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Freemasonry under the French First Empire

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Was Napoleon Bonaparte a member of the Masonic Brotherhood? Multiple hypotheses have been advanced on the subject, and although the probability is high, it has never been definitely established that he was made a Freemason, either in Valence (French Department Drome), Marseille, Nancy ("St. John of Jerusalem" Lodge, December 3, 1797?), Malta, Egypt or elsewhere.

Chart of the Bonaparte Masonic Lodge, c. 1810
Chart of the Bonaparte Masonic Lodge, c. 1810

What is certain is that members of the expedition he commanded during the Egyptian campaign brought the Freemasonry to the banks of the Nile. General Kleber founded the "Isis" Lodge in Cairo (was Bonaparte a co-founder?), while Brothers Gaspard Monge (member, among others, of the "Perfect Union" Military Lodge, Mezieres) and Dominique Vivant Denon (a member of Sophisians, "The Perfect Meeting" Lodge, Paris) were among the scholars who would make this strategic and military setback a success that the young General Bonaparte would exploit upon his return to France.

What is also undeniable is that, beginning with Bonaparte's coup of 18 Brumaire, the Freemasonry would thrive for 15 extraordinary years, multiplying the number of lodges and members. The First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, understanding the advantages he could derive from the obedient Freemasonry, invested in these reliable men, hoping to be rewarded with faultless servility. He was not disappointed.

Freemasonry under the Consulate

When Napoleon Bonaparte came to power, a text of nine articles was signed on June 22, 1799 (the 21st day of the third year of the V:. L:. 5799) that unified the Great Lodge of France (Grande Loge De France: GLDF) and the Great Orient of France (Grand Orient De France: GODF). The text provided for the assembly of archives of both organizations, removed the privileges of the masters of the lodges of Paris, entrenched the tenure of Worshipful Masters, and established a system of election of officers. However, some "Scottish" lodges rejected this arrangement.

In 1801, while in Paris, Brother Jean Portalis ("Friendship" Lodge, Aix-en-Provence) actively participated in negotiating the Concordat with the Holy See and drafting the Civil Code with Brothers Jean-Jacques Regis de Cambaceres and Claude-Ambroise Regnier, a page of Freemason history was written on May 31 in Charleston, South Carolina. There, Colonel John Mitchell, a merchant born in Ireland, and Frederick Dalcho, a physician born in London of Prussian parents, "opened the Supreme Council 33° for the United States of America", the first Supreme Council of rite in 33 grades that would take the name Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (AASR) of France. It would announce its creation through a circular distributed "across both hemispheres" on January 1, 1803.

The Master Masons of the two great rival systems (Ancients and Moderns) were eligible indiscriminately, regardless of religion (hence perhaps the term "Accepted"). The motto Ordo ab Chao was adopted which, in organizational terms, expressed the desire to create a coherent system of degrees and to end the chaotic profusion of high grades. The rite, whose ranks were all of French origin, synthesized the influences initially spun by the English lodges, Scottish Lodges of Perfection, dissident structures such as the Council of the Eastern Knights of Brother Pirlet, the Order of Scottish Trinitarians, and the Order of the Flamboyant Star of Baron Tschoudy, and of the administrative system of the Mother Lodge of the Scottish Social Contract, which was a member of Count Auguste de Grasse-Tilly (started in 1783 in the "Saint John of the Scottish Social Contract" Lodge, Paris).

The universality of the AASR was founded on the basis of 33 successive degrees of initiation and the content of its various grades that encompassed almost all sources of ancestral spirituality in the West and Middle East. It was, therefore, not possible to claim the AASR without rigorously following its initiation rites and trusting the consistency of its gradual evolution.

In 1801, the Vatican reiterated its ban on priests receiving Masonic initiation.

The same year, the Freemason Rulebook, on the Modern French Rite of the Great Orient of France, was published, in line with the first Moderns, House of Grades of the Great Orient and some aspects of the Rectified Scottish Regime (RSR) that were made in 1795 by the Great Worship Master Alexander-Louis Roëttiers de Montaleau.

