(11 May 1978)
THIS STUDY is concerned with the age of our society. It is not an attempt to make it seem older than it is, for an unquestionably great history does not need to be given an artificial patina nor to be held together by elastic bands. Furthermore, recognition of the true beginnings of Free-masonry is to acknowledge the debt we owe to the men who were really responsible for it.
The scene is set in England, not because the writer is unaware of the great contributions made by Scotland and Ireland but for the sufficient reason that it was in London that the first and indispensable step was taken to form a central governing body independent of the building trade. Taking into consideration all the circumstances which made such a move possible, it is difficult to imagine any other birthplace, but it is a fact and a significant one. Furthermore, it was England that gave the society its name and for these various reasons, developed later, we shall endeavour not to confuse the fundamentals by following trails into other parts of these islands. That these other places gave much to nurture the living organism is beyond doubt, but it is nevertheless a very different matter from generating it.
A POPULAR FALLACY
In a paper published in AQC 81, Bro. Harry Carr traced the pattern of craft ritual development covering a period of 600 years. In so far as that study leads us to the present system of rites, adopted (more or less) by the majority of masonic bodies, few would question its overall truth. So for those who regard ritual as the alpha and omega of our society, it must seem a quite natural corollary that speculative Freemasonry as we understand it also originated some 600 years ago. However, as ritual is not the beginning and the end, but rather a means to an end, and in any case has been subject to far reaching changes, such an assumption is unwarranted and the conclusion erroneous unless supported by evidence of a different kind. Although it is a fact that there were freemasons in the 14th century, it is far from established that the men who went by that name had sufficient in common with 'freemasons' belonging to the speculative craft to be recognizably the same sort of people. In short, it is necessary to compare like with like if organic continuity is to be demonstrated.
No such continuity has ever been proved in the face of so many pointers to the contrary. And since the borrowing of formalities and ritual matter from external sources is a by no means abnormal practice in new movements, it follows that the age of this ritual material is irrelevant in establishing the age of the body which adapts it to its own particular purposes.
THE QUEST FOR ANTIQUITY
Freemasons like the expression 'time immemorial'. It rolls off the tongue with easy grace and satisfies a need within most men to feel a sense of belonging to a fraternity so well established that its origins are lost in the mists of antiquity. Few writers of lodge histories are able to resist its reassuring embrace and the Craft rituals have elements built into them which seem to take us back not just centuries but millenia.
The building of Solomons Temple at Jerusalem and the drama of Hiram Abiff are integral parts of the ritual, the former being more or less supported by biblical narrative, whilst the latter is patently allegorical. Both are enacted with overtones suggestive not only that they were founded upon real events but that they are essentially part of a long history of speculative masonry. Yet no modern historian regards Freemasonry as a society 3000 years old, the allusions drawn from remote antiquity being treated as legend.
It thus follows that at some stage in the masonic saga elements contributing to ritual development were borrowed from external sources for the dual purpose of providing allegory and tradition. So if apochryphal material drawn from remote ages could be so usefully absorbed by the system without overstraining credulity, then a similar but even more plausible borrowing could have taken place when the new movement was in embryo in the 17th century. This was to give the society the appearance of having a direct historical linkage with the English stone masons of the middle ages, although the factual evidence for such a link was really no stronger than that imagined by medieval masons as relating them to their forerunners engaged on the building of the Temple at Jerusalem. In all this, the one aspect of unquestionable time immemorial custom is the practice of tacking ancient roots on to a new idea and then proclaiming that the innovation is not new at all but really of time immemorial antiquity. The process is of course very much more convincing when the new has the appearance of natural progression from the old.
Before pondering on the absence of concrete evidence to enable historical links to be established between our Freemasonry and any parallels of the middle ages, consider another instance of undoubted borrowing.
Years after the three-degree system of Craft masonry had taken shape, there appeared the so-called knightly grades for which formularies were developed based upon such historical material as could be gleaned about the orders then defunct. None but the most enthusiastic practitioners of these degrees would seriously maintain continuity with the knights who fought in the crusades but the rituals and ceremonial practices were designed to convey precisely that impression.
Because most freemasons are (metaphorically) prisoners of the traditions and rituals of our society they tend to be inhibited from distinguishing between fact and fiction. Consequently few are aware, or have any marked inclination to become aware, of the serious gaps in our knowledge. For them, the undoubted wealth of evidence of the existence of men called freemasons as far back as the 14th century is enough to liberate sagas of mason gilds, mystery plays, mason marks and all the rest which goes on unabated year in, year out.
