A Concise History of Freemasonry

David Allen Rivera

[From the book, "Final Warning: A History of the New World Order"]

Is there a Proven History?

Empirical evidence of the history of Freemasonry prior to the 18th Century is hard to find. Historians can vary wildly in their opinions from the plausible to the sensational. Most masons believe that Freemasonry is derived from the early medieval stonemasons guilds and enquire no further. However, a well rounded study in Freemasonry should look more deeply at all appropriate alternative roots, even if only to be able to dismiss them.

There is no commonly accepted “Ancient History of Freemasonry” – even UGLE does not publish a “house” view prior to its own initial conception in 1717. Although no attempt was made to shed light on its history at that time, it seems that a resemblance of modern Freemasonry (judging from a corpus of medieval manuscripts) was already in place beforehand, even if its pedigree was lost.

The Conventional Explanation

Most historians concur that Freemasonry, in its current form, probably developed as an adjunct from medieval stonemasons and their successors through the ages leading up to the “Operative” Stone Masons Guilds. Just how or when the transition took place from “Operative” Guild Free-Stone Masonry to “Speculative” intellectual Freemasonry (using stonemasons’ tools, clothing and customs as allegorical aids to teach their precepts) is not clear, although Scottish Lodge Kilwinning’s records showing non Operatives being admitted by at least 1672 and some Lodges in England were entirely non Operative by the time of Elias Ashmole in 1646.

What was so special about stonemasons? They possessed great skill to create the castles, cathedrals and palaces and the necessary sculpted works and ornaments demanded of their masters. Such skill must have seemed almost magical to the vast illiterate masses. They were clearly the elite of the labour force, had secret customs and marks (as shown opposite) and would have attracted some of the brightest non-educated recruits. However, given the complexity of the various Masonic rituals and teachings, this simple explanation of Freemasonry seems inadequate. To obtain a deeper historical appreciation, one could consider the various ancient and medieval legends with an open mind and then decide for yourself which ones are a better “fit”.

Legend: The Ancient Scientific Perspective

It has recently been suggested (by Knight and Lomas) that Freemasonry ultimately evolved from Megalithic tribes who, having discovered science and astronomy, constructed numerous astounding astronomical observatories including Newgrange on the river Boyne, Bryn Celli Ddu and Stonehenge between 7100 BC and 2500 BC. It is believed that these sites enabled those tribes to accurately chart the seasons and years by observing the rotations of the sun and the third brightest object in the sky, Venus. These were essential skills as without such timekeeping, civilisation would be hopelessly unable to plan or progress beyond mere day to day subsistence.

Indeed, the Book of Enoch, discovered amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls from the Qumran and from which many higher Masonic Orders draw their inspiration, explains the scientific principles by which those earliest observatories (or “Uriel’s Machines”) operate. It is then argued that this knowledge was shared and taken to the East prior to a predicted and devastating comet impact and subsequent world flood in 3150 BC.

Many survivors maintained Enochian and Noachide customs and when the Enochian-Zadokite priests were expelled from Jerusalem in 70 AD by the Romans, having first hidden their scrolls and treasures deep under the ruins of Solomon’s Temple as recorded in the Qumran “Copper Scroll”, it seems inevitable with hindsight that their descendants, the founding Knights Templar families led by Hugues de Payens, would return in 1140 AD to dig them up and retrieve them. A great story, but it is doubtful whether this theory will take hold in serious academic circles.

Legend: The Ancient Stone Mason Perspective

Whilst Freemasonry draws much imagery from the history and construction of King Solomon’s Temple (@ 945 BC) by masons from the Phoenician city of Tyre, it seems fanciful to claim direct “Stone-Mason” links from that era. Nevertheless, skills in the manipulation of stone had clearly been well established by then and had been handed down through the ages, crossed many continents and through the hands of many peoples including craftsmen from the Greek, Byzantine and Roman eras.

Certain present day Masonic words and meanings seem to be derived or borrowed from the time of the early Egyptians of this era as they believed that the virtues of truth and justice were said to be 'on the square'. Confucius in 500BC referred to the squareness of actions; even Aristotle in 350 BC associates 'square actions' with honest dealings and virtue. The square and its symbolism is very old and has maintained a remarkable consistency of meaning over the centuries. However, it does not necessarily follow that Freemasonry began in those eras any more than trying to assert that Euclid was a Freemason because his 47th Proposition (as shown on the WM’s jewel) has relevance in modern Freemasonry!

