In the days of operative Masonry, women were never admitted to the guilds and modern Masonry has, of course, inherited this limitation on its membership.
Born in 1695, Elizabeth St. Leger, the daughter of Arthur St. Leger, first Viscount Doneraile, who was said to have held a lodge in his home at Doneraile Court, Co Cork. It was at one of these lodge meetings that Elizabeth overheard the activities of the lodge while reading in the library room next door. Some of the bricks from the dividing wall between the library and the room where the lodge was meeting could be removed, so Elizabeth was able to watch the lodge proceedings through the narrow gap. After watching the meeting and understanding the importance of the secret nature of the ceremony she had witnessed, Elizabeth then tried to escape the library by leaving through a door that would lead through the far end of the room where the lodge was held, she hoped she could escape without notice.
However, on turning the handle and opening the door, she was confronted by her father’s butler who was acting as Tyler, and after raising an alarm, she was ‘detained’ in the library. The Brethren of the lodge then discussed what best to do; their secrets had been revealed and the mysteries of their work may have been under threat, so a decision was made to make Elizabeth a Freemason. Elizabeth married Richard Aldworth of Newmarket Court at St. Finbarr’s in Cork in 1713, and she died in 1775.
The actual evidence for the Lady Freemason is, on whole, rather slim, however, there is mention of a recorded testimony by a certain Arundel Hill Esq., of Graig, Co Cork, who claimed that he was at her initiation and sat with her in the lodge. However, this comes from a later document that only dates to 1862, well after the event. There is also the apron of the Lady Freemason, which had been preserved as an heirloom at Newmarket Court, and there is a miniature portrait of Elizabeth with the aforementioned Masonic jewel, which is also now held at Cork Masonic Hall, though this has been dated to the early nineteenth century. There were early lodges recorded in Co Cork, and there was of course the independent Grand Lodge of Munster which operated between 1726-1735, but no record of Elizabeth at a lodge has yet to materialise.
Elizabeth was buried at St. Finbarr’s Cathedral in Cork, and a brass memorial plaque was placed there later by the Aldworth family which celebrates her as a Freemason and as being initiated in 1712 into Lodge No. 44 held at Doneraile Court. Lodge No. 44, however, is only recorded as existing at Doneraile in the later eighteenth century, though it has been speculated that this lodge could have been a successor to the Lady Freemason’s older unwarranted Mother Lodge. Despite the lack of contemporary records, the belief in the Lady Freemason of Cork is as strong as ever.
Image | The Hon. Mrs. Elizabeth Aldworth | Source | Encyclopedia of Freemasonry