Rosicrucian Confusion and Masonic Machinations

The Conservative Responses of Anna Jane Vardill and Eleanor Anne Porden to Loyalist versus Revolutionary Freemasonry and Exoteric versus Esoteric Science

Marsha Keith Schuchard, Ph.D.

Though “regular” British Freemasonry did not allow female membership, two precocious young women—Anna Jane Vardill and Eleanor Anne Porden—adopted their fathers’ support for the loyalist, pro-government policies of the Grand Lodge of England.1 From 1797 to 1809, Vardill contributed writings for “regular” Masonic occasions and, over the next decade, she and Porden criticized the revolutionary and esoteric interests of “irregular” Rosicrucian Masons in Britain and abroad. Vardill drew upon the Masonic and espionage career of her father to satirize the alleged seditions of political “cabals,” reinforced by the deceptions of occultist “Cabalists.”2 Porden, whose architect father worked for the Prince of Wales, the titular Grand Master, argued for the rationalist, scientific positions of the loyalist Grand Lodge, while trying to understand the attractions of esoteric Rosicrucianism and Hermetic alchemy. In meetings of their convivial literary society, the Attic Chest, the ladies had to politely contend with their good friends, the famous sculptor John Flaxman and his family, who were Swedenborgians and sympathetic to the theosophic and alchemical interests maintained by the “high degree” Masonic systems that were rejected by the English Grand Lodge. In the process, they provide an unusual female, conservative perspective on the controversies provoked by political and philosophical differences within international Freemasonry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

In February 1797, the fifteen year-old Anna Jane Vardill, signing herself as “Daughter of a Freemason,” contributed a poem to be sung by the children of the Freemasons’ Female Charity, in which she praised “the blessings of Fraternal Love,” which provided a refuge and vocational training for underprivileged girls.3 It was immediately published in a loyalist Masonic journal at a time of extreme turbulence for Freemasonry in the British Isles, as the United Irishmen utilized “irregular” Masonry in their nationalistic struggle against oppressive British governmental policies. Six years earlier, Dr. William Drennan, a Presbyterian co-founder of the United Irishmen, drew on his Masonic experience when he planned a Society,

having much of the secrecy and somewhat of the ceremonial of Freemasonry. A benevolent conspiracy—a plot for the people . . . the Brotherhood its name . . . Real Independence to Ireland, Communication with the leading men in France, in England, and America, so as to cement the scattered and shifting sand of republicanism into a body . . . and when cemented to sink it like a caisson in the dark and troubled waters, a stable unseen power . . . .4

Edmund Burke, an Anglo-Irish Mason who knew Drennan, had recently made a prophetic warning about the emergence of just such “Illuminatist” Masonic conspiracies:

Many parts of Europe are in virtual disorder. There is a hollow murmuring underground; a confused Movement is felt, that threatens a general earthquake in the political world. Already confederacies and correspondences of the most extraordinary nature are forming themselves in several countries. In such a state of things we ought to hold ourselves upon our guard.”5

By 1797, when Miss Vardill praised the charitable project of the loyalist Grand Lodge in London, the United Irishmen and their dissident Masonic brothers in England and Scotland had grown so influential that they indeed threatened “a general earthquake” in the British political establishment. Unusually for a young girl, Anna Jane was aware of the political schisms within the wider fraternity through the espionage and political activities of her father, Reverend John Vardill, in England, Ireland, and Scotland. In order to analyze the sometimes bizarre, anti-“occult” themes in Anna Jane’s later writings, it will be necessary to reconstruct her father’s earlier experiences with radical, “irregular” Masons. As we shall see, it was evidently through the Vardills’ later friendship with William Porden and his daughter Eleanor Anne that the latter also drew on and criticized the Rosicrucian and Hermetic themes of the “higher degrees.”

The Vardills—Loyalist Mason, Devoted Father, and Precocious Daughter

The Reverend John Vardill was an American intellectual, poet, and pamphleteer, who opposed the independence movement in his native country. When the revolution broke out, he moved to England, where he worked as a secret agent and spy for William Eden (later Lord Auckland), the under-secretary of state who directed “Britain’s large and complicated system of European espionage.”6 Despite his theological ambition to gain a high position in the Anglican Episcopal church, Vardill was a hard-headed practitioner of realpolitik, who had no scruples about utilizing forgery, fraud, deception, thievery, and bribes, while employing habitués of brothels in his espionage work. Though his major assignment was to maintain surveillance and report on American residents in England, he also managed a network of agents and double-agents who intercepted correspondence between the pro-American French ministers and their allies in America and Britain. Having joined a loyalist lodge in America, he utilized similar fraternal contacts in England, where his employer Eden was also a “regular” Mason, who had served as Grand Steward of the Grand Lodge of England in 1770.7 Eden would later utilize Vardill’s secret services to support Prime Minister William Pitt’s effort to suppress the radicals in the United Brotherhoods, in what critics called “Pitt’s White Terror.”

When the American rebels defeated the British army at Saratoga in 1777, William Drennan hailed it as “a victory for mankind” and predicted that “future historians would date the fall of the British Empire from 16 October 1777.”8 Though the war dragged on, Vardill’s usefulness in intercepting French correspondence came to a close. In 1778, he was resident in Skipton, Yorkshire, where he met and married Agnes Birtwhistle, member of a wealthy, conservative cattle-trading family.9 He now resumed his secret intelligence activities against the local reform movement that emerged in opposition to the war against America. Organized by the Scottish-born cleric Christopher Wyvill in late 1779, the Yorkshire Association campaigned against the wasteful expense and mismanagement of the war, and it attracted many followers in Skipton. In 1780 it petitioned the government to expand parliamentary representation, and it established a widespread correspondence network to work for the cause.

The Association’s growing influence provided Vardill with “his last opportunity to vent his spleen against republicanism while still in government’s employ.”10 The Yorkshire Movement “represented the importation to England of those same republican, anarchical ideas which had plagued him since 1768. The Furies had followed him across the water.” Using the pseudonym “Cassandra,” he anonymously published a series of papers called THE ALARM, in which he raged against the seditious aims of the reformers, whose democratic ideals would lead to disaster.11 Herbert Butterfield argued that the Yorkshire Association was “a quasi-revolutionary organization” and that “our French Revolution” was in fact that of 1780—“the revolution we escaped.”12

Though Steven Wigely concluded that Vardill’s service to the government became superfluous to the government, and “after 1780 he disappeared from view,” further research by Tony Stephens reveals that he continued his work as an anonymous, pro-government propagandist. Stephens notes that “the secretive nature of the espionage ‘trade’ makes some of his activities difficult to trace but, ironically, his propensity to disguise himself behind erudite Classical pseudonyms occasionally eases the task.”13 His marriage into the Birtwhistle family, who controlled the huge cattle trade between Scotland and Ireland, provided him with new political and espionage opportunities. After the birth in London of Vardill’s only child, Anna Jane, in January 1781, his in-laws arranged for them to move to their property in Galloway in southwest Scotland. From his west coast residence, with close commercial ties to northern Ireland, he gained access to the efforts of nationalistic Irish Masons to link up with Scottish reformers in their anti-government campaigns.

Vardill’s interest in Irish-Scottish political links was almost certainly supported by Eden, his former spy master, who became Chief Secretary of Ireland in 1780, MP for Dungannon in 1781, and Vice Treasurer of Ireland in 1782.14 Eden reluctantly accepted the appointments because “Ireland was in a most alarming state, and seemed upon the point of following the example of America.”15 He became especially worried by the rise of the Irish Volunteers, who in 1778 pressured Westminster into conceding legislative independence to the Dublin parliament. In that year, when William Drennan returned to Belfast from his medical studies in Scotland, he joined the Volunteers and began to publish support for their campaign.16

The Irish Volunteers were inspired by Christopher Wyvill’s reform campaign, and they closely followed the activities of the Yorkshire Association. In early 1783, the Ulster Volunteers sought the organizational advice of Wyvill, as they planned a great convention at Dungannon, a plan strongly opposed by Eden, the city’s MP.17 This link-up between Irish and Yorkist reformers alarmed the government, which intensified its crackdown. In December 1783, Eden boasted of decreasing the Volunteers’ influence and increasing that of the pro-government Lord Lieutenant: “We flatter ourselves that we have broken the back of the session.”18

However, by the time that Eden returned to London in 1784, the Volunteer movement had become increasingly political and nationalistic with many members working for much more radical reform and Irish independence. The non-sectarian Volunteers and their supporters among the Catholic Defenders became closely linked with “irregular,” high-degree Freemasonry, including a Grand Master and system of lodges: “Defender oaths tended to have strong millennial, occult, and freemasonry undertones, as did their accompanying catechisms.”19 A Volunteer coined the slogan, “Let every Lodge in the land become a company of citizen-soldiers. Let every Volunteer company become a Lodge of Masons.”20 In 1784, Drennan was initiated into a northern Irish Masonic lodge, and he wrote a fellow Volunteer:

I should like to see the institution of a society as secret as the Free-Masons, whose object might be by every practical means to put into execution plans for the complete liberation of the country. The secrecy would surround the proceedings of such a society with a certain awe and majesty and the oath of admission would inspire enthusiasm in its members . . . 21

One year later he elaborated on his desire to organize “a religious brotherhood, knit together by some awful formality, by the solemnity of the adjuration, by something mysterious in its manner, like the freemasons society.”22 At that time, he advocated “a constitutional conspiracy,” aiming for reform under British rule, but subsequent repressive moves by the government provoked him to more radical aims.

