History of Freemasonry


IF the date assigned by scholarship is correct, the oldest existing Masonic manuscript, the Regius poem, was penned in the year 1390. In that year King Richard II was on the throne of England; the battle of Agincourt had not yet been fought; the War of the Roses as yet in the future and the first voyage of Columbus to the New World was not to begin for more than another century. Almost three-quarters of a century were to pass before Martin Luther's birth. All over Europe men were still building cathedrals in the Gothic style, although that school of architecture had entered upon its final phases of decline. The guild system was in its heyday in England and on the continent. It had not yet become fashionable - in England at least - to burn heretics at the stake. Legal issues might still be decided in trial by combat.

The Regius manuscript contains a set of rules and regulations for the government of what was obviously a guild of craftsmen; in the light of modern research it is possible to ascertain that the society was organized upon much the same general plan as were the majority of operative guilds of that day. But the Regius poem is of far greater importance than that. It was a patent attempt to account to the English members of an English institution for an antiquity of that institution in which they already believed.

Presumably it was to be read to men whose fathers and grandfathers and probably great grandfathers had belonged. It gave naive credence to a tradition that the society had been in continuous existence on English soil since the days of Athelstan - which was to say since before the Norman conquest. It is clear from the rhymed narrative itself that its author had no real sense of the passage of time. What he did know, however, was that the society was very old - or at least so old that the traditions and memories of persons then living did not run back to a time when it did not exist.

In some manner this particular manuscript was lost to sight, to remain lost for some 450 years. At any rate when the first Grand Lodge was formed, about 325 years after it was penned, and diligent search was made for all the writings having to do with Operative Masonry, this one for the time escaped attention. There were other and later ones, however, and these contained substantially the same material, thus indicating the persistence of the Regius tradition. At least six of these were in possession of the old "immemorial" Lodge at York - a lodge which held itself out to be the direct lineal descendant of the masonry of Athelstan's day. Not a few such lodges were scattered about England and Scotland at that time, unmistakable survivors of the guild system of the Middle Ages. One of the first tasks the new Grand Lodge set for itself was to gather, digest and publish in literary form all that could be learned of the operative guilds and particularly their legends, customs, laws and regulations. More than a century after that had been done, the Regius manuscript was rediscovered, to bear eloquent testimony to the fact that there had been no great alteration in the practices and beliefs of the operative masons between the reign of Richard II and the reign of George I, a period of more than three centuries.

Taking the year 1400 as a point of departure from which to measure English Masonic history both forward and backward, it is therefore clear: (1) that before that time, and probably for a considerable period before it, operative masonic guilds were in existence in England; that they had a substantial literary tradition and customs established by immemorial usage; (2) that they continued to exist for another 300 years with relatively little change in either customs or traditions; and (3) that surviving units or "lodges" of them participated in the eighteenth-century movement which centered on the formation of the first Grand Lodge, from which Speculative Freemasonry dates its present form of existence.

For purposes of discussion it may be assumed that even if there had been no operative societies coming down from a remoter antiquity, the guild system itself would have produced them. When artisans of all other classes and callings were uniting themselves into such groups, it would have been strange indeed if the stone masons had not done so also. If not a single record of their medieval existence could be found, it still would be safe to infer they did exist. As a matter of fact there are records of Masonic guilds both in England and on the continent. The term Freemason occurs in the fabric rolls of Exeter Cathedral in the year 1396. The guild at London in 1537 called its members Freemasons; at Norwich in 1375 masons appear to have been attached to the guild of carpenters; whether that was a purely local or a general arrangement at the time there is no way of knowing. It is interesting to observe, however, that in the year 1350 two separate classes of masons were recognized. A statute of that period describes a mestre mason de franche pere - a master mason of free stone - as being different from other masons and entitled to higher pay. That distinction is maintained in a statute of 1360 except that in the later one the preferred workman is called a "chief mestre" of masons. The common mason appears to have been classified generally with "carpenters, tilers, thatchers, daubers and all other labourers." As late as 1604 an incorporation at Oxford included freemasons, carpenters, joiners and slaters. It is evident from the records of smaller towns that mason guilds were not numerous or particularly important, a fact which in itself is illuminating. It marks one great respect in which these bodies differed from all other craft organizations, for they were essentially local institutions, made up of workmen who remained in one town and usually in one quarter of the town, whereas the skilled masons who worked in the building of the Gothic cathedrals had from the nature of their calling to be more or less itinerant, moving about from place to place as work was to be found.

