The Unlawful Societies Act of 1799

Although the Unlawful Societies Act of 1799 is often mentioned in Masonic scholarship, some nuances remain.

The background is that the American Revolution 1775 – 83; the French Revolution 1789 -1814; and, the 1798 Revolt of the United Irishmen, by virtue of apparent ‘masonic organisational form’ [1], seemingly, implicated Freemasonry in rebellion.  

But’s what’s wrong with that?  Provided that no other crime was committed, The Constitutions of the Freemasons protected a rebellious Mason from lodge expulsion.   

The Charges of a Freemason II. Of the CIVIL MAGISTRATE supreme and subordinate conclude,

 

If a Brother should be a Rebel against the State, he is not to be countenanc’d in his Rebellion, however he may be pitied as an unhappy Man; and if convicted of no other Crime, though the loyal Brotherhood must and ought to disown his Rebellion, and give no Umbrage or Ground of political Jealousy to the Government for the time being; they cannot expel him from the Lodge, and his Relation to it remains indefeasible.

Portrait of the Right Honourable William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806) after 1806, copy of a original of 1804.
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

For Prime Minister Pitt the Younger, however, enough of Freemasonry was more than enough.

That American Colonists had successfully revolted against British hegemony was not unnoticed in Ireland.

Britain had been at war with Napoleon for seven years and dissident Irish were inviting the French to invade England, via Ireland, to enable Irish fighting men to swell the numbers of the French military.

Pitt’s Unlawful Societies Act sought to proscribe Freemasonry.

This could be regarded as somewhat strange as the ‘Modern’s’ Grand Master was the Prince of Wales (acting Grand Master, the Earl of Moira) and the ‘Antients’ were led by the Duke of Atholl.

Neither students nor militant trade unionists – hardly stereotypical rebels!

However, under a cloak of respectability and confidentiality, Masonic lodges may well, by accident or design, have provided ‘cover’ for those with seditious intent. (In depth GPC candidate interviews were yet to arrive!)

George Augustus Frederick (12 August 1762 – 26 June 1830) Grand Master of the Premier Grand Lodge of England, 1790-1813
IMAGE credit:  King George IV when Prince of Wales as Colonel of the tenth Light Dragoons. Photogravure, 1905. – Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Seal used by Premier Grand Lodge of England, J. Ramsden Riley – Quatuor Coronatorum Antigrapha Vol VIII 1891
IMAGE linked:  wikimedia. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

John Murray, 4th Duke of Atholl, Grand Master of the Ancient Grand Lodge of England 1791-1812. Engraving by Charles Knight, after John Hoppner.
IMAGE linked:  wikimedia. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Seal used by the Antient Grand Lodge, J. Ramsden Riley – Quatuor Coronatorum Antigrapha Vol VIII 1891
IMAGE linked:  wikimedia. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Obviously, the above mentioned grand personages were more than a match for their critics, including a Prime Minister.

The Unlawful Societies Act begged a deal: Atholl was the Grand negotiator [2].

Thus in the Unlawful Societies Act, 39 Geo III Chapter 79, Freemasonry was given explicit legal recognition; and implicitly, established a ‘relationship’ between Freemasonry and the State [3].

Seemingly, the ‘deal’ required the inviolable Charges of a Freemason to be amended! In subsequent publications of the Book of Constitutions, the ‘indefeasibility’ paragraph was dropped.

No longer any protection for the rebellious Mason! That sections of the ‘Antient Charges’ can be ‘dropped’ as required, augurs well for a 21st Century Masonic mind-set. 

As is well known, the Act, required lodges to make annual returns, to local magistrates, of their members’ names, abodes and status’/professions.

It is also well known that this requirement was formally repealed in 1967.

However, what is not well known is that in September 1940, the Grand Secretary wrote to lodges advising them that returns were no longer necessary; this, twenty-seven years before the repeal!

What political processes were involved? Who authorised the Grand Secretary thus to write? What we do know is that the Monarch and Prime Minister were both Freemasons. (You might think so, I couldn’t possibly comment!) 

Further deatils:  Unlawful Societies Act of 1799

Footnotes
References

[1]  Andrew Prescott, A History of British Freemasonry 1425-2000, University of Sheffield, 20 February 2006.

[2]  Andrew Prescott ‘1799 Unlawful Societies Act’, The Canonbury Papers, Vol. 1.

[3] Diane Clements, Freemasonry Today (Summer 2009) …‘the provision included in the 1799 Act was the first statutory acknowledgement in the UK of the existence of Freemasonry and formed the basis of the relationship between Freemasonry and the state’.

Article by: Gerald Reilly

Gerald Reilly was initiated in 1995 into St Osyth's Priory Lodge 2063. Essex. England (UGLE). 

He was a founder member of Josh Heller's Allthingsmasonic, and with Josh co-wrote 'The Temple that Never Sleeps' (Cornerstone Books, 2006) he is committed to the development of e-Freemasonry.

Recent Articles: history series

Outlandish Freemasonry

Martin Bogardus explores the Masonic characters and symbolism within the hugely successful 'Outlander' books and TV series.

more....

27 January 1945

There are two things of importance happening this day - 27 January

more....

