The social history of Oxford University over the past two centuries is surveyed most entertainingly in a handsome new publication detailing the activities of the Freemasons’ lodge that has flourished within this august institution during this period.

Oxford Freemasons (Bodleian Library, £35) shines a penetrating light into areas that some believe, perhaps erroneously, to have been deliberately shrouded in mystery.

But those in search of revelations of a sensational nature, concerning suspicions, say, of dodgy dealings or even criminal conduct concealed by a rigidly enforced code of silence, are going to look in vain. There is nothing of the sort here.

That this bicentennial volume is rich in anecdote can be inferred from the identity of one of its two authors. He is the architectural historian Joe Mordaunt Crook, a former Slade Professor and Waynflete Lecturer at the University of Oxford.

His books include a favourite of mine, The Rise of the Nouveaux Riches (John Murray, 1999), showing how a new breed of Victorian millionaires – manufacturers, traders, engineers – lavished their fortunes on property as a passport to power and influence.

Aspects of this story are reflected in Oxford Freemasons, where class is a potent theme. Opportunity to mingle with one’s ‘betters’ has ever been a lure of the craft.

Not a Freemason himself, it would seem, Mordaunt Crook leaves expertise in the area to his co-author James W. David, a member of the University’s Apollo Lodge for 50 years and a former Grand Secretary (chief executive) of the United Lodge of England.

A principal source has been the Apollo Lodge archive, housed in the Bodleian. But the book is far from being a dry-as-dust academic tome; rather, this is accessible history fascinating to the general reader.

At the setting-up of the lodge in 1819, following a meeting of its five founders at Brasenose College, an elitist tone was not a defining feature. Four of the 14 members present at the first meeting at the Star Hotel (later the Clarendon) were in fact ‘townies’.

Very soon, though – in the words of the authors – “the lodge’s social trajectory moved significantly upwards”.

In a little over two years, to June 1821, it initiated no fewer than 17 heirs to hereditary titles, including the son of a marquess (Cholmondeley) and a duke (Leeds). Though ‘new money’ would soon arrive in the shape of Algernon Perkins (brewing) and John Temple Leader (distilling), recruits during the 1820s mainly represented landed wealth. “Apollo was now not only well established; it was formidably well connected.”

True, some more colourful chaps eventually got in. We learn of Cornet George Trafford Heald who at 21 married fortune-hunter Lola Montez, who quickly dumped him in pursuit of Liszt, Wagner and Ludwig I of Bavaria. “Cornet Heald returned to obscurity; poorer, no doubt, if not a little wiser.”

The two Victorian worthies pictured above are the Apollo-recruited Earl of Latham and the Earl of Carnarvon, “part of a Masonic coterie of some power among the Conservative peers in the House of Lords”.

Apollo in its apogee of influence can be seen in the larger picture showing the Prince and Princess of Wales arriving at the ball given by the lodge in June 1863 at the new Corn Exchange.

No expense was spared for the prince – later to be Worshipful Master of the Lodge. Its final cost was £2,046, which was almost as much as was spent building the Corn Exchange.

The future king’s mother, Queen Victoria, was not best pleased by his involvement with masonry, but he told her soothingly: “I shall have many opportunities of doing great good.”

Victoria’s youngest son Prince Leopold was initiated into Apollo while a Christ Church undergraduate in 1874 and became Provincial Grand Master for Oxfordshire before his early death (from haemophilia) in 1884.

Alexander Grantham York (Apollo, 1867), who was equerry to Leopold, has a footnote in history as recipient of the most famous of royal dismissals. His off-colour wit led Victoria to observe: “We are not amused.”

Oxford Freemasons introduced me to two rather splendid words.. The first was supplied by the lodge secretary John Griffin, the University’s Public Orator, who said that its financial situation in 1989 “was regarded by those responsible for running the lodge as one of inspissated gloom”.

To the dictionary I rushed. “Inspissate: to make (something) thick or thicker.”

Then there’s ‘hypergamy’, of which William Lehman Ashmead Bartlett (Apollo, 1872) is said by the authors to have been a master.

No, it’s not having lots of names but marrying way above your station, in his case the country’s richest heiress Angela Burdett-Coutts, 37 yeas his senior. “This mad marriage,” Queen Victoria called it; but apparently it worked.