This lady, who is well known as the Lady Freemason, was the Hon.Elizabeth St. Leger, daughter of Lord Doneraile of Doneraile Court, County Cork, Ireland. She was born in 1693, and married in 1713 to Richard Aldworth, Esq., of Newmarket Court, County Cork.
There appears to be no doubt that while a girl she received the First and Second Degrees of Freemasonry in Ireland, but of the actual circumstances of her initiation several different accounts have been given. Of these the most authentic appears to be one issued at Cork, with the authority of the family, in 1811, and afterward republished in London. From this narrative it appears that her father, Viscount Doneraile, together with bisons and a few friends, was accustomed to open a Lodge and carry on the ordinary ceremonies at Doneraile Court, and it was during one of these meetings that the occurrence took place which is thus related:
"It happened on this particular occasion that the Lodge was held in a room separated from another, as is often the case, by stud and brickwork. The young lady, being giddy and thoughtless, and determined to gratify her curiosity, made her arrangements accordingly, and, with a pair of scissors (as she herself related to the mother of our informant), removed a portion of a brick from the wall, and placed herself so as to command a full view of everything which occurred in the next room; so placed, she witnessed the first two degrees in Freemasonry, which was the extent of the proceedings of the Lodge on that night.
Becoming aware, from what she heard, that the Brethren were about to separate, for the first time she felt tremblingly alive to the awkwardness and danger of her situation, and began to consider how she could retire without observation. She became nervous and agitated, and nearly fainted, but so far recovered herself as to be fully aware of the necessity of withdrawing as quickly as possible; in the act of doing so, being in the dark, she stumbled against and overthrew something, said to be a chair or some ornamental piece of furniture.
"The crash was loud ; and the Tiler, who was on the lobby or landing on which the doors both of the Lodge room and that where the Honorable Miss St. Leger was, opened, gave the alarm, burst open the door and, with a light in one hand and a drawn sword in the other, appeared to the now terrified and fainting Lady. He was soon joined by the members of the Lodge present, and luckily; for it is asserted that but for the prompt appearance of her brother, Lord Doneraile, and other steady members, her life would have fallen a sacrifice to what was then esteemed her crime. The first care of his Lordship was to resuscitate the unfortunate Lady without alarming the house, and endeavor to learn from her an explanation of what had occurred; having done so, many of the members being furious at the transaction, she was placed under guard of the Tiler and a member, in the room where she was found. The members reassembled and deliberated as to what, under the circumstances, was to be done, and over two long hours she could hear the angry discussion and her death deliberately proposed and seconded.
"At length the good sense of the majority succeeded in calming, in some measure, the angry and irritated feeling of the rest of the members, when, after much had been said and many. things proposed, it was resolved to give her the option of submitting to the Masonic ordeal to the extent she had witnessed (Fellow Craft), and if she refused, the brethren were again to consult. Being waited on to decide, Miss St. Leger, exhausted and terrified by the storminess of the debate, which she could not avoid partially hearing, and yet, notwithstanding all, with a secret pleasure, gladly and unhesitatingly accepted the offer.
She was accordingly initiated."
The above reference to Lord Doneraile, her brother, is a mistake ; her father, the first Lord Doneraile, was then alive. He did not die until 1727, when his daughter had been married for fourteen years.
A very different account is given in the Freemason's Quarterly Review for 1839 (page 322 ), being reprinted from the Cork Standard of May. 29, 1839.
According to this story Mirs. Aldworth was seized with curiosity about the mysteries of Freemasonry and set herself to discover them ; so she made friends with the landlady of an inn in Cork in which a Lodge used to meet, and with her connivance was concealed in a clock case which was placed in the Lodge room; however, she was unable to endure the discomfort of her confinement in such narrow quarters and betrayed herself by a scream, on which she was discovered by the members of the Lodge and then and there initiated.
It will be observed that according to this version the lady. was already married before she was initiated.
The story is said to be supported by the testimony of two members of Lodge 71, at Cork, in which Lodge the initiation is said to have taken place. However, this can hardly be correct, for that Lodge did not meet at Cork until 1777, whereas, Mrs. Aldworth died in1773.
If, however, the commoner version of the story is preferred, according to which Miss St. Leger was initiated as a young girl, then the occurrence must have taken place before her marriage in 1713, and therefore before the establishment of Grand Lodges and the introduction of warranted and numbered Lodges, and it is therefore a proof of the existence of at least one Lodge of Speculative Freemasons in Ireland at an early period.
After her marriage Mrs. Aldworth seems to have kept up her connection with the Craft, for her portrait in Masonic clothing, her apron and jewels, are still in existence, and her name occurs among the subscribers to Dassigny's Enquiry of 1744, her name being the second on the list and immediately following that of the Grand Master of Ireland, the accompanying names all being brethren ; and it has even been stated that she presided as Master of her Lodge.
The story has been fully discussed by Brothers Conder, Crawley, and others in the eighth volume (1895) of the Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, of Quatuor Coronati Lodge of London, to which the curious are referred for further information.
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