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Masonic essays (1998)


The seeds of masonry were sown when our primeval ancestors took their first faltering steps on their path to civilisation. Masonry began as an entirely practical enterprise, to satisfy the wants of day to day living. As civilisation developed masonry became involved in the erection of tombs, shrines, temples and other structures for religious purposes, reflecting mankind's growing spirituality. Over the centuries, such an intimate association with moral and spiritual influences naturally developed the speculative aspects of masonry concurrently with the operative art. By medieval times, the moral teachings of speculative freemasonry were well established and had become a significant part of the ceremonial activities in operative lodges. It is generally accepted that speculative freemasonry, as we know it today, owes its origin to operative masonry, although there are few written records of the early stages of the transition. In fact, the ways in which operative masonry came to be superseded by speculative freemasonry were not the same in all places.

As those who established the first speculative lodges did not record their reasons for doing so, we can only surmise that they valued the esoteric teachings of the operative lodges. However, we know that Drs James Anderson and John Desaguliers, influential Presbyterian clergymen and members of the Royal Society, who were leaders in the reorganisation of the early lodges that culminated in the establishment of the first Grand Lodge, both fervently believed that speculative freemasonry should be part of the emerging philosophy of Enlightenment and provide a forum for advanced thought and discussion. This undoubtedly should still be freemasonry's prime objective.

In England, the medieval operative lodges were virtually defunct in the first half of the 1600s because of the Reformation, although a few brave stalwarts kept the speculative aspects alive, but hidden from public knowledge. A few operative lodges were reassembled later for particular projects, but purely speculative lodges seem to have emerged independently of them only a few decades before four old lodges met in London in 1716 to form the first or "Premier" Grand Lodge, establishing England as the home of speculative freemasonry. In Scotland, where operative masonry continued to function into the second half of the eighteenth century, the situation was quite different. Operative lodges in Scotland generally were small and often were family concerns, so that when there was a lull in the work, or work ceased to be available altogether, many though not all lodges continued to function socially, often becoming speculative lodges. Although operative masonry in Ireland was active until at least 1700, there is no evidence that any operative lodges became speculative lodges as in Scotland, all apparently being established independently as in England.


To appreciate how operative lodges developed their speculative content, providing a basis from which speculative lodges could develop, some understanding of the origins of masonry, its functions and the scope of its activities is desirable. The birth of the operative art occurred towards the end of the Old Stone Age, when the Early Hunters began to move out of their caves and learnt to construct huts from locally available materials. About 35,000 years ago at the height of the last Ice Age, the Advanced Hunters originated representational art in the form of figurines and carvings. They also developed painting around 15,000 years ago and became the unlikely progenitors of architecture and masonry about 12,000 years ago, being the first builders to use stone when they constructed circular huts with stone footings in Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia. These humble beginnings of civilisation heralded in the Agricultural Revolution which the Late Hunters started in the New Stone Age.

The gradual development of settlements in Mesopotamia, Greece, Crete and Cyprus provided the impetus for the first production of mud bricks and the use of stone for perimeter walls and dykes, which were used in the construction of Jericho around 8000 BC. By about 6500 BC masonry had developed sufficiently for the circular "beehive" houses in Cyprus to be constructed with stone foundations and walls that supported corbelled domes of mud brick. About the same time in Turkey, construction of the town of Catal Huyuk was begun. It had a peak population in the vicinity of 8,000 people and continued in occupation until about 5500 BC, being the site of the earliest known religious buildings. This ushered in almost 8,000 years of continuous and intimate association of masonry with religion, commencing with the earliest period of temple and monumental masonry in the Copper Age. This period began in Mesopotamia, where progressively larger and more complex temples were erected. They were typified by one continuous series discovered at Eridu in Sumer and dating from about 5500 BC to 3000 BC. Work during this period in Egypt is typified by the chambered mastaba tombs constructed for royal burials.

A period of massive monumental masonry followed, typified by the huge ziggurat of Ur-Nammu in Mesopotamia and the three great pyramids of Giza in Egypt, dating from about 3000 BC to 2500 BC. Massive temple building continued in Egypt, being represented by such well known complexes as those at Karnak and Abu Simbel, completed since 2000 BC. Masonry carried out in this magnitude required huge gangs of skilled workers, trained, organised and supervised by master masons of great experience. The Biblical description of the construction of King Solomon's Temple, about 950 BC, provides ample evidence of the work force and skills required for such structures in those days. The classical masonry of Greece that commenced around 500 BC and of Rome that commenced around 150 BC, required similar work forces and skills. This was followed by an incredible period of cathedral construction in Europe and Britain, commencing about 500 AD and continuing for more than a thousand years, during which innumerable religious structures were built.

