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the Origins of Speculative Freemasonry

by Elias Ashmole

Making History

For many centuries, Freemasonry has been woven into the deepest fabric of western history. But mythology has all too often overtaken the facts. This series aims to put the record straight; beginning with a two-part investigation into the first accepted record of initiation into a 'speculative' lodge of Free Masons.

Elias Ashmole was initiated, in the midst of Civil War into an apparently non-operative and possibly "occasional" lodge at Warrington in the diocese of Chester on 16 October 1646. Ashmole's diary records how:

I was made a Free Mason at Warrington in Lancashire with Colonel Henry Mainwaring (a Parliamentarian) of Karincham in Cheshire; the names of those that were then at the Lodge, Mr Richard Penket Worden, Mr James Collier, Mr Richard Sankey [a Catholic], Henry Littler, John Ellam, Richard Ellam and Hugh Brewer.

Who was Elias Ashmole?

Born in Lichfield, Staffordshire in 1617, Ashmole began a brilliant career as a lawyer in 1638, entering the ranks of the Royalist Army as a Captain of Horse on the outbreak of Civil War and going on to spend the Inter-regnum studying alchemy, astrology and the natural sciences, the which subjects he soon mastered. On the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660, his star rose again, becoming Windsor Herald and a founder member of the epoch-marking Royal Society in 1661. Between 1679 and 1683 he was busy establishing the first-ever public museum in Britain: the Ashmolean in Oxford, a museum of natural science which also included a unique chemical laboratory run by his employee, Dr. Robert Plot. Ashmole died in 1692, described by his contemporary Anthony Wood as "the greatest virtuoso and curioso that ever was known of or read of in England before his time."

Ashmole himself wished to be known as a 'son of Hermes', an Hermetic philosopher (the winged-helmeted god Hermes appears aloft his personal crest): a magus one with an operative grasp of the link between the spiritual and material dimensions of nature. The chief source of Hermetic philosophy was (and is) the Corpus Hermeticum, first printed in English in 1650 by Dr. Everard D.D. who himself called Ashmole "a laborious searcher into that mysterious learning". The Hermetic dialogues featured the timeless wisdom of an allegedly pre-Christian mystagogue known as Hermes Trismegistus. Hermes reputation as the father of philosophy (including alchemy) was widespread among Latin sages in the Middle Ages and it is significant that the Cooke manuscript of Old Charges to operative masons in England (c.1420) regarded Hermes as the principal patron of the Craft. However, there is no evidence of the full scope of Hermetic philosophy being an intrinsic part of the Craft when Ashmole was initiated in 1646. Hermetic philosophy has usually been the province of the 'enlightened few', the aficianado. Then again, the medieval Master Mason was not a common man.

Forty years after Ashmole's historic initiation, his employee Robert Plot published The Natural History of Staffordshire: Ashmoles county. Plot wrote of a custom whereby men were admitted into "the Society of Free-masons, than in the moorelands of this County seems to be of greater request than anywhere else, though I find the Custom spread more or less over the nation." While we find in Plot's account of "accepted" Free-masons information regarding the wearing of gloves, the employment of the term 'Lodge' for a meeting- place, the use of secret signs of mutual identification, the practice of helping members in need with money or work, and the giving of advice to their employees regarding efficacious materials, setting and design for building (these functions could be supplied by others than the sculptors of 'freestone' from which the Craft takes its name), the most overlooked reference concerns the Free-masons', whereabouts. Plot's "moorelands" refers to a specific region in the north of the county: the wild and beautiful moorlands which border on Cheshire in the west and the peaks of Derbyshire to the north and east. This area is significant because from the year 1176 to the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries (less than a century before Ashmole's birth) the Staffordshire Moorlands were dominated by three Cistercian monasteries: Croxden in the south (founded by crusader knight Bertram de Verdon in 1176), Dieulacres in the north-east and west (founded by crusader-earl Ranulphus of Chester in 1214), and Hulton in the south-west (founded by the knight Henry de Audley in 1223 on lands adjacent to the Templar preceptory of Keele, founded in 1168). Links with the orient were integral to these foundations.

The Cistercians owed their foundation to the Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who in 1129 provided the Knights Templar with their Rule (S. Bernard's uncle was himself founder of the Templars). Templar knights frequently retired into Cistercian monasteries and there is extant evidence of Templar tombstones both at Dieulaeres and nearby Biddulph. The lord of Biddulph in the early 12th century, Ormus le Guidon, 'the standard-bearer', is reputed to have returned from the Crusades with a Saracen mason whose family settled on Biddulgh Moor (John Sleigh. A History of the Ancient Parish of Leek, 1862). Ormus' descendants married into the de Verdon family (patrons of Croxden). Oriental - style designs can be found in the early 12th century S. Chad's church, Stafford, where in original inscription tells us that "Orm caused me to be established".

