Elizabeth St. Leger

The Hon. Elizabeth St. Leger and Other Women Freemasons

M. W. Bro R.V. Harris

In the days of operative Masonry, women were never admitted to the guilds and modern Masonry has, of course, inherited this limitation on its membership.

The ancient guilds, however, did accord a share of their homage to the Queen of Sheba, probably because of her association with the building of King Solomon's Temple. as recorded in the Books of Chronicles and Kings (l Kings 10; 2 Chron. 9). In the rows of statues on the outer walls of many Continental cathedrals we find her statue in conjunction with that of King Solomon.

Queen Elizabeth

When Dr. James Anderson revised or codified the Ancient Charges, in 1738, he incorporated in the historical preamble to them a statement that Queen Elizabeth, who favoured all other arts, was not graciously disposed towards Freemasonry, merely because she, as a woman, could not become a Mason. The story runs as follows:

Hearing that the Masons were in possession of secrets which they would not reveal, and being jealous of all secret assemblies, she sent an armed force to York, with intent to break up their annual Grand Lodge. This design, however, was happily frustrated by the interposition of Sir Thomas Sackville, who took care to initiate some of the chief officers whom she had sent on that duty. They joined in communication with the Masons and made so favourable a report to the Queen on their return that she countermanded her orders, and never afterward attempted to disturb the meetings of the Fraternity. What authority, if any, Anderson had for the story is unknown.

Maria Theresa

When the Roman Church condemned Freemasonry, beginning in 1737, it made a great impression on women, who seemed only too readily inclined to see in the Craft all the evils attributed to it by that church. Opposition gave way to a growing desire, or curiosity, to become members of an order which was declared to be for men only. Some few are said to have attended lodges disguised as men.

The celebrated Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria, showed great hostility to Masonry, probably because of religious leanings, and her advisors. Her husband, Francis I, Emperor of Germany, was a zealous Mason and had been initiated at The Hague in 1731 and was later raised at a lodge in England. He assisted in founding the Lodge "Drei Kanonen" (Three Canons) at Vienna in 1742. It is said that on one occasion she attended this Lodge, attired as a man, but was refused admission. She forthwith sent one hundred grenadiers to break up the Lodge, taking twelve prisoners, the Emperor escaping by a back staircase. He answered for and freed the twelve prisoners.

Hon. Elizabeth St. Leger

The most famous case of the intrusion of a woman into a Masonic lodge is that of the Hon. Elizabeth St. Leger. It rests on most trustworthy evidence, although the story of her initiation did not become known generally until about seventy years after the event.

Elizabeth St. Leger was the only daughter of the Hon. Arthur St. Leger, first Viscount Doneraile, County Cork. She was born in 1693, married April 7th, 1713, to Richard Aldworth of New Market, County Cork, and died there May 11th, 1772, at the age of 79 years.

Before the establishment of a Grand Lodge in Ireland (1725) it was the custom of the nobility of Ireland to hold Masonic lodge meetings in their private homes. On one such occasion, when in the year 1710 she was about 17 years of age, and unmarried, she inadvertently became a witness to the proceedings of her father's lodge, over which he was presiding, and held in her home at Doneraile House, and on being discovered was obliged by her father to submit to initiation, and thus ensure her silence.

The earliest and most reliable account of the incident is to be found in a pamphlet printed in Cork, in 1811, and containing a "Memoir of the Life of the Hon. Mrs. Aldworth" and from it we quote:

"Lord Doneraile, Mrs. Aldworth's father, who was a very zealous Mason, held a warrant in his own hands and occasionally opened Lodge at Doneraile House, his sons and some intimate friends in the neighbourhood assisting, and it is said that never were the Masonic duties more rigidly performed or the business of the Craft more sincerely pursued than by the Brethren of No. 150."

(In passing, we should point out, first, that warrants for lodges were not issued to lodges until 1731, six years after the Grand Lodge was formed in 1725. All lodges working before 1731 met without a warrant and by virtue of "time immemorial" usage. The warrant of No. 150 was for a lodge in the City of Dublin. Another version gives the number as 44, the number assigned to a warrant issued in 1735, for a lodge at Doneraile.)