The continuing important role of Eden in Irish affairs provides a context for the puzzling claim that John Vardill was in Ireland in 1785 and 1786.23 Stephens observes that Vardill’s previous record of “gravitating to political hotspots” at a time of “high political tension” makes an Irish visit unsurprising.24 Moreover, he and his daughter would later maintain a relationship with political-Masonic figures (the Earl of Moira and Prince of Wales) who played significant roles in the Irish “troubles” at that time. Vardill had apparently met Francis Rawdon (later 2nd Earl of Moira), when the twenty-year old Anglo-Irish soldier fought with British troops in America.25 His father, the 1st Earl of Moira was a Mason, who in 1760 caused some controversy when he hosted French prisoners of war at his Ballynahinch residence, reportedly because they were fellow Masons.26 His son, Francis, joined a military lodge under the Irish Constitution in the 1770s, either in Ireland or America.27 As a teenager, Francis “expressed a few immature opinions in support of colonial resistance to British measures and in favor of the abstract ‘cause of liberty.’”28 However, during his service in America in 1774-81, he came to despise the revolutionaries: “I do not believe,” he asserted, “that a set of such infamous scoundrels ever infested any other country in the world.”

In America, Rawdon demonstrated genuine military talent, but he also gained a reputation as a ruthless military martinet, an opinion shared by General George Washington and the Duke of Richmond, who in 1782 charged him in the English House of Lords with “deliberate, wanton, and malicious murder.”29 Nevertheless, his military successes earned him high praise from the British government and the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy.30 On his return to Ireland in 1781, Rawdon became an MP for Antrim in the Irish Parliament, but he soon told his mother that he could not live in Ireland because the society there was “irksome” and too different from that in England.31 Moving to London, he was praised by Eden in 1782, and his loyalty earned him membership in the British House of Lords in 1783 as Baron Rawdon for County York.32 At this time he was a strong Tory and opposed to the growing nationalism of the Volunteers in Ireland, an attitude he shared with Eden.

It was probably through these connections that John Vardill made his mysterious visits to Ireland, for he could provide valuable intelligence on the changing nature of the Volunteer movement, increasingly connected with “irregular” Masonry. Though Drennan in 1784 had hoped for an improvement in government policies toward Ireland, one year later Eden led the opposition to Prime Minister Pitt’s relatively moderate bill to open and regulate trade between Ireland and England. Vardill evidently worked in Ireland to secretly build support for Eden among pro-English merchants and manufacturers, “who were violently opposed to Mr. Pitt’s measures,” and they managed to defeat the bill in the English-dominated Irish Parliament.33 Even more concerning to Drennan and the Masonic Volunteers was the report in 1785 that George Augustus Frederick, the erratic and corrupt Prince of Wales, privately aimed to become King of Ireland, while publicly professing sympathy for the Irish people.34 His secret, illegal marriage to the French-educated, twice-widowed Maria Fitzgerald, a Roman Catholic, influenced his sympathy for the oppressed Irish Catholics, but Drennan doubted his sincerity.

Two years later, in February 1787, the prince—a disaffected Whig who despised his father, George III—was initiated into Freemasonry, and he became the intimate friend of Rawdon, who now joined the Whigs, while subordinating his interests in Irish reform to his slavish devotion to the prince. Though the heir apparent was “addicted to lying, tippling, and low company,” qualities that Rawdon did not share, the Irish Mason “seemed ‘romantically attached’ to the prince, with his heart leading his head in this somewhat curious relationship.”35 In May 1791, the prince was installed as Grand Master of the “regular” Grand Lodge of England, and Rawdon served as the Acting Grand Master, a role he took seriously and, over the next decades, exploited for their mutual political needs. In that same year, when Drennan co-founded the United Irishmen, with its significant Masonic component, he hoped to gain the support of Rawdon, but he was eventually disappointed that his devotion to the English prince too often over-rode his commitment to Irish reform.

The government and “regular” Masons soon became frightened at the rapid growth and republican aims of the United Irishmen, who attracted thousands of Protestants, Catholics, and Dissenters, while recruiting oath-bound, United “brothers” in England and Scotland. John Vardill now revived his role as a pro-government propagandist in Galloway, probably prompted by Eden (now Lord Auckland). His old spymaster received a report in November 1792 that in Scotland, Thomas Paine’s works, translated into Gaelic, were “in the hands of all the common people.”36 In December, Vardill anonymously published scathing attacks on the Scottish admirers of Paine, whose radical treatise, The Rights of Man, advocated abolition of the monarchy. Writing as “Nerva” in the Dumfries Weekly Journal (December 1792), Vardill scorned Paine as a mere mechanic, “without the advantages of a classical or liberal education,” who was an “anguis in herba” (snake in the grass), likely to poison the minds of the “middling and lower classes,” and “raising disquiets in the most perfect system of legislation that ever was formed by the wisdom, foresight, and experience of man.”37

In that month, Vardill learned of even more alarming developments, when Thomas Muir, a Glasgow advocate, established ties with the United Irishmen and organized similar Masonic-influenced societies in Scotland.38 In December 1792, Muir read out a printed address from the United Irishmen, who complimented the Scottish nation for its spirit of reform, complained of the existing system of representation, and urged “the calling of conventions in all three kingdoms of the British Isles to promote parliamentary reform.”39 Muir corresponded with William Drennan and circulated his writings in Scotland.40 In some of them, Drennan obliquely referenced the mystical Royal Arch and Templar degrees utilized by United Masons, while he actually implemented the underground organizing methods of the secular, agnostic German Illuminati.41 Stephens suggests that Vardill’s calls for the “suppression of divers wicked and seditious writings” influenced the authorities to arrest Muir in January 1793, and Drennan’s address was presented as “the most damning evidence” against his Scottish “brother.”42 In August, Muir was sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay.

The exiles of Paine and Muir would be considered victories for John Vardill, while the Birtwhistle circle cultivated their loyalist ties to the Royal family.43 During these turbulent times, Vardill was closely superintending the education of his precocious daughter, Anna Jane, with the help of her French tutor, who had been his collaborator in espionage work and who worked under the pseudonym “Monsieur Cramozin,” which apparently symbolized the crimson cloak of French royalists.44 Their insistence that she study the Greek and Latin writers meant that she could recognize the coded significance of her father’s Classical pseudonyms. In her later amused reference to “a French spy” in Galloway, Anna Jane implied that she knew that her former tutor had been one of her father’s “agents.”45 Given her unusually intimate relationship with her father, who determined to mold her according to his beliefs, it is not surprising that conservative political and Masonic themes from the 1790s would later appear in Anna Jane’s writings of the 1820s.

In 1793, when Rawdon became the 2nd Earl of Moira, he continued to sympathize with the moderate Irish reformers, while using his acting Grand Mastership to distance the Modern Masons from the radicals. His refusal to support the revolutionaries led his former admirers in the London Corresponding Society to criticize him as “an apostate from Liberty” and to toast the United Irishmen and “the patriotic societies of Ireland.”46 In 1795, during a visit to his Irish residence in Ballynahinch, he persuaded his tenants to pass a resolution of loyalty to the crown, including a vow to never to rise in rebellion, but three years later many of them joined the United Irish uprising and fought the government troops on Moira’s own property.47

In 1796, Vardill was partially “outed” by the liberal Monthly Review, when it reported that “Mr. V-----, then a young Episcopal clergyman, who came from New York, in order to make his fortune here, in the character of a loyalist,” was the anonymous forger of Letters from General Washington, to Several of his Friends in the Year 1776 (London, 1777).48 The loyalist publisher Rivington had just reprinted Epistles, Domestic, Confidential, and Official, from General Washington (New York; London, 1796), which the reviewer scorned as “a republication of the letters which were notoriously fabricated and first published in London, soon after the commencement of the American war, for the purpose of engaging the people in this country to approve the continuance of it.” Pretending to be Washington, Vardill had claimed that the general did not believe in the revolution and yearned for a full reconciliation with the mother country.49 Washington had long tried to identify the forger, whom he considered a mendacious traitor who took advantage of an earlier friendship with his family. That Washington had served as Grand Master of revolutionary American Freemasonry must also have stung Vardill, a staunchly loyalist Mason.