"Ecclesiastical" masonry was not confined to these regions, but spread from the Levant throughout Asia, producing a vast array of religious complexes and structures of monumental proportions, of which a few examples will be mentioned. The intricate though massive temple of Borubudur in Java, constructed around 800 AD, is the largest individual religious monument in South-East Asia. The awe-inspiring temple-city complex of Ankor in Cambodia, constructed around 1000 AD, occupies an area of almost 200 square kilometres. The breathtaking Taj Mahal in India, constructed of pure white marble around 1650 AD and "designed to breathe an image of Paradise on earth", undoubtedly is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. Nor should we overlook the remarkable structures in Central and South America, of which the overwhelming city-temple complex at Tikal in Gautemala, constructed by the Mayans around 500 AD, is a prime example. The citadel and city-temple complex of Machu Picchu, constructed by the Incas at an elevation of almost 3,000 metres in the Andes Mountains, around 1450 AD, also is well known. Such an incredible array of ecclesiastical buildings, erected in so many places during the last 8,000 years, clearly show the intimate integration of masonry with religious activities.


There are differing opinions as to the origin of the word "freemason". The first known use of the word in England dates from 1376, when it specifically implied an operative mason of a superior class. However, it is quite possible that when the word was first used in different places, the reasons for its use and its interpretations could have been different, therefore some of the various explanations are worth mentioning. Bearing in mind the close association with France and the common use of the French language in medieval times, the suggestion that the word is a corrupt pronunciation of the French "frerè maçon", meaning "brother mason", ought not to be dismissed lightly. Another suggestion is that it is a derivative of the more general "freeman", that was used in the late Middle Ages to distinguish those having personal liberty from serfs, slaves or others subject to the restrictions then prevalent. The stonemasons who specialised in using freestone to carve and sculpt decorative masonry for the vaulting, tracery, columns and capitals in English cathedral building were first called "masons of free stone", then "freestone masons", which later was abbreviated to "freemasons". There is an entirely different derivation in Scotland, dating from about 1600, when the minutes of the Lodge of Edinburgh record that the Freedom of the Burgh had been accorded to its "frie mesones", giving them the right to practice their Craft. In 1725 the same lodge is referred to in the Burgh records as "the Society of Free Masons", again confirming their right to practice.

Operative masons held their meetings in their stoneyards or in suitable buildings on the worksite. In operative practice the "lodge" originally was the place of work, especially the stone yards. The word is derived from the Old French "loge" meaning an arbour, later adopted into Middle English to mean a stall, as in a modern theatre. The earliest known reference to a "lodge" as a building occurs in the building accounts of Vale Royal Abbey in 1277, when "logias" and "mansiones" were erected for the workers, the site of the abbey being some distance from habitation. "Logias" derives from Old French and "mansiones" from Middle Latin, respectively signifying "to lodge" and "a household", reflecting the use of French and Latin in England in those days. There are many references to lodges in later operative documents, including one from York in 1399 which clearly indicates that the lodge also served as a repository for tools and implements. The body of masons comprising an operative work force may also have been called a "lodge" in medieval times, but there is no known record of that usage dating from then. The earliest recorded uses of "lodge" to indicate a body of masons are from operative practice in Scotland. They occur in the minutes of Aitchison's Haven Lodge in 1598 and also in the "Schaw Statutes" of 1598 and 1599, in which three organised bodies of masons are referred to as the Lodges of Edinburgh, Kilwinning and Stirling. Thereafter it was common practice in Scotland to refer to a body of masons as a lodge.


In England, a majority of the operative lodges worked under the immediate control of a religious establishment such as a cathedral, often for periods extending over several generations of their work forces. However, they also came under the guardianship of craft guilds, originally in the form of religious fraternities, which were organised to protect the interests of skilled workers in the various trades. These guilds were well established in England in the reign of Henry I, around 1153. The London Company, formed as a stonemasons' guild around 1356, probably is the best known. Its original constitution, recorded in the Regius Manuscript, dates from about 1390 and is the earliest written record of such guilds in England. The guilds continued to operate very successfully until the Reformation of 1530-1560, notwithstanding the statutes of 1360 and 1425 which forbade the organisation of masons, apparently to limit the escalation of wages when labour was short. Although it did not become common practice until almost a century later, apprentices were bonded under indentureships to their masters from about 1230, when the earliest known London regulation was issued.

