By John Dickie
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Lisbon: John Coustos’s Secrets
On 14 March 1743, as he was leaving a Lisbon coffee house, John Coustos, a forty-year-old jeweller from London, was grabbed, handcuffed and bundled into a chaise. A short time later, he found himself in one of the most feared buildings in Europe. Looming at the northern end of Rossio Square, the Estaus Palace housed the Portuguese headquarters of the Holy Office of the Inquisition.
Just like hundreds of witches, heretics and Jews who had been brought there before him, Coustos had his scalp shaved, and was stripped naked save for his linen undergarments. Confined in a dungeon, he was subjected to a meticulous regime. Isolation and silence were rigidly enforced: a fellow prisoner with a persistent cough was cudgelled into unconsciousness. No communication with friends and relatives was permitted. No possessions. No books–not even a Bible. Nothing that would interrupt the voice of divine conscience. Nothing to block out the prisoner’s all too vivid imagining of the horrors that awaited him in the Inquisition’s auto-da-fé. This grand spectacle of religious justice was a procession culminating in prayers, incantations and public execution by one of two methods: the mercy of strangling, for those who embraced the Catholic faith at the last minute; and for the obstinate, the unutterable torment of the flames.
Coustos tells us that the Inquisitors initially questioned him in a spiritually nurturing tone. Nonetheless, he had the clear sense that his replies were futile. Eventually he was summoned from his cell and brought before the President of the Holy Office, who read out the charges as if talking to a wall:
That he has infring’d the Pope’s Orders, by his belonging to the Sect of the Free-Masons; this Sect being a horrid Compound of Sacrilege, Sodomy, and many other abominable Crimes; of which the inviolable Secrecy observ’d therein, and the Exclusion of Women, were but too manifest Indications; a Circumstance that gave the highest Offence to the whole Kingdom: And the said Coustos having refused to discover, to the Inquisitors, the true Tendency and Design of the Meetings of Free-Masons; and persisting, on the contrary, in asserting, that Free-Masonry was good in itself: Wherefore the Proctor of the Inquisition requires, that the said Prisoner may be prosecuted with the utmost Rigour; and, for this Purpose, desires the Court would exert its whole Authority, and even proceed to Tortures.
Coustos was taken to a square, windowless room in a tower. Quilted padding lined the door, to deaden the sound of screaming from within. A doctor and a surgeon looked back at him from the shadows. The only light came from two candles on the desk at which the Tribunal’s secretary sat waiting to record his confession.
Four burly men seized him and clamped him to a horizontal rack by closing an iron collar around his neck. They fitted rings, with ropes attached, to his feet, and yanked his limbs to their fullest extent. Then eight loops of cord, two over each arm and two over each leg, were passed through the frame and fed out into the torturers’ hands. Coustos felt the cords tighten, and tighten, and finally start to saw through his flesh. Blood spattered the floor beneath him. If he died in this torment, he was told, only his own obstinacy would be to blame. Between his own cries, he heard the Inquisitor pose the questions he had already heard many times. What is Freemasonry? What are its constitutions? What goes on in the Lodge meetings? Eventually, he fainted and was carried back to the dungeons.
Six weeks later, the Inquisitors tried again, with a different method: the dreaded strappado. Upright this time, Coustos had his arms gradually stretched back behind him, palms facing outwards, until the backs of his hands met. Then his arms were pulled slowly upwards until his shoulders were levered from their sockets, and blood poured from his mouth. As he beseeched heaven for patience, the Inquisitors persisted with their questions. Is Freemasonry a religion? Why do you not admit women? Is it because you are sodomites?
When the doctors had reset his bones, and he had spent two months recovering, the torture resumed. This time, a chain was wound around his torso and attached to his wrists. Pulleys drew the chain ever tighter, squeezing his insides, and dislocating his wrists as well as his shoulders. Why all the secrecy in Freemasonry? What do you have to hide?
