The Rise of Freemasonry
By Fred L. Pick, P.A.G.D.C., Prov. G. Sec. Lancs. (E.D.), P.M., Quatuor Coronati Lodge, 2076. & co-author of “The Pocket History of Freemasonry” with G. Norman Knight.
Brethren often ask, “How old is Freemasonry?” and, in an attempt to answer that question, let us travel backward in time, afterwards retracing our steps. First, the backward journey: The English Craft Ritual in all its variations is founded on the ritual agreed between 1813 and 1816 after the Union of two great rival Grand Lodges. This coincides in essentials with the workings found in Scotland and Ireland, and, in fact, throughout the world, though some versions are considerably more dramatic than ours.
Less than a century before this time, organised Grand Lodge Freemasonry came into being with the formation in 1717 of the first Grand Lodge of England. For the ritual of this century we have to turn to many sources, which will shortly be indicated.
We can carry back the story of speculative Freemasonry almost a century before this, for the seventeenth century has left us a scanty, but well-authenticated record of the existence and working of scattered Lodges, while, extending back to the last quarter of the fourteenth century, we have the rare and uncoordinated records of the Craft Gilds and those amazing documents known as the Old Charges.
The story in Scotland runs independently, for, possessing no early versions of the Old Charges, she has Lodge minutes far older than England possesses, records of Mason’s Marks kept by the Lodges, and the Mason Word.
All this carries us back not, alas! To the building of King Solomon’s Temple, not to the Egyptian or Greek Mysteries, but to the activities of the organisers of a small and scattered but highly-important Craft about six hundred years ago. And now, brethren, we have receded as far as possible in our journey through time and we move forward again.
Down to the fourteenth century there is no trace of any organisation among Masons; in fact, in the early part of that century our operative Brethren were scarcely recognised by the municipal authorities, but, by 1375, they were playing their part in the public affairs of London. It must be remembered that the occupation of the Masons kept them independent of the towns and the other trades, and the formation of Craft Gilds would have to be restricted to a few large centres of population.
One thing they certainly did was to produce an extraordinary traditional history, known to us as the Old Charges. Over one hundred copies are now known, many dating from comparatively recent times, but several from the days before Grand Lodges. The two oldest, the Regius MS. And the Cooke MS., both in the British Museum are ascribed by experts to about 1390 and 1425 respectively, and the Grand Lodge No. 1 Manuscript, in the possession of the Grand Lodge of England is dated 1583.
There are differences between the various copies, but the text falls roughly into three parts.
First, is an invocation to the Trinity, “The Might of the Father of Heaven, & etc.”
Second, a long historical statement introducing the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences, an account of the pillars erected by the antediluvians to carry the knowledge of mankind over the Flood, the building of Nineveh, the use of Geometry as a means for providing employment for the sons of the Egyptian nobility, the building of the Temple, the transmission of Masonry to France and then to England, and an assembly of Masons at York.
Third, the Charges, which differ from the general character of Guild ordinances, and which, incidentally, prove the English origin of the documents, as the few copies relating to Scotland require the craftsman to be a true subject to the King of England!
It is a curious fact that not one of them refers to the Mason’s Mark, a method of vouching for the work done, which was very useful in early times. The Scottish operative records, on the other hand, as early as the Schaw Statutes of 1598 provide for the registration of the name and mark of a newly-registered fellow of the craft, while an earlier example is found in Germany in the Torgau Statutes of 1462.
The economic changes of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had far-reaching effects on the Mason craft. The charge that the decline was due to the Reformation is untrue. Certainly, fewer churches were built, but the truth is that a state of near-saturation had arisen in the church-building industry, while the decline in castle-building had coincided with a fall in the value of money, which diminished the reward of labour.
It is in the London Company of Masons that we encounter individuals not connected with the Craft enrolled in a sort of inner corporation called “The Acception”
Membership of this did not necessarily follow being made a member of the Company, e.g., Nicholas Stone, the King’s Master Mason who was a Master of the Company in 1633, did not join the Accepted Masons until 1639.