Though Vardill’s identity was only partially revealed, the report may have reinforced Auckland’s estimation of the Anglican churchman’s expertise in intelligence gathering and pro-government propaganda. As they watched with alarm the radical Masonic activities in Ireland, Vardill and Auckland knew that similar disaffection was occurring in Scotland, where Grand Lodge efforts to suppress the “irregular” lodges were unsuccessful. In Vardill’s home county of Galloway, journalists noted the unusual “liberal intelligence” of the lower classes, many of whom practiced the Royal Arch and Knight Templar degrees.50 In 1795, Auckland and presumably Vardill learned that the Irish and Scottish authorities believed that those rituals were employed in recruiting and training revolutionaries.51 The frightened Irish authorities thus implemented a severe crackdown on “irregular” Masons. In County Kildare, Laurence O’Connor, a school-master, was convicted of recruiting for the French and owning symbols of the “irregular” Masonic orders. His case received wide publicity when Robert Clifford published An Application of Barruel’s Memoirs of Jacobinism to the Secret Societies of Ireland and Great Britain (1798).52 Clifford described three certificates displayed at O’Connor’s trial:

One of Free Masons, a second of Royal Arch, and a third of Knights Templar, showing that O’Connor was of these Orders. One of the Counsel tried to explain away the oath, representing it as “the mere rhapsody of a warm imagination, used to exercise itself on Masonic mysteries”; he represented to the jury, that it would be a cruel verdict indeed that would convict a man of treason, merely for using a few cabalistic words and symbols.53

To frighten off other members of the United Irishmen, the judge ordered that O’Connor be hung, drawn, and quartered, and his head displayed publicly on a stake.

Barruel’s campaign against the radical Masons was reinforced by John Robison, a Scottish Mason and Professor of Mathematics in Edinburgh, who published a best-selling book, Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, Carried on in the Secret Meetings of Freemasons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies (London, 1797-98). What must have alarmed the Vardills is that Robison had received a disturbing report from John Robertson, a Presbyterian minister currently resident in Galloway. While travelling in Germany, Robertson had met with Illuminatists and acquired publications about them:

I was laughed at in Munich when I maintained that Scotch Masonry was not tinctured with illumination. They assured me they had proofs of a correspondence with Scotland. In Galloway, where I now live . . . the masons are uncommonly active in recruiting, having frequent and numerous meetings . . . the masons give out that when the Robespierrists had passed a decree to give no quarter to the English, a whole regiment was saved by masonry; I think it is said of the Inniskilling dragoons. They were surrounded . . . by the French and were going to be cut to pieces, when the commanding officer stept forward and made some of the masons’ signs to the French, which their commander observed and returned, when the firing ceased and both parties retreated. The circulation of this tale by the masons to procure recruits has an obvious meaning.54

This story of Masonic solidarity between French, Irish, and Scottish soldiers was circulating in Galloway, and Robison determined to prove it false, to “put an end to the use made of it in Galloway and probably other places.” Things got even worse in the Vardills’ neighborhood, for the government’s imposition of the Militia Act in August 1797 led to widespread rioting in New Galloway, where protestors pelted the officers with stones and paraded a Tree of Liberty through the town, making it “necessary to have a military force” to suppress them.55

John Vardill probably also learned about Auckland’s concern that radical, Swedish-affiliated Freemasons were seeking influence in Scotland. In late 1797, Auckland sent to Robison a pamphlet on the assassination of King Gustav III by “illuminated” Masons, with the complicity of the king’s brother, the Duke of Soudermania, head of the Swedish lodges.56 Writing to Robert Dundas, a loyalist Mason and Lord Advocate of Scotland, Robison mailed to him the pamphlet, Reverend Robertson’s warning letter, and a document sent by the Swedish-rite lodge of Berlin to their confrères in Scotland:

An invitation was given to the Fraternity of Free Masons in Scotland to hold a correspondence with the Grand or Royal Lodge of Berlin . . . . It was conceived as addressed to the most advanced order of Masonry. This is supposed to be what they call the Royal Order of St. Andrew, professing what they call the masonry of Rose Croix . . . . I know that this system was contrived by the Swedes and the Duke of Soudermaine . . . . the whole of this order is engaged with schemes of illuminatism. I firmly believe that this invitation to a correspondence is with a view to make proselytes.57

Perhaps drawing on this information, acquired by her father’s political mentor, Anna Jane Vardill would later write about the alleged approval of assassination by “illuminated” foreign Masons, including those who murdered the Swedish king.58

In 1797, she had identified her father as a loyalist Mason, and he was evidently affiliated with the “regular” lodges in Galloway that in October of that year celebrated the British Fleet’s victory over the French at Camperdown.59 In 1798, the Vardills moved to London, where Anna Jane’s recent publication of her hymn for the Freemasons provided an entrée into loyalist Masonic circles, including those of Stephen Jones and James Asperne, later editors of The European Magazine. These ardent, “regular” Masons would eventually publish an astonishing number of Anna Jane’s writings. In 1799, the Vardills must have followed the negotiations between the “regular” Grand Masters of England and Scotland (Lord Moira, acting, and the Duke of Atholl, titular) to protect the Grand Lodge system from the ban implemented in the Secret Societies Act, which outlawed the “irregular” lodges. However, as Andrew Prescott observes: “The 1799 Act was largely an exercise in closing stable doors after the horses had fled. The United Irish were already regrouping into an even more secretive and militaristic organization.”60

Though John Vardill virtually disappeared from the historical record, his precocious daughter took up his conservative cause in 1809 and praised the late Prime Minister Pitt, “whose magic voice” defeated “Rebellion’s giant hydra” of “Faction,” and whose “lightning glance explor’d/ Conspiracy’s dark depths!”61 Until her father’s death in January 1811, the two maintained a relationship with Lord Moira, who had attended the Masonic Charity School celebration in 1797 that Anna Jane praised, and she would write a poem, “On the Marriage of the Earl of Moira to the Countess of Loudoun,” which took place in 1804.62 The young bride, Flora Mure Campbell, was the daughter of James Campbell, 5th Earl of Loudoun, whose family played important roles in the military and in loyalist Freemasonry.63

Anna Jane presented a dialogue between ERIN (Moira) and SCOTIA (Countess of Loudoun), which drew on Moira’s acquiescence in January 1801 to the Act of Union, which abolished the Irish Parliament and absorbed its representatives into the English Parliament. Initially, Moira did not support the Act of Union, which was violently opposed by Drennan and the United Brotherhoods.64 In a published protest to Pitt, Drennan had angrily written that the proposed Union would make “a capon of our country—an Eunuch of Ireland,” for “such an insidious and impudent proposal, to swell the loins of the country at the expense of its virility, I think and I say, should be as revolting to a nation, as to a man.”65 He warned that “Irish representatives would be what the Scotch were, the wretched semblance of their castrated country.”66 When the Act was passed, Moira shifted his view and pledged his loyalty and that of the “modern” Grand Lodge to the government. The Vardills obviously agreed with Moira, and Anna Jane presented the Earl’s marriage as a cementing of the union of Ireland, Scotland, and England, under strong English governance:

Proud ALBION heard her sisters plead—
“Unite!” she said, unite for ever!
Fate, Love, and Wisdom have decreed
ERIN and SCOTIA shall not sever! 67

Reinforcing the Vardills’ friendship with Moira was his role in gaining permission from Princess Charlotte for Anna Jane to dedicate Poems and Translations (1809) to her. A Masonic brother, William Forssteen, wrote Moira seeking such Royal permission, and Moira replied to him on 10 December 1808 that Charlotte accepted “with great pleasure.”68 Moira was grateful for her “flattering Compliment” in her “Address to the Ancient and Honourable Society of Free Masons, At the anniversary Meeting for the Benefit of the Charity School, April 14th, 1809.” The Vardills had also developed a close friendship with another loyalist Mason, William Franklin, the American-born natural son of Benjamin Franklin, who had served as Royal Governor of New Jersey, until his opposition to the revolution sent him into exile in England, where he collaborated with Vardill in espionage activities.69 When Franklin, who defied his estranged father’s revolutionary role, died in November 1813, she eulogized him as the more virtuous patriot, who while in exile in London, “lives in the softer life of honour here.”70

The Pordens—Conservative Mason, Doting Father, and Ambitious Daughter

It was apparently around 1808 that the Vardills got to know Franklin’s friends, William Porden and his second daughter Eleanor Anne, whose writings would be strongly influenced by her father’s conservative, even reactionary, political opinions. In 1779, while training as an architect, Porden anonymously contributed to a satire on the Royal Academy of Arts and its first professor of architecture, Thomas Sandby, who had recently designed the imposing Freemasons’ Hall.71 The text describes imaginary paintings and drawings, and provides hints of Porden’s emerging conservative opinions. His disgust with political reformers intensified after he befriended the journalist and editor William Gifford in 1788.72 Like the Pordens and Vardills, Gifford was a devout member of the Church of England and “fierce champion of all other establishments of government.”73 A brilliant and merciless satirist, Gifford condemned the literary and political opposition as dangerous radicals, and he subsequently edited The Anti-Jacobin (1797-98), a government-subsidized journal which attacked the United Irishmen and warned that the Illuminati aimed to destroy the Christian religion.74 Gifford was more tolerant of pro-government Masons, and he probably knew that Porden worked closely with operative stonemasons and was associated with low-degree “craft” Masonry. In 1803 this affiliation would become more important when Porden took on architectural projects for the Prince of Wales, titular Grand Master. Over the next years, he and Eleanor Anne increasingly “indulged in hero-worship” of the corrupt and carousing prince.75

In 1808, Porden and his precocious, thirteen year-old daughter began hosting a convivial literary society called “The Attic Chest,” which met bimonthly in the winter season until 1818.76 The name referred to the Greek (Attic) interests of the participants. Among the most active participants were the famous sculptor John Flaxman, his wife Anne (called Nancy), sister Mary Ann Flaxman, and sister-in-law Maria Denman.77 Porden had become close to Flaxman through their mutual occupations and unusual sympathy for Gothic architecture, a style still revered by most of the operative stonemasons with whom they frequently worked.78 The Flaxman and Denman ladies soon became close friends of the young Porden and Vardill ladies.