"It appears that previous to the initiation of a gentleman to the first steps of Masonry, Mrs. Aldworth, who was then a young girl, happened to be in an apartment adjoining the room usually used for a lodge room, this room at the time undergoing some repair and alteration, amongst other things the wall was considerably reduced in one part, for the purpose of making a saloon (salon), the young lady having distinctly heard the voices, and prompted by the curiosity natural to all, to see somewhat of this mystery, so long and so secretly locked up from public view; she had the courage, with her scissors, to pick a brick from the wall and actually witnessed the awful and mysterious ceremony through the first to steps. Curiosity gratified, fear at once took possession of her mind. Those who understand this passage, well know what the feelings must be of any person who could have the same opportunity of unlawfully beholding that ceremony. Let them then judge what must be the feelings of a young girl, who saw no mode of escape, but through the very room where the concluding part of the second step was still performing, and that being at the far end, and the room a very large one. She had again resolution sufficient to attempt her escape that way, and with light but trembling step, and almost suspended breath, she glided along unobserved by the lodge, laid her hand on the handle and softly opened the door. Before her stood a grim and surly Tyler, with his long rusty sword. Her shriek alarmed the Lodge, who all rushing to the door and finding from the Tyler she had been in the room during the ceremony, in the first paroxysm of rage and alarm, 'tis said her death was resolved on, but from the moving and earnest supplication of her brother, her life was spared, on condition of her going through the two steps she had already seen. This she agreed to and they conducted the beautiful and terrified young creature through these trials, which are sometimes more than enough for masculine resolution, little thinking they were taking into the bosom of the Craft a member that would afterwards reflect a lustre on the annals of Masonry."

From all the circumstances that have been gleaned respecting her, it would seem that her initiation took place in 1710, when she was 17 years of age. At this time (1710) the third degree, or what was called "the Master's part", was not a separate ceremony, so that Miss St. Leger received all the light in Freemasonry her father's lodge could give.

There is today extant in the possession of Lady Castledown, Upper Ossory, a painting of Miss St. Leger in her Masonic regalia. Two of the jewels which she wore are preserved, one in the possession of the family, the other held by Lodge No. 1, Cork, a trowel worn pendant from the left shoulder.

She is credited in several later accounts of having acted as Master of the lodge and riding in public Masonic processions, clad in Masonic regalia; these are doubtless mere inventions. It is not on record that she ever attended another meeting of the lodge, after she was initiated.

Tradition further states that throughout her long life she was a patroness of the Craft. She was one of three women to subscribe to D'Assigny's book on Freemasonry in 1744. After her death, we find the Masonic Order in Ireland toasting "the memory of our sister Aldworth of New Market."

Both her family, and that of her husband, included many distinguished members of the Masonic Order.

She died in May 1772, and was buried in the Davies family vault in St. Finbarre's Cathedral, Cork, where a tablet in the chancel will be found reading as follows: "In pious memory of the Hon. Elizabeth St. Leger Aldworth, 1695–1775 initiated into Masonry in Doneraille Lodge in this County, A.D. 1712." Unfortunately, the three dates given do not harmonize with the other evidence available.

There is also another tradition, found in a Masonic poem entitled "The Female Freemason", first published in the Newry Telegraph of December 28th, 1839, nearly 130 years after the above account. In this poem she was said to have witnessed the making of a Brother, whilst hiding in a Grandfather's clock, but the poem is written in humorous style and incorporates many statements which could not possibly be accurate.

Madame Xaintrailles

It is also an established fact that during the French Revolution the wife of General Xaintrailles, who had actually been made a captain of cavalry by Napoleon, and acted as adjutant to her husband, appeared at a meeting of "Les Freres Artistes" Lodge in Paris.

In this case there was no excuse for this violation of Masonic law and practice. At that time the law of the Grand Orient of France permitted each lodge under its jurisdiction to hold "a lodge of adoption" under its charter, into which both men and women could be admitted. The ritual was entirely different from that of the Masonic lodge and the affairs of the two lodges were required to be kept entirely distinct. On this occasion the Master was about to close his lodge for the purpose of opening a lodge of adoption, when a visitor was announced. On enquiry it proved to be Captain de Xaintrailles, who, instead of the usual diploma or certificate, required of all visitors, produced her commission as an Aide-de-Camp. The surprise was general but in a sudden spirit of gallantry and enthusiasm, the Lodge decided to confer the First degree of regular and legitimate Masonry on the brave woman, who had on several occasions distinguished herself in warfare. When told the decision of the Lodge, she replied "I have been a man for my country, and I will again be a man for my brethren." She was forthwith introduced and initiated as an E.A., and repeatedly afterward assisted the Lodge in its labours in the First degree.

The punishment which the Master and his brethren were threatened with was averted, on the plea that the offense was committed in the sudden enthusiasm and chivalry of the moment.