Coustos tells us that he spent sixteen months in total in the dungeons of the Estaus Palace, and endured nine bouts of torture, before the time finally came for him to be paraded through the streets in the auto-da-fè of 21 June 1744. But he was lucky. While eight of his fellow prisoners were burned alive at the climax of the procession, he was condemned to four years as a galley slave. The relative freedom this sentence afforded gave him the chance to contact friends, who mobilised the British government to obtain his release.
When he reached London on 15 December 1744, he set to writing his story. But he had barely begun when the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 broke out. ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ Stuart raised his standard in the Highlands of Scotland, intent on enforcing his Catholic claim to the throne that had once been his grandfather’s. The Jacobite army descended as far as Derby, in the heart of England, sowing panic in the capital. Although it was eventually crushed, the rebellion revived the public appetite for books documenting the barbarities of the Roman Church. The Sufferings of John Coustos for Free-Masonry, complete with engravings of all the tortures its author had endured, was published at the perfect moment. Coustos became a celebrity. The book was widely translated, and remained in print well into the nineteenth century. Here was a martyr for Freemasonry and its ‘inviolable Secrecy’.
Except that things did not quite go in the way Coustos said.
Over two centuries later, the Inquisition’s transcription of his interrogation surfaced from the Lisbon archives to reveal that he did give away the mysteries of Freemasonry that he had vowed to die to protect. Very sensibly, faced with the prospect of the torture chamber and the auto-da-fé, he told all. Indeed, he barely waited for the Inquisitors to open their mouths before answering all their questions.
Not that his confession saved him from being tortured. Portuguese Inquisitors rarely needed much of an excuse to break out the instruments of pain. They racked Coustos twice. For a little over fifteen minutes each time. Just to make sure. But he was never subjected to the strappado or the nameless torture with the chain wound round his torso.
Something else that Coustos neglected to tell his readers is that, had the Lisbon Inquisitors looked hard enough, they could have found published sources that would have taught them what they wanted to know: like Sam Prichard’s pamphlet Masonry Dissected of 1730. Exposés of Freemasonry are nearly as old as Freemasonry itself. Masonic secrets have never really been all that secret.
Coustos evidently found the temptation to pass himself off as a hero just too strong. So once back at liberty he doctored his story to perpetuate a beguiling myth: the idea that Freemasons are the bearers of some momentous or dangerous truth, to which only the chosen few can have access, and which they are bound by oath to safeguard at any cost.
Freemasonry’s ‘inviolable Secrecy’ is elusive and powerful. It is the engine of the fascination and suspicion that have always surrounded the Freemasons. It inspires loyalty and attracts trouble. Secrecy is a game, and both Coustos and the Inquisitors were caught up in it. Yet, as I think John Coustos appreciated, secrets are not as important to Freemasonry as stories about secrecy. Secrecy is the key to Masonic history in that, if we can grasp it, we can unlock a rich store of narratives about how the world we live in was made.
What Coustos actually confessed were the strange rituals at the heart of Masonic life, and the philosophy that is embedded in them. To understand the Freemasons, we need to appreciate those rituals and that philosophy–both of which are formally secret. However, there is a great deal more to Masonic history than rituals. Drawing on Coustos’s confession, in Chapter Two of this book I will rapidly equip readers with all the secrets about ritual they need to know. However, as the Coustos story shows, before we learn those core mysteries, it is important to have more preparation in what to expect from Masonic history, and from the secrecy that has such an important role in it.
When John Coustos encountered the Portuguese Inquisition, the history of the Brotherhood that Masons sometimes call ‘the Craft’ was already in full flow. In Coustos’s day, Freemasonry’s mythology placed its origins with the builders of King Solomon’s Temple. Now, thanks to a deal of academic detective work, the beginning of its documented history has been located nearly a hundred and fifty years before Coustos. Chapter Three will describe its genesis.
