Embracing tolerance and approaching life with an open mind, it’s no coincidence that the Duke of Sussex played such a pivotal role in shaping modern Freemasonry, writes Malta Grand Inspector Dr Lawrence Porter
The Duke of Sussex, Grand Master from 1813 to 1843, is a towering figure in the history of English Freemasonry. He played a pivotal role in the unification of the Premier and Antient Grand Lodges to form the United Grand Lodge of England in 1813. It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of his influence on the structure and status of modern English Freemasonry. Without his vision, energy and, above all, his sense of tolerance, the United Grand Lodge of England would not exist in its present form. Just imagine if we still had two competing Grand Lodges and how this would dampen the effectiveness of English Freemasonry throughout the world.
Augustus Fredrick was born a Royal Prince on 27 January 1773, the ninth of the fifteen children of George III and Queen Charlotte. On 27 November 1801, at the age of twenty-eight, the King made him Duke of Sussex.
Augustus had a reputation for open-mindedness and was considered the most liberal of his siblings, being something of a social reformer. He was educated abroad, entering the University of Göttingen in 1786 at the age of thirteen. He was the only one of the princes not to pursue a military career, although some commentators have attributed this to the fact that he suffered from asthma rather than his well-known liberal propensities.
In opposition to the views of some of his older brothers, in particular the Duke of Cumberland, Augustus favoured Catholic Emancipation. He was also, despite his devout Christianity, a strong supporter of the Jewish community. In 1815, the Duke accepted patronage of the Jews’ Hospital and Orphan Asylum, which survives to this day as the charity Norwood.
He also lent his influence to promote various benevolent schemes and was once referred to as ‘the most charming beggar in Europe’.
Augustus was a prominent supporter of the arts and also of scientific research and progress. He became president of the Society of Arts in 1816 and president of the Royal Society in 1830. An active president of the Royal Society, Augustus hosted many parties at Kensington Palace, often at great personal expense.
Augustus was initiated into the Lodge of Victorious Truth in Berlin in 1798 while studying in Germany.
He took rapidly to masonry, eventually occupying the Chair of his German Lodge. Back in England, in 1800 Augustus joined his brother George’s Prince of Wales Lodge, now No. 259. The Duke joined the Lodge of Friendship, No. 6, in 1806 and Antiquity, No. 2, in 1808. In 1814, he was instrumental in the resuscitation and, later, amalgamation of several lodges to form Royal Alpha Lodge, No. 16 – which was the Grand Master’s personal lodge and remains so until this day.
In 1813, Augustus was elected Grand Master of the Premier Grand Lodge while his elder brother, the Duke of Kent, became Grand Master of the Antients, and they became involved in the completion of the negotiations for the unification of the two Grand Lodges.
The Articles of Union were finalised at the end of 1813 and on 27 December 1813, the Duke of Kent graciously stood aside for his younger brother to take the reins of the new Grand Lodge. Augustus remained Grand Master for thirty years until his death in 1843. He referred to the union of the two Grand Lodges as ‘the happiest event of my life’.
Augustus was a very hands-on Grand Master, resolving ‘to rule as well as to reign’. He attended some of the meetings of the special Lodge of Reconciliation (1813-1816), personally chaired the Board of General Purposes and was involved in the detail of all of the major Board decisions. The Union did not proceed quite as smoothly as it might appear from our vantage point, two hundred years further on. Indeed, Augustus faced significant resistance to the changes necessary to bring together two proud organisations with similar aims and ceremonies, but with important differences.
‘Augustus astounded the nation by becoming the first royal to be buried in a public graveyard. After his death in 1843, he was laid to rest in Kensal Green Cemetery.’
Demonstrating his independent thinking, Augustus astounded the nation by becoming the first royal to be buried in a public graveyard. After his death on 21 April 1843, and following the instructions recorded in his will, he was laid to rest in Kensal Green Cemetery in North London. Such a choice of burial place by a royal prince required the permission of Queen Victoria. He had been the Queen’s favourite uncle and gave her away at her wedding to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1840. The Spectator of 29 April 1843 wrote: ‘Her acquiescence in his selection of a place of burial may be received as an indication that she understood as well as loved him.’
A visit to the Kensal Green Cemetery is worthwhile. After the Duke’s burial there, and later the burial of his sister, Princess Sophie, the cemetery became fashionable and many famous people followed suit. However, the inscription on the tombstone is now difficult to read and I believe that Freemasons would do well to pay more attention to the final resting place of our Grand Master.