In an enumeration of the guilds entitled to representation in the Common Council of London in 1370, a Company of Freemasons was listed and a Company of Masons, standing respectively as No. 17 and No. 34 on a roll of forty-eight. The Company of Masons appears to have been of greater numerical strength than the Company of Freemasons, since it had four representatives as against two for the other. Whether, as Mackey's History of Freemasonry suggests, this indicates that the Freemasons formed a smaller and more select society, is pure speculation, since no proof one way or the other has been found, but as a guess it is decidedly plausible. In any event, the list establishes the existence of two separate guilds. Ultimately they were merged, taking a coat of arms which displayed three white castles with black doors and windows on a black field, together with a silver or scalloped chevron and on it a pair of black compasses. It is therefore possible to be reasonably sure of the following facts pertaining to the general situation of Operative Masonry at the time the Regius manuscript was presumably written, that is, in the year 1390:

I. That it was occasionally divided into two general classes respectively mentioned as Freemasons and as Masons;

II. That town guilds of masons were small and relatively unimportant as compared with town guilds of other kinds;

III. That town mason guilds frequently united with, or formed parts of, guilds of other workers employed in the building trades;

IV. That it is probable no wide gulf separated the two classes of Masons, since separate guilds of them in London found no insuperable obstacle in the way of union and particularly since the Old Charges mention their common art as Masonry, without drawing invidious distinctions between Masons and Freemasons;

V. That the rules laid down for practical guidance of members of the Craft corresponded in the main with similar rules laid down in other craft guilds of that period.

But when the Regius poem was drafted, the active period of Gothic architecture was already drawing to a close. That period for centuries had given to the stone masons of Northern and Western Europe their principal occupation. Its work required a high degree of skill, which for the most part could not be acquired except by actual practice in the labor of building just such edifices as the great churches themselves. The stonework of successive cathedrals discloses that as fast as problems of construction were solved, the solutions were passed along to succeeding builders. From quarry to the finished task every stone had its separate purpose, and preparation of every stone involved conscious and more or less skilled direction at the hands of every workman through whose hands it must pass.

When the curtain first rises on the stage of organize Operative Masonry, it discloses a society proudly an profoundly self-conscious. It is a society of aristocrat among workmen, boasting of an ancestry of incredible age and distinction. It has noble traditions, and it has dignity of a high order to maintain. Moreover, it has secrets which at all costs must be preserved, and a esoteric philosophy which is rooted in the lore of the past. True, it is a guild and in many respects like all the other guilds which then flourished as such societies had not flourished before and as they have not flourished since. But it is more than a guild; it is also a cult, for it practices mystical rites which are now known to have been survivals of magic rites and religious observances, coming down from a past which was indefinitely remote.

The Old Charges bear abundant witness to all these things. Most of them prescribe the ritualistic manner in which oaths of secrecy must be administered. One reveals that the candidate was compelled to swear, "in the presence of Almighty God and my Fellows and Brethren here present" that he would not by any act or under any circumstance, "publish, discover, reveal or make known any of the secrets, privileges or counseIs of the fraternity or fellowship of Free Masonry." (Harleian MSS.) Those secrets were indeed well kept; so well, in fact, that the modern Freemason is much in doubt as to what many of them were and can only suppose that they had to do with the mechanical science of the operative calling. As Operative Masonry fell into disuse, some of them undoubtedly became imbedded in the symbolism and allegory of rite and ritual, where they remain to this day. Of their origin, practical use, and indeed of their scope, the present day knows almost nothing. It is by no means unlikely that as cathedral building masons merged with the guild masons of the towns, they saw no reason to impart to their less skilled companions more of their own secret art than was necessary to give it symbolical or emblematical preservation; and as "accepted," or non- operative, masons came in time to outnumber them both, the value of purely mechanical secrets naturally tended diminish and ultimately to disappear.

The modern student must bear in mind also that from their very nature it was unlawful for these things to be written, carved or engraved upon any movable or immovable thing, in such fashion that they might become legible or intelligible to a "cowan," or outsider. The Old Charges must therefore be studied for what they may suggest "between the lines" as well as for what they openly say. In actual practice Masons appear always to have been singularly tenacious of their secret ritualistic "work." Although no particular care appears to have been taken to keep the Old Manuscripts from public inspection, secretaries of many immemorial lodges burned their records rather than have them fall into the hands of historians appointed by the first Grand Lodge. Even today conservative brethren, fearing improper disclosures will be made, look askance upon public discussions of esoteric matters, and although various Monitors have been published officially for guidance in the ritualistic labors of the Craft, by far the greater part of modern ritual may not be lawfully written even in cipher; Masons who compose ciphers for that purpose or make use of them are subject to the severest penalties. The only legal method of passing these secret things from man to man and from generation to generation is that of mouth-to-ear communication. It is truly astonishing how accurate and uniform these oral transmissions have been, and this accuracy is in itself the best justification of a jealous zeal which forbids oral alteration or other innovation upon the fundamentals of Craft Masonry.