Oscar Wilde and the Masons
Oscar Wilde and the Masons
The Wilde Oxford Mason
It is not well known fact that the charismatic and controversial literary genius Oscar Wilde was actually an active Freemason whilst he studied at Oxford.
Oscar Wilde studied classics at Trinity College, Dublin, from 1871 to 1874. He was an outstanding student, and won the Berkeley Gold Medal, the highest award available to classics students at Trinity. He received a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he continued his studies from 1874 to 1878. While at Magdalen, Wilde won the 1878 Oxford Newdigate Prize for his poem Ravenna. He graduated with a double first, the highest grade available at Oxford.
His father, Sir William Wilde, an active Freemason himself was instrumental in getting Oscar into Oxford. Oscar’s Father had becoming increasingly alarmed at the amount of Catholic people Oscar was associating with at Trinity College Dublin and wanted to put an end to it.At the time, it was well known that Oxford was strongly anti catholic.
Prince Leopold, sixth son of Queen Victoria was an Oxford student at the time also. A study of the freemasonry records from the time show that Prince Leopold was an accomplished Mason. Prince Leopold became Worshipful Master of the Apollo University Lodge on 22 February 1876, and was installed Provincial Grand Master for Oxfordshire the next day
In February 1875, John Edward Courtnay Bodley, a fellow undergraduate at Balliol College approached Oscar Wilde to join the Apollo University Lodge of the Freemasons. Wilde who at the time was also flirting with converting to Catholicism would not have been a total stranger to Freemasonry. His father, Sir William Robert Wills Wilde (1815-1876) had been an active Mason in Ireland. (Initiated in Dublin on 12 December 1838 he became Master of the Lodge in 1841)
Wilde accepted Bodley’s invitation to join the Lodge. What attracted Oscar Wilde to Freemasonry? Oscar Wilde and the Masons is indeed a curious turn of events given Oscars increasing flirtations with the Catholic Church at the time and indeed throughout his life.The Mason’s tell us that
” every man comes, of his own free will and accord, with his own personal needs and interests. One man may join so that he can associate with other men who believe that only by improving themselves can they hope to improve their society. Another man may join because he is looking for a focus for his charitable inclinations. And yet another may be attracted by a strong sense of history and tradition. Many join simply because they knew a friend or relative who was a freemason and they admired that man’s way of living his life. All who join and become active discover a bond of brotherly affection and a community of mutual support; a practical extension of their own religious and philosophical beliefs.”
We can speculate that perhaps it was a mixture of things being part of a fraternity, the rituals, the secrecy, the symbolism, the spirituality! the traditions, the history and of course it would certainly of pleased his father.
Once Oscar accepted the invitation they then set about to prime him on Freemasonry (Bodley kept a diary and Bodley recorded the following in his diary for 21 February 1875
went down with W(ilde) to Corpus found the Count (W O Goldschmidt) … we called on Williamson where we had a long talk on Masonry. He produced his properties and Wilde was as much struck by their gorgeousness, as he was amazed at the mystery of our conversation.’
Oscar Wilde’s initiation meeting on 23 February 1875 was a busy one, It opened with a third-degree ceremony where Frederic E Weatherly was raised. The passing of Guy, Lord Brooke, and Algernon H Mills, among others, was followed by the initiation of Charles Cross, William Grenfell and Oscar Wilde. Bro the Rev H A Pickard was Master.
Oscar Wilde’s Masonic career only lasted for the four-year period where he studied at Magdalen College, Oxford. It began and ended there, but he was an enthusiastic member and took it quite seriously. The Craft of Freemasonry fascinated and enthralled him and his participation of course would have pleased his Father. In his maiden speech at the festive board following his initiation which all new invitees had to give, Oscar, who had been told that J & B stood for (St) J(ohn) the B(aptist), and was the founder of the Order, stated:
‘I hope we shall emulate his life but not his death – I mean we ought to keep our heads!’
Bodley also comments on another occasion when:
‘…his (Oscar Wilde’s) only attempts at practical harmony were on occasions when the Brethren, having adjourned from labour to refreshment, he would lift his voice in chorus in a well-meaning but unsteady monotone.’