This document was consistent with decisions made in 1785, but in 1796 was repudiated by the Grand Orient, which had opted for communication of rituals to be exclusively in handwritten, not printed, form. The ritual of the French Rite was subsequently revised several times.

Regarding the Rectified Scottish Rite, 1801 saw the beginning of a three-year correspondence between Jean-Baptiste Willermoz, of Lyon ("founder" of the RSR in France and general counsel of Department Rhone by the First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte since June 1, 1800) and Claude-François Achard, of Marseille (Worshipful Master of The Triple Union, which resumed its work on June 1, 1801). In September 1802, Brother Taxil was received in Lyon by Willermoz and tasked to copy the "new rituals," which took five years.

On November 12, 1802 (the 12th day of the ninth month of the year of the V:. L:. 5802), a circular from the Grand Orient of France condemned the "so-called Scottish" Lodges and invited Brothers to turn from our Temples a seed of discord that, during the most tempestuous times, seemed to have been respected. So as to maintain "regular lodges in France," the GODF began to write off all lodges practicing a rite other than the French Rite of seven degrees – an action that specifically targeted Scottish Mother Lodges.

Emblem of the Supreme Council of France
Emblem of the Supreme Council of France

The year 1804 saw, in the atmosphere following the global exclusion of the Grand Orient, the Count of Grasse-Tilly returning to France and founding the Supreme Council of the 33rd Degree on September 22. It met on October 22 at the Scottish General Grand Lodge of France with the participation of the Scottish Mother Lodge of Marseilles. Both lodges had refused the merger with the Grand Orient in 1799, and were "blacklisted" by the Big East because of "discrepancies" - that is, for practicing the Scottish Rite – as representatives of Santo Domingo lodges followed the rite of Ancients, and, according to some sources, the Prince of Rohan, who had signed the Morin patent in 1761. Louis Bonaparte became the Grand Master.

Seeing the Supreme Council extended de facto authority over the lodges' first three degrees, the Grand Orient suddenly had the power to sign a contract that merged the Scottish Grand Lodge with the Grand Orient, but left in existence a Sublime Council of the 33rd degree, which remained the sole authority to confer this level and to decide on everything that was a point of honor.

Freemasonry under the Empire

It was during this period that French Freemasonry would experience its first golden age, as the number of lodges grew from 300 to 1,220 in ten years.

Bonaparte (initiated in "The Perfect Sincerity" Lodge of Marseilles) became Grand Master of the Grand Orient, which was entirely devoted to Napoleon and rarely failed to criticize the fiercely independent Scottish lodges.

Napoleon's relationship with the Grand Orient was all the more excellent that Roëttiers de Montaleau undertook to purify anti-Bonapartists, and that there were then among the dignitaries of the obedience:

Clearly the Freemasonry was still in power, and its influence not hidden.

Napoleon I, whether he had been initiated or not, was wary of Freemasonry, which he monitored through Joseph Fouché, and although the lodges displayed his bust in their temples and considered any challenge to his regime a serious Masonic error, some workshops were devoted mainly to celebrating the glory of the Emperor ("Napoléomagne", "The French Saint-Napoleon"), while others used the distinctive Masonic signage to conceal the work of subversive royalist activities ("St. Napoleon", in Angers).

There was a strong development of Masonic military lodges under the Empire, and Napoleon saw in that Masonic presence a powerful means of military cohesion and a tool for his European ambitions (using his own passionate feelings to unite the Brotherhood).

Receipt of a young woman in a Lodge of Adoption under the First Empire
Receipt of a young woman in a Lodge of Adoption under the First Empire

As for Lodges of Adoption (women's lodges attached to men's lodges by a ritual called "adoption"), most weakened under the Empire, except for those of the Empress Josephine, who was a Grand Mistress ("Free Knights" and "Sainte Caroline" Lodges of Adoption, in Paris). In 1808, Lodges of Adoption were banned by the male Masons as contrary to its constitution. The Masonic practice of adoption did not survive into the nineteenth century, except marginally.

