Illustration by Etienne Gilfillan/Photos from Getty Images
London still sees more than its share of buildings which seem to owe more to the occult than to strict practicality. Number One Canada Square, better known as Canary Wharf, is topped with a conspicuous pyramid with a flashing light at its apex. It could hardly be a more graphic embodiment of the familiar image of a pyramid topped by an eye, a symbol familiar from the back of the US dollar bill.
While Dan Brown looks for Masonic symbolism in Washington, DC, we journey through Masonic London, on a trail that takes in Isaac Newton and Jack the Ripper, St Paul’s Cathedral and Canary Wharf, conspiracy theories and occult forces…
Fortean Times | Nov 2009 Issue
City of Symbols
By David Hambling
Dan Brown’s latest novel sends symbologist Robert Langdon on a new quest. Having previously tangled with the Priory of Sion and the Illuminati, this time he’s pursuing the Freemasons; and once again he must follow a treasure trail of clues hidden in the urban landscape. Dan Brown is notorious for his loose approach to historical fact, and accuracy takes second place to keeping the plot moving. His location is Washington, DC, a city with plenty of Masonic connections. But Brown might have done better to start at the roots of Freemasonry in the City of London.
The City of London, or Square Mile, is history and mythology made concrete, going right back to the celebrated London Stone itself.  Settlement here dates to pre-Roman times, but the biggest influence on the City as we know it today was the rebuilding project that took place after the Great Fire of 1666. This gave London much of its present form and introduced many of its greatest monuments. Unlike the previous random sprawl, which had grown up organically over centuries, the rebuilding was carried out according to a deliberate master plan. Some claim that it was simply an attempt to build on more orderly and ‘rational’ lines, but if we peel back the surface the esoteric, Masonic and even magical aspects of the City are revealed.
We now tend to view the 17th century as a period of scientific progress when rationality broke free from the bonds of superstition. However, that rationality took many forms, and sacred geometry, numerology and astrology were just as respectable as astronomy and chemistry. The quest was on for the keys to the Universe. While we might now believe that science will provide all the answers, in those days the occult held an equal attraction for men of learning, and this is something we can see in their works.
The Freemasons emerged at just the right time for the great rebuilding project (see panel: “The Foundations of Freemasonry”, p35). They were the latest group of seekers after ultimate knowledge, following hard on the footsteps of the “Invisible College” of the Rosicrucians, which was either a conspiracy, an impenetrable secret society or a hoax, depending on whom you believe. The Royal Society, still an important organisation today, dates back to this era and is regarded by some as an extension of the Invisible College. Founded in 1660 as the “Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge”, it originally dealt as much with alchemy and astrology as what we now think of as science. There was a large overlap between membership of the Royal Society, Freemasons and even more secretive esoteric groups such as the Cabala Club.
The great architect of the new London was of course Sir Christopher Wren – astronomer, geometer, Royal Society founder member, MP and architect. He also appears to have been a Freemason. On 18 May 1691, the antiquary and biographer John Aubrey noted: “This day… is a great convention at St Paul’s Church of the fraternity of the adopted masons, where Sir Christopher Wren is to be adopted a brother…”
Some discount this as hearsay, since Aubrey was simply repeating what he had been told by one William Dugdale. However, the theory is supported by an old tradition in the Masonic Lodge of Antiquity No 2 that Wren was Master of the Lodge, and to many Freemasons his membership of the Craft is obvious in his works, particularly in his greatest monument – St Paul’s Cathedral (see below: ‘Isaac Newton and the Temple of Doom’).
Working with Wren were two other notables, John Evelyn and the notorious Nicholas Hawksmoor. The latter was nicknamed “the devil’s architect”, and his Masonic credentials are not in doubt. Hawksmoor’s membership was recorded in 1691, when he became Wren’s assistant. Other acknowledged Freemasons include John James, the second surveyor appointed alongside Hawksmoor, and Nathaniel Blackerby, treasurer to the commission building new churches.
THE NEW JERUSALEM
To the builders of the new London, the city was to be the New Jerusalem. Rome was in the hands of Catholics, so London must succeed it as the capital of the true faith. This was reinforced by a popular theory that the English were the descendants of the Lost Tribe of Israel, who disappeared into the West after the destruction of the kingdom in 722 BC. Londoner William Blake – who had a tendency to employ Masonic imagery – was merely echoing this idea when he wrote of Jerusalem being “builded here” decades later. This belief was a help to those who believed that Britain should be a global empire, a true successor to Rome, with a temporal and religious capital to match it.
Several concepts were put forward for the new street plan. All of these did away with the warren of tiny streets and alleys and imposed some sort of regularity. Some, such as the plans put forward by cartographer Richard Newcourt, were simple grid patterns. But both Wren and Evelyn had more complex ideas, and it has been suggested that Evelyn’s plan bears a marked resemblance to the Sephiroth or Tree of Life from the mystic Cabala, “the best hieroglyph of the known and unknown universe”. Cabalism was a popular topic among esoteric philosophers of the day, with its mathematical and geometric approach, some of which was assimilated into Freemasonry.