In the final year of his reign, Henry VIII proclaimed and enforced the Act of 1547, which disendowed all religious fraternities. His son and successor, Edward VI, confiscated any remaining guild funds. The available records indicate that, of all the fraternities in England, the stonemasons probably suffered the worst under this process of disendowment. Those fragmented guilds that survived the Reformation developed into Livery Companies, many of which still exist in the City of London. Prior to the Act of 1547 the old London Company was known variously as "The Fellowship of Masons" or "The Worshipful Company of Ffree Masons of the City of London". It was kept alive through the Reformation, though hidden from official eyes, jealously guarding its medieval craft doctrines and secrets. Although the Company's books and documents prior to 1620 have been lost, the letter-books and other records of the City of London confirm the Company's continuity through to 1655, when it changed its title to "The Company of Masons". The records show that membership has included several women, of whom one was apprenticed as late as 1713 for the usual term of seven years.


Although the operative lodges in Scotland developed in a similar way to those in England, there were many more lodges in Scotland, usually much smaller than those in England. There is no record of Scottish operative lodges having a traditional history like that used in English lodges, but they had the "Mason Word" which was guarded jealously. The organisation of operative lodges in Scotland also differed from that of their English counterparts, especially in the formative years of the trade. Operative lodges in Scotland usually worked independently, the buildings generally being smaller and more dispersed than in England, with travel both difficult and time consuming. As a consequence, the whole mason trade in Scotland originally revolved around individual lodges. However, the many territorial lodges in Scotland were gradually organised under the supervision of head lodges, not all of which were located in large towns. This system prevailed until Scotland was disrupted by the Wars of Independence, 1286-1371, which caused extreme poverty and forced the Mason Guilds to amalgamate with the organisations of other Crafts, though not destroying their continuity.

Despite the continuing efforts of Parliament to suppress the travelling bands of craftsmen, the lodges of masons in Scotland gradually rebuilt their own organisation, which grew in power as the Merchant Guilds declined. By 1475 the Masons and Wrights of Edinburgh were strong enough to obtain from the Burgh a "Charter of Incorporation of Freemen-Masons and Wrights of Edinburgh", called the "Seal of Cause", when Trade Regulations also were drawn up. Thenceforth operative masonry in Scotland remained active and strong, despite the Reformation, culminating with the drafting of the "Schaw Statutes", first drawn up in 1598 and also revised in 1599 by William Schaw, who had been appointed Master of Work and General Warden of the Masons by James VI in 1583. The "Schaw Statutes" provided an elaborate code of organisation and procedure within a regional structure. By the end of the seventeenth century at least six "Seals of Cause" had been granted in various localities.


Although there is ample visible evidence that stonemasons must have begun working in Ireland about the same time as in England and Scotland, it is Cormac's Chapel at Cashel, built by a Munster king in 1130, that is the first positive connection with Irish operative masonry. The Chancel Arch at St Mary's Cathedral in Tuam, which was built in 1152, is another fine example of the skill of early Irish operative masons. The first evidence of guild activity in Ireland is the Charter granted in 1508 to the Dublin Masons, in company with the Carpenters, Millers and Heliers (Tilers). There is no evidence that Irish operative lodges had a traditional history equivalent to that of their English counterparts, but there is ample evidence that they were using their working tools as symbols for moral instruction early in the sixteenth century.


As long ago as the 1500's many Scots lodges welcomed local "lairds" or landowners as honorary members. The Dublin Guild, chartered in 1508, also accepted people who were neither operative masons nor craftsmen in any other trade. Some time prior to 1600 the Lodge of Edinburgh, meeting in Mary's Chapel at Holyrood House, admitted a gentleman by the name of John Boswell, the Laird of Auchinleck. He was an ancestor of another famous mason, James Boswell, who was Depute Grand Master of Scotland 1776-1778 and the biographer of Dr. Johnson. The same lodge, then meeting near Newcastle in 1641, admitted as a member the Right Honourable Robert Murray, General Quartermaster of the Scots army and later Secretary of Scotland, who was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1673 under the title of Sir Robert Moray. This is the earliest known record of an initiation of a speculative Freemason on English soil.