But in so far as that approach relates to the Freemasonry practised today, it embraces an element incompatible with genuine history, namely that evidence is lacking to prove it is true. It assumes that what is and what was must be bound together historically. It takes for granted that because there were freemasons in medieval times and there are freemasons now, there is a bond of unity. But it overlooks that the word 'freemason' as used today has been derived by a peculiar process of synthesis which makes it only remotely related to the original.
Since an understanding of how this came about is essential to any consideration of the continuity problem, I am obliged to repeat the fundamentals of a paper delivered to the lodge some 20 years ago.
THE WORD FREEMASON
Take a map of England, draw a diagonal line across the country from Lyme Regis to the mouth of the Tees and it will very roughly represent the broad escarpment of oolitic limestone from which was quarried the freestone used for most of the finest English medieval buildings. Some excellent quality stone was imported from Caen but this limestone belt across England provided the nurseries from which the indigenous craft of the freemason was developed, and mostly to the south of it where the genius of the English Gothic builders flourished. Not so in Scotland where there was little stone of that kind to be quarried and where the word freemason as denoting a native craftsman does not appear to have been used in ancient records. Hence, in the quest for the origin of the name of a member of our society, the starting point is that half of England which included London, the centre of influence; the historic nucleus for the radiation of innovation.
In a paper 'The Crisp English Word Freemason' published in AQC 68 the present author, standing on the shoulders of Douglas Knoop and many others, quoted numerous well documented records from 1212 to 1789 and demonstrated anew the derivation and usage of the word as it applied to masons employed in the building trade. It would be tedious and unnecessary to repeat all the data previously given, but the conclusion reached was that the evidence quite decisively showed that freemason in its original form was compounded from freestone and mason, denoting a mason who worked principally on the kind of limestone which can be freely cut and carved with elaborate ornamentation. It is perhaps of interest to note that as long ago as 1851, Orlando Jewitt, a contributor to the Archaeological Journal had reached the same conclusion after examining the building accounts of Wadham College, Oxford.
The following constitute only a tiny fraction of the building records in which men called freemasons were linked with the material from which the name of their specialized trade was derived.
The term gained currency on these lines:
From which origins we find:
1212||sculptores lapidum liberorum'|
(carvers of freestone)
|1307||'cementarius entaillour' (cutter)|
|1351||'mestre mason de franche pere'|
(master mason of freestone)
|1391||'magister lathomus librarum petrarum'|
(master mason of freestone)
|1396||'lathomos vocates ffre maceons'|
(stoneworkers called free masons)
|1438||'liberi cementarii' (free masons)|
Attention having already been drawn to the fact of the list being but a small sample, it is necessary to add that building and municipal records during practically the whole of the 18th century indicate numerous examples of men still designated as freemasons who beyond any doubt were so called for no other reason than their being engaged in the business of building mainly in freestone. The significance of this is that long after the formation of the premier Grand Lodge and the growth of what became speculative masonry, the retention of the old trade name as of right by professionals unconnected with lodges and the like necessitated some kind of distinction in the name being chosen for those of the non-operative societies. We must therefore look back to the emergence of these societies to find the terms they used and then trace the changes which took place over the years.
During the 17th century, and as far as we know it was in England alone, groups of men of diverse occupations organized themselves into small autonomous societies or lodges whose connection with the building trade was no more than nominal. In some instances some of their members were masons by trade but that was incidental to the activities of the lodges which were broadly speaking philosophical and social. In short, these bodies were the primitive prototypes of speculative mason lodges of the present day.
Possibly the earliest of these lodges was that attached to but not an integral part of the London Masons' Company, whose records show that it existed under the title 'The Acception' from at least 1630. Members were called ACCEPTED MASONS, from which the title of the body itself was presumably derived. The earliest known printed usage of ACCEPTED MASONS occurs in a skit printed as Poor Robins Intelligencer for 10 October 1676. Elias Ashmole used NEW-ACCEPTED mason in his 1682 diary entry, but FREE MASON in both this and the earlier one of 1646. Charles Burman, his biographer, 'modernized' these into FREE-MASONS in 1717. In 1686 Dr. Robert Plot wrote of the Society of FREE-MASONS and in 1688 Randle Holme III used the same term in his >An Academie of Armory. John Aubrey apparently had both FREE-MASONS and ACCEPTED MASONS in his notes on Wiltshire in 1691, whilst an anti-masonic leaflet of 1698 had FREED MASONS. Writing in 1719, Richard Rawlinson referred to the 'Fraternity of ADOPTED MASONS, ACCEPTED MASONS or FREE MASONS', Long Livers in 1722 had FREE MASONS and the Roberts Constitutions (also in 1722) had FREE-MASONS.