The inclusion of the Flaxmans in this loyalist, conservative group soon posed an intellectual and political challenge for the “regular,” Grand Lodge Masons and their daughters, who all espoused very rationalistic and pro-government opinions. Over the next decade, Anna Jane and Eleanor Anne tried to politely understand and deal with the Swedenborgian, Rosicrucian, and Cabalistic beliefs of the Flaxman family—beliefs the latter had developed through their association with the liberal, foreign, and “high degree” Masons who shared their Swedenborgian theosophy.79 The responses of Misses Vardill and Porden to this “occultist” challenge, especially as revealed in their writings for the Attic Chest, provide a rare female, conservative perspective on the polarizations within Freemasonry and in contemporary debates about esoteric versus exoteric science.

Despite her youth, Eleanor Anne Porden became the dominant personality in the Attic Chest, which she described as “this repository for rational amusement.”80 Like her father and John Vardill, she was very chauvinistic and despised the French revolutionaries and Napoleon. One of her first Attic Chest contributions was a poem, “On the Conscription of the Student of Gottingen,” presented on 27 December 1808. The University of Gottingen had been founded by George II in 1737 and maintained ties with English universities. Adam Weishaupt, founder of the German Illuminati, became a professor there, after his expulsion from Bavaria in 1784, and the secular, agnostic aims of Illuminatist reformers exerted a strong influence on the students. In 1807, the university came under Napoleonic control, which led to the conscription of students for his army. In an oddly-spaced poem, Eleanor Anne scorned the University for acquiescing in this situation: “Ah me, and are ye going to,/ The wars for to be shotten in”:

Soon ye will hate that much-loved Bu—
—onaparte, now so hot-in-grain;
Ye never thought he’d conscribe you,
But more would reverence the U—
—Niversity of Gottingen. 81

When the conscripted students are rotting in the graves of Spain, which the French had invaded, “Oxford and Cambridge,” sister universities, “Proud will look round, and sneering view,/ You and your poor forsaken U---/---Niversity of Gottingen.” This kind of defiant patriotism was quite unusual for an adolescent girl, but like Miss Vardill, she had learned her politics from her doting father.

Since her early childhood, Eleanor Anne was fascinated by science, an interest encouraged by her father. From age nine she attended lectures at the Royal Institution of Science, where she became a fervent admirer of Sir Humphry Davy, the eminent chemist who explained the history and methods of chemistry in theatrical lectures that gained him a devoted female following.82 Davy wrote learnedly about the history of alchemy while also debunking its more credulous contemporary believers, and Eleanor Anne frequently discussed his rationalistic critiques at the Attic Chest meetings. Two participants—John Flaxman and his wife, Nancy—listened politely to her praise of “modern,” non-superstitious science, while maintaining their own sympathy for and interest in the esoteric traditions of alchemy. Moreover, their close friend, John Augustus Tulk, a Swedenborgian Mason, was a practicing alchemist and allegedly included the Flaxmans in his laboratory work.83 Since the founding of the London Swedenborg society in 1776 by French-influenced, “high-degree” Masons, Tulk had collaborated in their efforts to publish the esoteric and scientific works of the Swedish scientist-seer and his alchemically-involved disciples.84 In 1783 Flaxman joined in these efforts, and he drew a French “Cap of Liberty,” reflecting his sympathy for the reformers in France and Britain.85 He maintained his close working relationship with Tulk throughout his participation in the Attic Chest.

Humphry Davy was reportedly a “regular” Mason, and Flaxman, a sympathizer with spiritualistic Masonry, good-naturedly disagreed with many of his scientific “naturalistic” theories.86 In 1810, while Miss Porden enthusiastically summarized his lectures and held forth on the wonders of electricity and the galvanic battery, Flaxman contributed a light-hearted poem about “The mighty Davy,” who “caught a spark/ As he sat studying in the dark,” laboured and analysed it, only to discover that it was just “a common flame.”87 In a jaunty “New Song,” he laughed at “Professor Diddle (of the Royal Institution),” who says “on the authority of Professor Humbug!—you should read nothing, but, analytical, algebraic, botanical, chemical, metaphysical, polyglot encyclopedias . . . with mica, quartz, feld-spars and electric fluid/ To set all your wits alight!/ And make you wiser than a druid!”88

In July, Eleanor Anne seemed to reply with her own critique of alchemy, which she called Rosicrucianism, when she presented a draft of “Rape of the Veil,” a poem that she would expand and publish in 1815. She drew on the Rosicrucian themes earlier expressed in the French novella, Le Comte de Gabalis, ou Entretien sur les Sciences Secrèts (1670), that Alexander Pope and Erasmus Darwin (both Masons) also utilized. In the Preface, she described herself as “a pupil of the Royal Institution, being at that time [1810] attending the Lectures . . . on Chemistry, Geology, Natural History, and Botany, by Sir Humphry Davy . . . and other eminent men.”89 She explained that “The machinery is founded on the Rosicrucian doctrine, which peoples each of the four elements with a peculiar class of spirits,” and the author has “endeavoured to shew them as representing the different energies of nature, exerted in producing the various changes that take place in the natural world.” Though the narrative was basically a Medieval, chivalric romance, she included lengthy footnotes which expressed in detail her “modern,” scientific, technological explications for many of the symbols and themes.90

Porden’s reading of the first version of The Veils evidently provoked Nancy Flaxman, her close friend, to submit on 5 December 1810 her anonymous composition, “The Old Philosophical Enigma Unriddled,” which she signed as “An Old Rosicrucian.”91 The long poem was a learned, humorous tease, presenting enigmatic alchemical terms to be decoded:

You’re Master both of Nature & Art, I ween,
Tho’ quaint Expressions, in these lines are seen
Reject them not, for truth’s within, I ween
For if thou dost, thou are a very sot,
And a Foolsopher will remain I wot. 92

Unfortunately, Eleanor Anne was not as welcoming as Nancy expected, for she wrote in her Editorial about the 5 December meeting: “The Rosicrucian has puzzled us completely with his old philosophical Aenigma Unriddled. We wot not what he means by the old Aenigma, nor weem how that can be unriddled which still remains utterly incomprehensible.”93

On 18 December, still hoping to interest the group in alchemy, Nancy Flaxman “communicated” a light-hearted poem, “On the Summary of Alchemy,” in which she wrote: “Whether yet true it be,/ That not in a million, three,/ Are fit for Alchymie.”94 At this time, the two Flaxmans and Tulk (three in a million) were indeed involved in alchemical study and practice. Nancy cited works by Hermes Trismegistus, Elias Ashmole, and John Dee, but once again Miss Porden was baffled by her friend’s alchemical references, noting that she was sure that it is “an exquisite poem; although we confess that we do not understand a word of it.”

The opposing views of science—exoteric versus esoteric—were paralleled by the polarization within Freemasonry, with the “regular” three-degree system challenged by the “irregular” high-degree rites. While Tulk and Flaxman continued to collaborate with high-degree Swedenborgian Masons at home and abroad, Anna Jane Vardill supported the “regular,” pro-government Masonry of her father. She contributed to the Attic Chest her “Address to the Ancient and Honourable Society of Freemasons,” for the Grand Lodge’s Charity School.95 Included was her praise of Lord Moira, who had worked to suppress the “irregular,” high degree lodges, which included themes of alchemy, Cabalism, Rosicrucianism, and Swedenborgianism.

On 18 March 1812, the barrister and traveller Henry Crabb Robinson recorded in his diary that he attended a meeting of the Attic Chest, whose numerous company included “Old General Franklin” and Miss Vardill. Two years later Robinson would show her a draft of Coleridge’s Christabel, which inspired her to anonymously publish a sequel.96 Robinson’s presence among such a loyalist, pro-government group (with the exception of his friends, the more liberal Flaxmans) is suggestive, for he was one of the few men in England who from 1800 to 1805 had actually visited Adam Weishaupt and other Illuminatists in Germany and sympathized with their aims. In June 1804, Robinson wrote from Jena to his brother:

The most interesting person in Gotha indeed one of the most interesting in all Germany And with whom I at length had a confidential Intercourse is the famous or as the Abbe Barruel would say the infamous founder of the Society of Illuminati—Weishaupt . . . [He] conceived the plan of effecting a Revolution in the public Mind, by means of a secret society of which he was the Sole Head & prime director. I have no doubt of the original purity of his intention . . .97

He had earlier chastised his brother for not reading the anti-Masonic books of John Robison and Abbe Barruel, “the work of a furious and bigoted Jesuit,” which both “speak the character of the Age”:

You forget that Germany is not like England a single State . . . that it has different religious Establishments, and it comprehends every Moral climate & Zone from the Illuminati of fanaticism, of Swedenbourg & Cagliostro to the Illuminati of Theism of Weishaupt and Knigge . . . Few have advanced so far as to avow Atheism But the greater Number have stepped entirely over the Boundary of Christianity . . . They have preached what is here called Naturalism.98

He added that “Masonry also is a more interesting subject here than elsewhere,” but it is unknown if he attended any lodge meetings.99 One wonders if he discussed his German experiences and political opinions with Anna Jane Vardill, for they became friends, and she would later reveal her own knowledge of Illuminatist activity, though seen through her very conservative lens.