Legend next informs us that Athelstan, having subjugated most of the minor kingdoms of England, gathered together many skilled masons and established York Rite Masonry in 926 AD by granting them a Royal Charter. The charter enabled the stonemasons to meet in general assembly once a year and seems to have been a catalyst for a host of construction projects including numerous abbeys, castles and fortresses. Athelsans importance to Stonemasons is mentioned in both the Regius and Cooke Manuscripts. The Scottish Rite, by contrast, was established many centuries later by Chevalier Andrew Ramsay (Ramsay’s Oration of 1737) and other exiled Stuart Scots in France who were plotting the restoration of James II. This has led to a diversity of subsequent Orders following the three basic Craft Degrees. Click guilds, associations or Compagnonnage as they were known in France and mainland Europe, were conscripted to produce sufficient masons of all qualities to satisfy the aspirations of Kings and the Church in their respective building programmes.

In days where travel and communication for all but King and Church was highly restricted, the guilds are believed to have developed their own methods of introduction and secret modes of recognition when working on various programmes around the country. These were essential in order to distinguish a skilled master from the aspiring apprentice. This was important because they were no written credentials in those days because only top Master Masons could read, let alone write letters of introduction on expensive parchment. However, some historians (chief among them John J Robinson) argue it is difficult to prove English stone masons’ guilds (unlike Scottish guilds) existed at all given the relative lack of evidence available to corroborate them.

Box Club Charity Theory

A more recent theory suggests modern Freemasonry developed from charitable beginnings. In the 1600’s many trades operated what have become known as “box clubs” where their members would set aside earnings for the group or individual members to fall back on if they suffered hard times. Those without such assistance usually starved through lack of other reliable welfare support. Evidence indicates these box clubs began to admit members outside their trade and had many of the characteristics of early masonic lodges. Perhaps Freemasonry arose from an early and successful “box club” framework which was later taken over by the leading intellectual lights that emerged in the seventeenth century?

The Knights Templar

Masonic legend and some tradition is borrowed from the fanciful stories of the Knights Templar, an enigmatic and powerful military Order of fighting monks set up by Hugues de Payens in 1118. Their illustrious history has been the subject of numerous fascinating books and their effect upon the course of world history, religion and commerce is much greater than generally recognised. They were also responsible for the erection of many churches (eg Middle Temple on the Embankment in London shown on the left) and the assembly of numerous large estates and would themselves have employed a great many stone masons.

Although their effect upon Freemasonry is very uncertain, they had amassed considerable wealth and influence in London, Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom that cannot be overlooked. Most serious historians dismiss a direct link to the Knights Templars for lack of evidence. However, is it possible that the Knights Templars might have shared some of their knowledge and rituals with their more senior stone masons with whom they employed who later incorporated them into their own traditions?

The Knights Templars’ ostensible purpose was the protection of pilgrims on their journey from the coastal port of Jaffra to Jerusalem. Initially however, there were too few of them to be an effective escort. In any event, for the first nine years of their existence, they were far too busy purposefully digging under the ruins of King Solomon’s Temple to be offering any support to Pilgrims. It seems clear that during their excavations they discovered something of immense spiritual or material value for they swiftly became very rich and powerful and enjoyed this position for nearly two hundred years until the fall of the Holy Lands. Evidence of Templar excavations was found by Lieutenant Warren, Royal Engineers in 1867. The Knights Templars were effectively extinguished on Friday 13th October 1307 by King Philippe of France who, broke at the time, stole their lands and possessions (a fate he inflicted upon French Jews two years earlier) and with collusion from the Pope, instructed the Inquisition to torture any Templars he managed to round up to gain evidence to legitimise his grand theft. Many of the fit and able Knights (and their entourage) and most of their wealth managed to escape. It is from their exodus from France and other parts of Europe that much of Masonic folklore stems.

Many Knights possibly settled in the comparative backwaters of Scotland, a land ruled by the excommunicated Robert The Bruce and therefore considered comparatively safe, being largely beyond the reach of the Pope and the Inquisition. No doubt they brought with them their treasures, relics, knowledge and ceremonies as depicted on the ground floor South West window stone carving at Roslin Chapel shown below. Some knights are believed to have travelled much further than the known lands of the times and even managed to find America. Certain corn carvings (see left) at Roslin Chapel appear to confirm this.