Murray's initiation preceded by five years the initiation of first known English speculative freemason, Elias Ashmole, who in 1646 was admitted into a lodge at Warrington, in Lancashire. Research has identified the members of the Warrington lodge as men of good social position, not one of whom was an operative mason, but nothing is known of the dates and places of their admissions into freemasonry. This lack of information is common in the minutes of early English speculative lodges and accounts for much of the uncertainty regarding their origins and activities, suggesting that English speculative lodges may have been in existence longer than is generally assumed. This lack of records probably was not through laxity, but to avoid persecution during the political and religious disruptions that had plagued England since the Reformation. From 1663 onwards, the records of "The Company of Masons" in London also give details of the admission of several "non-operative" members.


A speculative lodge of unknown origin at Warrington has already been mentioned. Four old lodges met at the Centre of Union and Harmony in London in 1716 to form the first Grand Lodge of England and elected Anthony Sayer as its first Grand Master of Masons on 24th June 1717. They were all speculative, although the lodge referred to as the "Original No 1", which met at the "Goose and Gridiron", appears to have been composed primarily of operative stonemasons. It probably was established by members of an operative lodge formed for the rebuilding of St Paul's Cathedral, which was begun in 1675, some nine years after the medieval cathedral had been destroyed in the disastrous Great Fire of London. The earliest known reference to an Irish speculative lodge is a witty passage contained in the "commencements harrangue", or opening address, given in 1688 by John Jones at Trinity College in Dublin, after the College had been overrun for several years by operative masons erecting new buildings. When the Grand Lodge of Ireland, which is the second oldest in the world, was formed in 1725, six "Lodges of Gentlemen Freemasons" were represented, of which two are still in existence.

By contrast with England and Ireland, most Scottish operative lodges continued into the 1750's, some even longer. Many of them seem to have transformed into speculative lodges almost as a matter of course. The strong and continuing influence of the regional operative structure in Scotland, probably helped to delay the formation of the Grand Lodge of Scotland until 1736. At least two of the first lodges amalgamating to form that Grand Lodge, the Lodges of Edinburgh (Mary's Chapel) and of Canongate Kilwinning, originally were operative lodges and are still active. Several speculative lodges joining the new Grand Lodge soon after, including Glasgow and Kilwinning, also have records proving their continuity from operative lodges. Lodge Kilwinning, which is known as "Mother Kilwinning", takes its name from the Abbey of Kilwinning (the church of Wynin), about 35 kilometres south-west of Glasgow. The Abbey was founded about 1150 on the site of a church built in the sixth century by the Irish monk St Wynin. It originally was of considerable magnificence, but was substantially destroyed in 1561. A lodge of Kilwinning is reputed to have existed continuously since the fifteenth century.


Although the ceremonial in the earliest operative lodges may not have been elaborate, there is every reason to believe that the "Mason Word" was well established in Scotland by 1550 and probably accompanied by the bestowal of a mark, although the exact method of communication is not known. Nevertheless, it is clear from various old catechisms that the word was conferred with some form of ceremony similar to that of a present-day speculative Master Mason. A fairly comprehensive explanation is given in the "Edinburgh Register House MS", believed to date from 1696. There were several variations of the word, very similar to those in use today. Having regard to the lack of literacy in those days, it is remarkable that the words are recognizable. The earliest published reference is in Henry Adamson's "The Muses Threnodie", printed in Edinburgh in 1638: "For we are brethren of the Rosie Cross; we have the Mason Word . . ." One of the earliest references to the instruction of Fellows of Craft in the "Mason Word", as well as to the instruction of "prentices" by Entered Apprentices, is found in the minutes of Aitchison's Haven Lodge in 1598.


A great deal of modern speculative ceremonial is derived from the practices in operative lodges, including preparation of the candidate, entrance of the candidate into the lodge room, perambulation within the lodge room and the use of working tools and tracing boards. None of these is identical with its operative predecessor, but sufficiently similar as to leave no doubt of its origin. In Scotland an apprentice completed seven years (sometimes a longer or shorter period) under indenture, after which he was "entered" in the books of the lodge and became an Entered Apprentice. He was then allowed to do a certain amount of work on his own account, although not allowed to employ subordinate labour. After another seven years or so he became a Fellow of Craft and could undertake contracts as an employer. This system was a feature of operative free masonry in Scotland at least as early as 1598 and it has been established beyond doubt that admission to the grades of Entered Apprentice and Fellow of Craft was of an esoteric nature by then. In England the titles of Entered Apprentice and Fellowcraft were not known until 1723, when they were included in the first "Book of Constitutions" written by Dr James Anderson, a Scotsman educated at Marischal College in Aberdeen.