While Miss Porden continued to present lectures on chemistry and electricity to the society, Flaxman sometimes gently teased her about her scientific assumptions. On 24 October 1812, he hosted his family, Misses Porden and Vardill, and Governor Franklin at his home, where he pressed the guests to deal with what Porden initially dismissed as the “the vulgar idea of ghosts” and “the Second Sight.”100 The Flaxmans were aware that Swedenborg was famously credited with the capacity for Second Sight.101 Moreover, such clairvoyance had long been associated with Scottish Freemasonry, and initiation into the higher-degrees of Écossais Masonry was believed by some initiates to provide them with the gift.102 Though Porden and Vardill maintained their commitment to rational analysis and explication, the Flaxmans managed to slightly open their minds to the supernatural world that the visionary Swedenborg had revealed to them and other “illuminated” colleagues.

It is unknown how much the Flaxmans revealed about their Swedenborgian beliefs, but they at least provoked the curiosity of Eleanor Anne and Anna Jane about the spiritual beliefs of the Rosicrucians and alchemists. Miss Porden admitted that Rosicrucian theories about the Second Sight were plausible, but no one today doubts that “Sorcery was ever anything more than superior knowledge exerted for the deception of the vulgar.”103 Miss Vardill began reading alchemical writings from Italy (Borri), France (Flamel), Germany (Paracelsus), and Scotland (Alexander Seton). In a series of comical articles on the outlandish chemical experiments of the fictional “Lord Aircastle,” she also hinted at her attempt to understand the linguistic and mystical techniques of Jewish Cabalism, which were an important influence on Swedenborgian Masonry.104

In their support of pro-government Masonry, Misses Vardill and Porden drew upon a popular history of Freemasonry, which would influence Anna Jane’s subsequent writings. Eleanor Anne had become a great fan of Sir David Brewster, the Scottish inventor of the kaleidoscope, which provoked Anna Jane to tease her about her new scientific obsession.105 They both adopted Brewster’s version of Masonic history, in which the loyalist scientist defended the non-political “purity” of British Masonry, versus the Illuminatist charges brought by Barruel and Robison. He argued that in French and German lodges,

A number of new degrees were created . . . and the lodges were transformed into lecturing rooms, where the wiser brethren sported the most extravagant opinions, discussed the abstrusest questions in theology and political economy, and broached opinions which were certainly hostile to true religion and sound government . . . , while the British lodges preserved the principles of the craft in their primitive simplicity and excellence.106

Brewster’s book was published in 1804 by the Grand Lodge of Scotland, and it became the standard history of regular Freemasonry. The Scottish Grand Lodge, like its English counterpart, banned the higher degrees. At that time, Lord Moira was in Edinburgh, serving as “Commander in Chief of his Majesty’s forces in Scotland, and Acting Grand-Master of the Grand Lodge of England.”107 Brewster lavishly praised him and the Secret Societies Act of 1799, which Moira helped compose.108 He concluded that under Moira’s leadership, Freemasonry will continue to be “the enemy of superstition and fanaticism” and “the friend of uncorrupted science.” Brewster’s praise was important, for in 1806 the Prince of Wales was named Grand Master of Scotland, with Moira as his acting Deputy, despite the opposition of many “irregular” Scottish Masons. In 1813, government pressure led to the union of the loyalist Antient and Modern Grand Lodges, which aimed to make “regular” Masonry dominant in the British Isles.

In 1815, Miss Porden published her final version of The Veils, which featured nearly three hundred pages of rhymed couplets with extensive scientific notes. Her father had promised John Murray, the Tory publisher, that he would cover all costs, and he acknowledged that not everyone would “appreciate the ingenuity that cloathed such unmanageable materials in a poetical dress.”109 He tried to convince Murray to publish his daughter’s collection of stories “concerning the manners of different Countries,” but nothing came of it, probably because “Miss Porden’s patriotism sometimes verged on xenophobia: for example, she once wrote that it disgusted her to even imagine one of her countrywomen marrying a foreigner.”110 When the Attic Chest ceased meeting in 1818, Miss Porden turned her attention to completing her massive, nine-hundred page poem, Coeur de Lion (1822), about Richard I and the Third Crusade. Accompanied by her scrupulous notes, the epic countered David Hume’s negative portrayal of the English king. In so doing, it represented her “tortured negotiation with the Romantic and romantic problem of how best to excavate a chivalric past,” for her hero, a brilliant military commander, was also known for his excessive cruelty, greed, and racism.111

During these years, Miss Vardill became more ambitious in her attempt to express her conservative political perspective by examining the intrigues of agnostic Illuminati and esoteric Illuminés. In March 1820, she published “The Austrian Assassin,” in which she attacked the “irregular” Masonic sympathies of the Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II, who before his death in 1790 had collaborated with radical Masons and Illuminati, while he implemented wide-ranging, secular, modernizing reforms in governance, education, and religion. As an “enlightened despot,” he proclaimed a policy of religious toleration that was the most aggressive of any state in Europe, and he maintained a defensive alliance with France against Russia. But to Vardill, he represented an insidious combination of the political cabal with occultist Cabalism—what her father had fought against in his espionage and political career.

In “The Austrian Assassin,” she claimed that the Illuminati advocated assassination as “one of the noblest and boldest resources of great minds only,” and that the overly fanciful Emperor Joseph II was secretly influenced by such corrupted counselors, especially by his private counsellor “Otto.”112 Their opponent, the conservative chancellor of Wetzlar, disguised himself and sneaked into a secret chamber where the Emperor watched a magical ceremony: “Our chancellor knew all the whims of the Rosicrucian cabalists; he had heard some of the pretensions of more modern illuminati.”113 Unfortunately, the Emperor recognized him, and the next day “the chancellor was found executed” in the “meanest suburb of Vienna.” The assassination was approved by “the new spirit which had begun its reign in morals and politics,” because the chancellor had opposed the enlightened changes, and “the philosophers of Germany” had to be propitiated.

The Emperor died a few months later, and rumors circulated that he had been poisoned by proponents of “the new philosophy,” which included alchemy, animal magnetism, spirit communication, and Swedenborgianism. A second conservative official disguised himself and visited a “temple,” where he learned from the “illuminated” leader about “the whole secret of that tremendous cabalism which is now an engine of state-affairs.” Scoffing at his initiates’ credulity, the chief revealed his manipulative scepticism:

Did you expect to find this place really contrived for the invention of the aurum potabile or elixir vitae?—No, my dear lord:—those who enter it imagine they shall be initiated into some powerful and unknown society, but the only secret power is that which their curiosity or vanity supplies. For the vapourish Englishmen, who must have bugbears, we have the wonders of the Gnostics and their own Lilly and Dr. Dee clothed in modern jargon.114

While she satirized the esoteric and radical Masons, Miss Vardill revealed that she was still a supporter of loyalist Grand Lodge Masonry. In August 1820, she published “A Freemason’s Epitaph near Baghdad,” accompanied by her drawing of compass, square, and other traditional symbols of the fraternity. Buried in a desert grave, the deceased Mason’s spirit survives:

Tread softly—on this sacred mound
The badge of Brotherhood is found!
Revere the signet—in his breast
Its holiest virtue was confess’d—
He only liv’d on earth to prove
The fullness of a Brother’s love. 115

Evidently encouraged by Jones and Asperne, the loyalist Masonic editors of The European Magazine, Vardill next published a series of six stories with Rosicrucian and Cabalistic themes. Like Miss Porden earlier, she drew on the French novella, Le Comte de Gabalis (1670), in order to ridicule the credulity of the esotericists. In November 1820, she anonymously published a review of “The Count of Gabalis,” and opened with a quote from the title-page of the 1680 English translation:

The Count of Gabalis, or the extravagant mysteries of the Cabalists exposed in five pleasant discourses on the Secret Sciences. Done into English by P.A. Gent., with Short animadversions.—London printed for B.M. Printer to the Cabalistical Society of the Sages at the Sign of the Rosy-Crucian.116

She immediately made clear that she did not believe in the Rosicrucian system, but she was surprised that so many men of genius “could so far begull themselves as to yield up their reason to the belief.” On the Continent, “the system was cultivated in all branches, and, in the instance of some political societies in Germany, was believed to be made conducive to other ends.”117