Given a background of organised secrecy, could it have been possible that Stonemasons’ guilds became convenient, if not unwitting, conduits of social refuge through the ages? Templars, who required a degree of privacy from State or Church in their thoughts, discussions or travel arrangements would have found stonemasons’ guilds attractive. History however, contains virtually no written references linking KT and Freemasonry until the 18th C. Most serious historians believe that a link with the Knights Templars only came about through marketing skills displayed by Ramsay in his Oration in 1737 when he attributed (in error) the origins of Freemasonry to “ Crusaders” and the Knights of St John. Ramsey, a talented self-publicist, would have known that such a pedigree was bound to impress the French audience whom he was addressing. Robert Brydon, in his book “The Masons and the Rosy Cross”, informs us that Alexander Duechar confused the issue still further by his attempts to revive Scottish Templarism and integrating it within the ambit of Freemasonry.

Rosslyn Chapel

No discussion on Masonic history would be truly complete without a reference to Rosslyn Chapel, situated 5 miles south of Edinburgh and built in 1446 by Sir William St Clair whose family had deep Templar ancestry and alledged family ties back to Hugues de Payens. Rosslyn Chapel took 40 years to build and is highly embellished with Templar, Enochian and possibly some Masonic imagery. Given that it was constructed in an age when books could be censored or burned, it seems that William St Clair was intent on leaving permanent and peculiar encoded messages in the fabric of the chapel for posterity.

The chapel contains the astounding “Apprentice Pillar” and numerous other intriguing stone carvings – one, on an external window (the photograph is on this web page) even depicts some form of initiation. Curiously, the official Rosslyn Chapel guidebook states that the William St Clair, brother of Edward, was granted “the Charters of 1630 from the Masons of Scotland, recognising that the position of Grand Master Mason of Scotland had been hereditary in the St Clair family since it was granted by James II in 1441,” the original charter having been destroyed in a fire. Whilst the relevance of Roslin Chapel within Freemasonry is highly controversial, its architectural features and carvings are outstanding and well worth a visit.

Proven History: Pre 1700

So much for legend, what about the facts? It is acknowledged that the Regius Manuscript held in the British Museum is the oldest genuine record of Masonic relevance and was written in @ 1390. Its author was probably a priest and this MS takes the form of an historical and instructional poem. Interestingly, the phrase “So Mote it be” is first quoted from this text. Next, it is important to consider the Cooke Manuscript (also in the British Museum) written by a “Speculative” mason in 1450. This is an important document because many current Masonic usages (eg the Constitutions written by Anderson in 1723) have obviously borrowed heavily from its content, which includes reference to the seven Liberal Arts and Sciences and the building of Solomon’s Temple. There are approximately 100 manuscripts, collectively known as the “Old Charges”, grouped together in four families held by various museums worldwide.

In 1583, a William Schaw was appointed by King James VI (later James I of England) as Master of the Work and Warden General. In 1598 he issued the first of the now famous Schaw Statutes which set out the duties its members owed to their Lodge. It also imposed penalties for unsatisfactory work and prohibited work with unqualified masons. More importantly for Freemasons today, Schaw drew up a second Statute in 1599. The importance of this document lies in the fact that it makes the first veiled reference to the existence of esoteric knowledge within the craft of stone masonry. It also reveals that The Mother Lodge of Scotland, Lodge Kilwinning No. 0 existed at that time. His regulations required all lodges to keep written records, meet at specific times and test members in the "Art of Memory". As a consequence he is regarded by some as the founder of modern Freemasonry as we know it today. On the right is a photo of the ruins of the Chapter House, the site of Kilwinning’s first Lodge meetings.

The earliest known record of a Masonic initiation anywhere is that of John Boswell, Laird of Auchenleck, who was initiated in the Lodge of Edinburgh according to the lodge minutes of 8 June 1600. That lodge was Operative and Boswell appears to be an example of one of the earliest Speculative initiations which adds weight to a case for the Transition Theory of Freemasonry, at least in Scotland. The earliest records of an initiation in England include Sir Robert Moray in 1641 and Elias Ashmole in 1646. Abroad, the first native-born American to be made a Mason was probably Jonathan Belcher, in 1704, who was then the Governor of Massachusetts. Ashmole was a renowned author and scholar and knew contemporary “Great Thinkers” of the day including Robert Boyle, Sir Robert Moray, Christopher Wren and Dr John Wilkins - joint founders of the Royal Society. Prior to securing its Royal Charter in 1662, the RS was known as the “Invisible College”, an organization at one time led by Francis Bacon. It is understood the “Invisible College” often met in the early years in the Compton Room at Canonbury Tower in North London, a room embellished with wood panel carvings of Masonic significance commissioned by Bacon like the one below.

Given that non stone-masons (“Speculatives”) were clearly being initiated from this time in England, some historians believe that Freemasonry was in “transition” at this point from pure “Operative” Masonry to Non Operative or “Speculative” Freemasonry. Equally, it could be argued that around this time, England copied the Scottish Masonic structure and set up an entirely Speculative form of Freemasonry which merely bore allegorical likeness to much earlier Scottish Operative lodges. This view has value when one considers that a disproportionate number of early Grand Masters were Scottish rather than Englishmen.