Trade guilds, which had been banned during the Revolution – a prohibition reinforced by the Consulate – were tolerated, but closely monitored, under the Empire. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the guilds were organized around three rites. The rite of Father Soubise included roofers, plasterers and carpenters. Those seen as heirs to the Holy Duty to God (Catholic, royalist and Bonapartist), followers of Master Jacques, gathered stonemasons, smiths and tanners, as well as some otherprofessions (rope makers, basket makers, hatters, etc.).

Under the rite of Solomon, which welcomed Protestant or agnostic members with a Republican, left-leaning political sensitivity, one found foreign stonemasons (C:.E:.) and the Journeymen of the Duty of Freedom (I:.N:.D:.G:.), which separated from the Duty of Freedom in 1804 under the pressure of freethinking and anticlerical trade union members. It was during that period that a French Freemason journeyman introduced the third grade in the Duty of Freedom (which now included affiliates of members), and an aristocratic body (the "insiders") composed mainly of members established as Masters was formed.

In 1804, the system of Beneficent Knights of the Holy City (the final stage of the Rectified Rite or Regime), which had been dormant during the French Revolution, was revived in Besançon.

In 1805, the first of two series of the rite of Mizraim (symbolic degrees 1-33° and philosophical degrees 34-66°) developed in France and Italy, borrowing various high levels from the eighteenth century (to compete with the AASR):

Specific contributions rose from the gradations of Chaos (49-50°) and Key Masonics (54-57°).

That same year, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord was introduced to the Imperial Lodge of the Free Knights in Paris, where he remained apprenticed throughout his life.

It was also in 1805 that the Grand Orient created a Grand Executive Board of Rites, where some Brothers received the 33rd degree, in violation of agreements with the Sublime Council. The latter reacted by denouncing the text, restoring the Grand Lodge and Scottish General, and reinstating its authority over the entire AASR. But again, the imperial power intervened on behalf of the Grand Orient and forced the signing of a power-sharing agreement that gave it authority over the first eighteen degrees, with the Supreme Council of France overseeing the nineteenth to thirty-third.

Contrary to the wishes of Napoleon, there were now two rival Masonic powers in France, so the next year, to ensure control of the Supreme Council, he named Chancellor Jean Jacques Régis de Cambaceres the Sovereign Grand Commander instead of Grasse-Tilly or one of several dignitaries of the Grand Orient (Dominique Clement de Ris, Pierre Riel de Beurnonville, Catherine Dominique de Pérignon, Honoré Muraire, D'Aigrefeuille, etc.).

JeJean-Jacques Régis de Cambaceres, Grand Commander of the AASR in France from 1806 to 1821Jean-Jacques Régis de Cambacérès, Grand commandeur du REAA en France de 1806 à 1821
Jean-Jacques Régis de Cambaceres, Grand Commander of the AASR in France from 1806 to 1821

In the next decade, the Supreme Council dedicated itself to developing the Guide to Scottish Freemasons, which took its roots from the Scottish Mother Lodges and Freemasonry of English and American Ancients (particularly Three Distinct Knocks of 1760) but also in the Freemason Regulator of the Modern French Rite. For the blue lodges (the first three workshops degrees), there was the Journal of Symbolic three grades of the Ancient and Accepted Rite.

On February 18, 1806, two months after the battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon I decided to build a triumphal arch, a project that involved several Freemasons. Brother Jean-Baptiste Champagny Nompère convinced the Emperor to choose the site of the monument in these terms: An Arch of Triumph that features the most majestic, superb and picturesque view, of the imperial palace of the Tuileries ... It will strike admiration in the traveler entering Paris ... It will imprint in any visitor to the French capital an indelible memory of its incomparable beauty ... Although the visitor has gone away, he will always have in front of him the triumphant arch. Your Majesty will cross it on your way to Malmaison, St. Germain, St. Cloud and even to Versailles ...