In her series of historical fictions, titled “The Secrets of Cabalism,” she linked the irrational fancies of the Rosicrucians with the rational manipulations of the Illuminati. In Part One, she described “one daring effort of political cabalism,” in which she fantasized about the assassination plot against the Swedish king, Gustav III, a Swedenborgian Freemason and patron of alchemists: “the beautiful dream of Rosicrucius was mingled in the last century with more dangerous fanaticism, which took away the sense of personal moral responsibility.”118 She invented a story that took place “in the last years of Gustavus III’s reign, when the French revolution had thrown upwards all the froth of modern philosophy” and a seditious Rosicrucian sect “found its way to Gothland.” A secret council of Rosicrucians planned the assassination of Gustav III, but their “traitorous cabal” was exposed and the execution of Ankerström, the real-life murderer, “terminated one daring effort at political cabalism.” One wonders if she discussed this period of Swedish history with the Flaxmans, who had admired Gustav III and the radical Swedish Masons who visited the Swedenborg society in London.119

In January 1820, George III died and his son, the Prince Regent, became George IV. As David Brewster had predicted to Moira sixteen years earlier, Britain now had a Mason King. It was perhaps this development, welcomed by Vardill, that led her to locate “Secrets of Cabalism, Part Three” in America. Feeling free to reveal her father’s early Masonic membership, she identified him as a member of a “factitious lodge of Freemasons,” which was dissolved by “the separation of America from her mother country,” thus causing “the dispersion of nearly all the special lodge of Free Brothers.”120 In a note to this statement, Vardill surprisingly quoted a popular American satirist who scorned “Vardell, that poetic zealot,” as a “lawn-bedizen’d prelate.”121 At least her beloved father’s name had not been totally forgotten.

In Part Six, Miss Vardill seemed to react to the popular demonstrations and barrage of political appeals to the Prince of Wales that erupted in 1819-20. Maggie Craig argues that “the hedonistic Prince Regent probably never read any of the petitions for reform,” which drove the radicals to organize mass protest meetings.122 The widespread unrest provoked government fears that the revolutionary, “illuminatist” movements in England, Scotland, and Ireland had not been effectively suppressed. In August 1819 in Manchester, crowds calling for full “manhood suffrage,” were attacked by the military, in what became known as the “Peterloo Massacre.“123 The prince congratulated the officer who ordered troops to fire on the protesters. In February 1820 in London, members of the London Irish community joined a number of trade societies in support of the “Cato Street Conspiracy,” which aimed to assassinate the whole cabinet and declare a French-style republican government.124 The main conspirators, who were allegedly incited and entrapped by a government spy, were hung and their heads displayed on pikes. In April 1820 in the North, the artisan workers who supported the “Radical War” or “Scottish Insurrection” drew on the organizing methods of Thomas Muir’s United Scotsmen, who had been closely linked with the United Irishmen.125 Forming “Union” societies, they quickly expanded. Westminster became so alarmed that a whole “apparatus of spies, informers, and agents provocateurs” were deployed to stamp out the movement. John Vardill would have been most useful in this secretive campaign of repression.

In her final contribution to “The Secrets of Cabalism,” his daughter placed these recent turbulent and revolutionary events in a period that her father knew well, August 1798, when the Irish republican rebellion, led by the United Irishmen and their Masonic supporters, seemed on the verge of victory over their English oppressors. She had earlier scorned Ireland’s “‘good green people,’ whose power was feared and expected during the horrors of the year 1797,” when the rebels awaited a planned French invasion.126 She now targeted the dangerous utopian dreams of radical philosophes—i.e., the recent protesters—by portraying Monsieur Delombre, a French castaway, who in August 1798, discovered an island community in the South Seas, where everybody was equal and there were no passions and feelings to disturb their becalmed life: “He easily perceived in its obscure creed . . . the relics of superstition which prevailed among the Rosicrucians or Hermetic men, the Cabalists, Platonists, and Illuminati.”127 Even worse they were governed by “the simple levelling principles” of those enthusiasts.

The old patriarch of the colony held a secret assembly which featured “a rude altar of stone on which a plate” was inscribed with the Abacus, carried by the Knights-Templars, who “learned the mysteries of Cabalism in the early days of Crusading” and “diffused them on their return from the East.” Vardill knew that many of the British radicals, especially in Ireland and Scotland, were members of “irregular” Masonry and held degrees of Knight Templar and Rose-Croix. She also knew that the Irish rebellion was crushed by the military in September 1798. Then, In a remarkable summary of her political and philosophical opinions, Vardill mocked those thinkers down through the ages who expressed such democratic, equalizing, agnostic visions:

The vision of universal equality and perfection, and the omnipotence of God and Matter, or rather of Matter without God, has found its way from the Magians recorded by Plutarch, through the secret tribunals of Westphalia, the elegant academies of Descartes and Spinosa, and the roundheaded, crop-eared dupes of an English parliament’s hired wizards, to this paradise in the Southern Seas!—Plato himself, who expected that golden period when “all mankind should be one family, having all things in common and one form of speech,” would have yawned if he had spent seven weeks in the dullness of this “equal republic of the elect.”128

In a revival of her earlier John Bullish patriotism, Vardill had the island’s patriarch express his private hatred of his egalitarian colony. He expressed his desperate desire to go to England, where individuals own property, pass their wealth on to their children, and express themselves freely:

They may hope! . . . They may range—they may rave—they may mistake evil for good, but there is good in view, and if they fall sometimes, they are free to rise. They are not forced to live in the deadness and desert of an eternal Level.129

These stirring words, which would warm the hearts of conservative readers, were soon rewarded—in her eyes—by the coronation of George IV in July 1821. In a magnificent and wildly expensive ceremony in Westminster Abbey, the obese, alcoholic, scandal-ridden, and vastly unpopular new king took the reigns of government. Though he had given up his titular Grand Mastership in 1812 when he became Prince Regent for his mentally-ill father, he was still considered a Mason king. Seemingly oblivious to the widespread criticism of the government-funded extravagance of the spectacle, Miss Vardill fulsomely praised the new monarch in her poem, “The Coronation Eve”:

Towers, spires, and column’d arches rise
Bright with innumerable eyes:
A thousand glittering fanes unfold,
A thousand banners wave in gold;
Through arch and aisle the gorgeous throng
Roll its broad wreath of pomp along . . . 130

Like Anna Jane, her good friend Eleanor Anne Porden downplayed all criticism of the new King. Inspired by his accession, Porden dedicated her massive epic poem, Coeur de Lion (1822) to “George the Fourth of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland,” the “Enlightened Patron and Protector of English Literature,” and signed herself, “His Majesty’s Most Dutiful and Devoted Servant.” In a lengthy “Ode to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty,” Eleanor Anne praised him as “Ruler of a Happy Land!” (though riots were breaking out all over the British Isles).131 George IV should continue the successful reign of his father, “Who firm amid the tempest stood,/ Friend of the friendless, Champion of the opprest,/ Thine and thy People’s Sire—the Glorious and the Good!” Neither George III’s loss of America, his repeated bouts of insanity, nor the widespread discontent of the people could shake Miss Porden’s ardent patriotism. At least, the new Mason King was not a Rosicrucian or Cabalist.

In May 1822, Miss Vardill’s writing and publishing life changed, when she married James Niven, a Scottish barrister and old acquaintance who had handled legal affairs for her Birtwhistle kinsmen. The couple moved to Balmae in Galloway. Within a year, Anna Jane must have sensed that the republican Furies that followed her father across the Atlantic now followed her to Scotland. Even worse, the American Furies were followed by Irish ones. Having recently portrayed a boring, egalitarian, Illuminatist society as “an eternal level,” she would soon encounter an uprising of the “Galloway Levellers.”132 The government suspected Irish-influenced, illuminatist-type organizing and became so alarmed that troops were sent in to quell the uprising in November 1724. Surprisingly, the new Mrs. Niven did not write about it.

Like her good friend, Eleanor Anne Porden, marriage and then childbirth seemed to take the steam out of their passionate criticisms of “Rosicrucian” science and “Cabalistic” politics, which they conflated with “irregular” Freemasonry. In August 1723, Miss Porden married John Franklin, the Arctic explorer, after she insisted that she be allowed to maintain the writing she so enjoyed during her Attic Chest days. Though her very straight-laced husband was reportedly a “regular” Mason, he seemed to regard the Porden family’s “hero-worship” of the former Grand Master, George IV, as “amusingly extravagant.”133 Unfortunately, Eleanor Anne died after giving birth to a daughter in February 1825, and Franklin, who re-married, later disappeared and died in the Arctic.

The literary and political contributions of these precocious young ladies would almost disappear from history, while the targets of their often erudite and high-spirited criticism—the political reformers, Illuminés, and Illuminati—would gain the attention and admiration of liberal academics and historians over the next decades. As more of their writings emerge from obscurity, we will hope for new information and insight on their very conservative yet cautiously feminist contributions to literary, political, and Masonic history.