So why would “Thinkers” and educated classes quietly develop or promote the concept of Freemasonry? To get a flavour of the times in mid Seventeenth Century England, bear in mind that Pepys was a teenager, slavery was still universal, the gunpowder plot was in recent memory and the Great Plague and Fire were around the corner. Galileo was in deep trouble with the Catholic Church by insisting that the earth revolved around the sun, Bacon’s works were banned by Rome and The Inquisition and the Courts, at least in Scotland, were still burning witches and heretics. These were still times of fear, state control and comparative intolerance. Personal safety therefore probably demanded that discussion of anything with an esoteric, moral or scientific flavour take place “underground”.

Might it be possible that those in opposition to intellectual and political suppression went “underground” and retained their anonymity and safety by clothing themselves with the appearance of an operative organization afforded by an early masonic lodge structure? It is then easy to see that embellishment of this structure by the adoption of old stonemasons’ Manuscripts and a perceived pedigree dating back to King Solomon would have given their membership a certain degree of authenticity and appeal.

From Mid Seventeenth Century onwards, the world was changed rapidly and freedom of thought, controlled or oppressed for centuries by state and religion alike, was in the ascendancy with the Renaissance and Rosicrucianism leading the way. Following the Great Fire of London, “Operative” Masonry earned increasing prestige with citizens witnessing the development of new architectural masterpieces (such as St Pauls, Piccadilly and the Royal Exchange) in the glorious era of construction in the late seventeenth Century. No doubt that those magnificent works created an added attraction for prospective “speculative” masons.

Proven History: Post 1700

Eventually, four London lodges (the Apple Tree Tavern in Charles Street, the Goose & Gridiron Ale-house in St. Paul's Churchyard, Crown Ale-House near Drury Street and the Rummer & Grapes Tavern in Channel-Row, Westminster) formed The Premier Grand Lodge of England on St John The Baptists Day, 24 June 1717 - a time when London club life was becoming very popular. The Inaugural Festive Board was held at the Goose and Gridiron, St Paul’s (right). Anthony Sayer presided over this feast as Grand Master and curiously, the majority of early successive Grand Masters were Scottish rather than Englishmen. Why was this? Indeed in 1723 the Constitutions were written by Anderson, another Scotsman, whose father was PM of a lodge in Aberdeen. Clearly, our Scottish brethren had a lot to contribute towards the initial development of English Freemasonry.

Interestingly, it has been suggested that Premier Grand Lodge only came about as a result of the threat by the Scottish Jacobite revolt in 1715. This forced nervous London Freemasons, (knowing they were a Jacobite organization brought to England by a previous Jacobite King, James I) to disassociate themselves from their Scottish roots, hide their history and strategically create a governing body allied to the Hanoverian Crown. If so, little wonder that Freemasonry now prohibits discussion of religion and politics at meetings!

In 1730, masonic ritual having been learned parrot-fashion, was widely published for the first time in Prichard’s exposure entitled “Masonry Dissected”. Ritual prior to that point probably followed a two-degree system and took the form of a combination of catechisms, some simplified symbolism and the “Old Charges” (see Jones and Hamer’s “The Early Masonic Catechisms” edited by Henry Carr). Some historians (eg Murray Lyon) believe that this two-tier degree system was expanded when Desaguliers (Grand Master in 1719) wrote the Third Degree and grew again when Laurence Dermott (probably) introduced the Fourth Degree in 1752.

It seems reasonably clear that by this time (ie the period between 1690 and 1725), owing to a spate of “exposures”, that numerous current Masonic usages, customs and ritual were already in practice: The words "hele” and “conceal" and "points of fellowship" are both found in the Edinburgh Register House Manuscript of 1696; the Square Compass and Bible are mentioned together in the Dumfries MS No. 4 of @ 1710, a London newspaper in 1723 salaciously described the “five Noble Orders of Architecture” and "Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth," made its appearance in print in a pamphlet printed in London in 1724. The word “Tyler” probably came in around this time and is thought to be derived from the French “Tailleur”, ie “one who cuts.”

The popularity of Freemasonry then grew with great speed throughout the UK and around the world following in the wake of British settlers, merchants and the military. In 1731 the first American Grand Lodge obtained its Constitution, The Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, making it the first Grand Lodge in the United States of America. Over the next 100 years, Freemasonry attracted many leading lights forming the cream of the intellectual and scientific establishment including Voltaire of France, Montesquieu, Sir Robert Walpole, Robert Burns, Mozart, Darwin, Frederick the Great and from the USA, Franklin, and Washington.