Freemasonry was also, in some important respects, a novelty when Coustos was arrested. Amid a great deal of intrigue, in London in 1717, it adopted both a new organisational shape and a new rulebook. Soon afterwards, Freemasonry became a raging success, and spread round the world with astonishing rapidity. It is one of Britain’s most successful cultural exports, comparable in that respect to sports like tennis, soccer and golf. From London, John Coustos himself helped transplant it to France as well as Portugal. Chapter Four will bring my narrative back up to Coustos’s day by describing the London roots of what, for the rest of the book, becomes a global story.
In its essence, Freemasonry has not changed since Coustos’s time: it is a fellowship of men, and men alone, who are bound by oaths to a method of self-betterment. The method centres on rituals, performed in isolation from the outside world, in which symbols stand for moral qualities. The most important of those symbols derive from the work of stonemasons. Hence the name ‘Freemasons’; hence the square and compass, the apron and gloves, that we all associate with the Craft.
If that were the beginning and end of Masonry, its history would be dull. Secrecy is the catalyst that makes it eventful and compelling. For one thing, secrecy has an allure that has attracted many millions of men towards the Craft. Under interrogation in 1743, Coustos explained that secrecy was partly just bait for new recruits: ‘as Secrecy naturally excited Curiosity, this prompted great Numbers of Persons to enter into this Society’. The great and the good were among those Persons. All Freemasons are proud of the gallery of outstanding figures who have been their Brothers. Coustos declared himself ‘not a little honoured in belonging to a Society, which boasted several Christian Kings, Princes and Persons of the highest Quality among its Members’. Part of the attraction of being a Freemason is the cachet that comes with belonging to such an exclusive band. Secrecy guarantees that exclusivity: possession of the Masonic secrets, whatever they are, is what distinguishes a Craftsman from a Cowan (a non-Mason).
Since Coustos’s time, the list of famous Freemasons has grown longer and longer. The Craft likes to point to the makers of nations who have come from among its ranks: Giuseppe Garibaldi, Simón Bolívar, Motilal Nehru and George Washington, who was initiated six years after The Sufferings of John Coustos was published. Five Kings of England and, including Washington, no fewer than fourteen Presidents of the United States of America have been Masons. Freemasonry can boast a long list of writers, such as: Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns; the author of Dangerous Liaisons (1782), Pierre Choderlos de Laclos; Sherlock Holmes’s creator, Arthur Conan Doyle; and the towering figure of German letters, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Numerous composers, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn and Jean Sibelius, have been ‘on the Square’. There are sportsmen in the list, like golfer Arnold Palmer, Caribbean cricket giant Clive Lloyd, boxer Sugar Ray Robinson and basketball player Shaquille O’Neal. There are also many entertainers, ranging from Harry Houdini and Peter Sellers to Nat King Cole and Oliver Hardy. Mason entrepreneurs include such titans as Henry Ford of automobile fame, William Lever the detergent pioneer and mining magnate Cecil Rhodes. Freemasons have excelled at the most disparate spheres of achievement: Davy Crockett and Oscar Wilde; Walt Disney and Winston Churchill; Buzz Aldrin and ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody; Paul Revere and Roy Rogers; Duke Ellington and the Duke of Wellington.
Today, there are 400,000 Masons in Britain, 1.1 million in the USA and around six million across the planet. In the past, their numbers have been much greater.
Such names, such numbers, testify to the magnetic power of secrecy, and to the Craft’s vast and enduring influence. Plenty of famous Masons will people the pages of this book. Their stories, and the individual style in which each has lived out his Masonry, are fascinating. But more fascinating still is the overarching narrative of Freemasonry itself–a way of binding males in fellowship that has been propelled across the globe and through hundreds of years of history by the force of its mystique.
Wherever the Craft was transplanted, its influence leaked into society. Just one example: the activities that go on in private, behind the doors of Lodges, have helped spread the values we associate with modern public life. Freemasons have long aspired to live by a code of religious and racial tolerance, democracy, cosmopolitanism and equality before the law.
