The seat of political power in Manitoba is the last place one might expect to find the bust of Medusa, recurring odes to '666' and the number 13, alongside Egyptian sphinxes etched with hieroglyphics
But a closer look at the province's legislature reveals a whole host of hidden clues left behind by an architect who thought his magnum opus in Winnipeg would be a jewel rooted in the beliefs of Freemasonry in the heart of one of the most powerful cities in Canada.
If ever there was a building designed for fans of Dan Brown's 'The Da Vinci Code,' this is it.
Between April and October, visitors can take a tour of the legislature led by Winnipeg's Robert Langdon, Frank Albo, who has studied the legislature and its secrets hidden by British architect Frank Worthington Simon for a decade.
'He thought this building in the centre of Canada was going to be the continental showpiece. This was supposed to be a much bigger city than it ever became,' said Albo. 'He placed ideas and symbols in this building, hoping that the public would figure it out. Turns out it took 100 years later for that to happen.'
Without knowing the history behind the symbolism, many elements of the legislature can look out of place. To truly understand the beauty of the legislature, Albo said you have to understand Simon and his beliefs. Simon was a member of the Freemasons, a secret society that believed architecture 'had the capacity to reform the soul,' Albo said.
'He was a strange kind of British genius who believed that occultism, Freemasonry, Hermetic philosophy and many other ideas that we might dismiss today are essential to moral advancement, especially to the government and in beautifully built buildings.'
Reading between the lines
Never shy of a controversy, Dan Brown’s decision to launch his new novel at Freemasons’ Hall revealed the bestselling author’s true feelings about the Craft, as Anneke Hak discovered
Freemasons are quietly accepting about the fact that the media and writers can tend to misinform the general public about the goings on behind the closed doors of masonic lodges. However, when a hugely popular fiction writer, who once provoked the headline ‘Does the Catholic Church need to worry about Dan Brown?’, decided to write a book focusing on masonic groups, it was naturally a cause for concern.
As it happened, The Lost Symbol came and passed without much of a to-do as far as Freemasonry was concerned. While dabbling in some colourful descriptions of red wine being drunk out of a skull during the initiation ritual, the book actually depicts Freemasonry as a benign and even misunderstood organisation. So when Brown was in London to publicise Inferno, his latest book in the Robert Langdon saga, Freemasons’ Hall was delighted to be approached about holding ‘An Evening With Dan Brown’, hosted by Waterstones.
‘We see the Dan Brown evening and all other outside events that we do as a means of showing people we are open,’ says John Hamill, masonic historian and a past librarian at the United Grand Lodge of England and Wales. ‘We are here, you can hold events, you can come and go round the building, you can use the library and museum, you can ask questions, and questions will be answered. It is all part of the whole process of being much more public about Freemasonry.’
Although Brown’s books may encourage persistent rumours, which liken Freemasonry to a secret cult, the writer himself is wholly complimentary of the group. He told The Independent before the event that he would be honoured to be a mason. ‘I’ve nothing but admiration for an organisation that essentially brings people of different religions together,’ he said. ‘Rather than saying “we need to name God”, they use symbols such that everybody can stand together … Freemasonry is not a religion but a venue for people to come together across the boundaries of their specific religions. It levels the playing field.’
All in good spirit
John managed to speak with Brown amidst the hustle and bustle before the event. ‘We talked about The Lost Symbol and the hype beforehand, and he said he couldn’t understand it because where he grew up in America, he lived four blocks from the local lodge and knew some of the Freemasons. He said, “Why would I want to attack one of the few organisations that’s still doing good in society?” ’
While Brown often says that the secret societies and groups within his novels are based on fact, with a whole lot of poetic license thrown in for colour, his readers aren’t always able to differentiate between what’s real and what’s added for entertainment’s sake. However, rather than portray the Freemasons as malignant, The Lost Symbol says that the group provides a fraternity that does not discriminate in any way – it is something, Brown argued at the time, that Freemasons should be pleased about. You would think so, too, considering that The Lost Symbol broke a whole slew of records, including becoming the UK’s bestselling adult hardcover since records began, and has been translated into dozens of languages.
Taking centre stage
So would the publicists use the opportunity of a Dan Drown book event at Freemasons’ Hall to garner media attention through the use of mock rites of passage and men in sweeping black cloaks? Thankfully, no. Having attended many events at Freemasons’ Hall, some with Egyptian sphinxes littering the corridors and others with eerie music for ambience, it was gratifying to find that An Evening With Dan Brown was refreshingly simple, drawing on the fantastic building to hold the interest of the budding writers while they waited for the man himself.
The author graciously thanked Grand Secretary Nigel Brown and Karen Haigh of Freemasons’ Hall for allowing Waterstones to use the venue for the event and described spending many hours in disguise at the building completing research for his last book. ‘What a room!’ he exclaimed on entering the hall and stepping up to the microphone.
‘I was actually here maybe six years ago, incognito, doing research for The Lost Symbol. Today, without my dark glasses on, it’s a whole lot prettier. It’s a real honour for me to be here today.’ Dan Brown
John asked Brown about his undercover trips to Freemasons’ Hall and discovered that the author would join tours, asking the librarians a lot of questions on his way around: ‘He said that they were very helpful. They must have wondered who this man was with so many questions.’