  1. British Freemasonry was divided into Modern (established 1717) and Antient (established 1751) Systems, with the former generally more conservative and pro-government and the latter more liberal and open to foreign influence, including the Jacobite- and French-influenced higher degrees of the Royal Arch, Rosicrucianism, Templarism, and Swedenborgianism. The Grand Lodge of England considered its basic three-degree lodges to be “regular” and its high-degree rivals to be “irregular.”↩︎

  2. Dictionaries define “cabal” as a secret conspiratorial group, and “Cabala” as the Jewish mystical tradition of esoteric interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures.↩︎

  3. The Scientific Magazine and Freemasons’ Repository (February 1797), 128; Susan Snell, “Enlightenment Females and Freemasonry: Contributions by the Fairer Sex to the Freemasons’ Magazine with Newly Discovered Links to the Freemasons’ Female Charity in England,” Journal for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism, vol. 4. No 1-2 (2013).↩︎

  4. William Drennan, The Drennan-McTier Letters, ed. Jean Agnew (Dublin: Irish Manuscripts Commission, 1998), I, 357-58.↩︎

  5. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 11th ed. (1790; London: J. Dodsley, 1791), 230. “Illuminatists” generally referred to the secular, agnostic German Masons, while “Illuminés” referred to the esoteric, spiritualistic Jacobite-and French-influenced Masons, though the terms were sometimes confusingly conflated.↩︎

  6. Steven Graham Wigely, “John Vardill: A Loyalist’s Progress” (Dissertation: University of British Columbia, 1975), 105.↩︎

  7. William Denslow, Ten Thousand Famous Freemasons (Richmond, VA: Macoy, 1957), II—“Eden, William, Lord Auckland.”↩︎

  8. Fergus Whelan, May Tyrants Tremble: The Life of William Drennan, 1754-1820 (Newbridge: Irish Academic Press, 2020), 78.↩︎

  9. Tony Stephens, “The Birtwhistles of Galloway and Craven: ‘the greatest graziers and dealers in the Kingdom’?,” Journal: North Craven Heritage Trust (2008), 173-74.↩︎

  10. Wigely, “John Vardill,” 29; Ian R. Christie, “The Yorkshire Association, 1780-84: A Study in Political Organization,” The Historical Journal, 111 (1960), 144-61.↩︎

  11. Tony Stephens, The Birtwhistles of Craven and Galloway: Drovers, Industrialists, a Spy, and a Poetess (Tony Stephens: private printing, 2012), 28.↩︎

  12. Herbert Butterfield, George III, Lord North and the People, 1779-1780 (London: G. Bell, 1949), vi.↩︎

  13. Stephens, Birtwhistles, 18.↩︎

  14. Stephens, Birtwhistles, 30.↩︎

  15. William Eden, Lord Auckland, The Journal and Correspondence of William Eden, Lord Auckland (London: Spottiswoode, 1861), I, xvii.↩︎

  16. Whelan, May Tyrants Tremble, 22-28.↩︎

  17. Drennan. Drennan-McTier Letters, I, 129-30.↩︎

  18. Auckland, Journal, I, 64, 331, 337↩︎

  19. Paul Pickering, Unrespectable Radicals: Popular Politics in the Age of Reform (London: Routledge, 2016), 75, 85n.↩︎

  20. Larry Conlon, “The Influence of Freemasonry in Meath and Westmeath in the Eighteenth Century,” Riocht na Midhe, 9, no. 3 (1997.↩︎

  21. Whelan, May Tyrants Tremble, 47.↩︎

  22. Larry Conlon, “Dissension, Radicalism, and Republicanism in Monaghan and the Role of Freemasonry up to and during the 1798 Rebellion,” Clogher Record, 16 (1999), 93.↩︎

  23. Lorenzo Sabine, The American Loyalists, or Biographical Sketches of Adherents to the British Crown in the War of the Revolution (Boston: Little and Brown, 1864), II, 389; Wigely, “John Vardill,” 129.↩︎

  24. Stephens, Birtwhistles, 30.↩︎

  25. Stephens, Birtwhistles, 22.↩︎

  26. “Ballynahinch’s French Connection,” Down Recorder (24 July 2019).↩︎

  27. Aniruddha Pradhan, “260 Years of Irish Freemasonry in India” (Mumbai, 2014).↩︎

  28. Paul David Nelson, Francis Rawdon-Hastings, Marquess of Hastings: Soldier, Peer of the Realm, Governor-General of India (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005), 24, 26, 88-89. Surprisingly, in this first full biography of Rawdon, Nelson never mentions Freemasonry, in which his subject played a major role.↩︎

  29. Nelson, Francis Rawdon-Hastings, 107↩︎

  30. Rosemary Richey, “Francis Rawdon-Hastings,” Dictionary of Irish Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). On-line edition.↩︎

  31. Nelson, Francis Rawdon-Hastings, 107.↩︎

  32. Auckland, Journal, I, 377.↩︎

  33. Auckland, Journal, I, 78-85.↩︎

  34. Royal Collections Trust: CEO/Main/38099-38105. Memorandum on Ireland—proposing Prince of Wales as King of Ireland.↩︎

  35. Nelson, Francis-Rawdon Hastings, 112.↩︎

  36. Auckland, Journal, II, 469.↩︎

  37. Stephens, Birtwhistles, 30-31.↩︎

  38. E.W. McFarland, Ireland and Scotland in the Age of Revolution: Planting the Green Bough (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994), 75, 159, 176n.↩︎

  39. H.T. Dickinson, “Thomas Muir,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004). On-line edition.↩︎

  40. McFarland, Ireland and Scotland, 74, 84-88, 95,↩︎

  41. Jim Smyth, “Freemasonry and the United Irishmen,” in The United Irishmen: Republicanism, Radicalism, and Revolution, eds. David Dickson, Dáire Keogh, and Kevin Whelan (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1993), 173.↩︎

  42. Historical Manuscripts Commission: Report on the Laing Manuscripts, 72 (London, 1925), II, 568; Whelan, May Tyrants Tremble, 107, 149↩︎

  43. Stephens, Birtwhistles, 31. In 1790, Vardill had written the Archbishop of Canterbury that the Birtwhistles were “good friends of church and government.” Document in the Lambeth Palace Archive discovered by Stephens.↩︎

  44. Stephens, Birtwhistles, 31.↩︎

  45. Stephens, Birtwhistles, 47-48.↩︎

  46. The Genuine Trial of Thomas Hardy for High Treason . . . October 28 to November 5, 1794 (London: J.S. Jordan, 1795), 216-17↩︎

  47. “Ballynahinch’s French Connection,”2; Auckland, Journal, III, 395.↩︎

  48. The Monthly Review, 2nd. series, vol. 21 (September to December 1796), 475-76.↩︎

  49. Worthington Chauncey Ford, The Spurious Letters Attributed to Washington (Brooklyn: privately printed, 1889), 5-6, 24, 29-30. Though Ford argued for John Randolph as the more likely forger, later evidence affirmed Vardill’s role.↩︎

  50. Frederick Pick, “The Royal Gallovidian Chapter, Kirkcudbright,” Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, 50, (1949), 53-54.↩︎

  51. Auckland, Journal, III, 355.↩︎

  52. In the Abbé Barruel’s Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism (1797-98), he claimed that a vast international Masonic conspiracy aimed to overthrow all established governments and thrones. Clifford, his English translator, focused Barruel’s charges on the United Irishmen as the most dangerous seditionists.↩︎

  53. Robert Clifford, Application of Barruel’s Memoirs of Jacobinism to the Secret Societies of Ireland and Great Britain (London: E. Booker, 1798), 25.↩︎

  54. Historical Manuscripts Commission: Report on the Laing Manuscripts Preserved in the University of Edinburgh (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1925), II, 642-43.↩︎

  55. Historical Manuscripts Commission. II, 612-13.↩︎

  56. Historical Manuscripts Commission II, 642. The pamphlet was Count Sierakowski’s Histoire de l’Assassinat de Gustave III (1796; Paris, 1797).↩︎

  57. Historical Manuscripts Commission, II, 641.↩︎

  58. See ahead. The Swedish-Rite Masons practiced Cabalistic, Rosicrucian, and Swedenborgian rituals, which she would conflate with political Illuminatism.↩︎

  59. McFarland, Ireland and Scotland, 159, 176n39↩︎

  60. Andrew Prescott, “The Unlawful Societies Act of 1799,” in M.D.J. Scanlan, ed., The Social Impact of Freemsonry on the Modern Western World (London: Canonbury Masonic Research Centre, 2002), 132, 134.↩︎

  61. Anna Jane Vardill, Poems and Translations form the Minor Greek Poets and Others: written chiefly between the ages of ten and sixteen (London: Longman, 1809), 83. Also, online at <>.↩︎

  62. Vardill, Poems, 152..↩︎

  63. John Campbell, 4th Earl of Loudoun, served as Grand Master in London in 1736-37. A staunch anti-Jacobite, he attempted to capture Prince Charles Edward Stuart in February 1746, but he was defeated and humiliated in the “rout of Moy.”↩︎