Isabella Scoon

Melrose Lodge No. 1, Melrose, Scotland, preserves the tradition of a woman initiate, Isabella Scoon. For some years the Lodge held its meetings in hired rooms where it is related, "the matron, a true daughter of Eve, somehow obtained more light upon the hidden mysteries than was deemed at all expedient, and after due consideration of the case, it was resolved that she must be regularly initiated into Freemasonry;" which tradition states, was actually done, the initiate being greatly impressed with the solemnity of her obligation, remaining ever a true and faithful sister among the brethren and distinguishing herself in works of charity. The lodge minutes, however, contain no record of this alleged occurrence.

The Case of Mrs. Bell

In 1769, the officers and about forty privates of the 22nd Regiment, quartered at Newcastle, England, being Freemasons, celebrated St. John's Day, December 27th, by attending services at St. Nicholas' Church. All this appears to have excited the curiosity of the landlady, Mrs. Bell, under whose roof the lodge was held, for in the Newcastle Chronicle of January 6th, 1770, we find the following advertisement:

"This is to acquaint the public that on Monday the first inst., being the Lodge (or monthly meeting night) of the Free and Accepted Masons of the 22nd Regiment, held at the Crown Inn, Newgate, Mrs. Bell, the landlady of the house, broke open a door (with a poker) that had not been opened for some years past, by which means she got into an adjacent room, made two holes through the wall and by that stratagem discovered the secrets of Masonry, and she, knowing herself to be the first woman in the world that ever found out that secret, is willing to make it known to all her own sex; so that any lady that is desirous of learning the secrets of Freemasonry, by applying to that well learned woman, Mrs. Bell (that lived 15 years in and about Newgate St.) may be instructed in the secrets of Freemasonry."

This story is regarded as a hoax. Probably Mrs. Bell had learned a good deal about the doings of the lodge and pretended to know far more than she really did. The advertisement was published not by her but by the lodge in order to hold her up to ridicule and warn her to be more discreet.

There are a number of other alleged cases, for the most part unverified, and unauthenticated. One such case is that of a Miss Catherine Sweet (Mrs. Babington) of Kentucky, who is alleged to have frequently concealed herself in the pulpit of a church, in which the Masons also held their meetings, and on being discovered by her uncles was made a Mason. The story was not published until after her death in 1886. Where the alleged initiation took place and the name of the lodge is not given; no lodge existed near her home, and none of her uncles were Masons.

Countess Barkoczy

Another actual initiation was that of Countess Helene Hadid-Barkoczy, who was admitted into a Hungarian Lodge at Egyenloseg in 1877. On the death of her father, the last male heir of the Barkoczy family, she was permitted by the civil law to claim all the rights and privileges of a son and to be regarded as such.

A very gifted woman, she had studied many Masonic books dealing with the history and philosophy of Masonry, and expressed a strong desire to become a member of the Lodge in Ungvar in Hungary. Her own great influence and that of her husband, Count Bela Hadik, Adjutant-General to the Archduke Maxmillian, later Emperor of Mexico, induced the Lodge to accede to her request, in spite of the objection of the Grand Orient of Hungary, which declared her admission invalid, expelled the deputy Master and suspended the members present for various periods of time.

Mrs. James Sproul

A case still nearer home is that of Mrs. James Sproul of Norton, New Brunswick. Mrs. Sproul was the daughter of the Hon. Jasper Belding. Against the wishes of her parents she married James Sproul, who was a butler, or footman, in the Belding household, and moved into a log house about three miles above Norton on the road to Sussex. This house had only two rooms, which were separated by a curtain.

Her husband being a Mason, the lodge decided one night to hold their meeting in his home. A new candidate had to be initiated and Mrs. Sproul took her candle and her darning and went into the bedroom. After the ceremony she was asked by the Master if she had heard anything. Mrs. Sproul replied that although she had not meant to listen, she had in fact heard the service. She was questioned and it was discovered that she had in fact heard the entire proceedings. This left only two courses open, either to kill her, or to make her a Mason. Mrs. Sproul was initiated into the Order that same night and thereafter was regarded as a regular Mason. There is no record, however, of her later attendance at meetings of the Lodge.

Mr. Sproul died in 1824, at the age of 41 years, and was buried in the churchyard at Sussex Corner. A few years later she died and was buried beside her husband.

Mrs. Sproul's great-great grandson was J.W. Campbell, of Norton, whose three daughters now keep a tourist home there. On the walls of their home hangs a pen and ink picture of Mrs. Sproul, leaning on the gravestone of her husband. After her death a stone, similar to that of her husband, was erected, both bearing the Masonic Square and Compasses.

Adoptive Masonry

Such admissions as we have mentioned have been extremely rare, but in order to meet the wishes of women, numerous societies similar to Freemasonry have been formed from time to time, some confined to women, others open to both men and women.

