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The Hon. Miss St. Leger and Freemasonry

By Bro. Edward Conder.


The Anglo-Norman House of St. Leger has perhaps one of the best authenticated pedigrees of any of those families whose pride it is, that they are descended from one of the companions in arms of the Conqueror.

From the British Museum Library, Philpott’s MSS., and the Stemmata St. Leodegaria, I find that Sir Robert St. Leger, Knight, obtained from William I. the Manor of Ulcombe in Kent, where the family flourished for many generations.

Sir Antony St. Leger, Knight of the Garter, a lineal descendant of the above Sir Robert was appointed by Henry VIII. to be one of his commissioners for letting the Irish Crown lands, and on July 7th, 1640, he was constituted Lord Deputy of Ireland.

It is from this Sir Antony St. Leger that the Right Hon. Arthur St. Leger, 1st Baron Kilmayden, and Viscount Doneraile, father of the lady, an episode in whose interesting life I am now about to discuss, was descended.

The initiation of the Hon. Miss Elizabeth St. Leger, afterwards the wife of Richard Aldworth, Esq., has long been a recognized fact in the history of Freemasonry in Ireland.

Several accounts, more or less differing in detail, and generally remarkable for their want of accuracy, have already been published.1 The most authentic appears to be the one issued at Cork, with the authority of the family, in 1811. Although these different accounts vary considerably in the description of the manner in which Miss St. Leger witnessed the secret ceremonial carried on in the Lodge, the main fact of her being made a Mason remains undisputed.

If more proof were required than the well-known tradition, the fact of her portrait in Masonic clothing, her apron and jewels being still in existence, would satisfy the most exacting enquirer. The tradition, as we have it, is sufficiently circumstantial; if we consider the condition of speculative Masonry at the beginning of the last century, it contains nothing either improbable or impossible.

By the kindness of Lord Doneraile, Lady Castletown of Upper Ossory, Colonel Aldworth of Newmarket Court, Mr. James St. Leger, and other members of the family, I have fortunately been able to piece together all account of the incident which, although it may differ in some few particulars from those already printed, may fairly, as I hope to make clear on the present occasion, be accepted as the most authentic account of what transpired.

It would appear that the father of Miss St. Leger, Arthur St. Leger, 1st Baron Kilmayden and Viscount Doneraile, together with his sons and a few intimate friends, were accustomed to open a Lodge and carry on the ordinary ceremonies at the family mansion, Doneraile Court, County Cork.

On one occasion, during a period when the house was undergoing certain internal alterations, Viscount Doneraile, with others, met for Masonic purposes. The Lodge was held in a large room on the ground floor of the house, and in front of this room was a small library, divided from the back room by a partition wall. From a plan of Doneraile Court kindly sent to me by a member of the family, it is evident that the rooms to the right, on entering the hall, are probably the ones in question, the doors of these two rooms both open into the entrance hall, and are not far apart. The alterations having required the removal of some of the panelling from the larger room, the wall was in places undergoing repair; a portion of this had been taken down, and the bricks loosely replaced, without mortar, in the position they were ultimately to occupy. Against these loose bricks the oak panelling had been temporally reared. On this particular afternoon Miss St. Leger had been reading at the library window, and the light of the winter afternoon having failed, fell asleep.

The sound of voices in the next room restored her to consciousness, and from her position behind the loosely placed bricks of the dividing wall, she easily realized that something unusual was taking place in the next room. The light shining through the unfilled spaces of the temporary wall also attracted her attention. Prompted by a not unnatural curiosity, Miss St. Leger appears to have removed one or more of the loose bricks, and thus was easily enabled to watch the proceedings of the Lodge.

For some time her interest in what was transpiring was sufficiently powerful to hold her spellbound; the quietness of her mind remained undisturbed for a considerable period, and it was not until she realized the solemnity of the responsibilities undertaken by the candidate, that she understood the terrible consequences of her action. The wish to hide her secret by making good her retreat took full possession of her thoughts. For it must be fully understood that although she was perfectly aware that her father’s Lodge was held at the house, she had no idea, on entering the library, that on that evening a meeting was about to be held in the adjoining room.