Brother Jean Chalgrin ("The Simple Hearts of the North Star" Lodge, Paris), an architect, drew up the plans, based upon an initial draft prepared by Brother Charles Louis Balzac ("The Great Sphinx" Lodge, Paris). Under the July Monarchy (constitutional monarchy in France under King Louis-Philippe, starting with the July Revolution of 1830), two Brothers were to be in charge of the sculpture in bas-relief of the North Face - Francois Rude (The Marseillaise) and Jean-Pierre Cortot (The Peace of Vienna).

It was probably also in 1806 that Pierre-Joseph Briot, Governor of Abruzzo (under the authority of Joseph Bonaparte), introduced the Carbonari in Italy and started a "Secret Society of Philadelphian Republicans" at Besançon, "Good Cousin Carbonari" of the woodsman rite of Alexander the Great's Order of the Forger, which became affiliated at the rite of Mizraim in 1810.

Meanwhile, Filippo Buonarroti, a French revolutionary from Pisa and an old friend of Gracchus Babeuf, who knew Briot at Sospel, spent 30 years serving the lodges, especially within his own organization ("The Perfect Sublime Masters", under the direction of a "Great Firmament"), to cover up the spread of revolutionary ideas, Babouvist ideals and communism. Although its incidence was relatively limited, this unfortunate confusion between Freemasons and Carbonari ideas would quickly be interpreted as the politicization of the lodges.

The same year, 1806, saw the demise of the Strict Templar Observance (SOT), which did not survive the Revolution, as well as the introduction of the RSR and the loss of interest of its great master Charles of Hesse-Cassel, who became much more passionate about his research and mystical theurgics than about the Freemasonry.

Not counting the Anderson texts (The Constitutions of the Free-Masons of Pastor James Anderson, published in 1723), which defined the Freemasons of British influence, the statutes enacted in 1806 by the Grand Orient of France merely noted that the Masonic Order in France was composed only of Freemasons recognized as such, assembled at regular workshops for camaraderie.

Also in 1806, archaeologist Alexandre Du Mège (or Dumège) founded an Egyptian rite, the "Sovereign Pyramid of Friends of the Desert", in Toulouse. There were some spin-offs in the region (Auch, Montauban), but they didn't last. The Friends of the Desert came into contact with the neighboring Napoleomagne Lodge, whose members had revived the Jacobite Scottish Rite of "Scottish Faithful," brought to Toulouse in 1747 by George Lockhart, aide to Charles Edward Stuart. The Grand Executive Board of Rites of the Grand Orient of France rejected this rite, based on Eastern occultism, in 1812.

In 1808, Brother Michel Ange de Mangourit, Grand Officer of the Scots Philosophical rite (who was temporary Foreign Minister in the Government of the Convention in November 1794), revived the Masonic "adoption" practice by creating the "Sovereign Metropolitan Chapter of the Ladies Scottish Hospice of France in Mount Tabor, Paris", which consisted mainly of women of imperial nobility. This highly esteemed lodge, which would operate until 1830, had a "class of choice" (Novice Freemason and Discreet Companion), two grades of Perfection, or "Great Mysteries" (Mistress Adonis and Mistress Moralist), and two highest grades (Historical and Philosophical).

In Naples  , where Joachim Murat became king on August 1, 1808, the (military) Franco-Italian lodges saw a blossoming of the Rite of Mizraim, which would last until the end of the Empire. In 1811, Murat required the Grand Orient and Supreme Council of Naples to unify, and became their Grand Commander. It was doubtless during this period that the first attempts were made to establish the Rite of Mizraim in France. The rite thus received its third series (67-77° mystic degrees) the last (78-90°) would be introduced only until about 1812 in Naples.

In 1809, the Pope Pius VII was arrested by order of Napoleon, in anger over his excommunication because of the capture of Rome and the despoliation of the Papal States. It seemed the Emperor had not lost the support of the Grand Orient when he introduced a certain anticlericalism in the lodges, but the Pope did not forget how the Freemasons supported Napoleon.