Having referenced Freemasonry during his speech, and admired the glorious building, Brown then turned the conversation to the main topic of the night: his latest book, Inferno. Largely inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, which charts a journey through the three domains of the afterlife, the book has already sparked a whole new set of controversies as scholars argue over whether or not the author should be simplifying the historical elements while popularising this epic fourteenth-century poem.
One thing is apparent, however: Brown seems to have given Freemasonry his seal of approval.
Letters to the editor - No. 23 Autumn 2013
Dan Brown at Freemasons' Hall
Whilst sitting waiting for Dan Brown to arrive on 21 May at Freemasons’ Hall, I watched the reaction of the diverse group of people who had obviously for the first time seen your wonderful building. Undoubtedly most were in awe, as well they should be.
For me, being at the Hall had a more poignant resonance. My father was a Freemason and he had taken me up to the Hall on many occasions. Sitting there, I wondered what he would have made of the event where people from all walks of life were able to sit and enjoy the full beauty of the building whilst at the same time listening to a man who had weaved the Freemasons into his stories that have sold billions of books around the world.
As a child I was fascinated by the society simply because my father was a member.
I began to devour any literature on the subject so that one day I could impress him with my knowledge. One day I had the chance and he was speechless. His friends thought he had provided me with the knowledge. I explained that if you want to learn about Freemasonry, the information is readily available.
Now years later, I read some of the nonsense on forums on the web after Dan’s evening and was disappointed how people are still today showing complete ignorance on the subject and not even bothering to research before they put their names to ridiculous statements.
When I mentioned to my friends that I would be coming to use your library for research they were shocked, because they didn’t realise how readily you share knowledge with the public. My father taught me to be open and generous to other philosophies and religions; he joined the Freemasons for all the right reasons and I think in retrospect he would have agreed with your continuing to open your doors to the public – although he may have found the constant chatter in the Hall whilst waiting for Dan Brown a tad tiresome. Ultimately, it was just brilliant to sit and admire the beautiful architecture of the great Hall again!
Lena Walton, Tadworth, Surrey
Past editor of Freemasonry Today, Michael Baigent was a successful author and influential mason whose writing sparked debate and created a loyal following. John Hamill looks back at his career
It is with real regret that we have to announce the death of Michael Baigent who was editor of Freemasonry Today from the spring of 2001 until the summer of 2011, when increasing ill health forced him into partial retirement. He continued as consultant editor until his untimely death from a brain haemorrhage on 17 June 2013 at a Brighton hospital.
Born in Nelson, New Zealand, in 1948, he was educated at Nelson College and the University of Canterbury, at Christchurch, reading comparative religion and psychology and graduating in 1972 with a BA. In later life he earned an MA in the Study of Mysticism and Religious Experience from the University of Kent.
After graduating, Michael spent four years as a photographer in India, Laos, Bolivia and Spain. Coming to London in 1976, he worked for a time in the photographic department at the BBC, which brought him into contact with Henry Lincoln and Richard Leigh, who were filming a documentary about the medieval Knights Templar. Their mutual interests and enthusiasm ultimately led to the publication in 1982 of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a controversial bestseller and still in print after more than thirty years.
Embracing the craft
The success of the book enabled Michael to concentrate on research, writing and lecturing. Writing with Leigh, he produced works on such diverse topics as Freemasonry, the Dead Sea Scrolls, magic and alchemy, the Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler and the Inquisition. His solo works covered the ancient mysteries, the early Christian church and the influence of religion in modern life.
Michael’s interest in the history of ideas and the esoteric tradition led him to the Craft, becoming a Freemason in the Lodge of Economy, No. 76, Winchester, near his then home. He later joined the Prince of Wales’s Lodge, No. 259, London, and was nominated by them as a Grand Steward and appointed a Grand Officer in 2005.
Freemasonry brought Michael to the notice of Lord Northampton, who invited him to become a trustee of the Canonbury Masonic Research Centre, which he was setting up as a focus for research into the more esoteric aspects of Freemasonry. Equally, Michael became involved in and greatly shaped the early years of the Cornerstone Society, which Lord Northampton had established as a forum for those interested in exploring the deeper meanings of the ritual. When the Orator Scheme was being discussed in 2006, Michael was the obvious candidate to draft the early Orations.
Leading from the front
When Michael became editor of Freemasonry Today it was still ‘the independent voice of Freemasonry’. He greatly extended its coverage beyond the Craft and Royal Arch and attracted a new audience to the magazine, including a growing number of non-masons. He not only sought out contributors and edited their pieces but was responsible for the page design and seeing the magazine through the presses. He employed his old talents and provided many of the photographs that illustrated the content. It was something of a departure for him when in 2007 the magazine merged with Grand Lodge’s then house organ, MQ Magazine, to become the Craft’s official journal. Yet he rose to the occasion and continued to produce a magazine that combined news with interesting, and sometimes challenging, articles.
Michael would have been the first to acknowledge that his work fell outside the normal run of academic historical research, but he believed completely in what he did. He was not writing for other academics but for the general reader, and he had a loyal following. Whether he worked on his own or with Lincoln and Leigh, Michael’s writing was never ignored and always provoked discussion – which is all any writer seeks.
His last years were, sadly, marked by increasing ill health, including an initially successful liver transplant, and financial problems caused by the unsuccessful case he and Leigh took against the novelist Dan Brown’s publisher, claiming that Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code was both a plagiarism and infringed the copyright of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. A gentle, courteous man, Michael was always a pleasure to meet and talk to and will be greatly missed by many. Our thoughts go out to his wife, daughters and stepson and stepdaughter.