It is obvious from the above that, in the 17th and early 18th centuries, ACCEPTED, ADOPTED and FREE were all suitable adjectives by which to describe a member of the new kind of masonic fraternity. It would be extraordinary to find an instance of the single word 'Freemason' being used in that connection, except of course in ignorance.
James Anderson when writing his 1723 Constitutions did not use the single word once, even when alluding to such a famous operative as Henry Yevele, although in that instance he would have been right to have done so. Possibly this confusion was due to a deliberate intention to avoid drawing any distinction between operatives and non-operatives and partly because of his Scottish background and consequent unfamiliarity with freestone masons. Whatever the reasons, the 1723 Constitutions contain approximately 126 references to MASONS, 12 to FREE MASONS, 10 to FREE and ACCEPTED MASONS, 9 to FREE-MASONS, 4 to ACCEPTED MASONS and one to ACCEPTED FREE MASONS.
Knoop and Jones in Early Masonic Pamphlets reproduced forty-seven miscellaneous documents dated from 1638 to 1735, all relative to non-operative masonry, and forty-six of them refer repeatedly to FREE-MASONS or some similar two word title.
Preston in his 1772 Illustrations of Masonry does not appear to use the single word 'Freemason' either. Mostly it is MASON, FREE-MASON, FREE and ACCEPTED MASON and, in allusion to the Craft, FREE-MASONRY.
The first clause of the Declaration of the Act of Union in 1813 included 'By the solemn Act of union between the two Grand Lodges of FREE-MASONS of England in December 1813, it was declared and pronounced that pure Antient Masonry . . .'
And such is the tenacity of tradition that to this day the Constitutions are addressed to FREE and ACCEPTED MASONS.
Consideration of the wide variation in terms applied to non-operative masons independent of the trade points to three significant corollaries:
(a) There had to be a difference because there were still many real freemasons, i.e. working masons, about during the 18th century. Their names and trades appear in numerous municipal and other records in circumstances which leave no possibility of their being other than freestone masons.
(b) This difference was recognized at the time. Thus Randle Holme III in 1688,'I cannot but honor the Fellowship of the Masons because of its antiquity; and the more, as being a member of that society called Free-Masons'.
Thus to Randle Holme, the Fellowship of the Masons and the society called Free-Masons were two distinct entities.
In the very first account of an initiation in England, Elias Ashmole recorded that he was made a FREE MASON at Warrington in 1646. Not a mason, nor even a freemason, but a member of the society which, quite literally, was distinct from both. The term free in 'free and accepted' had come to have a different meaning from the free in freemason, which latter, as has been contended, was a contraction of freestone mason. Since the society of Free and Accepted Masons was separate from and independent of the building trades, free now clearly meant not tied to the same. The word had exactly the same significance as in the Free House, an inn or public house which is not tied to a particular brewery. During the 17th century the status of the Master Mason as the principal /operative controller of a major building project had changed, his role being taken by the gifted amateur, the forerunner of the professional architect of the present day. Building organization and methods were also undergoing change and the result was relegation of the freemason to a subordinate position. Some grew out of this, e.g. Robert Smythson, founder of a well known line of architects, who according to a mural tablet in Wollaton Church started his working life as a 'freemason' and ended it in 1614 as 'architector'.
Thus during the period when our kind of non-operative masonry was beginning to take shape the distinction between a working freemason and any other kind of stone mason was becoming blurred. There were other reasons which we need not consider now but it is beyond doubt that the trade of freemason was not what it had been in the days of Henry Yevele. The growth of what was to become speculative masonry coupled with changes in the building trade set the stage for further word shifts. Having arrived at Free and Accepted Mason, the less cumbersome Free-Mason was a natural contraction more concise for printing but, by the end of the 18th century, the unpronouncable hyphen had become a nuisance which resulted in Freemason, the term upon which the seal of finality was set when Freemasons' Halls became familiar objects in the popular mind.
To sum up, it has been demonstrated that the word Freemason in its medieval context was derived from Latin/Norman French elements, anglicized, compounded and eventually simplified. The identical, but semantically different word freemason as now commonly used to denote a member of our society is a comparatively modern adaptation which arrived through progressive contraction of hitherto more specific terms and loan words. Since modern usage became possible only through the obsolescence of the trade description, the tendency to equate the new with the old is etymologically untenable.
