The History of Freemasonry

by H.L. Haywood.

 

THE OPERATIVE MASONS Part 1 of 2

 

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.

 

TRANSITION Part 2/2

 

That it began, in the prosperous times of the guilds, by the admission of clerics, mathematicians and others especially interested in the craft has already appeared. Its expansion in later days is disclosed by the few fugitive records and minutes that have been preserved. Of these the minutes of Scottish lodges are oldest and it is of importance to notice that the oldest Scottish minutes record the practice as a matter of course. Murray Lyon in his History of the Lodge of Edinburgh remarks that in 1598, William Schaw, who in all probability was a non-operative, was described as Master of the Work and Warden of the Masons. That lodge was then made up in the main of operatives, and the Scotch Constitutions prepared by Schaw were obviously intended for the government of operatives. Furthermore, it is indicated that Schaw's own predecessor was a nobleman; the wardenship over Masons in Aberdeen, Banff and Kincardine was held by another non-operative, the Laird of Udaught. From these accounts it appears that distinguished patrons not only were accepted as members of the Craft but also that they were chosen for administrative posts of the highest importance.

These outsiders were sometimes known as "Gentlemen Masons," sometimes as "Theoretical Masons," sometimes as "Geomatic Masons," and sometimes by other titles. In July of 1634 the Lodge of Edinburgh admitted as Fellowcrafts three gentlemen, Lord Alexander, Viscount Canada, his brother, Sir Anthony Alexander, and Sir Alexander Strachan. Subsequent records indicate that these afterwards assisted at the "making" of other Masons. In 1637 David Ramsay, a gentleman of the Privy Chamber, was admitted and in the following year admission was granted to Henry Alexander, son of the Earl of Stirling. In 1640 General Alexander Hamilton was accepted and in 1667 Sir Patrick Hume received the same honor. In 1670 the Right Honorable William Murray and two members of the Bar, Walter Pringle and Sir John Harper were admitted.

In England the same custom was followed by some of the lodges, if not by all. An obscure note in the records of the Mason's Company of London suggests that it may have been a practice of that body for a considerable length of time, although the matter is by no means certain. That organization was incorporated in the years 1410-1411 and received a coat of arms in 1472 or 1473, but records of the city show that as an unincorporated guild it was in existence as early as the year 1356, when rules were formed for its guidance. In 1530 its name was changed to "The Company of Freemasons." Associated with it was an organization known as "The Accepcon," or "The Acception," which, met in the same hall and seems to have been subordinate  to the Company. Edward Conder in his Hole Crafte and Fellowship of Masons remarks that an account book of The Acception shows that in 1619 payments made by newly made Masons were paid into the funds of the Company, and that in case of deficits in banquet expenses of The Acception, the money to meet them was paid out of the Company's treasury. If this is correct it indicates: (1) that The Acception collected money from newly made Masons; (2) that it gave banquets to newly made Masons; (3) that its financial affairs were strictly supervised by the Mason's Company. Now the Mason's Company was an operative organization, and surely there is nothing far-fetched in supposing - especially in view of the significant title of the subordinate body - that The Acception was made up of a group of non-operative, or honorary, members. Moreover, that hypothesis is strongly ported by the testimony of the first distinguished non- operative known to have been accepted by an operative English lodge. This was none other than Elias Ashmole, one of the most eminent of the scientists, philosophers and antiquarians of his day. Ashmole was a man of prodigious energy and catholic interests. He appears to have dipped into most of the activities of the strenuous times which he lived. He was born in 1617 at Lichfield and was educated for the practice of law. When the Great Rebellion came along, he took up arms, with the of Captain. He was a student of botany, chemistry and what passed for physics in those times, with a string leaning toward occultism and especially the cults of alchemy and astrology. He was an inveterate collector of curious objects of antiquarian interest, and his collection is preserved at Oxford University, where is known as the Ashmolean Museum. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, received the degree of Doctor of Medicine and was made a Windsor Herald. His diary was published in 1717 and from it certain important extracts relating to Freemasonry have been culled. The following entry appeared in the diary for 1646: Oct. 16th - 4:30 p.m. - I was made a Free Mason a Warrington in Lancashire, with Coll: Henry Mainwaring of Kanincham in Cheshire. The names of those that were of the Lodge; Mr. Rich Penket Warden Jr., James Collier, Mr. Rich Sankey, Henry Littler, John Ellam, Rich; Ellam and Hugh Brewer." In the diary for March, 1682, or thirty-six years later, appeared the following entry: 10th - About 5 p.m. I recd. a Sumons to appe. at a Lodge to be held the next day at Mason's Hall London. 11th - Accordingly I went, and about Noone were admitted into the Fellowship of Free Masons.