The Lodge with the longest recorded continuous history, now known as the Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary’s Chapel) No. 1, has minutes dating from 1599. Members of this body performed the earliest known initiation on English soil. They had entered England with the Scottish Army, then occupying Newcastle-on-Tyne, and on 20th May, 1641, they initiated Sir Robert Moray, Quartermaster-General. The incident was subsequently recorded in the Lodge minutes, and Sir Robert attended a meeting of the Lodge in 1647, when he signed the minutes.
The next event is of supreme importance. Elias Ashmole, the antiquary and later founder of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, was initiated in a Lodge at Warrington on 16th October, 1646. He gives a list of members of the Lodge who have been identified as men of good social standing without a single operative Mason, and it is probably no mere coincidence that a copy of the Old Charges bearing the same date was transcribed by Edward Sankey, possibly a son of Richard Sankey, a member of the Lodge. In March 1682, Ashmole again sat in Lodge, this time at Mason’s Hall, London, when he describes himself as “the senior Fellow among them”, and mentions a noble dinner “at the charge of the New-accepted Masons”.
Evidence now becomes more plentiful. Dr Robert Plot described in his Natural History of Staffordshire customs of admission into the Lodge, which consisted of five or six Ancients of the Order, the provision of gloves by the candidate, a collation and ‘secret signs’, reputedly so powerful that the Masons summoned must obey at any hazard or inconvenience, even if it meant coming from the top of a steeple. Dr Plot’s account can hardly be described as friendly, and there also exists a very rare anti-Masonic pamphlet of 1698 addressed “To all Goodlie People of the Citie” of London, and an even earlier skit in Poor Robin’s Intelligencer.
We have seen that nearly six hundred years ago the Craft had a ‘traditional history’, paid due respect to religion and recognised ‘Charges’ on which the present day Charges printed in the Book of Constitutions were founded. The late brothers E.L. Hawkins and Roderick H Baxter devoted much time and ingenuity to analysing and identifying passages now to be found in the ritual.
Harleian MS. No. 2054. There are several words and signs of a Free Mason to be revealed to you which you shall answer before God….you keep secret and not to reveal the same….but to the Master and fellows of the said Society of Free Masons…
Buchanan MS. …not disclosing the secrecy of our Lodge to man, woman or child; stick nor stone, thing moveable nor immoveable.
Examples could be multiplied. One mystery never satisfactorily explained was the transfer of interest from the antediluvian pillars to those which now figure in our workings.
Over in Germany we have the formal adoption of the Mark and, in Scotland, the Mason Word, an expression which has given rise to some superstition and much controversy. It was something more than a mere expression, being described in 1691 as “ like a Rabbinical Tradition in the way of comment on the two pillars erected in Solomon’s Temple, with an addition of some secret sign delivered from hand to hand by which they know and become familiar with one another…” The earliest known printed reference appears in Henry Adamson’s The Muses Threnody, published in 1638:-
For we are the brethren of the Rosie Cross
We have the Mason Word and second sight,
Things for to come we can foretell aright.
Douglas Knoop was of the opinion that the bridge between operative Masonry and speculative Freemasonry rested mainly on Scotland at the operative end and on England at the speculative end. He suggested that there may have been two sets of secrets as early as 1598, though there was no provision in the Schaw Statutes of that year for the booking of the mark of the entered apprentice, but in 1670 the Lodge of Aberdeen recorded the names and marks of its entered apprentices in a beautiful book which has survived to this day.
What does this expression Entered Apprentice mean? It is now believed it was a rank superior to the bound apprentice learning his trade and was more akin to the journeyman of today.
Ashmole has told us of the London Brethren dining together at the expense of the newly-admitted Brethren. Here is an indication of an initiation fee or the payment of a footing, while Randle Holme III left among his Manuscript what appears to be the subscription list of a Lodge at Chester. He also refers to working tools but many Brethren will be surprised to learn that today’s elaborate moralising was a product of the latter part of the eighteenth century.