The preceding contentions should have made unnecessary any consideration of the seemingly endless other interpretations of the word free such as are found in masonic literature. However, there is one dear to many writers which keeps recurring, namely the freedom of a town, gild or company.
An apprentice to any trade centred upon a town would, on completion of his training, be approved by the craft body to which he belonged. Such approval, accompanied by some formalities, qualified him to practise his craft without hindrance from within. He was then free from the tedium of apprenticeship and free to work as a skilled craftsman, but to secure protection of his business from outsiders it was necessary to obtain the Freedom of the town.
In all these variations in meaning of the term free, none was used as a prefix to a trade description denoting a mans craft and in the building trade a freestone mason, i.e. a freemason was already so-called before becoming a Freeman of his town. Therefore to be awarded the Freedom contributed nothing to the derivation of free in freemason.
Municipal records throughout the country contain countless examples supporting this simple fact, as is demonstrated by the following typical extracts from the Burgess Books of Bristol:
7 Aug 1713 'William Chatterton junior ffreemason admitted into the liberties of this city for that he was the son and apprentice of William Chatterton . . .'
26 Feb 1724 'Esau Osborne ffreemason admitted freeman by marriage
The freemasons in the two examples are frequently mentioned in contemporary building records and are noted for their work in freestone. Chatterton belonged to a family which, for generations, had been employed on the fabric of St. Mary Redcliff Church.
OPERATIVES AND NON-OPERATIVES
In the previous sections and in historical literature generally references are made to nonoperative masons as the opposite numbers of operatives, but such an apparently obvious distinction is not, strictly speaking, always adequate. All are familiar with the expression 'we are not operative, but free and accepted or speculative masons,' and cumbersome as it may be this phrase indicates a subtle and not so obvious difference.
It is a commonplace that from the earliest recorded times medieval trade organizations customarily elected as members prominent persons not directly interested in their trading or working activities. We have no evidence of English stonemason bodies ever doing so but Scottish mason lodges are on record from 1634 of having such members. It is however of historic importance that, despite the influx of these non-operatives, the Scottish lodges without exception remained operative in character and customs until well into the 18th century. This is true even of the lodge at Haughfoot, originally composed entirely of non-operatives but later supplemented by men of the trade. The customs of this lodge do not appear to have differed from those of other decidedly craft lodges in the vicinity. The non-operatives in Scotland evidently had no authority materially to alter trade customs and we know of no instance of such changes.
In England an entirely different and unprecedented situation developed in the 17th century when lodges began to appear which from their inception were independent of the mason trade. Because of this autonomy, which included independence as between lodges, the members were not inhibited from making changes in rites and customs as they thought fit. These lodges being the prototypes from which Free-masonry took shape, the term non-operative if applied to the membership infers the existence of operative members. This is misleading because the trades or professions of members of this kind of lodge were immaterial and a better description is still accepted or adopted masons as was current at the time.
Thus, the difference between self-governing English lodges of accepted or adopted masons, independent of the trade of building, and the essentially operative Scottish lodges, using standardized formalities which their correctly termed non-operative members had no power to change, is historically significant. Furthermore, it provides a key to the explanation why early English lodges borrowed, assimilated and developed so much ritual matter patently of Scottish origin.
Attention has already been drawn to several early commentators who, in distinguishing between operative and nonoperative masonry, evidently recognized these two very different entities as coexisting at the time when they wrote. To carry this recognition to a logical conclusion, the emergence of Free and Accepted masonry when the building trade was still flourishing should have indicated the need for a history of its own as an independent growth. Those who gave thought to the matter must have been faced with two problems, the more urgent and difficult being to find evidence of what we call the speculative element as a feature of medieval masonry. The second problem, which followed from the first, was that, if such a speculative element had existed among working freemasons for so long, why did they allow so valuable an adjunct to their trade to fall into disuse and, by the 18th century, let it be taken over entirely by nonprofessionals ?
There was a way of reconciling these two problems, albeit at the expense of admitting that non-operative masonry had a discontinuous history and this was achieved by calling the events of c. 1717 the 'Revival'.
To exponents of this theory, revival meant bringing back to life a Free-Masonry which had become moribund when the golden age of Gothic architecture declined and was for the time being superseded by another very different style. We can here only briefly consider how the theory came about.