  64. For the Masonic context, see Marsha Keith Schuchard, A Concatenation of Conspiracies: “Irish” William Blake and Illuminist Freemasonry in 1798 (Alexandria, VA: Plumbstone Academic Press, 2021), 71-72, 77, 82. Some years later, Lord Byron, an Anglo-Scottish radical, would call the Act “a Union of the shark with its prey.”↩︎

  65. William Drennan, A Letter to the Right Honourable William Pitt (Dublin and London, 1799), 33.↩︎

  66. Drennan Letter, 9.↩︎

  67. Vardill, Poems, 152.↩︎

  68. Snell, “Enlightenment Females,” 150. Both letters in Manuscript Library at Washington State University: Ref. MASC (Cage 1541).↩︎

  69. Stephens, Birtwhistles, 25; Willard Sterne Randall, “William Franklin,” American National Biography (1999); Boyd Stanley Schlenther, “William Franklin,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).↩︎

  70. Anna Jane Vardill, “Epitaph Designed for William Franklin, Esq., Late Governor of New Jersey,” The European Magazine, 64 (November 1813), 430.↩︎

  71. Roger Shanhagan [William Porden, Robert Smirke, and Robert Watson], The Exhibition, or a Second Anticipation: Being Remarks on the principal Works to be Exhibited Next Month at the Royal Academy (London: Richardson and Urquhart, 1779), 30-32, 67, 80.↩︎

  72. Janice Cavell, “Miss Porden, Mrs. Franklin and the Arctic Expeditions: Eleanor Anne Porden and the Construction of Arctic Heroism,” Arctic Explorations in the Nineteenth Century (London: Taylor and Francis, 2013), 81-82.↩︎

  73. R.B. Clark, William Gifford: Tory Satirist (New York: Columbia Press, 1930; 1967), 34, 86 ff.↩︎

  74. The Anti-Jacobin, (1797), I, 77-85; 587-88; (1799), IV, 535; Anti-Jacobin Review (1798), 205, 217-20.↩︎

  75. Cavell, “Miss Porden,” 81; Geoffrey Tyack, “William Porden,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004); “William Porden,” in Howard Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840 (London: J. Murray, 1978), 652-53.↩︎

  76. I am grateful to Professor Janusz Buda of Waseda University, Japan, for his tireless work in making documents concerning the Attic Chest and Anna Jane Vardill available online. He continues to add digitizations of published and unpublished works.↩︎

  77. British Library: Add.MSS. 39780-39782. Pordens’ correspondence with the Flaxmans.↩︎

  78. Flaxman owned Thomas Stothard’s painting of the 1797 ceremony at the Masonic girls’ school, and he was definitely associated with the Swedenborgian, “illuminated” Masons in London.↩︎

  79. Marsha Keith Schuchard, “The Peculiar Alchemical Research of John Flaxman, John Tulk, and Fabian Ekenstam (1776-1818),” Heredom: Transactions of the Scottish Rite Research Society, 29 (2022), forthcoming.↩︎

  80. My references will be to these on-line digital copies of Attic Chest documents in the Derbyshire Record Office.↩︎

  81. Attic Chest: Season 1, meeting 1.↩︎

  82. Adeline Johns-Putra, “Blending Science with Literature: The Royal Institution, Eleanor Anne Porden, and The Veils,” Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 33 (2011), 35-52.↩︎

  83. Schuchard, “Peculiar Alchemical Research”, forthcoming.↩︎

  84. Marsha Keith Schuchard, “The Secret Masonic History of Blake’s Swedenborg Society,” Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly, 26 (1992), 40-51.↩︎

  85. W.G. Constable, John Flaxman, 1755-1826 (London: University of London, 1927), 83.↩︎

  86. In Cornwall, lodges named for Davy continue to operate today.↩︎

  87. Attic Chest: Season 2, meeting 16.↩︎

  88. Attic Chest: Season 2, meeting 19.↩︎

  89. Eleanor Anne Porden, The Veils, or the Triumph of Constancy (London: John Murray 1815), vii-viii.↩︎

  90. Porden, The Veils; see especially the long notes on pp. 52-53, 69-70, 89-90.↩︎

  91. Attic Chest: Season 3, meeting 30. For the full poem, see Schuchard, “Peculiar Alchemical Research,” forthcoming.↩︎

  92. Attic Chest: Season 3, meeting 30/Enigma.↩︎

  93. Attic Chest: Season 3, Editorial.↩︎

  94. Attic Chest: Season 3, meeting 31/alchemy.↩︎

  95. Snell, “Enlightenment Females,” 146-59.↩︎

  96. William Axon and Ernest Hartley Coleridge, “Anna Jane Vardill Niven: The Authoress of ‘Christobell,’ the Sequel to Coleridge’s ‘Christobel,” Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature, 2nd. series 28 (1970), 57-88.↩︎

  97. Edith J. Morley, ed., Crabb Robinson in Germany, 1800-1805: Extracts from his Correspondence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1929), 143↩︎

  98. Morley, Crabb Robinson, 46-47.↩︎

  99. Morley, Crabb Robinson, 49.↩︎

  100. Derbyshire Record Office: D8760/F/FEP/5/44/4. Used by permission.↩︎

  101. Marsha Keith Schuchard, Emanuel Swedenborg, Secret Agent on Earth and in Heaven: Jacobites, Jews, and Freemasons in Early Modern Sweden (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 328, 363, 539-42, 706.↩︎

  102. For background, see Michael Hunter, The Occult Laboratory: Magic, Science, and Second Sight in Late Seventeenth-Century Scotland (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2001).↩︎

  103. Derbyshire Record Office: D8760/FGEL/2/3/5. Online at <>.↩︎

  104. Anna Jane Vardill, “Relics of a Recluse,” European Magazine, 70 (1816), 8-10; “Relics of Superstition,” 74 (1818), 481-85.↩︎

  105. Attic Chest: Season 10, Meeting 94. Miss Vardill, “Dr Brewster to Ellen with his Kaleidoscope.”↩︎

  106. David Brewster, The History of Free Masonry, Drawn from Authentic Sources of Information (Edinburgh: Alexander Lawrie, 1804), 112.↩︎

  107. Brewster, History, 293-96.↩︎

  108. Brewster, History, 145, 163-64.↩︎

  109. Isabel Sharp,“The Two Wives of John Franklin,” Discover the National Library of Scotland, 12 (2009).↩︎

  110. Cavell, “Miss Porden,” 82.↩︎

  111. Adeline Johns-Putra, “Eleanor Anne Porden’s Coeur de Lion (1822): History, Epic and Romance,” Women’s Writing, 19 (2012), 351-71.↩︎

  112. Anna Jane Vardill, “The Austrian Assassin,” The European Magazine, 77 (March 1820), 201-06.↩︎

  113. Vardill, “Austrian Assassin,” 202.↩︎

  114. Vardill, “Austrian Assassin,” 205.↩︎

  115. Anna Jane Vardill, “A Freemasons Epitaph near Bagdad,” The European Magazine, 78 (August 1820), 153.↩︎

  116. Anon., “The Book-Worm, No. 1,” The European Magazine, 79 (November 1820), 394-99. Professor Janusz Buda identified Vardill as the author.↩︎

  117. Anon., “Book Worm,”, 395.↩︎

  118. Anna Jane Vardill, “The Secrets of Cabalism, Part One,” The European Magazine, 79 (January 1821), 9-13.↩︎

  119. Schuchard, “Peculiar Alchemical Research,” forthcoming.↩︎

  120. Vardill, “Secrets, Part Three,” The European Magazine, 79 (March 1821), 202-03.↩︎

  121. John Trumbull, M’Fingal: A Modern Epic Poem, 5th ed. (London: J.S. Jordan, 1792), 59.↩︎

  122. Maggie Craig, “The Scottish Radical Uprising of 1820,” Historia Magazine (30 March 2020).↩︎

  123. Whelan, May Tyrants Tremble, 282.↩︎

  124. Alan Smyth, “The Cato Street Conspiracy,” History Today, 3 (12 December 1953).↩︎

  125. Gordon Pentland, “`Betrayed by infamous spies?’ Commemoration of Scotland’s `Radical War’ of 1820,” Past and Present, 201 (November 2008), 145-46, 149, 152.↩︎

  126. Anna Jane Vardill, “Relics of Popular Superstitions,” European Magazine, (May 1819), 487-92.↩︎

  127. Anna Jane Vardill, “Secrets of Cabalism, Part Six” European Magazine, 79 (June 1821), 493.↩︎

  128. Vardill, “Secrets, Part Six,” 493.↩︎

  129. “Secrets of Cabalism, Part Six,” 494.↩︎

  130. Anna Jane Vardill, “The Coronation Eve,” The European Magazine, 80 (July 1821), 65.↩︎

  131. Porden, ,Coeur de Lion, I, vi-xii.↩︎

  132. Alistair Livingston, “The Galloway Levellers,” (Masters Dissertation: Glasgow University, May 2009).↩︎

  133. Cavell, “Miss Porden,” 81. For Franklin as a Mason, see Memoir and Eulogy of Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, pronounced . . . before the Grand Lodge of . . . New York (New York: Dexter and Brother, 1857), 5.↩︎