Museum Of Freemasonry – A Corsican Hero in London Freemasonry

Apron supposedly belonging to Napoleon


By Martin Cherry, Librarian

In the middle of May this year I was interviewed by a French film crew making a documentary about a Corsican hero, Pasquale Paoli. The General died in exile in London in 1807. An early influence on Napoleon, Paoli was a member of two London Lodges at different stages of his life, Lodge of the Nine Muses No 235 and Prince of Wales’s Lodge No 259. The film makers were interested in what led a Corsican nationalist to join English Freemasonry and why these two Lodges. 

Autotype print of General Pasquale Paoli c.1900

Paoli was born in 1725, at a time when Corsica was ruled by the Italian Republic of Genoa. He was exiled to the Kingdom of Naples after his family were involved in a revolt. The young Paoli served with the Neapolitan army and returned in triumph to Corsica in the 1750s to establish a republic. Genoa responded by selling Corsica to France, whose forces conquered the Island in 1769. In consequence Paoli found exile in London for the first time.

In London he was welcomed into society and on 15th June 1778, he was initiated as a freemason in the cosmopolitan Lodge of the Nine Muses, a Lodge founded by an Italian dentist, Bartholomew Ruspini.

Extract from the minutes of the Prince of Wales’s Lodge 1800

This Lodge was full of Europeans, including artists, musicians, diplomats and politicians. Paoli was initiated at the same meeting as the English aristocrat, Robert Shirley, 6th Earl Ferrers, the composer Johan Christian Bach and three Italian Counts. As an Italian speaker, the General would have felt at home and mixed with men who could help in his quest to regain Corsica from France.

In 1790 the Revolutionary Government of France invited Paoli back to Corsica to help establish French democracy to the Island. Aided by a young Napoleon, he ran successfully as President of Corsica. In 1793 he broke from France over the execution of the King and Queen. He established an Anglo-Corsican Kingdom under the protection of King George III of England, which led to Napoleon denouncing Paoli as a traitor. The Kingdom was difficult to manage and the British persuaded Paoli to resign and return to England with a pension in 1795.

Paoli’s name on the 1782 membership return of the Lodge of the Nine Muses

It was during this second exile that Paoli joined Prince of Wales’s Lodge in early 1800. The minutes show that he was proposed by a Brother Sastry and seconded by Brother Corry as a member of this Lodge, founded for members of the Prince’s household and circle by Paoli’s old Nine Muses friend, Bartholomew Ruspini. This time around, Paoli was nearing the end of his life with the failure of his dream for an independent Corsica. His position as a former representative of the British crown made him an ideal candidate for joining the Lodge and no doubt it was a comfort to find himself amongst old friends.

When the film crew visited, I was able to show them the Prince of Wales’s Lodge minutes showing Paoli’s admission and an annual return from Nine Muses Lodge. We talked briefly about Napoleon, his influence on French freemasonry and why we didn’t think an apron in the Museum collection was really Napoleon’s. Although he was not a freemason, Napoleon encouraged the resurgence of French freemasonry after a brief hiatus during the revolution.

He placed his family members in positions of power in European Grand Lodges, including his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, who was Grand Master of the Grand Orient of France.

General Paoli was buried in Old St. Pancras Churchyard, London, which is the resting place of another notable Freemason, Sir John Soane. His bones were removed to Corsica in 1899 but a bust commemorates Paoli in Westminster Abbey. 

This article is part of the Arena Magazine, Issue 49 August 2022 edition.
Arena Magazine is the official magazine of the London Freemasons – Metropolitan Grand Lodge and Metropolitan Grand Chapter of London.

Read more articles in the Arena Issue 49 here.