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From The Old Charges Of British Freemasons
by William James Hughan, London 1895
We rest on firm ground, masonically, in respect to this, the smallest, handsomest and oldest version of the "Old Charges" extant. It is the "Additional MS. 23,198" preserved in the British Museum, and is duly described in the Catalogue of accessions to our National Library, 1875, (page 841).
The entry (folio 1) made by Sir Frederick Madden, as Keeper of the MSS., is to the effect that it was "Purchased of Mrs Caroline Baker, 14th Oct., 1859." There are also other modern notes on the folios 1 to 3, but of no importance; the MS. beginning on folio 4, and ending on folio 38. There are thus, 78 pages visible, the version being written on one side only of each leaf. There are forty leaves in all, of vellum (the first and last of which are pasted on the two covers respectively) measuring fully 4,25 inches by rather over 3,25 inches; the oak covers originally having had clasps, the ends of which still remain.
Herr Findel made a singular mistake as to this ancient MS. by styling it the "Cooke-Baker document". Mr. Matthew Cooke having brought out a reproduction in 1861 (after whom it was named by Masonic students), and Dr. Rawlinson having stated about 1730 that he had seen " One, of these rolls in the possession of Mr. Baker" (X2); led the German Masonic Historian to look upon these two MSS. as one and the same. It was a roll however, not a book, that was in possession of "the Carpenter in Moorfields" early last century, about which nothing has since transpired, and as to Mrs. Caroline Baker we are in like ignorance.
Mr. Cooke's transcript is fairly well done, as also his modernized reproduction, but the most unfortunate rendering of lines 140-1 "And in policronico a cronycle p'uyd" as printed, instead of preuyd " or proved, led most of us astray as to the period of the transcription of the original, until a careful examination of the text by Mr. Speth revealed the right word.
The " Polycronicon was not "Imprinted and set in forme" after "a little embellishment" by Caxton, until 1482 but the compilation in Latin by Ralph Higden (based, it is believed, upon extracts from numerous old Chronicles, by Roger, Monk of St. Werberg, Chester - Blades' Caxton, 1882), was circulated in Manuscript considerably more than a hundred years earlier, and Trevisa's translation was made in 1387. Some of the Masonic traditions (with variations) are to be found in this old work.
POLICRONICON, (Liber secundus)
''Therfor bookes that they had made by greet traueyl and studye he closed hem in two grete pilers made of marble and of brente tile. In a pyler of marbel for water, and in a pyler of tyle for fyre. For it should be saued by that manner to helpe of mankynde me seyth that the piler of stone escaped the flode."
And they toke her conselle to gedyr, & by alle here witte tbey seyde that were ij maner of stonn of suche vertu that the one wolde neuer brenne, & that stone is callyd marbylle, & that other stoun that wolle not synke in water, & that stone is namyd lacerus, and so they deuysyd to wryte alle the Sciens that they had ffounde in this ij stonys." (lines 262-272)
Mr. Edward A. Bond, late principal Librarian, stated (when Keeper of the MSS., 1869,) that the "Cooke MS." was "of the middle or latter part of the fifteenth century," but rather inclined to the first half of that century. This appears to be a safe estimate, the caligraphy apparently being about 1450, or possibly slightly earlier.
As Mr. Spencer's volume of 1861 is still in print, it will not be necessary to refer at length to the character and contents of this Manuscript, which in consequence of its date, and being the oldest bona fide copy of the "Old Charges" in existence, is of exceptional value and importance. The "Commentary" on the document by Mr. G. W. Speth, is exceedingly well done, on quite original lines, and ably describes and discusses the chief features of the text; other experts have also written most interestingly and helpfully on the subject, their various papers being enshrined in the "Ars Quatuor Coronatorum."
The MS. begins with an Invocation, or Introduction, which differs from the later versions generally, excepting the "William Watson" (a younger relative), and reads as follows
"Thonkyd be god our glorious ffadir, and founder and former of heuen and of erthe, and of alle thyngis that in hym is, that he wolde fochesaue of his glorious god hed for to make so mony thyngis of diuers vertu for mankind. ffor he made alle thyngis for to be abedient & soget [subject] to man."
The Seven Sciences are duly recorded, termed "fre in hem selfe," the narrative being founded on "the bybille and in othur stories;" Herodotus, the Policronicon, with the Histories "named Beda, De Imagine mundi & Isodorus ethomolegiarum, Methodius episcopus & martins." Then Noah's flood is mentioned in the account of Adam and his descendants; the preservation of the sciences they had discovered, by writing them on the two stones (which stones were subsequently found by Pythagoras and Hermes), are carefully detailed with other events, such as the building of the Tower of Babel and Nimrod's assistance of " Ashur, who was a worthy lord of Shinar" (Speth's rendering), and built the city of Nineveh when the " crafte of masonry was fyrst preferryd & charged hit for a sciens."