Her passage into the hall was easy, but it unfortunately happened that the doors of the two rooms were close together. Outside in the ball the Tyler was on guard, and from this point her retreat was cut off. Miss St. Leger, realizing that the Tyler, Lord Doneraile’s butler, well knowing the condition of the temporary wall, would at once, from her frightened appearance, grasp the situation, screamed and fainted.

This old and trusted family servant, divided between his affection for his young mistress and the duties he owed to the Lodge, hesitated whether be should call for aid from the household, or alarm the Lodge. Fearing, however, to leave the door unguarded, be decided to summon his master. This course brought Miss St. Leger’s father, with her brothers, and other members of the Lodge, into the hall.

Having carried the young lady back into the library, and she being restored to consciousness, they learned what had occurred. Leaving her in charge of some of the members, they returned to the Lodge, and discussed what course, under the circumstances, they had best pursue. The discussion was prolonged for a considerable time, after which they returned, and having acquainted Miss St. Leger with the great responsibilities she had unwittingly taken upon herself, pointed out that only one course was open to them. The fair culprit, endowed with a high sense of honour, at once consented to pass through the impressive ceremonies she had already in part witnessed.

All traditions, as well as the accounts kindly supplied to me by various members of the family, are unanimous in stating that the circumstances, as above recorded, took place at a time when Miss St. Leger was a young girl, and unmarried. As will be seen, from the accompanying pedigree [omitted], compiled from information supplied to me by her descendants, Miss St. Leger was born in 1693, her father having married in 1690. It is of course difficult to decide the exact age referred to by “a young girl.” When considering the pedigree it will be seen that the maximum age is clearly fixed at 1717-18 (if not much earlier) when Miss St. Leger would be twenty-four years of age.

At 17 she might fairly be called “a young girl” and this would be in 1710. This fact is beyond dispute, and at once destroys any argument that may be advanced concerning her initiation in any Lodge after its constitution by the Grand Lodge of Ireland.

If we consider the question of the date of Miss St. Leger’s marriage with Richard Aldworth Esq., of which there appears unfortunately no official record, it in no way supports the theory with regard to such Lodges. Her daughter, Mary Aldworth, was born in 1719, and her eldest son, Boyle Aldworth Esq., had issue by his first wife, a son Richard, born in 1741, thus shewing that in 1741 the Hon. Mrs. Aldworth née St. Leger, was aged 48, and a grandmother. From this also it appears that Miss Elizabeth St. Leger must have been married before 1719, the date of the birth of her daughter, more probably a few years earlier, when we take into consideration the date of the birth of her grandson. These circumstances amply support the tradition that Miss St. Leger was a young girl at the time she was made a Mason. She was seventeen in 1710; and we may safely place the date of her initiation after 1710 and before the year 1718.

Tradition also reports, it will be remembered, that the Lodge was held at Doneraile Court, by its owner, Viscount Doneraile. From the pedigree it will be seen that he was married in 1690 (Miss St. Leger born in 1693) and he died on 7th July, 1727. It therefore follows that the Lodge must have been held before the year 1727.

Of the Lodges constituted by the Grand Lodge of Ireland, those bearing the numbers 44, 95, and 150, have frequently been seriously considered as being identical with the Lodge that initiated our fair sister. That such attempts at fixing her initiation after the formation of the Grand Lodge of Ireland in 1729-30 are vain and worthy of little attention, may be gathered from the following notes on the above three Lodges, kindly supplied me by our learned Brother Dr. Chetwode Crawley, whose forthcoming reproductions of the early constitutions of the Grand Lodge of Ireland2 will show that the first Lodges on the Irish Registry were at work for years before they obtained Warrants. With regard to the first named, No. 44. Of this Lodge we know absolutely nothing, saving that the warrant must have been dated between 20th December, 1735, and 20th April, 1736, at a time when Miss St. Leger would neither be “a young girl,” being then forty-seven years of age, nor would she have still retained her maiden name, seeing that her daughter Mary Aldworth was in that year twenty years old, and Miss St. Leger’s (Mrs. Aldworth) father had been dead eight years,

Bro. Chetwode Crawley further informs me that “there is no ground for locating this Lodge at Doneraile any more than at Donegal.”

