The Wilde Oxford Mason
The charismatic and controversial literary genius Oscar Wilde was an active Freemason at Oxford, as Yasha Beresiner reveals
The saddest of the tragedies that Oscar Wilde was to write could not match the events that unfolded in his own short
lifetime. Freemasonry, which did play a significant part during his Oxford days, was also to reject him.
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (who dropped all his middle names in 1877) was born in Dublin on 16 October 1854. In 1874 he won the grant, which catapulted him directly from Trinity College, Dublin to Magdalen College, Oxford. As a brilliant undergraduate he was likely to have been befriended by Prince Leopold,
sixth son of Queen Victoria, who 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, Wilde's colleague John Edward Courtnay Bodley, a fellow undergraduate at Balliol College, who had been initiated the year before, approached him with a view to his joining the Apollo University Lodge. Wilde was not 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. Prior to his initiation on 23 February 1875, Wilde was primed on Freemasonry as recorded in Bodley's diary for 21 February:
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.'
The meeting at which Wilde was initiated was a busy one. The evening began with a third-degree ceremony in which 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 Wilde. Bro the Rev H A Pickard was Master.
Oscar Wilde's Masonic career only spanned the four-year period in which he studied at Magdalen College, Oxford. It began and ended there, but he did take to Freemasonry like a duck takes to water. He was fascinated by
the Craft - and the degrees beyond
and participated in many of them. In his maiden speech at the festive board following his initiation, 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 an
historic content and traditional costume. Officers 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.
Oscar took his Freemasonry seriously and was a keen and active participant in Lodge affairs. Having been passed to the second degree on 24 April and made a Master Mason on the 25 May 1875, he joined Churchill Lodge in November of the same year. 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... '
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