It stands majestic and imposing amongst the small trading shops of Great Queen Street in Holborn. Many of us have walked past it not realizing what it is, what it stands for or the magnificence that hides beneath its art deco façade. Fans of the TV series ‘Spooks’ will know it as the MI5 building, but for those who are better informed will already know it to be the Freemasons Hall, home of The United Grand Lodge of England. A grandiose title would surely deem it with a worthy interior, such an interior in fact that it is almost too much to behold. It’s a kaleidoscope of intensely-decorated corridors and grand rooms that cover a massive 2 & 1/4 acres. It was built between 1927-1933 as a memorial to the 3225 Freemasons who died in active service during WWI. Originally given the name of the Masonic Peace Memorial, it defaulted to the name ‘Freemasons’ Hall’ at the outbreak of war in 1939. If you considered the hype of secrecy that surrounds the Freemasons you would think it an impenetrable fortress for only certain eyes to see. Not so, for Nigel Brown the Grand Secretary welcomed me with open arms. In fact, the building has always been open to the public and offers daily guided tours.
The first thing I’m told is just how much Freemasonry is misunderstood and over exaggerated. Despite what people say, Freemasonry prides itself on its openness and transparency. Copies of its aims, constitutions and rules are freely available on its web-site.
The motivation for Freemason comes from the 3 principles of ‘Brotherly love, Relief and Truth’. They are also actively encouraged to study the 7 liberal arts and sciences: grammar, rhetoric, dialect, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, in providing the backbone for good and moral decisions. Their Lodge meetings forbid talk on politics and religion and mainly concern themselves with ethical and charitable relations. Many believe Freemasons only help their own kind but that is very far from the truth. Besides regularly donating to countries succumbed to natural disasters, they have also established 4 national charities: The Grand Charity offers relief for Freemasons in adversity and also offers grants for non-Masonic causes; The Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys supports children from both Masonic and non-Masonic families; The Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution provides nursing homes for older Freemasons; and The New Masonic Samaritan Fund that allocates Masonic healthcare. Masons are obligated to act in a civilized manner, obey the law of his supreme being, (religion is not prejudiced against and each Freemason is free to choose their own supreme being) obey the law of his sovereign country, attend the lodge if he is able, not to wrong, cheat or embezzle the Lodge or his brethren, and to promise to offer aid to his family, comrade and their families if they are able. It is simply a code of morals for leading a good and helpful life. Anyone can apply for membership and the annual fee within reason. Despite what you may have heard you do not have to wait for your name to be put forward and your entry is assessed predominantly on your moral standing.
The origins of the Freemasons remain somewhat a mystery. In medieval times they were believed to have been an exclusive group of master artisans who passed on their craft and building skills to fellow masons who had been accepted into their group. It was in Scotland that masons first started accepting non-artisans. It was also around this time that rather than just building structures they started creating symbols in the actual stone. Nowadays, rather than building temples, they build ‘men’.
The esoteric symbols are omnipresent in the United Grand Lodge: the square and compass (as a reminder to be honest and ‘square’ in your dealings and to be temperate in your desires); the ‘all-seeing eye’ (for spiritual sight); the blazing star (known amongst Pythagoreans as a symbol for health and knowledge); the snake (token of wisdom); and horses reins (represents guidance) to name but a few. A figure that shows up more than once is King Solomon. The hefty bronze doors (1 & 1/4 tons each) that mark the entrance to the Grand Temple relate the story of the building of King Solomon’s Temple and along the mosaic cornice inside the Temple itself there stands Solomon and Hiram, his master architect. King Solomon’s temple is not only supposed to illustrate the ‘greater temple’ but also your ‘inner temple’. Reference goes even further with the story of Hiram where his 3 apprentices, desperate to learn his skills even though Hiram refused to divulge his secrets, end up killing him with 3 blows to the head. This story is re-enacted in a Freemason’s initiation ceremony. The new Mason as Hiram pretends to die but is revived by the power of the Masonic grip. The lesson teaches fidelity to one’s word. On the mural between Solomon and Hiram there lies the 3 theological virtues of the cross (faith), the anchor (hope) and a burning heart. (charity) The facing wall depicts Euclid and Pythagoras with the diagram of the Pythagorean theorem in the middle, giving proof of this amazing element of geometry.
It is common knowledge that Freemasons take pride in accepting men of stature as members of the fraternity. However, high rank in society does not automatically equate similar ranking in the hierarchy of the Freemasons. Famously, Sir Winston Churchill never made it very high in the ranks even though he was Prime Minister, went on to see his country safely through WWII and was one of the greatest British statesmen of recent history.
Nevertheless, through learning and discussion a Mason progresses through degrees to better his understanding of himself, his relationships with others and with his supreme being. As testament, the last room I visit is the Grand Master’s Lodge, a post that has been filled since 1967 by HRH Prince Edward, The Duke of Kent and first cousin to the Queen. On one table stands a roughly cut stone ashlar and on another a very smooth one. The Grand Secretary claims Masons frequently touch the rough stone upon entering the room and then the smooth one when leaving as a reminder of Masonic principles: you are coarse and unrefined when you come in and leave cultured and polished.
Next Week’s Insight:
Crossbones – the ancient burial site for the outcasts of London.