early masonry in England
Bro. Harry M. Furniss
Published in MASONIC BULLETIN, BCR; - March, 1975.
An opinion has long been held that a Grand Lodge of Masons was
established at the city of York in 926 by Prince Edwin, the brother
of King Athelstan and grandson of Edward the Great.
This tradition derives from the old Legend of the Craft which Mackey
in his "History of Freemasonry" made quite clear is an error, or
incorrectly interpreted, or both. Yet the story persists, and is
A number of documents have been discovered which record a large
assemblage of Freemasons in York in 926. Dates, names and facts
differ from manuscript to manuscript, but Mackey felt that some
major event certainly occurred.
One of the strongest reasons for believing in the York assembly is
the fact that some four hundred years passed before the event was
first recorded (as far as we know). Mackey concluded that a
tradition which lasted that long unchallenged must have been
However on the question as to whether or not a Grand Lodge was
formed at York, most modern Masonic historians have serious
reservations. Mackey, after studying all viewpoints in his thorough
fashion, concluded that there had been a "general assembly" of
Freemasons at York, and that a code of laws had been adopted which
became the basis on which subsequent Masonic Constitutions were
Centuries later when the York Speculative Freemasons broke
completely with their Operative brethren, they assumed the title
"Grand Lodge of All England" to distinguish themselves from London's
"Grand Lodge of England." This curious distinction, wrote Mackey,
followed the ecclesiastical usage of the country which in dividing
the government from the church, called the Archbishop of York
"Primate of England" and the Archbishop of Canterbury "Primate of
There is no doubt that Operative Freemasonry was established with
great vigor at York during the building of the cathedral in the
fourteenth century. The fabric rolls of York Minster - one with a
date of 1350 - record contracts and regulations pertaining to labor
and refreshment. Masons, at that time, were directed to report to
the lodge "at as early an hour as they can clearly see by daylight
to work . . . and shall stand there faithfully working as long as
they can clearly see to work, or at high noon, or on a holiday."
There was an hour off for lunch, "within the space of time that one
can walk half a mile" - a common method of computing time in those
The Master, for his work, received 10 pounds of silver annually, and
was furnished with a house within the enclosure of the cathedral.
While work on York Minster was progressing, other branches of the
guild were employed on other cathedrals. Canterbury was repaired and
enlarged in 1174; Salisbury begun in 1220; Ely finished in 1252; and
Westminster Abbey begun in 1245 and finished in 1285.
These records, Mackey pointed out, established that the history of
Freemasonry at York and the north of England was about the same as
it was in London and the admission of honorary members similar in
practice and time.
Other than this, there seems little to support the theory of an
eighth century Grand Lodge at York. Indeed, a minute book of York
Lodge dated 1706 indicates quite plainly that the transformation
from Operative to Speculative Freemasonry was under way and that the
title "Grand Lodge of all England" was only assumed in 1725.
At that, Mackey feels the words Grand Lodge are misleading and that
the meager historical details really meant nothing more than a
difference in terminology between Private Lodge, Mother Lodge or
General Lodge - all on the same level, and all illegally constituted
under Masonic law.
There is also a difference of opinion among historians as to the
"Edwin" involved in the story. One acceptable interpretation holds
that the Edwin mentioned in the Legend of the Craft was not the
brother of King Athelstan (10th century) but really the King of
Northumbria (17th century).
The one word everyone seems to agree on is "old" and most historians
are now inclined to style it "The Old York Lodge" although the
Regulations written in 1723 by the Grand Lodge at London were
adopted by York in 1726.
Prior to this there were 19 unusual "regulations" in effect in York
Lodge which Mackey calls a set of rules for a social club rather
than moral or philosophical guideposts for Freemasonry.
The "Rules" laid down fines for certain offenses, stipulated that
"the bowl shall be filled with Punch once" but if any more shall be
called for by a Brother, he shall pay for it himself.
There were "Rules" for clerks, and stewards, and the settlement of
disputes, and an interesting subscription of two shillings which was
demanded of each new member to pay the waits.
These were musicians who paraded the towns in the north of England
at Christmas, often in livery and wearing silver badges. In earlier
days their musical ability was said to be sure that they were able
to assist the choristers of York Minster.
While there may be doubt about the origins of Freemasonry at York,
it is a fact that a wooden church was built there in 627 by Edwin,
King of Northumbria. Edwin was a progressive ruler who introduced
Christianity to his Kingdom. However, the Church was destroyed and
rebuilt and finally incorporated in the cathedral which after some
845 years was completed in 1472.
The last mention of the Grand Lodge of all England was in a minute
of the York Lodge dated August 1792. Apparently it was never
formally dissolved, but was simply absorbed by the Grand Lodge of
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