Dominating the Freemasons' Hall's new exhibition, Freemasonry and the French Revolution, a giant chair, all puffed up with majesty and pomp, looms over the display cases - an effect rather undermined by its resemblance to an oversized, over-pimped prop in a novelty Hip Hop video, and its having been designed to be disassembled and moved around like eighteenth-century flat pack. Still, it's clear what it's trying to say: built for the Prince of Wales (later George IV), who was elected Grand Master in 1790, it reflects the extraordinary prestige and respectability accorded to English Freemasonry by the late eighteenth century. Meanwhile, over in France, Freemasonry was about to be plunged into a terrible whirl of suspicion, accusations and fear.
Many, both contemporaries and later historians, have suggested Freemasonry bears some responsibility for the French Revolution. Elements of French Freemasonry can be traced through to the Jacobin clubs - the language, the emphasis on fraternity, the constitutional and governmental organisation rare in France at that time - and there were Freemasons among the early revolutionaries, yet there is nothing to suggest that the lodges came up with any kind of coordinated plan to challenge the established order. In fact, membership of French Freemasonry was largely aristocratic and they were queuing up for the guillotine by the time of the Terrors; the Duc of Orleans, their Grand Master, supported the Revolution initially but his head was in a basket by 1793.
French Freemasonry became respectable again with the rise of Napoleon. While it is not thought that the Little Corporal was himself a member, his brothers and many of his military colleagues were, and Masonry was used to spread his influence and cult; the Egyptian campaigns led to Ancient Egyptian iconography being incorporated into the Freemasons' designs and architecture. Membership picked up again, and many of the Grande Armée soldiers captured by the British were Masons: in parole towns or prison ships  where there were enough of them they set up new lodges, and they used scrap - bones, shells, straw - to make Masonic 'jewels' and snuff boxes and other trinkets to sell for cash.
French Freemasonry may have been swiftly restored by the State, but there would be no such accomodation with the Church: the required belief in a supreme being (even now a stipulation of English Freemasonry) had been dropped, antagonising the Vatican, as did their links with the atheistic Carbonari.
Over the Channel, the British government - like rulers everywhere - was terrified by the threat implicit in the French Revolution: the overturning of social order, the encouragement to radical thought and societies. It responded by introducing a bill banning "every society, the members whereof shall... be required or admitted to take any oath of engagement". As it stood, this bill would have outlawed Freemasonry, despite the organisation's forbidding of political discussion during meetings, its sober reputation and its distinguished membership. The two Grand Lodges sent a delegation to the prime minister, William Pitt, and Freemasonry was exempted from the 1799 Unlawful Societies Act, on the condition that each lodge provided an annual return of its members to the local clerk of the peace - a requirement which remained on the statute books until 1967. Far from being a den of sedition and treason, Freemasonry was highly visible during this period, processing and laying foundation stones and engaging in various other civil activities, and hiring out Freemasons' Hall for public events such as concerts and dinners; it was not until WWII, according to Diane Clements, Director of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry, and the Nazi persecution of Freemasons, that English Masons became more circumspect, a habit which stuck for a generation.
Yet the rumours and suspicions stuck, the legacy of secret society-blaming conspiracy theories invented in the bloody wake of the Revolution as people sought to apportion blame and create a narrative that would make some kind of sense of the bewildering chaos and horror. In 1797-8 Augustin de Barruel, a Jesuit priest who had emigrated to England, published Memoires pour servir a l’histoire du Jacobinism, in which he denounced the philosophes, Illuminati and Freemasons, descendants of the Templars; in 1797 Scottish scientist John Robinson published Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the secret meetings of Freemasons, Illuminati and Reading Societies. Not letting the demands of logic (for instance, having the aristocratic French freemasons plot a revolution demanding their own heads) get in the way of story, these titles kicked off a resilient and popular genre that today can be found everywhere from chatrooms to bestseller lists.
Freemasonry and the French Revolution runs at the Library and Museum of Freemasonry, Freemasons' Hall, London WC2B 5AZ, until 18 December. Entry is free. Visit www.freemasonry.london.museum for more details.
1. Notably François Furet. Margaret C. Jacob: The Origins of Freemasonry: Facts & Fictions, p79
2. David V. Barrett: Secret Societies: From the Ancient and Arcane to the Modern and Clandestine, p178
3. A Monsieur A Lardier wrote in his book Histoire des Pontons of lodge meetings held in the hull of a prison ship in Portsmouth: "The Master of the Lodge, who was as Sovereign Prince Rose Croix, presided from a rickety three-legged bench which he struggled throughout the ceremony to keep stable. The remainder of the brethren were obliged to sit upon the floor ‘in the manner of Turks or Tailors’.” Bernard Williamson, 'Napoleonic Wars: A Mason's Word', MQ Magazine, Issue 16, Jan 2006.