On the 24th of June (the feast-day of St John the Baptist), 1716, a group of men came together in "The Apple Tree" tavern in Covent Garden. They had previously been meeting in four separate groups in this tavern, and in three others (The Goose & Gridiron, The Rummer & Grapes and The Crown), but they now resolved to form a single "Grand Lodge of London and Westminster." When, in the following year, the lodge elected Anthony Sayer as its first Grand Master, the "Craft and Mystery of Freemasonry" was born.
The "Grand Lodge" was, in these first years, very much a London institution, structured along the same lines as the City Livery Companies, but bringing together men from very different professional backgrounds (including lawyers, businessmen and Anglican clergy). Its rationale seems to have been essentially social, with no specific religious or political agenda.
The third Grand Master was John Theophilus Desaguliers, an Anglican priest from a French Huguenot family, who initiated both Francis, Duke of Lorraine (subsequently Holy Roman Emperor), and Frederick, Prince of Wales into the craft. Desaguliers was also a scientist, a Fellow of the Royal Society, who had acted as an experimental assistant to Sir Isaac Newton.
A formal constitution "for the use of the Lodges in London and Westminster" was commissioned by Desaguliers in 1723, and prepared by James Anderson, a Scottish Presbyterian clergyman.
This constitution contains much "speculative history" (some would say "pseudo-history"), tracing the origins of the Masonic tradition back through the "lodges" of Medieval stone-masons to Euclid, Pythagoras and ultimately to Hiram Abiff, the supposed architect of Solomon's Temple. This is, of course, a fantasy in its entirety, but a harmless one, so long as we don't fully lose sight of the fact that freemasonry really began in a London alehouse in the summer of 1716.
The Grand Lodge of France was established in 1728, by Catholic Jacobite refugees from Scotland, its first Grand Master being the Duke of Wharton. A Papal interdiction on Catholics participating in Masonic rituals was issued in 1738, but was never ratified by the French parliament, and was largely ignored in France. Many lodges included Catholic priests as active members, and at least one lodge was reserved exclusively for them.
The Grand Lodge of France was reorganised in 1771, under its aristocratic Grand Master, Philippe d'Orleans (later known as "Philippe Egalite," because of his support for many of the key ideals of the French Revolution), and was subsequently renamed the Grand Orient (the distinction between the Grand Lodge and the Grand Orient persists in French freemasonry, and depends on the premise that, whilst adherents to the former must acknowledge the existence of a "Supreme Being," the latter tradition is open also to atheists and agnostics).
Some post-revolutionary Catholic historiography would later portray the French Revolution as a Masonic conspiracy set on the destruction of Christianity, but the truth is that freemasons were active on both sides of the American and French Revolutions, and that their ranks included both believers and non-believers. Philippe d'Orleans, specifically, sought a compromise between revolutionary and monarchical principles which might have spared France the Terror (as the Terror unfolded, it would claim his own life, as well as countless others).
Although Robespierre's "Cult of the Supreme Being" clearly drew on Masonic traditions and symbolism, the Revolution was ultimately a disaster for freemasonry: of the 1000 lodges active in 1789, and subsequently suppressed by the Committee of Public Safety, only 75 were in a position to resume their activities in 1801.
When Napoleon Bonaparte came to power, he made his brother, Joseph, Master of the Grand Orient, but he made clear his own cynical position towards the end of his life, from his exile on Saint Helena: "Freemasons are a pile of imbeciles who assemble for good cheer, and for the execution of many ridiculous follies. Nevertheless, they have carried out good actions from time to time."
I am not now, and have never been, a freemason, but can certainly recommend a tour of Freemasons' Hall as one of the more interesting and unusual things to do in London, and the library there as an excellent resource for historical writers.
Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.