However, the story I will tell in this book has much more to it than the kind of Enlightenment values I have just alluded to. There is plenty of dark to go with the light. Our modernity, which the Masons have helped shape, comprises things like imperialism and global war, the building and breaking of states and nations, dictatorship and religious fanaticism.
Which prompts me to say a word about the Inquisitors who tortured Coustos. Understanding how the Freemasons and their secrecy were perceived by their enemies helps us grasp just what made them such a novelty to most of the eighteenth-century world, what distinguishes them even today and what makes their history worth telling.
In 1738 Pope Clement XII, who is better known for building the Trevi Fountain, issued the Bull In eminenti apostolatus specula: it prohibited Freemasonry, excommunicated all members and charged the Inquisition with probing its inner workings. John Coustos was not the only victim of the inquiry.
The Pope and his Inquisitors had good and urgent reasons for their suspicions. Freemasonry was obviously religious, in some dark sense. It soon emerged that the Craft had its own name for the deity: the Great Architect of the Universe. Its members prayed, took religious oaths and performed rites. Yet they claimed that the Craft was not a religion. Freemasonry, the Masons said, did not try to arbitrate between visions of the divine; it held no particular theological line. Indeed, as Coustos protested to the Portuguese Inquisitors, ‘in [our] Fraternity, it is not permitted to speak of religious matters’: this prohibition was imposed to prevent conflict between Brothers, and to avoid attracting trouble. Hardly surprisingly, however, the freedom of conscience championed by the Craft gave off the sulphurous reek of heresy to a Church dedicated to guarding its monopoly on truth.
Freemasonry’s British origins also made it suspect. Coming from such a strange country, with its overmighty parliament, its elections and its daily newspapers, the Freemasons were bound to seem like an alien threat. Perhaps they were spies.
Or even a global network of subversives. Just as Freemasonry’s Britishness made it shady, so too did its internationalism. Masons were citizens of nowhere, and subjects of no one.
Freemasonry also attracted a freakishly diverse range of members: tradesmen, merchants, lawyers, actors, Jews, and even the odd African. A social menagerie. Nor was this the usual train of hangers-on, dependent on the patronage of a powerful lord. While many noblemen were involved, they did not always seem to be in command. In fact, it was not at all clear whether anyone was in command. To those who believed that society’s hierarchies were fixed by Almighty God, this was alarming.
Of course, the Masons always said that they were not political. But then no plotter with any sense would say anything else. In an era when absolute monarchy was the norm, few countries had anything like an open political life as we might know it. Bringing an association of men together for any reason constituted a potential threat to the established order. It mattered little to Freemasonry’s enemies that, like religion and for the same reasons, politics was prohibited as a topic of conversation within the Lodge.
So in the eyes of the Catholic Church, Freemasonry was manifestly dangerous. The Brotherhood’s furtive manner electrified those misgivings. John Coustos claimed that his Brotherhood had no clandestine agenda, and that instead, ‘Charity and Brotherly Love’ were ‘the Foundation and the Soul of this Society’. Masons still say very similar things. The Lisbon Inquisitors’ reply to Coustos feels just as contemporary: ‘if this Society of Free-Masons was so virtuous, there was no Occasion of their concealing, so very industriously, the Secrets of it’. Freemasons today bridle when they hear their Brotherhood referred to as a secret society. ‘We are not a secret society,’ they protest. ‘We are a society with secrets.’ It is hardly a conclusive retort. Once you say you have secrets, no amount of calibrated honesty and openness will put minds to rest: anyone with even a moderately suspicious attitude will assume you are still concealing something vital. So perhaps it is no surprise that the Vatican has never forsaken its original hostility to the Craft, and remains convinced that the Lodges are pernicious dens of atheism.