In 1810, there arose in France a groundswell of opposition to republican secret societies such as the Carbonari founded by Arnaud Bazard, Jacques Flotard and Brother Jacques Buchez. In the region of Besançon, a revolutionary movement of Carbonari Cousins tried to infiltrate the lodges to let in opposing ideas and recruit workers to participate in a republican uprising. The Carbonari were organized into groups of twenty members, coordinated by a "High" group that belonged to Brother Lafayette (it also housed the venerable "Friends of Truth" of Rosoy and member of Supreme Council).

At the other end of the political spectrum, Count Ferdinand de Bertier in 1810 founded the "Knights of the Faith" ("Banner Association"), an ultra-royalist political movement based on ancient and medieval orders and the more recent and concrete experience of the Philanthropic Institute. The order had five grades: Charity Partner, Squire, Knight, Knight of Hospitality, and Knight of Faith. Several of its members also belonged to the religious congregation of the "Blessed Virgin".

In 1811, several Masonic events occurred:

In 1813, the Rite of Mizraim was endowed from 90 degrees from the impetus of Charles Lechangeur, Theodoric Cerbes and brothers Marc, Michel and Joseph Bédarride. Pierre Lassalle, grand master of Mizraim in Naples, was probably the one who introduced the Arcana Arcanorum in the "Plan of Naples" to the primitive rite of Mizraim. At the same time, the occultist Lodge of the "Commanders of Mount Tabor", linked to the Scottish Philosophical Rite, was founded, while a lodge of Egyptian Rite of Cagliostro ("The Vigilanza") continued its work independently of Mizraim.The same year in England, after more than half a century of conflict, the Union Act put an end to the quarrel between the Ancients and Moderns, merging them into a universal masonry at three degrees (Emulation rite), in which explicit references to Christianity were removed.

After the first abdication of Napoleon and his exile to Elba, the Grand Orient provided support to King Louis XVIII, affirming the position that the Empire was only tyranny. This led many Freemasons to resign, especially as the Grand Orient changed its position again during the Hundred Days.

The Battle of Waterloo saw the end of the First Empire and of the great period of military lodges. The units commanded by Brothers Michel Ney (initiated in 1801 at the "St. John of Jerusalem" Lodge in Nancy, then a member of "The Candor" Lodge of the 6th Corps of the Grand Army), Pierre Cambronne and Emmanuel de Grouchy (of the "Heroism" Lodge in Beauvais and the "Candor" Lodge in Strasbourg) were defeated by those headed by Brothers Arthur Wellesley of Wellington (of the "Wellesley Family Lodge # 494" of Trim, Ireland) and Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher ("Archimedes" Lodge in Altenburg). Most of the marshals of the Empire were Freemasons, as were many of their opponents, including the English Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson (York Union Lodge # 331), Sir John Moore, Marshal Mikhaïl Illarionovitch Kutuzov ("The Three Keys" Lodge, Regensburg) and General Jean-Victor Marie Moreau.

Among the famous Freemasons of the Empire were

The fall of Napoleon caused to a large extent that of French Freemasonry. Louis XVIII was returned to power, and during the subsequent White Terror, people suspected of having ties with the government of the French Revolution or Napoleon – including the military and Freemasons – saw their armies and lodges decimated by "Knights of Faith," led by General Amédée Willot de Gramprez, a freemason himself. Duke Elie Decazes, Prefect of Police and a member of the Supreme Council of France, was hardly able to limit attacks against the Freemasons. The Freemasons would later, like many public figures, capitalize on political opportunism. But they would have to wait until the Second Empire and, more importantly, the Third Republic, before the Freemasonry would know a second "golden age" in France.


A. Bouchon and Didier Grau, webmasters of this site, warmly thank their friend who permitted them to use his personal archives about Freemasonry during French Consulate and First Empire.