Saturday, September 4, 2010
MASONS AS PRISONERS OF WAR - A VERY OLD TALE
During the Seven Years War and the Napoleonic Wars (1740 to 1814), approximately 200,000 members of the French Army were taken prisoner and held in captivity in England. Not all of these prisoners were French, although they were members of the French Army. How many Poles, Germans, Italians, and Spaniards there were in this group cannot be said, but there must have been a considerable number. As a guide, one might use the half million men that Napoleon led into Russia in the abortive campaign of 1812. Only 200,000 of these soldiers were French. In view of this, the Masonic diligence they displayed takes on an interesting international tinge.
About 50,000 of the war captives were held in Britain in eight principal land prisons; the rest were incarcerated in prison ships that were literally floating coffins. The officers among the ship-bound prisoners were considered in a category separate from the others. Those who would give their parole were allowed to live in one of the designated 'parole towns.' They received a weekly allowance from the British Government of a half-guinea. This allowance, it should be understood, was given only to those who would give their parole. The rest got nothing, bad food, rags for clothing, pestilence and chains.
No one ever took the pains to record just how many of the prisoners were Masons, but there must have been a great many and of considerable dedication. In the eight land prisons they established five Lodges; in the 50 parole towns, 32 Lodges; and, impossible as it may be to conceive, in the 51 prison hulks, where anything like a normal life was virtually if not completely impossible, there were six Lodges established.
It should be understood that these were not casual or occasional meetings of men belonging to the Craft, but, within the limitations of time and facilities, properly established Bodies, although generally without warrants. They conducted regular stated meetings with a full list of officers and a code of by-laws. They kept accurate and complete minutes of their meetings, many of which are preserved to this day.
That this was not only condoned but even encouraged by British brethren is attested by many recorded facts. At least four of these Lodges, (Ashby, Chesterfield, Leek, and Northampton), applied for and received permits from the Acting Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England, although they did their work in association with the Grand Orient of France. Rites practiced generally were the Rite Francaise ou Moderne, adopted by the Grand Orient of France in 1786. It featured seven degrees, the first three th e same as those we practice today, the upper four in ascending order being Elect, Scotch Master, Knight of the East, and Rose Croix. To add variety to the picture, some of the certificates given by these Lodges were signed in the Eleventh Degree of the Adonhiramite Rite.
That the Craft could even think of a Lodge meeting under the stultifying conditions of the prison ships is almost incredible, but they did. In fact, one brother left a description of a Lodge meeting he visited on one of the hulks, the Guilford, anchored in Portsmouth harbour. This visiting brother was named Lardier.
He visited this meeting under the sponsorship of two other brothers, whom he refers to as 'Children of the True Light.' They traversed the whole length of a lower deck without illumination. Then they reached a trapdoor which was raised by another brother so they might descend a short, rotten ladder to a still lower, still darker deck.
In this situation he was led through complete darkness by sure hands until they were confronted by a man who demanded the password, signs, and grips. Having satisfactorily met this challenge, they crawled through a small door into a cramped room, where the ceiling was so low that they could not stand erect.
Illumination of the 'hall' was by means of a candle mounted in an old bottle. Only the Master was provided with a seat, and this was a dilapidated bench from which one leg was broken. The rest of the brethren sat on the floor. Here the visitor saw a candidate put through one of the degrees.
He remarked:"Physical examination and much of the ritual were impossible because of the cramped quarters but the candidate was rigorously tested from the moral viewpoint, especially in matter of patriotism."
The Master's speech, which was also a prayer, went:"Thy children cannot close these labours without expressing their grief and rendering homage to Thee. My heart is not captive, it is still free and faithful, it lifts itself out of this place of bondage and speeds to the land that gave it birth. May the glory of Thy triumphs never fade, may the Hero who guides Thy Chosen be able to add the last and only jewel which is wanting in Thy crown by utterly destroying that odious rival which dares to contend with Thee for mastery of the world."
These words are living proof of the indestructible spirit of the faithful Craftsmen who met in that dark room in the belly of the prison ship. This remarkable meeting closed with a voluntary offering for the relief of others more distressed than themselves. What can men give who have nothing for themselves? No one knows, but give they did and records amply show that the generosity of these half-starved half-clothed shadows of what were once men gave not only for needy brethren but for all prisoners whose need was greater than theirs. Was there ever a more perfect ashlar for that symbolic temple?
Where did they get anything to give? Again, no one can say, but it is known that they made and sold art trinkets of magnificent craftsmanship. This undoubtedly was a part of their source of income. Truly marvellously contrived medallions constructed by these unfortunate brothers are still on display in the great Freemason's Hall off Drury Lane in London.
Forty-four certificates issued by these Lodges have been discovered. These beautifully lettered documents, with a seal of wax from specially cut dies enclosed in a tin box, ribboned as documents of the day often were, are each a work of art in itself. The wonder is not that they spent the time and effort to make them so notable, but that the wretched prisoners on the comfortless and pestilential prison hulks were able to procure the necessary items for their fabrication.
Considering the words of the Guilford Master quoted earlier, and in view of the centuries of bitter French-English rivalry and war, it would seem unlikely that even Masonry could cross so insurmountable a barrier, but it did. It is reported that a Brother Burnes, who was magistrate and Master of the British Lodge at Montrose, actually released French prisoners from jail as a fraternal gesture.
The minutes of many British Lodges show that French parolees were frequently received as welcome visitors and in many cases became joining members. As has been noted earlier, at least four Lodges among French prisoners were sanctioned by English Grand Lodge warrants. Most of the French Prisoner-of-War Lodges restricted themselves to French members, but in at least three Lodges Abergevenny, Launceston, and Wincanton), Englishmen applied for membership and were accepted and initiated.
An interesting sidelight occurs through the fact that under French Masonic rules, seven Master Masons in a town where there was no Lodge or twenty-one in a town where a Lodge already existed, could hold a meeting and elect officers. Thus, at Peebles, in 1811, French prisoners established and operated a Lodge. The local British Lodge made no objection to this until it was discovered that the prisoners' Lodge was initiating new members. They objected to the Grand Lodge of England on the grounds that their own properly constituted Lodge was adequate to the occasion. The Grand Lodge agreed, but the prisoner-Masons, operating under their own French rules, disagreed. Records of this disagreement are to be found in several references, but only one makes further comment, and he notes rather cryptically that there is no record that the prisoners' Masonic work was discontinued.
To complete the picture, it is not only necessary but fitting to point out that during this same period of time approximately 25,000 English soldiers were taken prisoner by the French. Once again, it is impossible to say how many of these men were Masons. However, in a detachment of the British 9th Regiment of Foot that was captured and confined, there was a regularly constituted traveling Military Lodge No. 183, "Antients." This Lodge met regularly in prison, the fortress of Valenciennes, until 1814. The minutes of its meetings have been preserved.
Today, as we sit in our comfortable halls with all the treasured implements of our moral labours about us, it is difficult to conceive of the difficulties under which our imprisoned brethren struggled to maintain and demonstrate their fraternal fidelity, but not at all difficult to understand. Masonry to them was far more than a fraternal link; it was a vital and living key to continued existence.
As a final note, it should not be thought that this small section of history is merely a record in the archives or, for that matter, only another demonstration of the way Masonry raises a man above himself. It is still a subject for discussion and comment. As late as 1913 a pamphlet was published in Paris, accusing French Freemasons of assisting their imprisoned British brethren to escape. At this late date, firm proof for or against this assertion is impossible to find. However, from the evidence at hand, it would appear quite likely that the accusation is gloriously and wonderfully true.
WRITTEN BY BROTHER ROBERT M WALKER IN 1964