Masonry’s enemies have often shared one particular style of thinking: the conspiracy theory, whose very invention we owe to the fear of Freemasonry. Since the early nineteenth century, Masonic conspiracies have never been out of fashion, and they range from the eerily plausible to the outlandish. The Masons poisoned Mozart. Jack the Ripper was a Mason, and Masons covered his tracks. Masons masterminded the French Revolution, the unification of Italy, the break-up of the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Revolution. The Internet pullulates with sites dedicated to the Illuminati, a branch of Freemasonry whose members, including Bono, Bill Gates and Jay Z, have signed an occult covenant that binds them to a nefarious plan to rule the world.
Some of these myths are harmless: they are rather like the ‘I-don’t-believe-it-but-it’s-true’ ghost stories that teenagers tell one another, to share a frisson. Some of them are very dangerous. Mussolini, Hitler and Franco suspected the Freemasons of conspiracy, and murdered thousands of them as a result. The Craft has always been viewed as a devious bourgeois caucus by communists and it is still banned in the People’s Republic of China. The Muslim world also has a strong tradition of anti-Masonic paranoia.
The oath of silence that Freemasons take during their initiation is all that is required to give the conspiratorial imagination free play. Freemasonry’s secrecy is like a well. The men who built it know how deep it is. The rest of us can only peer over the wall that surrounds it and wonder. While we gaze downwards at the water, speculating on what might lurk below, the black surface reflects back our anxieties. That, in essence, is why the Craft has generated misunderstanding, suspicion and hostility at every step. No history of Freemasonry is complete unless it also includes Freemasonry’s foes.
Craftsmen are the inheritors of a venerable tradition. Ask any one of them, and he will tell you something about Masonic history. Many regard historical research as an integral part of deepening their understanding of Craft mysteries.
Yet, until recently, Freemasons insisted on treating their history as confidential–a matter for Masons alone. Cowans were refused access to the archives and libraries of Grand Lodges. Then, a generation ago, the wisest Brothers realised that Masonic history is too important to be the exclusive property of the initiated. Because Freemasonry has had a role in shaping our world, its history belongs to us all. These days, professional historians who are not Freemasons are a familiar sight in the archives of Grand Lodges. Their work, supplementing and challenging the efforts of the best Masonic historians, has mapped out an exciting and ever-growing field of investigation. One of the aims of this book is to bring some of that research to a much bigger audience.
Freemasons’ pride in their own history tends to produce many studies that are really identity narratives: their aim is less to discover the truth than to boost the Craft’s esprit de corps. The Sufferings of John Coustos for Free-Masonry is a model for many Masonic narratives in the way it paints a black-and-white picture that pits the Craft’s tradition of tolerance, wisdom and brotherly love against the angry, uncomprehending forces of anti-Masonry.
Freemasonry is supposed to be–and often is–about philanthropy, fellowship, ethics and spirituality. There is a rule in Masonry that Brothers are not allowed to join because they want to get a boost to their career chances or some other personal advantage. Such rules have their weight. It is too cynical to dismiss them as just a cover story for grubby aims. Any historian who cannot see the power of the nobler motive forces in the Craft is telling a very one-eyed tale.
However, for their part, Freemasons are too reserved about one undeniably important theme of their history: networking. Like the rest of the human race, Masons network. In the right circumstances, Lodges can be a great place to build a network, for all kinds of good and bad reasons. There is a word to be said in defence of the Masons here. In Britain, for example, male networks tend to unite people from a similar background: the right private school, or the right group of pub mates. Just like these other circles, Masonry tends to exclude women. But it is different in that it can cut across between the social classes–or at least a more representative sample of social classes. Masons will point out that the reason they wear gloves in their ceremonies is so that no Brother can tell the difference between the hands of a Duke and the hands of a dustman. That said, Lodges have sometimes become nests of nepotism and even shadowy plotting. Not all the conspiracy theories and suspicions of Masonic foul play are hooey. Moreover, the Masonic idea–a template for male fellowship forged by myth, ritual and secrecy–proved contagious from the outset, and impossible for the Masons to control: it has been adopted and adapted, used and abused, in innumerable different ways. Both the Sicilian mafia and the Ku Klux Klan share important strands of the Craft’s DNA.