Understanding of Freemasonry

Two approaches regarding the understanding of Freemasonry

more....

Masonic Research in England c1930

An article which appeared in an American Masonic magazine, c1930 and which was reproduced in England, provoking a little controversy.

more....

A 1657 Masonic? Bookplate

Masonic bookplates the ‘Brethren’s spiritual coats of arms and marks’

more....

The Unlawful Societies Act of 1799

Rebellious Freemasons and the 21st century

more....

The Lost Jewel

In 1912, Sarah Dowd of Dromore, Ireland, found a Masonic jewel dated 1517 - a date two hundred years before the establishment of Grand Lodge...

more....

Benjamin Franklin’s Virtues

Benjamin Franklin’s Virtues, Freemasonry, and Jewish Practice and Discover his thirteen behavioural traits

more....

Franklin's Virtues Revisited For Today's Mason

How are the virtues and the pursuit of self-improvement and knowledge as pertinent for today's Mason, as they were for Benjamin Franklin.

more....

Origins and Links to English Freemasonry - Part 3

Quasi-Masonic societies - are the highly secretive Skull and Bones the real Illuminati?

more....

Origins and Links to English Freemasonry - Part 2

The Regius MS & Deciphering the Oldest Charges

more....

Origins and Links to English Freemasonry - Part 1

Unexpected links between the Freemasonry of today with the original Operative builders.

more....

Freemasonry and Fascist Regime

Interesting speech by the famous historian Prof. Aldo A. Mola, who links the fascist regime with the Masonic Associations.

more....

Ovid 25 Lodge

Was famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin a Freemason? And if so, was he a member of the lodge ‘for which all the lodges in Russia were destroyed’?

more....

The Importance of Masonic Research

An introduction to Masonic research - how to know what is authentic...and what is not!

more....

The Gormogons

The Antient Noble Order of the Gormogons had a brief existence in the eighteenth century; they left few records or accomplishments, and there is no indication as to their true purpose other than to parody and degrade Freemasonry, and perhaps further the Jacobite cause.

more....

Four Times of the Day - Night

Hogarth's mockery of Freemasonry. A humorous depictions of life in the streets of London, the vagaries of fashion, and the interactions between the rich and poor.

more....

Russian Freemasonry

Russian Freemasonry a combination of a short sketch of its history and a review of the present-day Masonic landscape in this country

more....

Recent Articles: by Gerald Reilly

The Christianising of British Freemasonries - P2

How might the battle for the souls of Freemasonries be identified in a way that ensures thriving in the 21st Century? There is no guarantee of the immortality of the soul of Freemasonry! ‘We study the past in order to free ourselves from it.’ (Hariri)

more....

The Christianising of British Freemasonries - P1

This four-part series considers: 1. the separation of British Freemasonries from the Grand Orient of France (GOdF); and, 2. maintaining fraternity with the Prussian Grand Lodge of the Three Globes.

more....

The Holy Land and the Holy Sites Part 4

Fourth instalment of the four-part series, considers ‘masonic’ aspiration and activity regarding the Holy Land and The Holy Sites

more....

The Holy Land and The Holy Sites Part 3

Third instalment of the four-part series, considers ‘masonic’ aspiration and activity regarding the Holy Land and The Holy Sites

more....

The Holy Land and The Holy Sites Part 2

The four-part series will consider ‘masonic’ aspiration and activity regarding the Holy Land and The Holy Sites

more....

The Holy Land and The Holy Sites part 1

In this four-part series, we will consider ‘masonic’ aspiration and activity regarding the Holy Land and The Holy Sites

more....

Science & Citizenship - P4

Science and Citizenship: Towards a 21st Century Masonic Mindset.
Part 4: Towards a Universal Civil Society.

more....

Science & Citizenship - P3

Towards a 21st Century Masonic Mindset: Part 3 ‘Freemasonries’ and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

more....

Science & Citizenship - P2

Towards a 21st Century Masonic Mindset: Part 2: ‘Freemasonries’ and Religiosity.

more....

Science & Citizenship - P1

Towards a 21st Century Masonic Mindset: Part 1: ‘Freemasonries’ and Governance.

more....

The Royal Arch: Back to Basics

In the Royal Arch ceremony, the sojourners are buried with their tools in a vault. The sun, at its highest, provides enlightenment and the principal sojourner is returned to the former companions of his toil

more....

The Unlawful Societies Act of 1799

Rebellious Freemasons and the 21st century

more....

Book Reviews: by Gerald Reilly

Book Review - Emulation: A Ritual to Remember

How does one begin to review a masonic classic which has faithfully served generations? Perhaps starting with the title Emulation: A Ritual to Remember.

more....

Book Review - Mastering Masonic Ritual

Mastering Masonic Ritual is focused on preparing for a successful and fulfilling journey around the floor to the Chair.

more....

Book Review - This Chequered Existence

Gerald Reilly reviews this new book covering the near-modern history of Freemasonry in England and Wales during the 20th-century.

more....

Book Review - The Temple That Never Sleeps

Freemasons and E-Masonry Toward a New Paradigm

more....

masonic knowledge

making good men better

share the square with two brothers

click image to open email app on mobile device

Share this article ....