The Apollo University Lodge, now number 357, continues today as a prestigious Lodge whose members practice the ritual in a historic content and traditional costume. Officers of the lodge wear knee breeches, tailcoats and white tie and silk stockings and pumps as they have done for two centuries – an attire that would have very much appealed to Wilde’s embellished sense of dress and indeed it was this very outfit which he chose to wear when arriving in America in 1882 for his year-long lecture tour.
Oscar took his Freemasonry seriously and was a keen and active participant in Lodge affairs. Within 2 months he had been passed to the second degree on 24 April and made a Master Mason the 25 May 1875. In November of the same year Oscar also joined the Churchill Lodge. He became Inner Guard in 1876 and Senior Deacon in 1877. The event was reported in the Oxford Chronicle for Saturday, 12 May 1877:
‘The anniversary festival of (the Churchill Masonic) Lodge was held on Tuesday… when there was a large and influential attendance both of members and visitors. … The Worshipful Master, Bro H 0 Wakeman MA, Fellow of All Souls College, presided… and The Worshipful Master Elect (Bro S Frankland Hood BA of Magdalen College), was duly installed as Master for the ensuing year… The new Master appointed and invested his officers … Junior Deacon 0 F W Wilde, Magdalen… ‘
With the start of his third term at Oxford, Wilde’s Masonic activities took on new vigor. On 27 November 1876 he was ‘perfected’ into the 18° of the Rose Croix at the Oxford University Chapter No 40. This was a period of religious consequence to him, with the Roman Catholic Church being an especially strong influence on him which Oscar continued pursue despite his father’s annoyance. The Trinitarian content of the Rose Croix ritual will have particularly appealed to him at this time.
Exhibition Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons of London – 150th Anniversary _ The Library and Museum of Freemasonry
It allowed his spirituality to surface. He took active office as Chamberlain, a position that no longer exists, as well as Raphael, which allowed him to conduct candidates in the perfection ceremony.
Some months after his perfection, on 3 March 1877, Oscar Wilde wrote to his close friend and fellow Mason, William Ward:
‘I have got rather keen on Masonry lately, I believe in it awfully – in fact would be awfully sorry to have to give it up…’
The Order seems also to have brought out in Wilde his extravagant streak. In November 1876 he spent £15 18s 6d to buy from George Henry Osmond, a lamb skin Rose Croix apron and collar, a Rose Croix jewel, sword and belt as well as a Masonic leather jewel case, lettered with his initials. He paid £10 on account and Osmond’s solicitors sued a year later for the rest. On 22 November he was summoned before the University Chancellor’s Court, where action was brought against him, and the court ordered that he pay the difference plus 25 shillings costs
On 22 March 1878, Wilde progressed further in the Orders beyond the Craft. He was advanced, with no less than 12 more candidates, into the Mark degree at the University Mark Lodge No.55. He never attended a meeting after his advancement, his ‘mark’ was a mirror image of his initials, O-F-W, and is of some curiosity. It would seem that his membership here expired naturally, so to speak, as this is the one Order where there is no evidence of his expulsions or exclusion.
His demise from the Churchill Lodge was a more deliberate expulsion. In 1881 Bro Lt Col Thomas Crowder was appointed Secretary to the Lodge and decided on an efficiency drive to collect arrears of subscriptions. Oscar Wilde was among the 11 members who were excluded in 1883. Whilst the excuses were accepted from the Brethren concerned, who were duly readmitted, Oscar Wilde’s fate is recorded in the Lodge minutes for 4 June 1883:
Bro Crowder Secretary proposed and Bro G L Hawkins seconded that the expulsion from the Lodge of Bro Oscar Wilde be reported to Grand Lodge, he having failed to acknowledge the three communications forwarded to him. This was carried unanimously.’
The expulsion from the Churchill Lodge effectively ended Oscar Wilde’s Masonic activities. He had not yet been disgraced by society, and the action taken against him in the Churchill Lodge and the rest of the Orders from which he was finally excluded, seem to have been a matter of neglect on his part and not deliberate action against him.
This enthusiastic and concentrated involvement with Freemasonry made him quite conversant with the occult imagery and Pagan-Christian syncretism of the Order, both of which are traceable not only in Salomé, but also in the Poems and in Vera, or the Nihilists. His first play in 1880, Vera or the Nihilists, has clear Masonic connotations. The first act opens with a meeting of the conspirators who exchange passwords after which a catechetical opening ceremony follows:
President: What is the Word? First Conspirator: Nabat
P: The answer?