The author of the 1723 Constitutions, undoubtedly reflecting the taste of the era, deprecated the Gothic architecture of the middle ages and warmly applauded the renaissance of the Augustan style. Numerous examples could be seen in London in the works of Inigo Jones who started the movement and of Wren, Hawksmoor, Gibbs, Vanbrugh and others who broadened it. Anderson thus speaks more or less correctly of a revival of the ancient Augustan style, a conspicuous feature being the rounded arch portrayed typically in the frontispiece to the 1723 Constitutions. He then goes on to say that 'in the reign of King James II, though some Roman buildings were carried on, the lodges of Free-Masons in London, much dwindled into ignorance by not being duly frequented and cultivated'. We must return to consideration of this passage later but clearly Anderson, obsessed as he was by a style which as he put it was recovered from the 'ruins of Gothic ignorance', could hardly have argued simultaneously on behalf of a revival of the Free-Masonry which he regarded as associated with the latter.
But, in the 1738 Constitutions, the author speaks of another facet of revival in 1717, that of the Quarterly Communications and Annual Assembly, without however giving any evidence that the former had ever been customary before. To annual assemblies, references occur in the Regius and Cooke MSS. which made provision for operative masons to congregate, but whether they ever did so other than on a local scale is doubtful. It is possible that local or regional meetings did take place for in 1425 the preamble to the Act (3 Henry VI c. I) cited a complaint that 'by yearly congregations and confederacies made by the masons in their general chapters assembled, the Statutes of Labourers were broken and made ineffective'. The Act made such meetings unlawful because they were believed to be concerned with wages and working conditions.
All these circumstances, together with the conspicuous absence of documentary evidence of operative mason bodies approximating in character to the non-operative English lodges of the 17th and early 18th centuries, led to the theory that the event of 1717 was a revival of a movement whose heyday was in the Gothic era when the building of great thin-walled structures unquestionably demanded both design and manual skills of a very high order.
With the decline of Gothic architecture, so it was said, 'no more churches built; the builders die out' (Gould, AQC 3, p. ii). Lionel Vibert (reprinted in AQC 85, p. ii, etc.) started his paper 'Freemasonry . . . before Grand Lodges' with '. . . when the revived Freemasonry of London and Westminster' and thereafter pursued the notion that, resulting from the decline, the operative secrets known to the builders were lost to their successors. This paper of Viberts is a remarkably plausible mixture of fact and imagination and is quoted only as an example of a widespread belief that once existed to explain away absence of data to demonstrate continuity between the mason craft of the middle ages and free and accepted masonry of the early 18th century.
Now it is true that several examples of the original Gothic Constitutions have survived and Andersons incorporation of a digested form of these documents in the 1723 Constitutions gave the appearance of a direct link. But the fact of stating that very few lodges were in existence in the London of the early 1700s despite the feverish activity in the building trade following the Great Fire needed explanation.
To those who believed that the fraternity c. 1723 was destined to preserve unto the mysteries prevalent in former times, the absence of operative lodges as organized entities in the South of England in the 18th century seemed inevitably to point to revival. Out of this belief there emerged the further assumption that the lodges used by medieval masons and those of the non-operatives served much the same philosophic and esoteric purposes or, at least, that there was enough in common to equate them.
But if we take 'revive' to mean assuming fresh life or vigour after nearly dying, we have to consider why the freemasons craft was thought to have passed through such a traumatic experience. In fact it did not, for building in stone continued with as much vigour in the 17th and 18th centuries as in earlier periods. Furthermore, some modern scholars (e.g. H. M. Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of English Architects 1640-1840) maintain that the sixty years between 1666 and 1720 constituted one of the finest eras of English architectural craftsmanship. Realization that this was a conspicuous fact probably led to the view that the Reformation and consequent reduction in church building caused the decline of Gothic architecture and with it a loss of secrets in that art.
There is no evidence of any such loss resulting from the Reformation and indeed the Gothic style was itself revived in the 19th century without any insuperable difficulties being encountered. Undoubtedly, we now know far more about building techniques than the medieval mason even dreamed of.
In a quite different sense there was a loss but it contributed nothing to help the revival theory. The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed not only much of the City but also such monopoly as was hitherto enjoyed by the Masons' Company. In order to cope with the vast rebuilding work necessary Parliament decreed that masons (and others) from outside London were to be permitted to work in the city and, provided that they sojourned there for seven years, they would receive the same privileges as Freemen for the rest of their lives. This edict marked the beginning of the end of any gild-like vestiges possessed by the building crafts in the capital and, by extension, elsewhere.
