A short history of Freemasonry in Britain

The origins of Freemasonry are subject to scholarly debate. Organised Freemasonry, as we know it today, began with the founding of the first Grand Lodge on 24 June 1717 at the Goose and Gridiron Ale House in St Paul’s Churchyard.

It was formed by the agreement of four London Lodges, the oldest of which was thought to have existed in 1691. Evidence of the movement’s existence prior to 1691 is sparse, so the true origins remain a mystery.

Freemasonry neither originated nor existed in King Solomon’s time. Many historians have tried to prove Freemasonry descended from the mysteries of classical Greece or Rome or was derived from the religion of the Egyptian pyramid builders.

Other theories include that Freemasonry:

  • sprang from bands of travelling stonemasons acting by Papal authority.
  • evolved from a band of Knights Templar who escaped to Scotland after the order was persecuted in Europe.
  • derived from the shadowy and mysterious Rosicrucian Brotherhood which may or have existed in Europe in the early 1600s.

The honest answers to the questions when, where and why did Freemasonry originate, are that we simply do not know.

The stonemason theory

That said, there is general agreement amongst historians and researchers that Freemasonry developed, either directly or indirectly, from the medieval stonemasons – otherwise known as Operative Masons – who built the great cathedrals and castles.

Those who favour the theory say there were three stages to the evolution of Freemasonry:

  • the stonemasons gathered in huts or Lodges to rest and eat.
  • these Lodges gradually became meetings for stonemasons to regulate their craft.
  • eventually, and in common with other trades, they developed primitive initiation ceremonies for new apprentices.

There is general agreement amongst historians and researchers that Freemasonry developed, either directly or indirectly, from the medieval stonemasons.

As stonemasons were accustomed to travelling all over the country and as there were no trade union cards or certificates of apprenticeship, they began to adopt a private word which they could use when arriving at a new site to prove they were properly skilled and had been a member of a hut or Lodge.

It was, after all, easier to communicate a secret word to prove who you were and that you were entitled to your wages, than it was to spend hours carving a block of stone to demonstrate your skills.

It is known that in the early 1600s these operative Lodges began to admit nonstonemasons. They were Accepted or Gentlemen Masons. Why and what form the ceremony took is unknown.

As the 1600s drew to a close, more gentlemen joined the Lodges, gradually taking them over and turning them into Lodges of free and accepted, or speculative Masons. The Lodges no longer had any connection with the stonemasons’ craft.

This theory is based on information from Scotland where there is ample evidence of Scottish operative Lodges – geographically defined units with the backing of statute law to control what was termed The Mason Trade.

There is also plenty of evidence that these Lodges began to admit gentlemen as accepted Masons.

There is no evidence, so far, that these accepted members were other than honorary masons, or that they in any way altered the nature of the operative Lodges.

Furthermore, no evidence has come to light, after a hundred years, for a similar development in England.

Medieval building records have references to stonemason’s Lodges, but after 1400, apart from Masons’ guilds in some towns, there is no evidence for operative Lodges.

Building a better society theory

It is in England that the first evidence of a Lodge completely made up of non-operative Masons is found. Elias Ashmole, the antiquary and founder of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, records in his diary for 1646 that he was made a Free Mason in a Lodge held for that purpose at his father-in-law’s house in Warrington. He records who was present at the meeting: all have been researched and found to have no connection with operative Masonry.

English evidence through the 1600s points to Freemasonry existing separately from any actual or supposed organisation of operative stonemasons.

Those who support the indirect link believe the originators of Freemasonry were men who wished to promote tolerance and build a better world in which men of differing opinions could peacefully co-exist and work together for the betterment of mankind.

This lack of evidence for the existence of operative Lodges but evidence for Lodges of accepted masons has led to the theory of an indirect link between operative stonemasonry and Freemasonry. Those who support the indirect link theorise that Freemasonry was brought into existence by a group of men in the late 1500s or early 1600s.

This was a period of great religious and political turmoil and intolerance. Men were unable to meet together without differences of political and religious opinion leading to arguments. Families were split by opposing views and the English Civil War of 1642 to 1646 was the ultimate outcome.

Those who support the indirect link believe the originators of Freemasonry were men who wished to promote tolerance and build a better world in which men of differing opinions could peacefully co-exist and work together for the betterment of mankind.

In the custom of their times, they used allegory and symbolism to pass on their ideas and principles.

As their central idea was the building of a better society, they borrowed their forms and symbols from the operative builders’ craft and took their central allegory from The Bible. Stonemasons’ tools provided them with the multiplicity of emblems to illustrate the principles they were putting forward.

A charitable framework theory

A more recent theory places the origins of Freemasonry within a charitable framework. In the 1600s there was no welfare state, so anyone falling ill or becoming disabled had to rely on friends and the Poor Law for support. In those days many trades had what have become known as box clubs.

These grew out of the convivial gatherings of members of a particular trade during meetings of which all present would put money into a communal box, knowing that if they fell on hard times they could apply for
relief from the box.

From surviving evidence these box clubs are known to have begun to admit members not belonging to their trade and to have had many traits of early Masonic Lodges. They met in taverns, had simple initiation
ceremonies and passwords and practiced charity on a local scale. It is possible that Freemasonry had its origins in just such a box club for operative Masons.

Whatever the origins, after 1717 and the establishment of the Premier Grand Lodge (as it was known), Freemasonry grew in popularity, spreading across much of the world (expanding as the British Empire grew), attracting many famous and notable personalities.

When Grand Lodge was formed in 1717, Anthony Sayer was elected as the first Grand Master. Initially, the Grand Lodge was an annual feast at which the Grand Master and Wardens were elected. But in 1721 other meetings began to be held and Grand Lodge began to be a regulatory body. In 1723, as the membership grew, Grand Lodge produced a Book of Constitutions which outlined the rules and regulations governing Freemasonry.

Expansion

By 1730 Grand Lodge had more than 100 Lodges under its jurisdiction, including one in Spain and another in India. It had begun to operate a central charity fund and had attracted a wide spectrum of society into its Lodges.

Some London Lodges disagreed with these Constitutions and in 1751, a rival Grand Lodge was formed by disaffected Masons. Its founders claimed that the original Grand Lodge had departed from the established customs of the Craft and they intended practising Freemasonry “according to the Old Institutions”.

Confusingly, they called themselves the Grand Lodge of the Ancients and dubbed their senior rival the Moderns. It included many London Lodges and was known as the Ancients or Atholl Grand Lodge, after the third Duke of Atholl who became its first Grand Master.

United Freemasonry

The two rivals existed side by side, neither regarding the other as regular or each other’s members as regularly-made Masons. Attempts at a union of the two rivals began in the late 1790s but it was not until the
Duke of Sussex became the Grand Master of the Moderns and his brother the Duke of Kent became Grand Master of the Ancients that progress was made.

Eventually, the Union of the two rival Grand Lodges took place on 27 December 1813, under the Grand Mastership of HRH Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, the sixth son of King George III.

The Book of Constitutions

The Book of Constitutions has been reprinted and gone through many editions since its initial publication, but the fundamental rules laid down in 1723 still apply today.

The Book of Constitutions has been reprinted and gone through many editions since its initial publication, but the fundamental rules laid down in 1723 still apply today