The Early History of Freemasonry

In November 2010 I wrote and delivered a short masonic lecture entitled “The History of Freemasonry” I hope you find it interesting and useful. The lecture is as factual as possible in as far as my research has allowed.

This lecture is on the history of freemasonry from ancient times to the modern day. Throughout the lecture I have referenced on-line texts, our ritual, and texts from sources both within and without freemasonry. It is necessarily brief, but I hope informative.

Most, if not all of you, will have heard how freemasonry started in 1717 at the goose and gridiron pub in London. By the end of this lecture, you will hopefully agree with me that this is not strictly true. Our story began long ago, and to quote the antient charge, “an antient and honourable institution”, you will I hope recall “antient no doubt it is as having subsisted since time immemorial”.

The phrase “since time immemorial” is where I wish to start. I often can’t remember where I was a year ago, and some of the older brethren will struggle to remember where they were last week, but in this context, I believe immemorial means before written records exist.

The history of freemasonry is generally separated into two periods, that time since the formation of the grand lodge of England in 1717 and that period before. In this early period, the facts of the origins of freemasonry are not absolutely known, and is often explained by theories and legends. Obscured by time and circumstance, these hidden mysteries begin with the allegorical building of king Solomon’s temple. There have been hundreds of books written speculating on this subject, but the true origins will likely ever be lost to history. What scant clues we can draw through later writings has led some to believe that freemasonry evolved from the lodges of stonemasons during the middle ages, whilst others dispute that stonemasons ever formed organised guilds and that they evolved into modern day masonry is a myth, primarily stemming from our allegorical use of stone masonry in our ceremony.

Various theories on the origins of freemasonry exist. The building of the temple of king Solomon, The intellectual descendants of Moses, the evolution of stonemasons guilds, The construction of Roslyn chapel or that we are from a long line started by the knights templar, plus many, many more. Please feel free to pick a theory and go with it, who knows, you could be right.

Our first tantalising glimpse into documented history is found in the “Halliwell manuscript”, also known as the” Regius Poem”, which is believed to be the earliest known Masonic text. 64 pages long, written in old English and in poetic form, the poem begins with Euclid and his invention of Geometry, followed by 15 points for the master to follow, and 15 points for the craftsmen. It is widely believed that the document was drafted in the late 14th or early 15th centuries by a clergyman, and there is a strong belief that he was copying from a document of the time of King Athelstan who reigned from 924 to 939. W.Bro. ******* has agreed to try and read some of the poem for us, WBro *******……. The poem can be found here

In 1450, the second oldest manuscript in Masonic History was drafted. Known as the Matthew Cooke Manuscript, it is the oldest of about 100 early documents called the Freemasonry Gothic Constitutions.

Typically, the Gothic constitutions included an invocation, a mythical legend of ancient freemasonry, a list of charges and regulations and an obligation. This document is in the British Library now, but was certainly in the hands of George Payne, when in his second term as grand master in 1720, he compiled the “general regulations”

During the 15th century the Gutenberg press was invented, allowing printed text to be bought, but only by the incredibly wealthy, The Americas were discovered, Eaton College was formed and Leonardo da Vinci was born. Discovery and education accelerated and for the wealthy there was now more to divert them. Also at this time Roslyn Chapel was constructed by the alleged first grand master of freemasonry William St.Clair. Accordingly this was when the first degree and Mark Masonry were introduced.

The first statutory use of the word Freemason appears in the statutes of the Realm enacted in 1495 under Henry VI, although the archaic term Frank Mason had been used 50 years earlier, and in 1376 there is reference to the free masons as one of the numerous craft guilds in London.

It should be of no surprise that there are no known records prior to this. Most men could neither read nor write, early operative masons, unlike virtually all Europeans except the clergy, were free. That is to say they were not bound to the land on which they were born. The various skills required for the complex structures such as cathedrals or churches allowed skilled masons to travel and find work at will. These free masons would be lodged in a structure at or near the building work. Here they ate slept and received instructions from the master of the works.

To maintain this freedom, they necessarily had to maintain an exclusivity of skills, and thus, as an apprentice was trained, his instructor would attach moral values to the tools of his trade, thereby binding him to his fellows in the craft.

In the Lodge of Edinburgh on the 8th of June 1600, records show the first non operative mason being accepted within a lodge. Therein it is shown that John Boswell, Laird of Auchinleck was present at a meeting. The first record of the initiation of a non operative mason was the 3rsd July 1634. When minutes of the lodge show the right honourable Lord Alexander was admitted a fellow craft.

From the early 17th century references to freemasonry are found in personal journals. Elias Ashmole, of the famous Oxford library, was made a mason in 1646 and notes attending several meetings. Between this date and 1717 there appears to be a general spread of freemasonry and a gradual transition from a craft guild of operative, working stonemasons, to a fraternity of speculative gentleman Freemasons.