The Founder of Dieulacres, earl Ranulphus of Chester (d.1232) is also considered to have benefited from his oriental crusading experience when constructing his spectacular castle at Beeston in Cheshire, a formidably innovative stronghold which has been compared by archaeologists with the Crusader castle at Sahyoun in Syria.

The lodges of masons and free [stone] masons (sculptors in freestone) who set up within the confines of monastic lands in Staffordshire undoubtedly gained from oriental contact. One should beware of thinking, of medieval 'operatives' as simply craftsmen what no intellectual (or, if you like, 'speculative') grasp of their demanding craft. According to the renowned medievalist Jean Gimpel (The Cathedral Builders. Michael Russell. 1983)

The catastrophe for this heady relationship between divine building and natural science in Staffordshire was almost certainly what Ashmole called "the great Deluge" of the Dissolution of the Monasteries (from 1536, in which about 95% of all monastic libraries were destroyed and an estimated 98% of English Art): a late echo of which Ashmole himself witnessed during the English Civil War, when the vandals of Parliament destroyed much of Lichfield's cathedral.

Could lodges of Free[stone] Masons have survived the Dissolution in Staffordshire? It is certain that some form of freemasonic activity persisted. The rector of Biddulph (Biddulph Moor had been in the possession of Dieulacres Abbey) - for one year only - entered the trade of those recorded in his parish register. Thus we learn that in the year:

1600. Baptisrzaata. Mar fr. Joanna, fa[ther]. Rumbaldi DURBAR, freemason.

As Plot recorded eighty-six years later, there was indeed masonic activity in the Staffordshire Moorlands - and is now seems likely that tidy distinction, between 'operative' and 'speculative' did not necessarily apply. Plot's Free-masons' contain both 'accepted' masons and architects among their number. If there was a lodge active in or near to Biddulph (only three miles from Ashmole's father-in-laws' house at Smallwood cover the Cheshire border) why was Ashmole not initiated there in 1646?

In 1643, Biddulph Hall, garrisoned for the Royalist cause, had been practically destroyed by Parliamentarian troops under the command of Sir William Brereton. On March 21 1643, the Committee of Sequestrations at Stafford (on which sat Edward Mainwaring, a relative of Ashmole's in-laws) ordered that "the remainder of Biddulph House be preserved, accordinge to Mr Biddulph's own desire, toward the repayringe of a little old house of his, not above two miles from it," It is possible to conjecture that Biddulph Hall had become a focal-point for the freemasons of the Biddulph area, and, if so, it is further possible that Sir Francis Biddulph was himself an Accepted Free-mason. If this were the case, two possibilities emerge:

1. The lodge meeting place having been destroyed, members had taken to holding 'occasional' lodges at appropriate locations known only to themselves (such as Warrington to the north).

2. The sight of Biddulph Hall, which masons themselves having presumably built and decorated, in ruins, did not dispose them to initiating a Parliamentary colonel and his brother-in-later. Sir Francis Biddulph (a direct descendant of Ormus le Guidan) undoubtedly bore scant respect for his neighbours, the Mainwaring family; they had ignored a plea written by King Charles I for loyal service to Philip Mainwaring, knight, of Peover, September 1644). In the absence of a controlling body of lodges. Biddulph freemasons could do as they wished.

To date, research shows that the members of the lodge into which Ashmole was initiated were, "with one possible exception" (John Hamill, The Craft Crucible. 1986.) not operating as masonic tradesmen, and it may be that a number off 'accepted' (i.e a non-sculpting, but professionally interested persons - ie: architects, people with knowledge of related activities or those in a position to commission work) had formed micro-associations of their own.

The key direct relationship then in Ashmole's initiation seems not to he so much Staffordshire Moorland Free Masonry but his close family ties with the ancient Mainwaring family. These we shall examine in Part Two of this series.


On 27 March 1638, Elias Ashmole married Eleanor Mainwaring. While it seems that the couple had met in London (where Ashmole was soliciting in Chancery), Eleanor seems to have spent most of her short married life at her father's house at Smallwood in Cheshire, just over the Staffordshire border. Ashmole visited regularIy and look a keen interest in his wife's family. Ashmole's new father-in- law, Peter Mainwaring, belonged to one of the most significant families of the comity.

The Mainwarings derived their name from the River Guarenne or Varenne and the small town of that name near Arques in Normandy. The name was anglicized to Warenne, or Warren, Warin, and later Waring, (there are a great number of variant spellings). Main-wiring means the house of the Warings (Peover) in Cheshire. The records of the Mainwarings of Whitmore (now held by the Stafford Record Office) contain a number of 15th. century deeds of confraternity. The confraternities involved commitments made between lay people and religious orders and constitute a link between guilds of masons and such orders, possibly providing the milieu in which the knights of the Mainwaring family and freemasons of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance period could easily have met. There are other links between the Mainwarings and the world of medieval masonry.

