From his acquaintance with Sir Christopher Wren, and his intimacy with Doctor Desaguliers, Martin Folkes was induced to take an active part in the reorganization of Freemasonry in the beginning of the last century, and his literary attainments and prominent position in the scientific world enabled him to exercise a favorable influence on the character of the Institution. He was descended from a good family, being the eldest son of Martin Folkes, Counselor at Law, and Dorothy, the daughter of Sir William Howell, of the County of Norfolk. He was born in Queen Street, Leicester Inn Fields, Westminster, October 29, 1690. In 1707 he was entered at Clare Hall, Cambridge, and in 1713 elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, of which, in 1723, he was appointed vice-president. In 1727, on the death of Sir Isaac Newton, he became a candidate for the Presidency, in which he was defeated by Sir Hans Sloane, who, however, renewed his appointment as Vice-president, and in 1741, on the resignation of Sloane as President, he was elected his successor. In 1742 he was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Paris, and in 1746 received the degree of Doctor of Laws from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
In 1750, he was elected President of the Society of Antiquaries. To this and to the Royal Society he contributed many essays, and published a work entitled, A Table of English Silver Coins, which is still much esteemed as a numismatic authority. On September 26, 1751, he was struck with paralysis, from which he never completely recovered. On November 30, 1753, he resigned the presidency of the Royal Society, but retained that of the Society of Antiquaries until his death. In 1733, he visited Italy, and remained there until 1735, during which time he appears to have ingratiated himself with the Freemasons of that country, for in 1742 they struck a medal in his honor, a copy of which is to be found in Thory's History of the Foundation of the Grand Orient of France. On one side is a pyramid, a sphinx, some Masonic ciphers, and the two pillars, and on the obverse a likeness of Folkes.
Of the Masonic life of Folkes we have but few records. In 1725, he was appointed Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England, and is recorded as having paid great attention to the duties of his office. Anderson says that he presided over the Grand Lodge in May of that year, and "prompted a most agreeable Communication" (see Constitutions, 1738, page 119). But he held no office afterward; yet he is spoken of as having taken great interest in the Institution. Of his literary contributions to Freemasonry nothing remains.
The Pocket Companion cites an address by him, in 1725, before the Grand Lodge, probably at that very Communication to which Anderson has alluded, but it is unfortunately no longer extant. He died June 28, 1754, and was buried in the Chancel of Hillington Church near Lynn, Norfolk. He left a wife and two daughters, an only son having died before him.
Nichols, who knew him personally, says in his Literary Anecdotes (ii, 591) of him: "His knowledge was very extensive, his judgment exact and accurate, and the precision of his ideas appeared from the perspicuity and conciseness of his expression in his discourses and writings on abstruse and difficult topics.... He had turned his thoughts to the study of antiquity and the polite arts with a philosophical spirit, which he had contracted by the cultivation of the mathematical sciences from his earliest youth." His valuable library of more than five thousand volumes was sold for 3090 at auction after his decease.
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