However, the fatal weakness of the revival theory is that not only does it by definition destroy any claims to continuity but requires a great deal more information than has ever been discovered to show clearly what it was that was being revived.
The prime purpose of this section of my paper has been to demolish a commonly-held belief in a revival of Freemasonry from Gothic times, something that was lost but found again. Although such a belief rests upon the flimsiest of foundations, there was nevertheless a form of revival much more limited, quite different in character and unquestionably true.
The observation by Anderson (1723 Constitutions, p. 40 will be recalled that 'in the reign of King James II, though some Roman buildings were carried on, the lodges of Free-Masons in London much dwindled into ignorance by not being duly frequented and cultivated'. Remove the words in my italics, modernize the word ignorance which now means apathy and we have a situation which really existed. And not only was it true but it now provides a problem which, although of profound significance to the history of the Craft, Is outside the scope of this paper. All the 17th century lodges, e.g. London (Acception), Warrington and Chester, of which we have any knowledge seem to have disappeared by 1717 and, of the four old lodges which came together to establish the premier Grand Lodge of London and Westminster, there is no acceptable record of their being directly descended from those earlier ones. Thus there can be no doubt that in the second decade of the 18th century there was a revival, but only of the movement which had begun in the previous century.
THE MASON WORD AND ITS APPENDAGES
Those scholars willing to concede that the historical evidence points unmistakably towards Free and Accepted Masonry being created independently of, rather than as a development from, the building trade are inclined to shudder at the further proposition that secret signs, tokens and words had no place in the repertoire of the English operative mason at any period. There exists in English archives an incredibly vast body of antiquarian documents, manuscript records of building works and information concerning the customs of the crafts through the centuries. Yet we do not know of a single document indicating that a mason word, etc., was ever an operative institution in England south of the border counties.
The earliest (English) printed reference as yet known is dated 1672 and comes from a passing comment in Andrew Marvells Rehearsal Transprosed 'cas those that have the masons word secretly discern one another.' From the context in which it was used, this observation obviously applied to a contemporary custom and at that late date could only refer either to English accepted/ adopted masons or to Scottish operatives. The English building industry had by then developed on lines closer to those obtaining now than in medieval times.
The original function of secret modes of recognition among operative masons appears to have been to distinguish between skilled craftsmen who belonged to their fraternity and ambitious semi-skilled 'foreigners' who did not. It served a useful purpose in 17th and early 18th century Scotland only because it suited the conditions which obtained there, the industry differing greatly from that in England. It was also very much smaller and thereby compact enough to permit overall regulation by an authority higher than the local lodge. Without some such supervision, the mason word and its appendages would have been of little value as an operative institution.
In England, with a population many times that of Scotland, had it at any time been customary for secret modes of recognition to prevail among working masons, an effective administrative organization capable of exercizing authority and preserving uniformity would have had to be set up on a nationwide scale. Furthermore, it would have had to have been maintained over a long period. It is inconceivable that any such administration could have existed without any trace of it surviving.
The stark fact that in 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th and even 17th century England impressment was a common method of recruiting masons for important works, such as those for the King, is evidence in itself that skill rather than the possession of secret words was the key factor in determining a workmans suitability for employment. Evidence that this did not apply only to Royal works Is supplied by the York Fabric Rolls. When additional personnel were needed for the rebuilding of the choir at York Minster in 1370, Robert of Patrington the master mason and twelve other masons were called before their employers and required on oath to observe the conditions of engagement. The first of these was that each mason be given one weeks trial in order to demonstrate his skill and assiduity. It was customary for one of the Kings officers to tour the district enlisting suitable masons, taking with him a master mason evidently as the technical examiner. Henry Yevele was one in 1381.
The existence over centuries of the ad-hoc impressment system supports the contention that no national regulating body was set up by the masons for had there been one it would surely have acted as the channel for supplying labour. In the 17th century such a function was indeed taken on by the London Masons' Company for dealing with works in and about the capital.
WHAT IS FREE-MASONRY?
A primary requirement of anyone seeking to bridge the gulf between the present era and the middle ages must surely be to establish that the Free-Masonry with which we are familiar today sufficiently resembles its supposed antecedent five or so centuries ago for it to be quite plain that like is being compared with like. If it be agreed that contemporary Free-Masonry possesses characteristics which make it unique amongst organized societies then any ancestral body must be shown to have possessed at least the essentials of these qualities. It is unacceptable historically merely to assert, as many writers have done, that because a particular custom is so vital and integral a part of the contemporary ritual then the same custom must have flourished amongst English medieval masons, whether or not evidence exists to prove it. It is therefore necessary to isolate some governing principle common to past and present and determine whether it has been maintained without break from the time it came to life. This is by no means simple since Free-Masonry, even in the 18th century, was not the same at the end as it was at the beginning.