Preparation of the candidate in operative practice included bathing and examination by a physician to ascertain wholeness and soundness of body. The candidate was blindfolded and "neither naked nor clothed", being conducted into the lodge room under the restraint of cabletows. The challenge at the door was similar to modern practice. Perambulations were clockwise around the candidate's track during the induction ceremony, but all other movements in the lodge room were by the most direct method, as is the practice in Emulation lodges to the present day. The left heel slipshod comes directly from operative practice, where it received even greater emphasis than it does in speculative freemasonry, being used to remind the candidate of the binding nature of his indentureship. This aspect of operative practice still survives in a familiar mode of interrogation in Scottish freemasonry.

In Scottish lodges, until near the end of the seventeenth century, the presiding officer was usually called a Deacon, Warden or Preses. After then his title usually was Master Mason, perpetuating the operative title of Master which referred to the mason who organised and took charge of the building work, usually the proprietor of the lodge engaged as the contractor for the work. The Grand Lodge of Scotland has always used the title of Grand Master Mason for its chief presiding office bearer. In England, until the end of the seventeenth century, Master and Master Mason were used only in reference to the Mason in charge of a building operation. The earliest recorded use of the title is with reference to John of Gloucester, who was Master Mason for the erection of Westminster Hall from 1254 to 1262. It was in this sense that the title of Master was used in the "Old Charges" that are set out in the Levander-York MS, which is believed to have been written in 1560. It is interesting to note that, when referring to the members of the lodge as distinct from its office bearers, those "Old Charges" also distinguish between Apprentices, Brothers and Fellows, though not as specifically as in Scottish operative practice.


In common with all ancient societies and religions, tradition plays an important role in freemasonry. In this context tradition refers to knowledge and doctrines transmitted to successive generations, rather than to ritualistic procedures. Masonic traditions are primarily communicated in legends and traditional histories. Traditions, such as those relating to the untimely death of Hiram Abif, frequently are allegorical and should be considered in the light of the truths they illustrate, rather than as historical fact. They should not be rejected for the want of irrefutable evidence. It is of interest to note that neither the Irish nor the Scottish operative masons had a traditional history similar to that included in the Old Charges of English Freemasonry, but that both used the working tools as vehicles of moral instruction.

The lectures given to English medieval stonemasons usually included a mythological history of the Craft, tracing it back into antiquity. Although these lectures varied considerably from locality to locality, they usually emphasised the influence of Nimrod and dramatised the construction of King Solomon's Temple. English tradition also features a supposed Great Assembly of Masons held at York in 926 with the approval and encouragement of King Athelstan. Whilst it is accepted that the traditional continuity of masonic patriarchs and "Grand Masters" from Adam or Noah to the present has no basis in fact, the medieval stories should not be dismissed arbitrarily because, like all myths, they contain elements of truth.

For example, Nimrod is the first great builder referred to in the Old Testament. He did establish a huge team of stonemasons and is recorded in Genesis as the founder of Ninevah which has been occupied continuously since 5000 BC. Likewise the construction of King Solomon's Temple was a stupendous task in its time. The Biblical record of the methods and workforce then used reflect a remarkable affinity with those of the medieval cathedral builders. Recent investigations at the temple site in Jerusalem support the existence of a vault under the Holy of Holies, which traditionally is reputed to have been constructed by King Solomon for use as a secret meeting room and repository.

There is no known record of the Northumbrian King Athelstan's influence on masonry, but the "Venerable Bede", an historian of antiquity, records at least as significant an event in York. Around 500 AD an earlier Northumbrian King, Prince Edwin, was converted to Christianity by his Kentish wife with the assistance of Bishop Paulinus. As a consequence of this, Prince Edwin built the first church in York for Paulinus and it became the centre of the Bishopric, after which the whole of Northumbria became Christian. Thus began a long and auspicious association of York with English freemasonry, which has continued unbroken to the present day.

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