The old Lodge at Alnwick, in Northumberland, required the Brother in 1708 to wear “on ceremonial occasions” his apron with the common square fixed in the belt. Dr Plot has left us the reference to the presentation of gloves.
Ireland sends its contribution for the Trinity College, Dublin MS., of 1688, contains an elaborate gibe at the duty to relieve a distressed Brother.
So far, we have had no proof of the division of the Craft into degrees. It has already been mentioned that our present English ritual was only codified between 1813 and 1816. It is, however, certain that the three degrees founded on King Solomon’s Temple, and the Hiramic Legend, were fully established by 1730. How many degrees were known at the time of the formation of the first Grand Lodge in 1717? This apparently simple question was still baffling students fifty years ago; in fact, some of the most important discoveries have been made within living memory, and it is now certain that at least two degrees were being formally conferred by the end of the seventeenth century, and that what was fully elaborated into the tri-gradal system and even the Royal Arch was to be traced.
We now turn to a group of manuscripts and prints of which only seventeen are known at the moment of writing, the latest having been discovered as recently as the autumn of 1954. They are known from their form as the Catechisms. The first to give a clue to the pre-1717 system was discovered about 1900, purchased for the Grand Lodge of Ireland and named the Chetwode-Crawley MS., after the great Irish Masonic student of that name. The only drawback was that it was not dated, but its authenticity was confirmed by the discovery in 1930 of another very similar document in the Edinburgh Register House, endorsed “Some questions anent the mason Word 1696.” The two documents were remarkably similar, yet the differences were such as to indicate that neither was a copy of the other. We find here an indication of the test questions that have been popular in all ages.
‘After the masons have examined you by all or some of these Questions and that you have answered them exactly and made the signs they will acknowledge you but not a master mason or fellow craft but only as an apprentice. So they will say I see you have been in the kitchen but I know not if you have been in the hall. Answer. I have been in the hall as well as the kitchen.’
The five points of fellowship are introduced and there is a dramatic description of the form of giving the Mason Word.
While we are dealing with this question of ritual it may be convenient to look forward a few years. We know very well that the Hiramic Legend was fully established by 1730; in fact, there are traces before that date, notably in a skit-advertisement of 1726, but it is by no means certain that this was the first rite of its kind, and it is possible the Hiramic Legend was a survivor of three, the two others being based on the raising of Noah and the building of the Tower of Babel. The evidence is scanty and may not be convincing, but is worth mentioning.
The Noah story is found in the Graham MS. Of 1726, a document discovered as recently as 1936. It combines a Catechism similar to The Whole Institution of Free Masons Opened, printed in 1725, also the Dumfries No. 4 MS., and the legend introduces an ‘infernal squandering spirit’ which was hampering the rebuilding of the ancient cities after the (natural) death of Noah. His sons agreed to go to their father’s grave, and agreed ‘that if they did not find the very thing itself that the first thing that they found was to be to them as a Secret.’ The body was exhumed and raised, and, though no revelations were immediately made to the sons, they were no longer hampered in their work. The same document contains a description of the payment of the workmen of interest to the Mark Mason (especially the Irishman) of today.
The evidence for the Babel story is found in Slade’s The Free Mason Examined, published in 1754, which purported to give the working of Slade’s Grandfather, who was initiated in 1708, “when Sir Christopher Wren was Grand Master.” This is unconvincing, but must be recorded in the hope that corroborative evidence may yet be found.
Returning to the historical sequence of events, it will be remembered that we have mentioned some individual seventeenth–century Freemasons. A small section of the Old Charges contain ‘New Orders’ or ‘additional orders and Constitutions, with the statement that these were adopted at a ‘General Assembly’ on 8th December, 1663. Here is a hint of an Assembly – possibly metropolitan – immediately before the double scourge, the great plague and fire of London. The first carried off one fifth of the population, and the second destroyed two thirds of the houses, besides St. Paul’s Cathedral and almost one hundred churches.
