many ways a small primer of Iolo’s bardic vision, marked the beginning of a process by which the AOD’s vision of Druidism became permeated by Iolo’s ideas. Iolo’s inventions profoundly affected the organisation and ritual of the English Druid friendly societies. Many societies adopted Iolo’s three degrees of ovates, bards and druids and based the colour scheme for their costumes on Iolo’s precepts. Some Druid orders adopted the term gorsedd instead of lodge for their local branches. In the ceremony used in 1848 for the opening of gorsedds by the Independent Order of Druids, which had been established in Bolton in 1829, the ceremony is conducted by the Grand Arch, who proclaims Iolo's slogan, 'The Truth against the World', then, in terms drawn from masonic ritual, turns to the inside Tyler, and reminds him that the first part of a Druid's duty is to see that his gorsedd is secure from intrusion. Similarly, a lecture used by the United Ancient Order of Druids for the inauguration of Past Arches was a pot-pourri of Iolo's ideas on Druidism, emphasising the bardic science of oral tradition and again using Iolo's motto, 'The Truth against the World'. The description of a procession and ceremony performed by the Mona Lodge of the Order of Ancient Druids in the megalithic stone circle at Stanton Drew near Bristol in 1856 is very reminiscent of a gorsedd ceremony. The Druids assembled at Stanton Drew heard a lecture on ‘Druidism Historically Considered’ by George Jones, which again drew heavily on Iolo. Jones concluded his lecture with a plea for more investigation of the principles of the Druids, declaring that ‘The pursuit of historical truth is not an exercise of idle and simple curiosity; but one of vast importance, as showing to us the progress and improvement of everything that we hold dear as Englishmen.’ Iolo would have relished the irony of the way in which Jones used Iolo’s bardic inventions to support his English patriotism. Iolo not only wrong footed the English Druid orders. Masonic scholars were also misled by Iolo in seeking to investigate the roots of their order. For example, the Rev. George Oliver, whose writings on freemasonry profoundly influenced the ideology of Victorian freemasonry, also relied heavily on Iolo in his discussion of Druids.
The story of the relationship between Iolo Morganwg and freemasonry is characteristically full of illusion and unexpected surprises. In seeking to analyse the roots of Iolo’s vision and influence, scholars such as Jenkins and Williams have seen freemasonry as an important source. Iolo may perhaps have been influenced in a generalised way by freemasonry, and was probably further spurred on in his inventions by the Ancient Order of Druids, whose Druidic mummeries doubtless annoyed Iolo as much as the pseudo-learning of those gentlemen who looked for Druids everywhere but in Wales. However, Iolo was not a freemason and does not seem to have drawn much on freemasonry in creating the gorsedd. In considering Iolo in the context of the fraternal organisations of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the striking thing is not so much their influence on Iolo, but rather the way in which fraternal organisations acted as a very powerful means of spreading Iolo’s ideas beyond Wales. In the 1930s, the United Ancient Order of Druids still claimed over one and a half million members. Their ideas of Druidism were, without their knowing it, fundamentally shaped by Iolo.