The first ever Constitutions published in 1723 did not provide a definition of the Free Masonry for which it was written. Perhaps this is not surprising, seeing that it omitted even a mention of the establishment of the premier Grand Lodge. But in a well-publicized speech delivered at York on 27 December 1721 by Francis Drake, a prominent member of the Craft, what are now called the three grand principles of the Order were enunciated as 'Brotherly love, relief, and truth to one another'. We have no reason to regard these as other than already established precepts but they do not tell us much and neither does Drakes speech give any hint of symbolism. Indeed, in the documents surviving from the early decades of the premier Grand Lodge there are few traces of it and it was largely due to Wellins Calcott, William Hutchinson and William Preston in the latter half of the 18th century that symbolism took on the deep significance that was to become such an indispensable feature of masonic ceremonial. Thus the definition known to every initiate that masonry 'is a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols' was an 18th century innovation and 'peculiar' in that context meant that the system so described was that property belonging to the order which distinguished it from anything else.
It must now be apparent that the endeavour to find some yardstick by which like may be compared with like soon meets the undoubted setback that Freemasonry as it exists today is substantially different from what it was even in the early decades of the 18th century. It is true that the three grand principles remain but they are all tenets shared with other communities, especially religious ones. What then was it that distinguished the Craft before the era of symbolism?
To revert to Drakes speech in 1721 the author affirmed that, according to his information, in most lodges in London and several other parts of this kingdom, a lecture on some point of geometry or architecture was to be given at every meeting. This we know to be an exaggeration but it indicates a belief by no means uncommon at the time that Free-Masonry could be identified as a system wherein the study of geometry, etc., was a declared objective, hence for instance the term 'geomatic masons' which occasionally appears. Had such technical studies been the preoccupation of those who attended lodges there would have been no need for secrecy, since the proceedings would have differed little from those of learned societies which published their transactions for all to see. However, although it is a fact that some lodges in some places held meetings at which addresses were given on architecture, archaeology and the like, the bulk of the evidence is against this kind of activity identifying the Free-Masonry of those days.
But another characteristic upon which Drake was definite and laid stress was that of conviviality, a feature conspicuous not only in the annals of so many early 18th century lodges but in pamphlets and exposures. The importance attached to the annual feast is a marked feature of the earliest records of Grand Lodge. For as long as lodges met generally in taverns and since drinking was a normal accompaniment of such ceremonies as were enacted, it was inevitable that the lodges would take on the appearance of social clubs, a common enough phenomenon of the time. The club-like atmosphere of the typical 18th century lodge was succinctly described by James Anderson in the 1738 Constitutions, who observed that those joining the Fraternity 'found in a lodge a safe and pleasant relaxation from intense study or the hurry of business, without politics or party.'
Bearing in mind the conditions which then obtained and the differences which divided society at large, this observation is very significant. He had expressed much the same sentiment in another way at the end of the First Charge in the 1723 Constitutions 'whereby Masonry becomes the Center of Union, and the Means of conciliating true Friendship among Persons that must have remain'd at a perpetual Distance.'
The significance of these observations by Anderson, considered in the light of such other information as has survived from the initial period of Grand Lodge, is that the masonic movement c. 1717, having inherited precious little from the past, was feeling its way. As yet it possessed no very profound aims and was quite unconscious of the course that should, and in the event did, take it into a great future.
In 1730 an anonymous author wrote A Defence of Masonry following publication of Prichards exposure, Masonry Dissected. It was printed in the 1738 Constitutions and contained the definition that 'the End, the Moral and Purport of Masonry is to subdue our passions, not to do our own Will; to make a daily Progress in a laudable Art; to provide Morality, Charity, good Fellowship, good Nature and Humanity. This appears to be the Substance, let the Form or Vehicle be ever so unaccountable.'
Although the author felt obliged not to account for the form or vehicle, i.e. an esoteric ritual, it was this that provided the means whereby the fundamental aims and relationships which emerged could be both preserved and enhanced irrespective of time and change. The Free and Accepted Masonry which was created independent of the building trade brought together men of widely differing views, beliefs and occupations, unified by their ready acceptance of a ritual with a moral purpose. This ritual did not have to be old, but it needed to appear so, and most importantly an element of secrecy had to be embodied.