However, initial successes in the UK were followed by a bad patch caused by poor leadership and culminated in a rival group setting up in opposition to what they saw as a corruption of the original ritual and Masonic ideals. Indeed, such a move was probably inevitable as Premier Grand Lodge had changed many passwords and altered the ritual thus alienating many Provincial, Irish and Scottish Masons. This gave birth to a break-away group called The Grand Lodge of England, nicknamed "The Antients," with those whom they left behind in The Premier Grand Lodge of England being nicknamed “The Moderns”. The break-away group called themselves “Antients” because they felt they were adhering more faithfully to the old ritual, passwords and customs.

The Antients were founded in 1751 and met initially in the Turks Head Tavern, Greek Street, Soho. Their Constitutions, predominantly written by Laurence Dermott in 1756, were entitled Ahiman Rezon and it is commonly believed that under his influential regime, the RA ritual was augmented to include new esoteric texts now delivered by the three Principals. In 1775, Freemasons’ Hall in London was first built by Thomas Sandby. Freemasons’ Hall as we know it today was built on the same, but enlarged, site in 1932 and is dedicated to the Glorious Dead who fought in the Great War.

From this time onwards, new degrees and rituals proliferated which fuelled fierce argument between the “Antients” and the “Moderns”. Indeed, French Freemason, JM Ragon estimated that at one point, there were over 1400 separate Masonic degrees complete with additional invented or regionalised symbolism. Consequently, sixty years of bitterness followed after the “Antient” and “Modern” schism. An example of dispute between these two Grand lodges would be the four-degree system worked by the “Antients” whilst the “Moderns” only recognised a three Degree system but to their irritation often found their members sympathetic to the fourth or Royal Arch Degree, to the point where it became regarded as an extension to the Third Degree.

Eventually a compromise was negotiated and on St John The Evangelists Day, 27 December 1813, United Grand Lodge of England was formed, largely though the combined efforts of the Earl of Moira presiding over the Duke of Sussex (“Moderns” Grand Master) and the Duke of Kent (an “Antient” Grand Master). The unification of these two bodies had enormous consequences for the ritual which had to be hurriedly reconciled. Most of the regulations and ritual determined then apply to this day, with the exception that the Royal Arch degree, expected to wither, flourished until 1832, whereupon the Triple Tau and new banners were introduced as the symbols of the order. More recently of course, certain colourful parts of RA and Craft texts have been toned down to satisfy the politically correct lobby.

There is another aspect of the history of Freemasonry that should not be completely overlooked: The objection to Freemasonry by the Catholic Church. Freemasonry has been banned by the Catholic Church several times beginning in 1738 by the Papal Bull issued by Pope Clement 12th; this was followed by another Bull in 1751 and again in 1884. Finally these Bulls were rescinded in 1974 and the Vatican has since adopted a more tolerant stance towards Freemasonry.

The historic reasons the Vatican gave for their objections were varied. However, the reason for the first Papal Bull, according to an article by Matthew Scanlan (Freemasonry Today issue 25), was not based on any ideological objection to Freemasonry as is often supposed. Indeed in the wake of the 1738 Bull, the Pope’s brother, Cardinal Corsini wrote stressing that Freemasonry in England was merely an “innocent amusement”. The main objection, according to Corsini, was that a lodge in Florence founded by Freemason Baron Von Stosch had “degenerated”. Stosch, it should be noted, was employed by London and was possibly using masonry as a cover to spy on the exiled Stuart cause in Rome, of whom Pope Clement was sympathetic. The ensuing ban caused widespread puzzlement for centuries with the assumption being that it was based purely on theological grounds. Clearly, this was not the case - another curious twist in the history of Freemasonry!


So, on reflection, do we consider Freemasonry originated from Megalithic times, King Solomon, Athelstan, the Knights Templars, Medieval Stone Masons, Schaw, Box charities, the “Invisible College” or the Rosicrucians? Moreover, do we consider the roots of modern Freemasonry to be more vested in Scotland or England or perhaps France? We can only speculate. Whatever course Freemasonry actually followed, it has inspired hundreds of thousands of people across many countries for more than three centuries and has attracted famous personalities from Europe, United States of America and other Continents. Providing Freemasonry adapts to the times (ie explains its positive purpose more effectively), it will doubtless continue to do so for several centuries more.

P Bennison

Old Epsomian Lodge No. 3561 , UGLE">

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