The History of Freemasonry
For centuries Masonic Historians have been puzzled by the motives for and the purpose of the formation of the craft of freemasonry.
Both in the operative and the speculative form.
What is freemasonry?
We say:- “A Peculiar System of Morality, Veiled in Allegory and Illustrated by Symbols”.
I have found this to be very true in looking at this history, which involves Myths, Hearsay, Illusions and Interpretations and just now and again the Truth.
I believe that there were two clear stages;
Stage 1. – Early Operative Freemasonry – associated with Craft Guilds – with simple ritual elements.
Stage 2. – Freemasonry of the late 16th and the 17th century’s. Minutes were produced in serving Scottish Lodges as early as 1630, and show a transition from Operative to Speculative Freemasonry.
Therefore many believe that freemasonry to-day owes its origin to the trade guilds and associations of the Middle Ages and coupled with a wide variety of circumstances, combine to give it an influence and significance above and beyond any other fraternity of brotherhood of men.
Whatever its origin, it can with confidence, claim that no other society has at any time attained the character, dignity and integrity that distinguishes freemasonry from all others.
Nevertheless going further back in time to what is called the dark ages, the masons of that time who were employed in the construction of churches and monasteries. They were regarded as skilled and of some education since there was a requirement to read and understand some form of plan or drawing and this therefore lifted them above the ordinary serf or bondsman.
These same masons were often exempted by Papal Mandates, called Bulls, from the laws affecting common labourers, who were tied to the land or the Lord of the Manor.
Therefore they were proud to be able to call themselves free men, because their employment must have kept them on the move from place to place in the erection of another cathedral, abbey or fortification.
An important question for the travelling mason would be that of lodgings and a community meeting place, where they could meet with other masons.
So it would have been a natural intention to build a “lodge” where they could live and work as a community whilst their employment lasted.
The earliest known reference to a “Lodge” occurs in 1277 in the building accounts of the Vale Royal Abbey.
It also is found in the “Fabric Rolls” of York Minster dated 1355 – in these the following orders for masons are found – “Then to breakfast in the fabric of the lodge, and forthwith all are to return to work until noon. Between April and August they shall sleep in the lodge and then work until the first bell for Vespers”.
Several well known manuscripts exist from these early times.
The Regius manuscript, which is in the British Museum and dates from 1390. This was probably written as an instructional poem by a priest.
What is interesting is that it contains several concepts and phrases similar to those in Freemasonry, none more so than the words “so mote it be”.
The Cooke manuscript is also in the British Museum, and is thought to have been written by a speculative mason in 1450.
The Anderson constitution of 1723 borrows heavily from its content.
There were many Craft Guilds set up to look after the interests of masons.
The biggest being the London Company of Freemasons which was first mentioned in 1376 and was granted its Arms in 1473.
During the Middle Ages the system of apprenticeship was of course well known in many trades and crafts, the earliest being in 1230, but it was many years before it became insisted upon in general use.
The apprentice’s full freedom came some years after his indenture, when he became a fellow of the craft and he became fully qualified with respect of his trade.
As a fellow this gave him a status superior to that of a mason.
Although the entered apprentice was a feature of Scottish operative masonry as early as 1598, it was not heard of in English speculative masonry before the first book of constitutions.
This was written in 1723, one of the authors being a Scottish clergyman the Reverend James Anderson.
Several other terms from Scottish operative masonry such as Fellowcraft, rather than Fellow of the Craft and the word Cowan also appeared.
Cowan is a name we all know and it first appeared in the Scottish Schaw Statutes of 1598.
These statutes were codes of practice and rules for operative masons drawn up by William Sachaw, Master of Work and General Warden of Masons appointed in 1584 by James 6th of Scotland ( Later James the 1st of England).
The word Cowan in the English Dictionary says “one who builds dry stone walls”, and was applied as an insult to one who does the work of a mason, but also who has not been properly joined into the fraternity, not been properly admitted to a lodge and has not served his term under indenture.
The official attitude towards them at this time was clearly indicated by the following regulation from the Shaw Statute
“That no Master Mason or Fellowcraft shall receive a Cowan to work in his society, or company, nor send any of his servants to work with Cowan’s under pain of twenty pounds”.
Having been a trade unionist of the old school, I find myself having a lot of sympathy with this stance,
Also in Scotland the Aitcheson Haven Lodge, an ordinary operative lodge, has recorded minutes dating from 1599.
It is believed that the earliest record of a Masonic Initiation is that of John Boswell, Laid of Auchenleck, into the Edinburgh Lodge and entered into the minutes on the 8th June 1600.
Also in the Lodge of Edinburgh on the 3rd July 1634 the Lord Alexander was admitted as a Fellowcraft.
Now we move to the practice of admitting non operative masons into the fraternity in England.
The most notable was the Honourable Elias Ashmole (1617 – 1692), who was a member and fellow of the Royal Society.
As far as we know, he was the earliest recorded initiation of a non operative mason, into an English lodge and is entered into his diary as:-
“1646 October 16th at 4.30pm, I was made a freemason at Warrington, Lancaster with Col. Henry Mainwaring of Katchingham Cheshire with the Warden and others that were members or officers of the Lodge who were men of good social positions”.
Ashmole further noted that on March 11th 1680 that he went to the Mason Hall London when four other gentlemen were admitted into the Fellowship of Freemasons.
A further interesting entry into Ashmole’s diary, this time for March 10th 1682 states that after the assembly at the Masons Hall, the company dined at the Half Moon Tavern and the dinner was paid for by the candidate.
Probably a hint that he was of some worth.