Between 1301 and 1360, extensive alterations were made to Ranulphus earl of Chester's original design for the Cheshire Castle of Beeston. Volume 59 of the Translations of the Lancashire and Cheshire Record Society (1910) records that the Master-mason in charge of all the masons working at the castle was one Master Warin. Warin, as we have seen, was the family-name of the Mainwarings or 'Mein-warms' is the name was sometimes spelt in the Middle Ages. Roger de Meinwarin witnessed Ranulphus Earl of Chester's instruction to his barons regarding the founding of Dieulacres abbey in 1214. (According to the Dieulacres chartulary, Roger de Menilwarin also give the monks of Dieulacres "free common in his wood of Pevere [Peover]" and other valuable privileges).

The church of S. Lawrence at Peover is a treasure-house of Mainwaring remains, containing a number of fine alabaster tombs carved by freemasons. Six miles north of Peover is Peover's mother church of Rostherne, near Warrington. In 1578 an arbitration award was made to Thomas Legh against Sir Randle Mainwaring who had claimed possession of the Legh chapel in Rostherne church. According to Raymond Richards' Cheshire Churches. (Batsford. 1947): "The Legh Chapel at Rostherne stood ruinous in the sixteenth century for want of glass, [and] Sir Randle Mainwaring repaired it at his own expense," assuming possession for himself and his family "only to be turned out by Thomas Legh". Law suits handled by the Consistory Court in Chester from the year 1617 also reveal the interest of Henry Mainwaring of Kermincham (Ashmole's father-in- law's father) in the nearby church at Goostrey (the Advowson for Goostrey had been held by Dieulacres Abbey until the Dissolution). The suits concern burial-places and seating in the chancel of S. Luke's. Henry Mainwaring was permitted to build an out-aisle on the north side of the chancel. Mainwarings and masons had been in close proximity for centuries.


At the age of twenty-nine, Ashmole rode up the Warrington Road (which meets the western end of the Smallwood lane, in sight of the Staffordshire moorlands), to shore with Colonel Henry Mainwaring, (his late wife's cousin, of Kermincham, four miles north of Smallwoad), initiation into the craft. Ashmole's diary gives us the names of those present: Richard Penket "Worden" (presumably the warden of the lodge), James Collier, Richard Sankey, John Ellam, Richard Ellam, Henry Littler and Hugh Brewer. From the name of the (possible) warden we may get a clue as to why the lodge was convened at Warrington. In 1487, Friar Thomas Penketh (the Penkeths held land from the Boteler family), died at Warrington's Friary of S.Augustine (suppressed under Henry VIII). The Penkeths also patronised the church of Farnworth to the west of Warrington, and it is now clear that it was the ecclesiastical world which provided the chief medium of contact between gentlemen and operative freemasons.

As regards the particular Richard Penket whom Ashmole encountered, Warrington and Farnworth parish records mention a large number of persons of that name for the period, and we cannot be sure which (if any) of them was involved with the lodge. It is sufficient for our purposes to observe that the Littlers were of a gentle Cheshire family, that the Sankeys of Great and Little Sankey held lands - like the Penkeths - from the Boteler family, that one of the Ellains, Richard, may have been an operative freemason (a will of 1667 calls Richard Ellom of Lymm, co. Chester, a "freemason"), that Hugh Brewer may have been the Lancashire yeoman who served in Lord Derby's Royalist regiment of horse (a Hugh Brewer was buried at Warrington in May 1658) and that Mr. James Collier may have been the Royalist James Collier of Newton, gentleman who on 3 June 1640, at the age of 32, married Elizabeth Stanley whose grandfather was Sir Randle Mainwaring of Peover (Record Society of Lancs. and Ches., Lancashire Funeral Certificates, Vol vi, p.207).

Warrington was a lodge of principally accepted Free Masons, almost certainly working an operative (ie: traditional) ritual: probably an old interest of old landed families with private interests in the 'old religion' (pre- Reformation - though not exclusively). Who but the adherents of the old religion (including its Anglican formulation) would have the greatest concern with old family chapels &c. and their ornamentation? The lodge at Warrington may have been only part of a larger body (no master is recorded to have been present), separated for the purpose of initiating gentlemen as fellows, or a micro- association formed by accepted Free Masons for their own purposes.