Sr. William Wilson Knight, Capt. Rich; Borthwick, M Will: Woodman, Mr. Win. Grey, Mr. Samuel Taylour, and Mr. William Wise. I was the Senior Fellow among them (it being 35 years since I was admitted). There were present beside my se the Fellows after named. Mr. Tho: Wise Mr of the Masons Company this present yeare. Mr Thomas Shorthose, Mr. Thomas Shadbolt Waindsford Esqr., Mr. Nich: Young, Mr. John Shorthose Mr. William Hamon, Mr. John Thompson, and Mr. Will Stanton. Wee all dyned at the halfe moone Taverne in Cheapside at a Noble Dinner, prepaired at the Charge of the New accepted Masons." In endeavoring to arrive at a conclusion as to whether the acceptance of non-operatives was a general practice the operative bodies, it is important by way of recapitulation to bear certain dates in mind. It is clear that at the time to which the oldest Scottish minutes can be traced) a non-operative was a Master of the Work and Warden of the lodge at Edinburgh and that his predecessor also had been a non- operative. It is clear also that non-operatives were made Masons in various Scottish lodges down to the beginning of the of the first Grand Lodge. It is furthermore clear at the London Company had a subordinate society known as The Acception in 1619; and that sixty-three years later, non- operatives were made Masons in the halI of that Company with its Master in attendance. But the custom was not confined to London and Edinburgh. Ashmole was made a Mason in Lancashire. And there is additional testimony to the same effect, this time from a non- Mason who was not friendly to the institution. In his Natural History of a Staffordshire (1686) Dr. Robert Plot wrote: To these add the Customs relating to the County, whereof they have one, of admitting Men into the Society of Freemasons, that in the moorelands of this County seems to be of greater request, than anywhere else, though I find the Custom spread more or less all over the Nation; for here I found persons of the most eminent quality, that did not disdain to be of this Fellowship. Nor indeed need they, were it of that Antiquity and honor, that is pretended in a large parchment volum they have amongst them, containing the History and Rules of the craft of masonry.