Evelyn had previously written about how a careful arrangement of the environment could “influence the soule and spirits of man, and prepare them for converse with good Angells”. In Cabalism, the angels are the messengers between the physical and metaphysical world.
In the event, practical considerations restricted the wholesale remodelling of London to more modest changes. But while they could not demolish streets at will, the architects of London arranged places of worship according to their plan. Wren realigned the axis of St Paul’s so it stood 2,000 cubits (914m / 3,000ft) from Temple Bar to the West and the same distance from St Dunstan-in-the-East in the other direction. Hawksmoor’s St George-in-the-East is 2,000 cubits from the London Wall, St John Horselydown was placed 2,000 cubits from the Monument and Hawksmoor’s St Mary Woolnoth is the same distance from his Christ Church Spitalfields.
The measure of 2,000 cubits is used in the biblical Book of Numbers in its rules for city planning: “[M]easure from without the city on the east side 2,000 cubits.” It had featured in modern studies of sacred geometry since 1662. John Wilkins, vicar of St Lawrence Jewry and the first secretary of the Royal Society had converted it into modern measures, creating the essential yardstick for a New Jerusalem.
THE DEVIL’S ARCHITECT
Christopher Wren is remembered as the chief architect of modern London, but his assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor towers above him in occult circles thanks to his 12 churches built in accordance with the 1711 Act. These made a break from the traditional Gothic style and introduced a new and alien geometric vocabulary of obelisks, pyramids and cubes. His supposedly morbid interest in pagan cultures and pre-Christian worship have helped darken his reputation.
Hawksmoor’s churches are based on a layout of intersecting axes and rectangles, which he described as being based on the “rules of the Ancients”. His work borrows from Egypt, Greece and Rome – all revered by the Freemasons – and often in a grand manner. The nave of St George’s Bloomsbury church is a perfect cube, with a tower in the shape of a pyramid. Seven of the keystones are decorated with flames, the eighth bears the Hebrew name of God inside a triangular plaque surrounded by a sunburst; the symbolism of this is obscure.
Hawksmoor’s St Mary Woolnoth is based on the idea of a cube within a cube. This has represented the squaring of the circle from ancient times, which takes us back to the ideal proportions of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man… and, of course, the Freemasons. 
But it is the alignment of Hawksmoor’s churches as much as their architecture that has provoked speculation, starting with the writer Iain Sinclair’s book-length prose-poem Lud Heat in 1975. This describes how Hawksmoor’s churches form regular triangles and pentacles, and “guard, mark or rest upon” the city’s sources of occult power. Sinclair even provides maps to prove the alignments, which are a clear sign of Hawksmoor’s true Satanic affiliation.
Sinclair was the first to connect Hawksmoor’s churches with some of the most shocking crimes in London’s history – the now largely forgotten Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811 and Jack the Ripper’s killing spree in 1888. Sinclair suggests that the malign influence of Christ Church, Spitalfields, is so great that it attracts dark acts of violence to its vicinity.
The theme was taken up in Peter Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor in 1985, which switches between the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire and a modern serial killer case. Ackroyd, a great scholar of London, playfully names his modern detective Hawksmoor, while the book’s 17th-century architect is Nicholas Dyer.
The idea of Hawksmoor as a manipulator of dark forces was further refined in Alan Moore’s hugely ambitious graphic novel From Hell. This involved a unified conspiracy theory linking Hawksmoor, the Freemasons and the Jack the Ripper killings. The Ripper murders, in this version, are carried out by Queen Victoria’s personal physician to conceal an illegitimate child conceived by her grandson, Prince Albert, Duke of Clarence.
Moore taps into an earlier strand of Ripperology connecting the killings with the Freemasons. The oath of secrecy taken by Freemasons includes a very colourful description of the supposed penalties, including mention of a cut throat and the statement “that my left breast had been torn open and my heart and vitals taken from thence and thrown over my left shoulder” and “my body had been severed in two in the midst”. Freemasons insist that this oath is symbolic and the penalties have never actually been inflicted on oath-breakers. A number of commentators, though, have suggested that the way the Ripper’s victims were mutilated closely parallels these specific injuries.
Stephen Knight went even further in his book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution in 1976. Graffiti found near two of the murders read: “The Juwes are not the men who will be blamed for nothing”. Knight claimed that “Juwes” was not a misspelling of “Jews”, as usually supposed, but is actually a Masonic term referring to Jubela, Jubelo and Jubelum. These are three murderers in Masonic legend who are linked with the gory penalties set out in the oath. Knight’s book received something of a mauling (or perhaps a disembowelment) from other Ripper experts, though it has proved influential, spawning numerous books and films.
Even if the Ripper killings were some sort of enactment of the Masonic penalties, it does little to solve the case. Were they a warning, or was there some other symbolic purpose? Was the Ripper a crazed Freemason? Or is it all, as Sinclair suggested, down to the influence of Hawksmoor’s dark architectural patterns?