Of Lodge 95 we know that it was founded 1st December, 1738, in Cashell, in which year Mrs. Aldworth was 50 years of age. This Lodge continued till 1750 in full work at Cashel, which is in County Tipperary, full fifty miles as the crow flies, from Doneraile.

Coming now to Lodge 150, which by the way I may term “The Favourite,” and the one nearly all previous accounts rely upon as the foundation for their erronous superstructures, I will only refer to a letter received by me the other day from Bro. Chetwode Crawley, in which he says:—” Lodge 150 is absurd as a mother Lodge for the lady. The Lodge was founded 25th February, 1745-6 in Dublin, where it was carried on continuously till at any rate 1759.” At the date of constituting this Lodge, namely in 1746, our worthy Sister was in the proud position of being a grandmother, a period in life far removed from that of “a young girl.”

The father of Miss St. Leger was created Baron Kilmayden and Viscount Doneraile by Queen Anne, 23rd June, 1703. On the occasion of receiving these honors his Lordship was at the court of St. James’s, London.

From these circumstances only one solution of the difficulty as to the Lodge being held at Doneraile Court earlier than that constituted in 1735 seems possible.

We know, from the records of the Grand Lodge of Munster, that a meeting was held at the house of Mr. Herbert Phaire in Cork on St. John’s day, the 27th December, A.D. 1726. It must not be forgotten that Doneraile Court is situated within thirty miles of that city, and it may be assumed that the Grand Lodge of Munster did not come into existence without there having been at least a Lodge, or Lodges, existing in that district before 1726. The early history of Freemasonry in London, as well as in Ireland, before the era of Grand Lodges, is to a certain extent obscure.

The Grand Lodge of England, founded in 1716-17, was the result of Lodges already existing; therefore speculative masonry was a living institution when Miss St. Leger was a girl of seventeen or eighteen.

Her father, Viscount Doneraile, as already stated, visited London to take up his patent in 1703, which we may conclude was neither the first nor the last visit to the Metropolis. At this date, only thirteen years before the Grand Lodge of England was founded, some at least of the old Lodges which joined in that Masonic event, must have existed, and it would be quite possible for his Lordship to have been made a mason in London during one of his visits.

If this be admitted, it would be quite possible for him, on his return to Ireland, to open a private Lodge in his own house, with the assistance of his friends. This Lodge would probably exist up to the time of his death in 1727, a date, as above mentioned, when a meeting of the Grand Lodge of Munster was held at Cork. Whether this private Lodge had an unbroken existence after the death of its founder, it is impossible now to say. The second Viscount, Miss St. Leger’s eldest brother, was married in 1717, and succeeded to the family honours on the death of his father. He died in March, 1734, and was in turn succeeded by his son Arthur, the third Viscount, who died without issue in 1750.

The Hon. Mrs. Aldworth died in 1773, aet. 80, and was buried in the Davies vault in the old St. Finnbarr Cathedral, Cork. A mural tablet to her memory was placed in the parish church of Doneraile.

The remains of the Hon. Mrs. Aldworth, appear to have been seen in after years by the late Dr. Richard Caulfield, shortly before the erection of the present Cathedral of S. Finbarr. Writing on the subject he says, (the body of the venerable lady was enclosed in a leaden shell and in a wonderful state of preservation.) ” She was attired in a dark silk dress, white satin shoes, stockings of a similar colour. Her person was comely; her face of a dusky or ash colour ; her features quite perfect and calm. She wore long silk gloves, which extended above the embroidered wristbands…… she wore a white head-dress, with a frill round her neck, the pleats of which were not even ruffled.” The stone slab which covered the vault, having become undecipherable by age, was moved when the present Cathedral was built, and finally placed in the floor of the small chamber situated in the great tower.