Into which Society when they are admitted, they call a meeting (or Lodg as they term it in some places), which must consist of at lest 5 or 6 of the Ancients of the Order, when the candidats present with gloves, and so likewise to their wives, and entertain with a collation according to the Custom of the place: This ended, they proceed to the admission of them, which chiefly consists in the communication of certain secret signes, whereby they are known to one another all over the Nation, by which means they have maintenance whither ever they travel: for if any man appear though altoger unknown that can show any of these signes to a Fellow of the Society, whom they otherwise call an accepted mason, he is obliged promptly to come to him, from what company or place soever he be in, nay, tho' from the top of a Steeple (what hazard or inconvenience soever he run) to know his pleasure and assist him; viz., if he want work he is bound to find him some; or if he cannot doe that, to give him mony or otherwise support him till work can be had; which is one of their Articles. The society of which Dr. Plot was writing was undoubtedly an association of operative masons, but it was one to which "persons of the most eminent quality" did not disdain to belong. Ashmole was certainly eminent, as was also his friend and father-in-law, Sir William Dugdale, who was likewise an antiquarian, and Sir Christopher Wren, the architect. That Dugdale was a Mason is not established, but he undoubtedly had intimate knowledge of the institution and is known to have discussed its practices and origin. Whether Wren was accepted into the fraternity is a subject of much debate, Robert Freke Gould having strongly supported the negative. But John Aubrey, antiquarian and author, left a memorandum saying Sir Christopher was "adopted a brother" at a convention of Masons at St. Paul's Church on May 18, 1691. The Postboy, a London publication, in a contemporaneous account of his death described him as "that worthy Freemason." F. De P. Castells in an essay in the Transactions of the Author's Lodge records an excerpt from the minutes of the Lodge of Antiquity, dated June 3, 1723, which says: "The set of Mahogany Candlesticks presented to this Lodge by its worthy old Master, Sir Christopher Wren, ordered to be carefully deposited in a wooden case lin'd with cloth to be Immediately purchased for the purpose." That at the two Bacons, Roger and Sir Francis, were Masons has long been a legend both believed and disputed, although there is no reliable evidence either way. A discussion of this question belongs properly to the obscure and troublesome problem of the Rosicrucians and kindred occult societies. Much more has been said about it than can be proved, and in the present work it can be noticed only in passing. There can be little doubt that during the Middle Ages more than one society was devoted to the pursuit of studies which were forbidden by Church and State. Kabbalism, astrology, alchemy, and various mystical philosophies were ticklish things to deal with in an age which believed in witchcraft and sorcery and which, in a heated moment, was likely to lay hold upon a sorcerer and burn him to death. Now and then men engaged in these occult concerns united themselves for the purpose of carrying on correspondence and transmitting their discoveries. They were the scientists of their day, and to their labors may be traced the beginnings of modern chemistry, physics and astronomy.  Of all the associations into which the Alchemistical Philosophers or Hermetic Philosophers, as they are variously called, formed themselves, the most considerable appears to have been the Rosicrucian. Whether that body was more than a shadow organization is far from certain, but, at any rate, it afforded a cover sufficient for the purpose and many learned men called themselves Rosicrucians in their books and other writings. The supposition that a considerable number of them also became Freemasons is only supposition. There are survivals in the modem Masonic ritual which strongly suggest hermetic influence, and not a few students have believed that it is through this channel some of the Fraternity's oldest cult survivals ought to be traced. Albert Pike was inclined to suspect that Ashmole became interested in Freemasonry because he was particularly concerned with hermetic philosophy and believed that the secrets of the society would throw light upon his hobby. Others have hinted that Ashmole's acceptance in itself forged a connecting link between Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism.

It is entirely possible that more than one distinguished Englishman who dabbled in occultism dabbled also in Freemasonry. Indeed, it would be rather curious if, after making the acquaintance of the one, they had not investigated the other. Men in an age of mental tyranny searching for a medium through which they might be able to find liberty for philosophical thought and the safe interchange of ideas might well hope to find it behind the tyled door of a Masonic lodge. It is reasonably certain that many scholars who entered the Fraternity in the eighteenth century did so for the freedom they expected to find there. But the whole matter is so befogged in doubt, uncertainty, hypothesis and speculation that it scarcely belongs to the realm of Masonic history, strictly so called. At all events, the structure of Operative Masonry had altered by imperceptible stages between the days of Richard II and those of James II. At the time of the Revolution of 1688, the camel which had got its nose through a flap of the tent in 1390 had managed to get almost its whole body inside. In other words, the non-operatives were rapidly driving the operatives into a small corner of what had once been their own domicile. But the tent itself was still. a good one, offering refuge to new purposes in need of just such shelter. The final stage of transition was to take place in the thirty odd years which intervened between the time when Dr. Plot wrote the spirited paragraphs recently quoted and the beginning of the Grand Lodge era in 1717. By then the operative art itself had become little more than a memory. The old lodges were collections of individuals who met occasionally because they had been in the habit of meeting. Their rosters contained the names of many who had never earned blisters to their hands by wielding setting maul or chisel. Many had already closed their doors for the last time. The Old Manuscripts were still treasured, but they had become too worn and too precious to be handled except upon occasions of state. Such craftsmanship as was actually performed was but a shadow of that which had once given vitality to the brotherhood. Tools and implements of architecture were still employed, but more as symbols for the inculcation of moral lessons than as instruments of labor. Now and then, on some St. John's day, there might be a banquet and assembly of a given lodge, but as a going concern the institution was moribund. Thus the curtain of history falls, at the end of an act, upon a scene of deterioration and decay, only to rise again upon a new scene - this time of health and prosperity.

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