"Elders that were bi for us of masons [before our times] had these chargys wryten to hem as we haue now in owre chargys of the story of Euclidnis."
Euclid's method of employing and sustaining the superabundant population is described at length, and his Charge is cited, after which the experience of "the children of isrle" in Egypt and the "londe of hihest and is now callyd ierlem," with the spread of the Science of Geometry to France under "Carolus secundus that ys to sey Charles the secunde" are briefly described.
"And sonne after that come Seynt Ad habelle into Englond, and he conuertyd Seynt Albon to cristendome. And Seynt Albon lovyd welle masons and he yaf hem first here charges and maners first in Englond. And he ordeyned conuenyent to pay for their trauayle. And after that was a worthy Kynge in Englond that was callyd Athelstone, and his yongest sone lovyd welle the sciens of Gemetry, and he wyst welle that hand craft had the practyke of the sciens of Gemetry so welle as Masons, wherefore he drew hym to conselle and lernyd practyke of that sciens to his speculatyf ffor of speculatyfe he was a master and he yaf hem charges and names as hit is now vysd in Englond and in othere countres."
This youngest son of the King [Edwin] purchased a free patent of the King for the Masons to hold an Assembly, and take "counselle of the whiche charges, manors & semble as is write and taught in the boke of oure charges wher for I leue hit at this tyme." This brings the narrative down to line 642, the most of which is reproduced in the "William Watson " of later date; only that the junior MS. gives prominence to the improvement in wages secured by St. Albans for the Craftsmen, who also "got them charges and manners as St. Amphabell had taught him, & they doe but a little differ from ye charges yt be used at this time," and calls "Edwine" by name (the King's Son), as well as records the Assembly at York.
Line 643 evidently introduces another MS., so that the "Cooke" document really gives the chief portions of two versions, the second of which, as Mr. Speth first pointed out, is really the older of the two. The same excellent author suggests that the second MS. is " neither more nor less than the Boke of Chargys' itself" to which the transcriber alludes in the premier part.
"And further than this, it is undoubtedly the purest, least altered copy of these Constitultios that has at present come down to us, and therefore the must valuable; far exceeding in intrinsic value the metrical version of it preserved to us in the Regius MS. No. 17 A1, because less altered by poetical license. With two exceptions, I believe it to be in all probability, the exact counterpart of the first and original 'Constitution.' These are first the outer garb of language, which between, say the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, altered very considerably; and secondly, it is possible that the original version began with King Athelstan, and that the legend of Euclid represents the first of a long series of embellishments applied throughout the ages to the laws of the Craft."
In Mr. Speth's opinion, the "Matthew Cooke MS." taken as a whole, consists of a Commentary, preceding a version of the "Old Charges"; the former being incorporated with the Book itself by later transcribers.
I am not willing to give such a subordinate position to the first portion, which was probably as much derived from a separate copy of the "Old Charges" as the second, and possibly older part, only from a later compilation. It seems clear that the second MS. copied by the same scribe (early in the fifteenth century), was from an original document written some years prior to the first that was also reproduced by him; but I think it likely that there were two (or possibly more) independent versions circulating at that period, one older than the other, and that the copyist of what is known as the "Cooke MS." gave the chief portions of these documents.
It will be seen that the " William Watson " begins to differ from the "Cooke MS." soon after the 6ooth line of the latter is reached, and yet both before and after the recital of the Athelstan and Edwin legends, the continuity of the former document is well preserved, each division doing its part towards making up a complete and homogeneous version.
The older portion of the "Cooke MS., " (line 643), commences with the Euclid tradition, which appears to be cited to form a preface to the Regulations agreed to for the Masons by King Athelstan and his Council. In the previous clauses it is stated that the free patent obtained from this Sovereign provided that they might hold an assembly at what time they thought reasonable, whereas in those following from line 643, it is ordered that they should congregate once a year, or every three years as they deemed desirable. The reference to York as the first city selected for these Annuals is not met with until the sixteenth century MSS. are reached, neither is the mileage specified for obligatory attendance at such gatherings before that period.