The work of reconstruction, in which the great Master, Sir Christopher Wren, took so prominent a part, involved a heavy call on the services of the builders; restrictive Gild rules went by the board and, by Act of Parliament, the building worker who completed seven years work and residency in the City became entitled to its freedom. Operative Masonry was undoubtedly given an enormous impetus, and, following the tendency of the times, some of the Lodges admitted non-operative or speculative masons.
Soon the stage was set for the development of the scattered uncoordinated Lodges of the seventeenth century into the fraternity to which we are so proud to belong today. The first Grand Lodge in the world was established in 1717. A preliminary meeting was held in 1716, at which were represented four Lodges, then meeting in London, at the Goose and Gridiron, St. Paul’s Churchyard, the Crown Ale-House, in Parker’s Lane near Drury Lane; the Apple-Tree Tavern in Charles Street, Covent Garden; and the Rummer and Grapes Tavern in Channel Row, Westminster. These Brethren ‘and some old Brothers’ met at the Apple-Tree, and ‘having put into the chair the oldest Master Mason (now the Master of a Lodge) they constituted themselves a Grand Lodge pro Tempore in Due Form.’
Here we have the genesis of the Grand Lodge of England which was brought into being on St. John the Baptist’s Day, 24th June, 1717, when the four old Lodges met at the Goose and Gridiron to hold their Assembly and Feast. They elected as their first Grand Master Anthony Sayer, gentleman.
The Brethren responsible for the formation of this Grand Lodge could not have had the slightest idea of the result of their vision, or that the organisation claiming jurisdiction over the Lodges in London and Westminster would one day rule over Brethren of every race and creed and in every continent.
Anthony Sayer was followed in 1718 by George Payne who desired the Brethren ‘to bring to the Grand Lodge any old writings and records concerning Masons and Masonry in order to show the usages of ancient times’. Two years later George Payne was again Grand Master, when he produced to Grand Lodge a copy of the Cooke MS. of the Old Charges (to which we have already referred) and combined the General Regulations, his version being the basis of those found in the early part of today’s Book of Constitutions.
Between George Payne’s two periods of office a very remarkable personage occupied the Masonic throne. Dr John Theophilus Desaguliers, of Huguenot descent, was a lecturer in Experimental Philosophy, and it is believed we owe more to him for the consolidation of the Craft than to others.
Desaguliers visited Edinburgh in 1721, when he was received by the Lodge of Edinburgh, and this visit is believed to have had a considerable influence on the introduction of Speculative Freemasonry into that country. He also initiated the first Royal Freemason, Francis, Duke of Lorraine, at the Hague in 1731; also, Frederick, Prince of Wales, at Kew Palace in 1737.
The first noble Grand Master, The Duke of Montague, was installed in 1721, and from that time onwards the Craft has never been without a Royal or noble Grand Master.
Another important Masonic pioneer was Dr James Anderson, compiler of the first and second editions of the Book of Constitutions in 1723 and 1738. This work was very different from our present-day business-like volume, and included not only Payne’s Charges, but a highly imaginative history of Freemasonry and The Antient Manner of Constituting a Lodge. The second edition contained an account of the formation and early meetings of Grand Lodge, whose minutes, unfortunately, only begin in the year 1723.
A Grand Lodge was established in Ireland by 1725 and one in Scotland by 1736. Like the course of true love, the history of Freemasonry did not run smoothly. Many difficulties had to be overcome: rival Grand Lodges were formed – and vanished – although one was successfully established and flourished until the original and its rival were amalgamated in 1813 into the United Grand Lodge of England. It has been mentioned that the three degrees in their present form were established in 1730.
The Royal Arch makes its appearance in the 1740’s, but much of the symbolic teaching with which we are familiar today was only introduced during the closing decades of the eighteenth century.
Comment To those reading this paper, may I simply state that this Brother has, in my opinion, given us one of the best summaries of the History of Freemasonry in ONE paper that I have encountered to date and is very worth saving for future reference and sharing as the opportunity may arise. Being a Past Grand First Principal in Royal Arch Masonry I take great pleasure in the writers reference to its History & beginnings.
Have a wonderful Day & God Bless