The apron worn by our worthy sister is now in the possession of her descendant, Colonel R. W. Aldworth, of Newmarket Court, who has been kind enough to send me what may almost call a facsimile, which I now have the pleasure of exhibiting.

It will be noticed that the shape is peculiar and it is further very remarkable for its size, measuring with the flap folded, 21in. deep, width at top 21in., and width at the bottom 24 1/2 in. According to Bro. Crowe; the largest apron he has ever seen, measured with the flap folded 26 1/2in. deep, width at the top 22 1/2in., and at the bottom 24 1/2 in.

Bro. Rylands writes me the following observations on the matter:—

I must congratulate you on being able to exhibit to the Lodge this representation of Mrs. Aldworth’s apron, and I am sure the best thanks of the members are due to Col. Aldworth, for having so kindly prepared such a capital facsimile of this interesting relic of his Masonic ancestor. The difference between the apron now exhibited and that I represented in the engraved portrait of 1811 is worthy of note. The one in the engraving is of small size, shield shaped, and the outer edges of both the apron and flap seem to be ornamented with fringe, probably of blue or white silk. As I have already pointed out, it is not unlike the St. Helena apron, in the possession of Col. Mead.3

The original, from which the engraving of 1811 was copied, having been evidently prepared as a portrait of Mrs. Aldworth in her Masonic clothing, it may fairly be concluded that the apron represented shows the form of the one worn by her at that period. The Pamphlet of 1811 states that the portrait was ‘taken at an advanced period.’ It appears to me to represent a woman of from forty to fifty years of age. Born in 1693, Mrs. Aldworth would be fifty in 1743. The form of the apron, however, appears to me to be of later date.

“The apron in the possession of Colonel Aldworth is of larger size, and would reach almost to the knees of a lady of ordinary height. It is the deep apron, following the shape of the trimmed skin of leather, not uncommonly worn of various materials in England before the Union. It must not be forgotten, however, that these were Irish aprons, of which very few old examples have been published. Through the kindness of friends I have had several very interesting examples lent to me which I hope to publish before long.

It could hardly be expected that one apron would, with Mrs. Aldworth’s regular attention to her Masonic duties, remain in perfect order for twenty or more years. No doubt from time to time a renewal became necessary, and the apron in the possession of Col. Aldworth is probably the one worn by Mrs. Aldworth up to the time of her death, which took place in 1773. This would satisfactorily account for the difference in form. Under any circumstances this reproduction of the apron in the possession of Col. Aldworth, supplies a well-authenticated example of an apron used under the Irish Constitution before the year 1773.”

Of the two jewels worn by Mrs. Aldworth, one is preserved by Lady Doneraile, the other is in the possession of Lodge No. 1, Cork. Her portrait is in the collection of Lady Castletown, of Upper Ossory. An engraved copy was published by subscription in 1811. From the pamphlet accompanying this engraving, we gather that Mrs. Aldworth was a most exemplary member of the Craft. Holding, as she did, the distinction of being the only Lady Mason, “she had such a veneration for Masonry that she would never suffer it to be spoken lightly of in her hearing; nor would she touch on the subject, but with the greatest caution, in company with even her most intimate friends, whom she did not know to be Masons, and when she did, it was under evident embarrassment, and a trembling apprehension lest she might, in a moment of inadvertance, commit a breach of Masonic duty.”

It is further stated that she presided as Master of her Lodge, which she headed frequently in Masonic order of procession, driving, we are told, in an open carriage.

The latter part of this statement may be correct, but as to her ever having filled the chair of her Lodge, or even that she was ever in Lodge after her initiation and passing, I believe there is no evidence forthcoming. Indeed, the early accounts of her Masonic career only state that she was admitted to the F.C. degree, but at the date of her initiation all the principal points of the Craft were probably included in this the second, or as we now term it the third degree. I will not, however, enter here upon a disquisition on this interesting crux, but rather leave our heroine in full possession of all traditionary Masonic honours although fearing that many bear the stamp of imagination pure and simple. What we do know is that as a Mason she was always remarkable for her true charity, which she dispensed with an open hand, thus proving herself to be a worthy representative of the knightly St. Legers, and adding fresh lustre to the traditions of the family motto—

 

Haut et Bon.