There are nine "Articles" and as many " Points" framed on similar lines to those found in the ordinary versions, each Brother of the Craft being enjoined to "hele the councelle of his fellows in logge and in chambre, &c.," so as to duly discharge their duties as members of their particular Fraternity. The agreement as to these Regulations, between the "Regius" and the "Cooke," as well as (substantially) the later versions is remarkable, and proves how desirous the members were to preserve the earliest laws intact, allowance being made for changes in phraseology, habits and circumstances. How much and how long these Laws were operative or accepted as the actual Regulations for the government of the Craft during the period covered from the twelfth to the end of the seventeenth century, are matters requiring most careful consideration and elucidation; for as the years rolled onward, the Laws, ["Articles and "Points"] gradually became quite as much of traditional import as the legendary history, and of just as little practical utility, save as moral guides on which to base the later Constitutions of the Fraternity. Ultimately, the "Old Charges " from beginning to end became obsolete, and were only preserved as objects of curiosity, copied to exhibit the ancient customs, and accepted simply as containing Regulations of the Brotherhood, when mainly, if not exclusively, operative. So long as the Fraternity lasts they should be revered, studied and followed in spirit as far as possible. In this view the nearer we get to the original form or version of the "Old Charges," the better we shall he able to appreciate and estimate the value of all later varieties.
The great importance of the "Cooke" versions is therefore established, including all transcripts of the same Family, especially the invaluable "William Watson" scroll. The opinion held for sometime by Dr. Begemann that the "Cooke" text has served in part as a prototype for the ordinary versions of the old Constitutions, which have come down to us from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is abundantly confirmed by discoveries made during the present decade. But no cautious student would give the preference to the "Cooke MS." simply because it is the senior of the numerous versions, seeing that a later transcript may be truer to the original and more complete. The chief two members of this Family are about equally balanced as to their textual value, but if either be the superior, the preference should be awarded to the "William Watson" version, because of its "transparent unity," the "Cooke MS." not being consistent and uniform throughout.
From line 901 to 960 the Manuscript refers to the necessity of attendance at the Congregation by "the Master and ye felawes," when duly warned; the "Schereffe of ye countre or the mayer of ye cyte, or alderman of ye towne in wyche the congregation ys holde" being empowered to help the Master against Rebels, &c.. "New men" were to be charged as to their duty to the Craft, to "be trewe to the Kynge of Englond and to the reme and that kepe wt all thr myght and alle the articles a for sayd." Penalties were to follow anyone who was disobedient, even to "forswere his masonri and schale no more vse his Craft." The Sheriff was to imprison those who continued contumacious and "take all his godys in to ye Kyngs hond." The concluding words "Amen so mote hit be" are alter the manner of the "Regius MS."
These lines 901-60 were apparently familiar to Dr. Anderson, who quoted from them, or others such, in his " Constitutions" of 1723, and stated they were from "another Manuscript more ancient " than the "Record of Free Masons written in the Reign of King Edward IV," from which he had been making liberal extracts, and which referred to the approval of " King Hlenry VI and the Lords of his honourable Council" (page 38). Though not ipsissima verba as the "Cooke MS.," the excerpts are so little garbled that their origin may be accurately determined. With the Doctor's love of variety, similar extracts, only modified and differently arranged, are given in the 2nd edition (1738), as under the Reign of Edward III., (p.71).
From the Diary of the Rev. William Stukeley, M.D., (Surtees' Society, 1880-5), who was initiated in London, January 6th, 1721, we read, under June 24th of that year,
''The Masons had a dinner at Stationers' Hall, present, Duke of Montague, Ld. Herbert, Ld. Stanhope, Sir And. Fountain, &c. Dr. Desaguliers pronounced an oration. The Gd. Mr., Mr. Pain, produce'd an old MS. of the Constitutions, which he got in the West of England, 500 years old."
The Editor of these "Stukeley's Diaries and Letters " (the Rev. W. C. Lukis), found amongst some old papers of Dr. Stukeley's a tracing of part of "the first and last pages of a Vellum MS.," which was there and then exhibited (A.D. 1721), and were evidently partial facsimiles of the "Cooke MS.," so that there is no reason to doubt Dr. Anderson's familiarity with this celebrated MS. of Mr. George Payne's. The latter gentleman first compiled the "General Regulations" when he was Grand Master, A.D. 1720, (which are printed in Anderson's Constitutions, 1723 - pp. 58-74), and doubtless afforded the author every assistance, as he was "order'd to digest the old Gothic Constitutions in a new and better method."
Reproduced in 1861 by the Editor, Matthew Cooke, in his " History and Articles of Masonry," (London, Richard Spencer), in simulated facsimile. Also Vol. II. "Masonic Reprints" of the Q.C. Lodge, 1890, in full facsimile with transcript, a modernized version and Commentary by Mr. G. W. Speth, the Editor. Likewise 100 copies in facsimile, and bound in exact imitation of the precious original.
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Last modified: March 22, 2014