The above quotations indicate 18th century trends in the development of Free-Masonry leading to the recognition, as William Preston put it in 1775, that 'Masonry passes and is understood under two denominations, it is operative and it is speculative.' Today the same import is contained in the phrase 'We are not operative, but Free and Accepted or Speculative Masons.'
The question then which now has to be faced is whether, in the whole gamut of historical records and the vast collections of medieval building accounts, there is anything to suggest that, integral with the mason trade of any period, there was a speculative element employing an esoteric ritual comparable to that which developed amongst Free and Accepted Masons during the 18th century. It must be admitted that no such evidence has been found, not even in those two famous 14th century documents written for masons and possibly by them, the Regius Poem and the Cooke MS. If English stonemasons, either in the line of duty or as a pastime, engaged in philosophic speculation they apparently left nothing to tell us about it for, although the Cooke MS. contains the word speculative', the meaning is that in use in the 14th century, namely the theoretical consideration of the science (of building) in contrast to the practical application of existing techniques. It does not imply symbolism, e.g. speculating on the working tools.
Nor would it be sufficient to find occasional references, be they ever so archaic, to square conduct, keeping within compass and so on, unless it was apparent from the context that they formed part of the formalities customary in the mason trade generally. Although both the Regius and Cooke MSS. contain plenty of moral precepts, neither provides any hint of symbolism as a means of driving home the lessons.
Another link, discussed previously, is the conspicuous absence from our records and literature relating to working masons in England of secret modes of recognition, i.e. signs, tokens and words which appear to form an inseparable part of modern speculative masonry. We cannot with confidence point to any evidence which shows that English operative freemasons made use of that kind of secrecy either as an occupational necessity or for any other purpose.
This paper will undoubtedly create the impression that Scotland has been given less than is due and some may even argue that no credible history of Free and Accepted Masonry could be written which so plays down Scottish involvement. The reason is that no direct link can be discerned.
In the past it has been the custom of historians of the Craft to garner every fragment of documentary evidence from every part of the British Isles and form all the pieces into one homogeneous pattern of development. This implies that Free-Masonry as a philosophy was subject to growth by diffusion of ideas spread from a single authority exercising parental control. Until the premier Grand Lodge of England was established no organization or mechanism is known to have existed by which activities were coordinated in England, let alone Britain. Therefore the diffusion principle if applied before c. 1717 must, to say the least, be suspect.
The spontaneous appearance in 17th century England of lodges free from the mason trade was a unique phenomenon arising out of the social conditions of the time, but of the ritual business conducted by these lodges we know very little and certainly not enough to justify thinking that they had established communications throughout the land. When in time it is possible to discern signs of a now familiar ritual, it turns out that it was substantially Scottish, of operative origin and undoubtedly borrowed. Borrowing the customs of others was itself an age-old custom and irrelevant to the age of the borrowing organization.
In the 17th century the English building trade had lost most of its medievalism in the general changing pattern of industry. So also the vast social upheaval had prepared the ground for new institutions. Had similar conditions prevailed in Scotland and had there been a comparable population it seems certain that independent lodges would have sprung up which would have had no more than casual relations with their English counterparts.
1341||John de Compton 'Master Mason of Freestones' in charge of the building of a new Chapel at Ludgershall.|
|1391||John Sampson (working at Oxford) 'he is a master mason of freestones and highly capable and cunning in that art.'|
|1440||James Woderoue, freemason paid for supplying jambs of freestone at Norwich.|
|1534||John White, freemason of Winchester was paid 'for carving in freestone six wood mould stops' at Hampton Court.|
|1536||John Moulton, freemason (working at Bath Abbey) granted 'the office of master of all their works commonly called freemasonry.'|
|1536||William Reynolds freemason, employed at Hampton Court for 'carving two crowns of freestone.'|
|1599||William Hancox, freemason of Much Wenlock, 'a very skilful man in the art of masonry, in settinge of plottes for buildings ... ingravinge in alebaster and other stone.'|
|1662||Thomas Chatterton, freemason, paid for 'worke donne at St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol.'|
|1745||Benjamin and Daniell Greenaway (of Widcombe near Bath) 'Marble and Freestone Masons.'
Eric Ward, Ars Quatuor Coronatorum vol. 91 (for 1978) pp. 77-86 ISBN: 0 9502001 6 6. Reprinted with permission of Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076, London, EnglandCapitalization amended to current AQC Style Guide.