The W.M. in the Chair, expressed the pleasure which had been afforded him in listening to the very interesting paper of Bro. Conder, and had no doubt the brethren present would express the same for themselves later on by heartily carrying the vote of thanks which he should move. Meanwhile he called for comments on the part of brethren present.

Bro. Speth thought that “comments” was undoubtedly the right word to use, as he conceived anything in the nature of a discussion to be practically impossible. Much as they all loved a discussion, with that little spice of dissent which gave it piquancy, he saw no opening for anything of the kind on this occasion. But he thought it possible to emphasise what had perhaps escaped the notice of the brethren in the mere bearing of the paper, although it would come out clearly enough in perusing it quietly at home. This was not so much the correction of the date hitherto accepted as that of Miss St. Leger’s initiation, an important point enough in itself, as the fact that this correction brought her initiation back to a period when Masonry as we now understood it certainly did not exist in Ireland, and possibly not even in England. It carried us back to a period before the foundation of Grand Lodge, and showed us that the lady was initiated under the old regime; she and those assembled with her on that occasion were speculative members joining the Craft at a time when it was still mainly operative. The Lodge at Doneraile Court must in future rank with the one at Warrington in which Ashmole first saw the light, with the one at Chester of which Randle Holme was a member, and with others whose traces would yet turn up. The Scottish Lodges and that in the Masons’ Company of London were not quite on the same footing, because their connection with Operative Masonry was still close and direct. The paper they had just listened to was a very important and welcome one, and seeing what Bro. Conder had already done for them in the short time he had devoted his attention to Masonic Archeaology, he (Bro. Speth) ventured to hope and even to prophesy, that much might be expected of him in the future. He would now read to them three communications he had received on this matter from Bros. Hughan, Rylands and Dr. Chetwode Crawley, merely expressing his regret that through illness in the one case, and unavoidable circumstances in the others, these brethren could not be present to deliver their remarks viva voce.

Bro. Conder’s paper is both interesting and startling in character. All our theories are demolished as to the period when the initiation of “our only Sister” occurred, for having been born in 1693, and married in 1718 circa, the insight she obtained into our mysteries must have been during the pre Grand Lodge era, or about the year 1710.

Until Bro. Conder’s investigations we had all assumed that the various reports respecting the initiation of the Hon. Elizabeth St. Leger, though not always in agreement, were correct as to the occurrence being of a later date than 1730. Evidently the account printed by the late Bro. Richard Spencer, was based, in part, on particulars obtained from descendents of the famous Masonic Family. It is stated therein

“We have it from undoubted authority, that the occurrence took place when her brother was Viscount, i.e., after the death of her father,”

and that in a communication received from the son of a brother who witnessed the ceremony, the fact of her initiation in Lodge 44 is asserted, and that the Warrant, then dormant, was in the possession of that Craftsman. The editor of the prints published early this century, is declared to have been indebted to Bro. Arundel Hill, of Doneraile (whose son Richard Hill testified as herein mentioned) for the information afforded, and that his authority ” is most indubitable.”

It is quite clear, however, that we have all been led astray as to the period of her initiation, and that the several Lodges noted as claiming the honour of her reception, had nothing whatever to do with the ceremony, for the simple and sufficient reason that they could not then have been in existence.

I consider Bro. Conder has done a grand service by discovering the year of birth, and approximate year of marriage, of the lady in question, these two dates proving that her initiation must have been some 20 to 30 years earlier than previously claimed, and also that her reception must have been in a Lodge under the old regime, of which we have no account whatever and which assembled some years prior to the oldest records yet traced of Freemasonry in Ireland. As to the jewel and the apron or aprons she wore, these were probably of much later date, and her appearance in public as a “Freemason” would doubtless be subsequent to the advent of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Munster and the Grand Lodge of Ireland, 1725-1730. We know that her name occurs as the second (and only lady) subscriber, on the printed list to Dr. Dassigny’s “Enquiry” of 1744, the hundreds else being brethren; and that the post of honour was given to her, for the name immediately follows that of Viscount Allen, then the Most Worshipful Grand Master.