One of my motivations for writing this book is to reflect many more varied textures of human experience than are included in Freemasonry’s identity narratives, or in the cynics’ obsession with mutual Masonic back-scratching. Rather than flatten out those textures by surveying the vast landscape of the Craft’s story from high above, I have chosen to dive down into times and places around the world that are particularly significant. The principle I follow is that Freemasonry has never been able to cloister itself away from society. Just as the Craft was forged in the peculiar circumstances of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain, so–while remaining recognisably itself–it has adapted to whichever circumstances it subsequently encountered. It is the interaction between Freemasonry and society that interests me. Masonry has helped make modern men, in all their idealism and clubbiness. As for women, I will have more to say about them later. (The same goes for the people the Inquisitors labelled ‘sodomites’.)
Our curiosity persists. What goes on in the Lodge meetings? What exactly do you have to hide? When it comes to Freemasonry, most of us have something in common with the Lisbon Inquisitors. Give or take an obsession with sodomy, their questions remain our questions. The Internet has now made the Masons’ secrets less secret than ever. Nevertheless, we non-Masons never seem to learn. There is always one more TV documentary in the pipeline, promising unprecedented access to the inner sanctum. The Masonic exposé genre never seems to die.
Freemasonry’s secrecy is richer than anything that can be laid bare by any exposé. It is more complicated, more subtle and, I happen to think, much more enjoyable to investigate. It has many strands, and is so entwined with myths and misconceptions that they have become part of its very fabric. But at its heart, as John Coustos confessed, lies a sacred drama that begins at the door of a temple, set outside time and space…
Nowhere: The Strange Death of Hiram Abiff
A man in an apron wielding a drawn sword makes you surrender your money, keys, phone–all the metalwork that anchors your person to the world outside. He blindfolds you. You feel your right sleeve being rolled up, and the left leg of your trousers, so as to expose the knee. Your arm is taken from the left sleeve of your shirt, thus leaving your breast naked. A slipknot loop of rope is placed over your head.
You step forward. Your life as a Freemason has begun.
What follows is a sketch of what an aspiring Mason is put through once he has been prepared in this way to cross the threshold of a Lodge for the first time. The ceremonies I describe here are very close to what John Coustos underwent in the Rainbow Coffee House in Fleet Street. Successive rites mark a man’s initiation, and his passage from one status within the Craft to the next. These marks of status are called Degrees. Secrets are central to the drama of Masonic Degree rituals.
The Lisbon Inquisitors called the rituals ‘ridiculous’. Over the centuries, many satirists have agreed. So, while it would be very easy to laugh at Masonic ritual, it would not be at all original. The more I have learned about Freemasonry, the more uncomfortable some of the laughter makes me, because it quashes our desire to hear Masons’ stories by stopping us seeing how like us they are.
"A fascinating tale...Mr Dickie has turned legend into history."
"Convincingly researched and thoroughly entertaining."
—The Wall Street Journal
- "The Craft is a superb book that often reads like an adventure novel. It's informative, fascinating and often very funny."—The Times (UK)
"The Craft is a shadow history of modernity. Though more sober than most lodge meetings, it is, like its subject, ingenious and frequently bizarre... The Craft is well-crafted and sensible, making good use of English archives which have only recently been opened."
- "[John Dickie] takes on this sensational subject with a wry turn of phrase and the cool judgment of a fine historian... I enjoyed this book enormously. Dickie's gaze is both wide and penetrating. He makes a persuasive case for masonry's historic importance."—Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times
- On Sale
- Aug 18, 2020
- Page Count
- 496 pages