The balance of current scholarly opinion is of the view that only two degrees were worked in the seventeenth century: entered apprentice ('interprintice') and 'fellow crafte'. There was, as far as we know, no 'third degree' (nor any reference to the Master Hiram legend). When recording a lodge- summons of 1682 to Masons Hall in London, (an operative establishment, note) Ashmole described himself as the 'Senior Fellow' in attendance on Sir William Wilson's (and others') initiation. In this diary entry, a Mr. Thomas Wise is described as Master of the Masons Company "this present year", suggesting that the term "Master' may generally have been used of those who had undergone operative (seven year) apprenticeships. Gentlemen who became accepted Free Masons would naturally wish to attain the lodge's highest position of honour, without the practical apprenticeship - and this honour would be encapsulated in the term 'fellow craft' or simply 'Fellow'. Educated accepted Free Masons could offer what the monasteries used to offer: an exchange of ideas of a general spiritual, mythological, scientific and symbolic character. Furthermore, operative freemasons had, perhaps unwittingly, provided the ideal gentlemens' club-format: a place (and the lodge was almost an imaginary place, built up from memory and imagination), to get away from current religious and political strife, and where one could be immersed in more ancient ideals and tried certainties. Taking all this into account, it is likely that Ashmole and Mainwaring's initiation contained some kind of both entered apprentice and - swiftly - fellow craft ritual.

A document preserved by Sir Hans Sloane F.R.S. (1660- 1753), Sloane MS. 3848 (British Library), gives us material from what are called the Old Charges of freemasons, which were read out to initiates. The manuscript not only gives us the symbolic and mythological history of the craft, but in the case of this particular document, may even contain the actual words read out at Warrington in 1646, for the document was penned by one Edward Sankey in October 1646, the date of Ashmole's initiation, and Sankey may well have been a relative of the Richard Sankey who was present at Warrington. Unfortunately, we do not know how Sloane came by this precious manuscript. Perhaps it had been in the hands of Aslmole's employee Dr Robert Plot, who, in his Natural History of Staffordshire (1686) referred to the "false" and "incoherent" account of the history of the craft held by "Free-masons" in that county. Reading the charges, one becomes immediately aware of it's appeal to the magical mind of the mercurial Ashmole:

and these children [of Lameth - before the flood) did knowe that god would take vengeance for sinne either by fire or water; Wherefore ye writ ye Sciences wch weare found in 2 pillars of stone; yt ye might be found after the flood; The one stone was called Marble that cannot borne wth fire; The other was called Letera that cannot drowne with water; Our intent is to tell you truly how and in what manner these stones weare found; where these Crafts weare written in Greek; Hermenes that was sonne to Cus; & Cus was sonne to Shem wch was ye sonne of Noath: The same Hermenes was afterwards Hermes; the ffather of wise men and hee found out ye 2 pillars of stone where ye Sciences weare written, & taught ym forth;

And there was a King of au other Region yt men called Hyram and hee loved well Kinge Solomon; and gave him timber for his worke; And hee had a sonne that was named Aynon and he was Mr of Geometry; and hee was chiefe Mr of all his Masons; and Mr of all his grayed works; and of all other Masons that belonged to ye Temple; & this Witneseth the Bible in libro 2 Solo Capite 5.

It is significant that the accompanying oath contains strict guidelines regarding loyalty to the monarch, to God, 'ye holy church" and to the avoidance of heresy, thieves, treason and falsehood. If Colonel Mainwaring did swear the oath, in spite of his having fought for parliament, it is likely that he had fought for "king and parliament". Many who fought for the rights of the English parliament never envisioned the judicial murder of the King (1649).

That the Free Masonry known to Ashmole contained both operative and accepted (non-operative) elements is beyond real doubt. Ashmole's familiarity with operative traditions is attested by his diary record of March 10 1682:

About 5pm I received a summons, to appear at a Lodge to be held the next day at Mason's Hall London. Accordingly I went, and About Noone Were admitted into the Fellowship of Free Masons, Sir William Wilson Knight, Capt. Rich: Borchwick, Mr. Will: Woodman, Mr Wm Grey Mr. Samuell Taylour & Mr. William Wise. I was the senior Fellow among them (it being 35 years since l was admitted). There were present beside my selfe the Fellowes after named. Mr. Thos: Wise Mr. of the Masons Company this present yeare. Mr. Thomas Shorthose, Mr. William Hamon, Mr. John Thompson, & Mr. Will: Stanton.

We all dyned at the Halfe Moone Taverne in Cheapside, at a Noble Dinner prepared at the charge of the New-accepted Masons.

The Masons Hall referred to was in Mason's Avenue, Basinghall Street, and the venue may have been chosen in line with the Masons Company connections of some of those present. Sir William Wilson (1641-1710) architect and stonemason, had been knighted a few days before. A native of Sutton Coldfield, eight miles from Lichfield, he was responsible for carving a still extant statue of Charles II which once stood above the west-door, clearly linking the reconstruction of the cathedral (initiated by Ashmole in 1660) to the patronage of the guardian of the privileges and tradition of the Church of England. (Charles is boldly described as Restaurator at the foot of the statue). Who would have thought that this eroded life-size statue (now standing by the south-door), represents Ashmole's union of Monarchy Church and Free Masonry in a single lump of durable sandstone?

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