The 3rd Viscount Doneraile, nephew to the Hon. Mrs. Aldworth (née St. Leger) was Grand Master of the same Body in 1740, and supposing it is true that his aunt had been initiated about 1710—which there is no reason whatever to doubt,—the fact of his Lordship being so honoured by the Craft would possibly explain the prominent part said to be taken by the Hon. Mrs. Aldworth in Masonic processions. It is extraordinary that this error as to the date of her initiation should have remained so long unnoticed and uncorrected, especially so, when it is remembered that some of the descendents are evidently responsible for the mistake.—W. J. Hughan.

The History of the “only Lady Mason” is one which must interest every member of the Craft, and this interest is very much increased by having a clear statement of the facts. Up to the present time, only the most unreliable information has been obtainable from the ordinary printed accounts of the incident, and I must congratulate Bro. Conder on having brought together a quantity of information which at last places the matter on a satisfactory foundation. The slightest examination of any or all of the ordinarily known accounts shows, as I found out some years ago, that the dates will not fit in.

The simple facts, that Miss St. Leger when a young girl, obtained possession of certain Masonic secrets by concealing herself in or near the Lodge held by her father at Doneraile House, and that in consequence she was made a mason, were known. To this, successive writers have added their own ideas without any authority, often pursuing the dangerous and foolish course of making the details fit their own imperfect knowledge.

The accounts of the incident as we have them resolve themselves shortly into two possibilities—that Miss St. Leger, following the family tradition, was a young girl when she was made a Mason—or, that she was not Miss St. Leger at all, but certainly married, of middle age, a mother, and possibly a grandmother.

Bro. Conder, from a careful examination of dates and other matters, has been forced to the only reasonable conclusion. The remarks and “facts” of the tinkerers and would-be editors of the story take their proper place, and the original tradition remains, pure and simple. The dates of Mrs. Aldworth’s birth and death, the various dates in the pedigree and other circumstances, all point, as Bro. Conder clearly states, to a solution of the difficulty a solution amply supported by the discoveries of Dr. Chetwode Crawley.

It has been stated that the warrant of the Lodge at Doneraile House, in which Miss St. Leger was made a Mason, is, or was a few years ago, in private hands. It would be interesting to have a copy of this document, as in any case it cannot possibly date from the time when Miss St. Leger became a Freemason.—W. H. Rylands.

Dear Bro. Speth,—Let me begin by expressing unaffected regret at my inability to attend the meeting of Quatuor Coronati Lodge. Unfortunately, 10th January is the first day of term with us, and my professional engagements necessitate my presence in Dublin on that day. As if to make matters worse, the stated communication of the Grand Lodge of Instruction of Ireland, over which I have the honour to preside, takes place on the evening, of the very same day. Pray make these imperative reasons for my absence clear to the brethren.

I am heartily with my Bro. Conder in his view of the period of the lady Freemason’s initiation. Indeed, I bad arrived independently at a similar conclusion, and congratulate myself on having found my surmise supported by so thorough-going and competent an investigator, who has, to my mind, established his thesis once and for all.

Bro. Conder has treated the question so effectively that I have but little to add from the Irish standpoint. I am at a loss to conceive how the initiation was ever attributed to Lodge No. 150, which was a Dublin Lodge and never had any connection with Doneraile, or even with the Province of Munster.

I have traced the tradition which ascribes the initiation to Lodge No. 95, to a passage in Bro. Millikin’s Historico-Masonic Tracts, published in Cork in the year 1848. The passage runs as follows :—

“…the Grand Secretary, John Calder,… laid before the committee, a charge against Lodge 95, for malpractices, and also to prove the validity of the Warrant of that Lodge. It is supposed that the malpractices had reference to the initiation of the Hon. Mrs. Aldworth, who became a Mason in that Lodge.”

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