© National Portrait Gallery, London
A portrait of Nelson dated
1800 by Sir William Beechey,
commissioned by the City of
Norwich, and considered the
most faithful likeness of him
When the editor and I were planning the current issue of MQ,
as its publication coincided with the 200th anniversary of
Trafalgar, we debated whether or not we should include an
article on the question of whether or not Lord Nelson was a
Until recently there appeared to be a certain amount of
circumstantial evidence but no documentary proof of his
initiation, membership of a Lodge or even of his having
visited a Lodge.
The appearance, last year, of Martyn Downer’s Nelson’s
Purse provided more circumstantial evidence, which
prompted us to go ahead. Almost at the last moment some
additional information came to hand, which appears to have
justified our decision.
An article in the Freemasons’ Quarterly Review in 1839 baldly
stated, without evidence, that both Lord Nelson and his
servant Thomas Allan had been Freemasons. That produced
the first two pieces of evidence which appeared to link Nelson
On 16 December 1805, the Master of the Union Lodge
at York (now York Lodge No. 236) proposed that a public
procession be held on the day of Nelson’s funeral to
commemorate “a departed Brother and National Hero.”
For the procession, a banner was prepared, decorated with
the Bible, square and compasses, the sun, moon and stars and
the inscription “England Expects Every Man to do His Duty.
In Memory of Horatio Viscount Nelson who fell in the
Moment of Victory off Cape Trafalgar Oct. 21st 1805.
We rejoice with our Country But Mourn for Our Brother.”
The second item is amongst the treasures of the Lodge of
Friendship No. 100 at Yarmouth. It is a block of white marble
about the size of a house brick. One of the long sides is engraved:
In memory of Bror. Ld. Vt. Nelson of the Nile & of Burnham
Thorpe in Norfolk, who lost his life in the arms of Victory in an
engagement with ye combined Fleets of France and Spain of (sic)
Cape Trafalgar Octr. 21 1805. Proposed by Bro. John Cutlove.
The fact that two Lodges in 1805 believed Nelson to be
a Freemason is, of course, not evidence that he was. The
magazine article and the two artefacts led to searches being
made to trace a Lodge with which Nelson might have been
connected, without any success.
In the late 19th century and in the mid-20th century
extensive searches were made of the pre-1805 Grand Lodge
Registers and of such Lodge records that exist in Norfolk
and the West Indies, again without any mention of Nelson
Fuel was added to the rumours by the discovery of a silver
medal with a portrait bust of Nelson on the obverse and
a host of Masonic symbols on the reverse. It was issued by
the Nelsonic Crimson Oaks, an organisation of which little
is known, but appears to have been a benevolent society
for sailors, the earliest reference to which comes in 1811.
Why Nelson is perhaps easy to explain, but why Masonic
symbols should have been used cannot be explained.