This early period of Masonic history concludes with this gentrification and in 1717 four English Lodges meeting in London came together at the Goose and Gridiron Ale house and formed what they called the Grand Lodge of England.



English Masonic historians place great importance on 24 June 1717 (St. John the Baptist‘s day) when four London lodges came together at the Goose and Gridiron Ale House in St Paul’s churchyard and formed what they called The Grand Lodge of England. Although Freemasonry had existed in England since at least the mid-17th century and in Scotland since The Schaw Statutes were enacted in 1598 and 1599, the establishment of a permanent Grand Lodge in London in 1717 is traditionally considered the formation of organized Freemasonry in its modern sense.

In 1723, James Anderson wrote the constitutions of the free-masons, for the use of the Lodges in London and Westminster. Benjamin Franklin reprinted this work in Philadelphia in 1734. That year he was elected Grand Master of the Masons of Pennsylvania. At that time America was still under British Rule. It is intriguing that we now have with the antient charge a clause that states “By never losing sight of the allegiance due to the sovereign of your native land”. Just something to think about when you hear that the United States was formed on masonic principles!

In addition to clarifying the rules by which the craft was to be governed, Anderson’s constitution contained a history of freemasonry claiming that the craft is very ancient. He traced the fraternity’s history back through the medieval guilds, through various Roman and Greek builders and Mathematicians all the way to biblical roots. Almost immediately it was published, more knowledgeable historians began to pick apart its glaring errors.

For example Anderson states that King Athelstan granted a charter to an assembly of Masons at York in 926. At this time, however, York was under the rule of Danelaw.

It is now acknowledged that Anderson’s story is based on Myth and Legend, and is quite untrustworthy, yet still it is repeated in texts to this day.

Between 1725 and 1730, a third degree was added to the craft, that of Master Mason. This degree was officially recognised in 1738 when the Grand Lodge adopted Anderson’s revised constitutions.

During the early years of this period, many lodges did not affiliate with the self proclaimed Grand Lodge of England. These unaffiliated Lodges were known as “old masons” or “st john masons”.

As a protest against the growing influence of the Grand Lodge of England in London, in 1725 a lodge in York founded the rival “Grand Lodge of all England”.

During the 1730’s and 40’s antipathy increased between the London based Grand Lodge, which I will refer to as the premier Grand Lodge, and the Grand Lodges of Scotland and Ireland. Visiting scots and Irish masons considered that the premier grand lodge had deviated too far from the ancient customs and practices of the craft. In consequence these masons felt more aligned with the unaffiliated lodges. At the same time, the aristocratic nature of the premier grand lodge also alienated other masons within the city, they also therefore were more identified with the unaffiliated lodges.

Matters worsened in the following years and on the 17th July 1751 five lodges came together at the Turks Head Tavern in Soho and formed a rival Grand Lodge. “The most antient and honourable society of free and accepted masons” which they thought was more succinct.

They believed that they practised a more ancient and therefore purer form of masonry and styled themselves the Antients’ Grand Lodge. Being so minded they dismissed their rivals as “the Moderns”. These two unofficial names stuck. A new constitution for the ancients, “the Ahiman Rezon” was written by Laurence Dermott.

The depth of this division can be illustrated by Benjamin Franklin’s funeral. A member of a Modern’s lodge in Philadelphia, he stayed for a while in France and he also became Master of a Modern’s lodge there, but on his return to America, his American lodge had changed to, and received a warrant from, the Antients Grand Lodge. They no longer recognised him as a mason and refused to give him Masonic honours at his burial.

There followed a 62 year rift which was for a long time referred to as “the great Masonic schism”, although more recent research has shown this not to be as great a divide as this implies. In 1776 the Grand master of the Moderns refers to the Antients as “the Irish Faction” the implication being that there was less antipathy between the rival Grand Lodges.

On the 27th December 1813 The Antient Grand Lodge was amalgamated into the United Grand Lodge of England by 21 articles of union. These specified the agreements made regarding the various points of contention. A special Lodge, “the lodge of promulgation” was established in1809 by the Moderns to promulgate the ancient landmarks of the order as well as instructing and negotiating with the two factions.

The union largely confirmed the Ancient’s forms and ceremonies, thereby considerably revising the rituals of the Moderns. One of the most important changes being the inclusion of the Royal Arch Degree which had always been particular to the Ancients.

Following the union a lodge of reconciliation was formed to rationalise the ritual into a form acceptable to all. In 1823 an Emulation Lodge was established, giving us the rituals we now refer to as emulation ritual. A final twist in the tale here. As many Modern and Ancient Lodges had “daughter” lodges throughout the world, there is still a great deal of variety in the ritual used, even in UGLE recognised jurisdictions.

The most recent history of freemasonry is well documented and is freely available for you to discover. I will therefore end this lecture with a wish that in some small way we have encouraged you to make a daily advancement in masonic knowledge.