In Germany, the Mopsorden, or Order of Pugdogs, appeared shortly after the first papal bull against Freemasonry in 1737. The Order included both men and women; all members were required to be Roman Catholics, and the society was of course anti-Masonic.

In France there arose about the same time, the Order of the Knights and Nymphs of the Rose; the Society of the Companions of Penelope; and the Order of Felicitares or Happy Folks, based on nautical language, in 1743. Out of this last originated the Order of the Anchor, in 1745. In 1747, the Order of Wood Cutters was instituted. The meeting places were called "groves", "retreats" or "temples of love" and the women members were known as "lady friends" or "cousins". In most instances these societies bore no resemblance to Masonry.

Adoptive Masonry flourished for a short time in court circles in France, about 1775–85. Its ritual was based on the story of Creation, and had the Garden of Eden as a background. It was "a pleasant bagatelle", which pandered to the wishes of the great ladies of the Court and satisfied the curiosity of ladies of rank. The Grand Mistresses of the Order included the Duchess of Bourbon and the Princess Lamballe, (later assassinated by a Paris mob), and the assemblies were patronized by Queen Marie Antoinette, the Duchesse de Chartres and others. The assemblies were entertained with plays, lectures, concerts and music, and a brilliant ball always concluded the evening. Adoptive Masonry again flourished during the Napoleonic regime and much later.


A few years ago a picture appeared in English papers of a Mrs. Halsey, a kinswoman of the Rt. Hon. T. F. Halsey, then Deputy Grand Master of England. She was clad in Masonic regalia identical in every respect with that worn by the Grand Master of Masons in England. This is an organization of men and women which was derived from French sources about 1893, and propagated by a Dr. Georges Martin through England and elsewhere throughout the world. It is said to have about 12,000 members and over 100 lodges. The late Annie Besant, the leader of modern Theosophy became the Grand Master of the Order about 1908. While its ritual is said to be identical with that of the United Grand Lodge of England, upon which its organization is modelled, this Grand body is clandestine and irregular.

The Order of the Eastern Star

The most notable modern society based on Freemasonry is the Order of the Eastern Star.

Robert Macoy, in his history of the Order, says that it was introduced into the Colonies prior to 1778, but gives no further information whatever. The origin of the ritual was probably France or Sweden.

There is extant a ritual dated in 1793 which states that the Supreme Council of the Eastern Star met in Boston, Mass. on May 18th, 1793, for the purpose of formulating a ritual. This Order became dormant about 1847.

In 1850, Dr. Robert Morris, later Grand Master of Masons in Kentucky, distinguished writer on Masonic jurisprudence, history, rituals, poetry, and other subjects, issued the ritual in a new dress, calling it the "Mosaic Rite of Adoption".

Previously to 1850, and subsequently also, there were in the United States several side degrees, which could be conferred upon Master Masons and their female relatives, such as "The Mason's Daughter", "The Kindred Degree", "The Heroine of Jericho" and the "Good Samaritan". Beginning with his wife he conferred these degrees upon thousands of Masons and their women folk, in all part of the country, during the next ten years. No attempt was made to organize a society, the occasion being one for recreation and social enjoyment.

In 1855 Morris revised the Work and it was printed under the name of "The Mosaic Book". He then organized "The Supreme Constellation of the American Adoptive Rite" with himself as Most Enlightened Grand Luminary, with headquarters in New York. The subordinate bodies were called constellations. The ritual, however, was too elaborate, the paraphernalia too expensive and the dramatic talent required too much to expect in average American towns and the project failed.

In 1860, Morris again revised the Work and published it, and it is said to be still in use (without lawful authority) in some portions of the United States.

In 1866 Robert Macoy made a further revision and published a Manual of the Eastern Star, and on Bro. Morris' departure for the Holyland in 1868, took over the affairs of the Order. Macoy simplified the Work, organized the Supreme Grand Chapter in December, 1868, appointed Deputies throughout the United States and with their assistance organized over 600 Chapters, in 34 States and territories.

In 1876 a General Grand Chapter was formed (superseding the Supreme Grand Chapter) with authority over the Order everywhere. The Order is widely organized in the United States, Canada, Scotland, England and elsewhere; 56 Jurisdictions with 12,306 Chapters, with a total of nearly 2,500,000 members, ranking next to the Masonic Order in the United States.

In addition to the Order of the Eastern Star there are a number of other Orders open to the feminine relatives of Masons, including the White Shrine of Jerusalem, the Order of Amaranth, the Rainbow Girls, the Daughters of the Nile, and Job's Daughters. None of these is, of course, Freemasonry, but the result no doubt of the desire of both men and women for association in organizations of high standards and ideals.