After his death in 1692, Ashmole left a historical gold mine in the 1,800 manuscripts that he produced, which are held in the Ashmole’s Museum Oxford.
Now moving on to the year 1717, which was the third year of the reign of George 1st?
I think it is fair to say that 1717 is possibly recognised as the most important year in the history of Freemasonry.
This year seeing the formation, of the first governing body of English Freemasonry.
This was the Grand Lodge of England.
This was brought about by four Lodges in London, which met at:-
The Goose and Gridiron Alehouse, in St Pauls Churchyard.
The Crown Alehouse near Drury Lane.
The Apple Tree, in Covent Garden.
The Rumer & Grapes Tavern, in Westminster.
Of the four founding Lodges, three of them had a membership of 15 and the Rummer & Grapes had 70.
These four Lodges formed themselves into the Grand Lodge and on St John the Baptists day 24th June 1717, at the Goose & Gridiron alehouse, the assembled Brethren, by a show of hands, elected Mr Anthony Sayer, Gentleman, the first Grand Master of Masons, and was duly installed.
The Grand Lodge took as its coat of arms that of the London Company of Freemasons, granted in 1453 as I mentioned earlier.
The first book of constitutions was written in 1723 and a second enlarged version in 1738. It was from these early beginnings that the modern constitution evolved.
In 1725 a Lodge in York founded the rival “Grand Lodge of all England”.
In protest against the growing influence of the Grand Lodge of England and this was in operation for about 30 years.
Also at this time, many persons of high rank enrolled into the fraternity. One of the most notable being, the first English Freemason of Royal descent, HRH Frederick Lewis Prince of Wales, eldest son of George 2nd.
The Prince was made an Entered Apprentice and a Fellowcraft all in one day in March 1737 at an occasional Lodge held at the Palace at Kew.
Following on from the Prince there were many brethren of noble blood, such as the Dukes of Montague, Kent and Sussex and during the reign of George 3rd, all six of his sons were members.
During the 1730’s and 1740’s antipathy increased between the grand Lodges of England, Scotland and Ireland.
Irish and Scottish Masons visiting and living in London started to side with other London Lodges that were unaffiliated to the Grand Lodge
So that brings us to another notable date in this history of Freemasonry which is 1751.
In this year a rival Grand Lodge calling itself “The most Ancient and Honourable Society of Free and Accepted Masons” was formed by six Lodges in London. This meeting took place at the Turks Head tavern in what is now Greek Street, Soho
It became known as the “Ancients” from their claim that the Grand Lodge of 1717, later called the “Moderns, had departed from the original concept of the order and they, the “Ancients”, would practice masonry according to the ancient ritual, passwords and customs.
These two unofficial names continued for the 62 years of this division.
Now events took place in 1789 that spread panic throughout the governments of Europe. In England suspicion was cast upon Freemasonry by the publication of French books claiming that the Jacobins, led by Robspierre, and the French Revolution in particular, had been supported and guided by the French Masonic movement.
This spurred the government in Britain in 1790 to pass a number of parliamentary acts, outlawing secret and oath taking societies.
In 1799 the Unlawful Societies Act was passed, which could have closed all Masonic Lodges in England.
Prompt action by Francis Rawdon, the acting Grand Master, and later to be the 2nd Earl of Moria, saved the situation.
He had a meeting with the then Prime Minister, William Pitt, where he gave a complete explanation of the whole nature of Freemasonry.
Including, its patronage by Royalty and the nobility, and also its support of the establishment.
His explanation suitably impressed Pitt so that Freemasonry was specifically exempt from the Act.
So having overcome this major threat, we still have the two rival Grand Lodges, which came about in 1751 the “Ancients” and “Moderns”, who were continuing to operate in open discord and opposition.
In 1809 a special Lodge of Promulgation was established to promulgate the ancient landmarks of the order, also to instruct and negotiate with the members of the two factions.
This Special Lodge largely confirmed the “Ancients” forms of ceremony and therefore set about to considerably revised the “Moderns” Rituals.
In 1813 events took place that was to change this conflict.
When the Grand Master of the Moderns, HRH the Prince of Wales, later George 4th, was succeeded by his brother Augustus Fredrick, Duke of Sussex. Also at the same time the Grand Master of the Ancients was the fourth Duke of Atholl and he resigned in favour of HRH Prince Edward, Duke of Kent.
The direct result of these actions being, that now, two brothers of the Royal Blood Line were each Masters of their respective Grand Lodges.
In a few weeks they ended 62 years of rivalry, by signing the Articles of Union at Kensington Palace, on the 25th November 1813 to form the United Grand Lodge of Ancient Freemasons of England.
It was therefore of no surprise that the first Grand Master was HRH the Duke of Sussex and his deputy was the Duke of Kent.
Following the Union in 1813 a “Lodge of Reconciliation” was set up and sat from 1813 to 1816.
Its task was the rationalisation of the Ritual to a form acceptable to both parties forming the newly constituted Grand lodge.
The new “Book of Constitutions” was produced in 1815.
It is worth noting that at this time there were 647 active Lodges in England.
Freemasonry was now spreading throughout the world, mainly thanks to the spread of the British Empire which aided the ability to encourage new settlers, merchants and the use of the military, and there Lodges, throughout the Empire.
In conclusion, I am of the opinion, that the modern day Speculative Freemasonry throughout the world owes its origins to events that took place within this country of ours, in the 15th and 16th century’s.
Therefore because of these events, and what was achieved at that time, I believe we can rightly hold our heads up high and be proud to say:-
“I am a Freemason”
Derek Warren: Secretary Belvidere L.O.I.