Freemasonry's birth

CODEX Entry 2632: Freemasonry ‘s birth


Freemasonry ’s birth must be understood within the context at the time when it began, a period in Italy’s history of financial ruin; the Roman church’s moral collapse; and the loss of the church’s eastern capital, Constantinople in 1463. The owning and disseminating of Gnostic or Egyptian religious or scientific texts was punishable by death, forcing small meetings of students into a web of secrecy that, as their numbers grew, needed to be codified. In turn, the rules concerning what books could be printed or owned was being codified by the church with the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, driving unorthodox thought and literature further underground.

Ever since the 11th century, when Countess Matilda had willed the region of Tuscany to the Pope, with its trading hubs of Florence, Siena and Pisa, the cities had sought to regain their autonomy by war, or by taking control of the papacy. These city states would frequently seek financial and military backing from the Kings of Europe in this aim, acting as a catalyst for much of the civil strife across Europe.

The writings of Hermes Trismegistus were shared secretly amongst business and political leaders of Europe from 1460, when Cosimo Medici, ruler of Florence and banker to kings and popes, financed Ficino’s translation. Several of these works took a pseudo-scientific approach to how the Egyptians were able to communicate with, and even return to the Gods. With the majesty of the pyramids, all the more impressive in the 15th century, intellectuals in Europe believed these words offered a more concrete path to salvation, when compared to the confused messages of manism promoted by the corrupt and impoverished Roman Catholic church. It sought to leapfrog back to the knowledge that was passed to the patricians of ancient Rome and the philosophers of Greece, a wisdom older than Moses himself.

Even after Cosimo’s death in 1464, the group of gnostic intellectuals, practitioners of what was called Egyptianism before freemasonry had a name, were still centred around the Medici family. For 4 terrible years from 1494, waves of anarchy and penance spread over the Italian peninsula, with the arrival of an invading French army forcing the Medicis into exile. The soldiers brought with them a new, terrifying disease, imported from the Americas, syphilis. First the invaders brought destruction through looting and rape, then they were followed by Christian fanatics who, in turn, burned books and destroyed objects of art during the Bonfire of Vanities of 1497. At the age of 19, and as the dust settled, Giovanni de Medici returned to Florence with his family and rebuilt their financial empire. As an ardent follower of the philosophies promulgated by Hermes Trismegistus, by the age of 37, he achieved the family, the Egyptianists, and the city’s long sought dream, by being elected pope. His election was on the 9th of March 1513; he was ordained a priest on the 15th of March; Bishop of Rome on 17th March; then installed as Pope Leo X on the 19th March. The newly elected Pope soon embarked on a major fundraising campaign, with an unprecedented sale of indulgences, to complete work on St. Peter’s Basilica, begun 70 years earlier. It is through his influence that so many freemasonry and Egyptian symbols can be found in the Basilica. Two years after his death, his cousin, Giulio di Giuliano de Medici became Pope Clement VII (1523–34). His attempts to maintain his authority above that of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, by colluding with the french, saw Rome once again sacked by troops, this time from the other side, in 1527.

Egyptianism planted its roots in different ways in different regions of Europe. Notably in England, Queen Elizabeth I was surrounded by a group of followers of Egyptianism. She herself saw Egyptianism as a counterweight to papal authority, an institution that continuously tried to assassinate her. Elizabeth’s court as such became a centre of astrology and magic, with her personal astrologer, the infamous mathematician, John Dee. Brocardo and the Dominican friar Giordano Bruno became members of the “Dee circle” which included such people as Walter Ralegh and Philip Sidney. The scholar Frances Yates has described Bruno as embarking on a “Hermetic religious mission, in which his aim was a full restoration of Ficino’s magical religion”, namely the Egyptianism shaped within the Medici household. Bruno had previously acquired the patronage of the French king Henry III, the son of Catherine de Medici. Indeed, Catherine de Medici was also a follower of Egyptianism. Her household contained the infamous ‘Flying Squadron’, 300 beautiful young women, dressed seductively and modelled on the Vestal Virgins. Her astrologer, Cosimo Ruggeri, the feared occultist, avoided the gallows for sorcery on several occasions thanks to the protection of Queen Catherine and Marie de’ Medici. Catherine’s competitor for the king’s affections, Diane de Poitier, found Egyptian symbols carved into a castle when it was transferred over to her. Until the Huguenots attempted to kidnap her, Catherine de Medici had remained studiously neutral in the wars between the Catholics and Protestants, and there were constant whispers of sorcery, particularly from her son-in-law Phillip II of Spain, creator of the ill-fated Armada against his other maligned sorceress, Elizabeth. Bruno claimed that Christianity was a poor, bastardised version of the original enlightened universal religion that was detailed in the Hermetic writings. Like Ficino, Bruno believed that the cross was really an Egyptian sacred sign. Interrogated by the Inquisition at the end of his life, Bruno confirmed that he had read in Ficino’s books that the cross had been stolen by the Christians from the Egyptian cult of Serapis. Bruno also declared Jesus to be a Magus, an enlightened human being, but not the Son of God, rejecting manism. He further declared, to the shock of the court, that there were millions of suns in the universe and that many of these suns had planets that were inhabited by living beings. In lectures and publications, Bruno continued to promote the need for a rejection of Christianity in favour of a return to the religion of Egypt, as they were written in the Corpus Hermeticum. The Church promptly imprisoned, excommunicated, and then burned him at the stake for these proclamations. All of Bruno’s works were placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1603. This Index of heretical works contained many of the early texts of freemasonry and is why the order contains such a strict hierarchy of secrecy.