2nd C: Kalit
P: What hour is it?
3rd C: The Hour to suffer
P: What day?
4th C: The day of Oppression
P: What year?
5th C: The year of Hope
P: How many are we in number?
6th C: Ten, Nine and three
The influence of the Masonic ritual appears to be a combination of the Mark degree – where six principal Officers are involved – and hints at ritual from various Orders. By this time, September 1880, Wilde had divested himself from both Roman Catholicism and Freemasonry.
Having left Oxford for London in 1878, he travelled widely and married Constance Lloyd in 1884. The next decade he spent balanced on that fine dividing line between what was and what was not morally acceptable to the late Victorian London society. In meeting Alfred Douglas, affectionately referred to as Bosie, in June 1891, Wilde was to be put to the test and he failed.
In February 1895, the Marquess of Queensberry left the famous open card at the Albemarle Club accusing Wilde of sodomy. His failed trial against Queensberry on 3 April, led to his arrest just two days later. His subsequent trials ended with his imprisonment, which finally took him to Reading goal in November, a month after being declared bankrupt.
It is here, whilst serving hard labour, that he is reported to have made a last direct reference to Freemasonry. His close friend Robert Ross records that he asked Wilde whether he had met any Freemasons in prison, to which he replied:
‘Yes, it was very terrible. As I was walking round the yard one day I noticed that one of the men awaiting trial was signalling to me by Masonic sign. I paid no attention until he made me the sign of the widow’s son, which no Mason can ignore. He managed to convey a note to me. I found he was in for fraud of some kind and anxious that I should get my friends to petition for his release. He was quite mad, poor fellow. As he would always insist on signalling and I was afraid the warders would get to notice it, I persuaded Major Nelson to let me wear black goggles until he was convicted and sent to Portland. ‘
In 1895 the Masonic fraternity will have been aware though unperturbed by Oscar Wilde’s sad and tragic circumstances. He had, after all, ceased active membership of the last of the Masonic Orders in 1879. It was, and still is, customary for Rose Croix Chapters to inscribe the names of their members in what is known as the Golden Book.
Oscar Wilde’s name has been stricken through the entry in his Chapter’s Golden Book, with a note underneath: ‘Erased – P Colville Smith MWS Dec 5th 1895′.
This followed on the earlier entry of 9 July in the Minute book of the Supreme Council 33° where the Report of the Committee of Supreme Council decided on:
‘The erasure from the Golden Book of the name of Oscar Wilde who has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment with hard labour.’
Considering that Wilde had not been in any way involved with the fraternity for the best part of two decades, the measure appears harsh at best and certainly unnecessary. Victorian society moved quickly against Oscar after the scandal of his trials, his friends evaporated, his family fled to Switzerland and Oscar Wilde’s name was removed from the billboards of West End theatres in London where his plays were showing. The same happened in New York, where Wilde had gained fame and notoriety during his successful lecture tours just three-year earlier
Bibliography and Sources
Bodley J E C, Journal of J E Courtenay Bodley, Bodleian Library, Oxford.
Elman R, Oscar Wilde, 1987.
Hart J, From Oscar Wilde to Jim Daniel: Reminiscences of Oxford Masonry (unpublished lecture).
Holland, Merlin & Davis, Rupert, The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, Fourth Estate.
Sherard R, The Real Oscar Wilde, 1917.
Vernier P, Oscar’s Mental Photograph Revisited, (The Wildean, Journal of the Oscar Wilde Society), 15 July 1999.
Credits and Acknowledgments
Bailes B A, Archivist, Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons, London.
Bailey S, Oxford University Archives, Bodleian Library, Oxford.
Christmas Matthew R, Secretary, University Mark Lodge No. 55.
Sweeney Rev R, Recorder University Chapter No. 40, Oxford.
United Grand Lodge of England.
Library and Museum of Freemasonry.
Yasha Beresiner article http://www.freemasons-freemasonry.com/beresiner8.html
Featured artwork is by Andreas Trenker http://andreastrenker.blogspot
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