Joseph Scaliger, through Isaac Casaubon, was able to locate the manuscript written by Syncellus, which contained quotes of Manetho’s lost books on Egyptian history, in Catherine de Medici’s library. Scaliger calculated erroneously that the Egyptian calendar was built on the revolutions of the stars in the sky using Sirius as its main marker. His analysis suggested that the Egyptian New Year (the First of Thoth, i.e. Hermes Trismegistus) coincided with August 29, which in the Christian calendar is the feast day of the Beheading of John the Baptist. On the 1st of Thoth, which happened every 1460 years, Sirius rose over the horizon just ahead of the sun.

In the 17th and 18th century, when the first explorers set sail to Egypt, to unearth the mysterious remains of ancient Egypt, most of those “explorers” were Freemasons.

The de’ Medicis control of the Papacy, ensured that the city of Florence reported directly to the papacy until 1737, when the last Grand Duke of Tuscany, Gian Gastone de’ Medici, died without a successor. Francis, Duke of Lorraine, was installed as Grand Duke of Tuscany as a trusted and well connected distant relative. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VI then arranged for the marriage of his only daughter Maria Theresa to Francis, to replace him. Francis was connected with the Habsburgs through his grandmother Eleonore, daughter of Emperor Ferdinand III. In 1731 Francis had been initiated into freemasonry through the Grand Lodge of England by John Theophilus Desaguliers at a specially convened lodge in The Hague at the house of the British Ambassador, Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield. Later Francis was made a Master Mason at Houghton Hall, the Norfolk estate of British Prime Minister Robert Walpole. It was intended that this new marriage and alliance of powerful families and estates could regain control of the papacy from the Hohenzollern family.

This new English link with the Medici dominated world of Italian freemasonry was first established with the Jacobites, English Catholic exiles living in Florence. These noblemen formed the first recognised Italian lodge in Florence in 1733. Their leader was, oddly enough, a protestant, Charles Sackville, Earl of Middlesex, and afterwards Duke of Dorset. This acceptance of Catholics and Protestants was an early hallmark of the masons unifying power.

At that time the Pope was Clement XII. In 1738 the Spanish armies conquered the kingdom of Naples and Sicily and Emperor Charles VI declared his sovereignty over the cities of Parma and Piacenza. While it was impossible for the Pope to raise an army to reassert the papal influence, something had to be done to get back the city of Florence. The papal bull In Eminenti was issued the 28th of April 1738, the first ever specifying that any Catholic who became a freemason would be excommunicated. The Florentine Lodge, made up mostly of British expatriates dissolved itself and the English noblemen returned home to avoid the Inquisition. The secretary, Brother Tommaso Crudeli, and other Italian brethren were arrested and tortured. While the Grand Lodge of England supported their families, Prime Minister Robert Walpole, also a freemason, and Charles Sackville, Earl of Middlesex, with the Duke of Dorset, both former Masters of the Florentine Lodge, urged the British Foreign Secretary to negotiate their release. As part of a deal brokered between the dying Habsburg Emperor Charles VI, the king of Prussia, Frederick Hohenzollern, and the British government, Florence would be returned to the papal state after the death of the Grand Duke Francis of Lorraine, the freemason and future Emperor. This unwavering support of fellow freemasons displayed that the bonds of freemasonry went far beyond national or religious boundaries. This early run in with the church was also a harbinger of things to come, showing that the battles had little to do with religious dogma and more to do with power, losses of territory, and revenue for the papacy.