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History Of Masonry In England Under St. Austin, King Alfred, and Athelstane; and also under the Knights Templars


BOOK Iv - The History of Masonry in England

illustrations of masonry
william preston

After the departure of the Romans from Britain, masonry made but a slow progress, and in a little time was almost totally neglected, on account of the irruptions of the Picts and Scots, which obliged the southern inhabitants of the island to solicit the assistance of the Saxons, to repel these invaders. As the Saxons increased, the native Britons sunk into obscurity, and ere long yielded the superiority to their protectors, who acknowledged their sovereignty and jurisdiction. These rough and ignorant heathens, despising every thing but war, soon put a finishing stroke to all the remains of ancient learning which had escaped the fury of the Picts and Scots. They continued their depredations with unrestrained rigour, till the arrival of some pious teachers from Wales and Scotland, when many of these savages being reconciled to Christianity, masonry got into repute, and lodges were again formed; but these being under the direction of foreigners, were seldom convened, and never attained to any degree of consideration or importance.

Masonry continued in a declining state till the year 557, when Austin, with forty more monks, among whom the sciences had been preserved, came into England. Austin was commissioned by pope Gregory, to baptize Ethelbert king of Kent, who appointed him the first archbishop of Canterbury. This monk, and his associates, propagated the principles of christianity among the inhabitants of Britain, and by their influence, in little more than sixty years, all the kings of the heptarchy were converted. Masonry flourished under the patronage of Austin, and many foreigners came at this time into England, who introduced the Gothic style of building. Austin seems to have been a zealous encourager of architecture, for he appeared at the head of the fraternity in founding the old cathedra of Canterbury in 600, and the cathedral of Rochester in 602; St. Paul's, London, in 604; St. Peter's, Westminster, in 605; and many others. Several palaces and castles were built under his auspices, as well as other fortifications on the borders of the kingdom, by which means the number of masons in England was considerably increased.

Some expert brethren arrived from France in 680, and formed themselves into a lodge, under the direction of Bennet, abbot of Wirral, who was soon after appointed by Kenred, king of Mercia, inspector of the lodges, and general superintendant of the masons.

During the heptarchy, masonry continued in a low state; but in the year 856, it revived under the patronage of St. Swithin, who was employed by Ethelwolph, the Saxon king, to repair some pious houses; and from that time it gradually improved till the reign of Alfred, A. D. 872, when, in the person of that prince, it found a zealous protector.

Masonry has generally kept pace with the progress of learning; the patrons and encouragers of the latter having been most remarkable for cultivating and promoting the former. No prince studied more to polish and improve the understandings of his subjects than Alfred, and no one ever proved a better friend to masonry. By his indefatigable assiduity in the pursuit of knowledge, his example had powerful influence, and he speedily reformed the dissolute and barbarous manners of his people. Mr. Hume, in his History of England, relates the following particulars of this celebrated prince:

"Alfred usually divided his time into three equal portions: one was employed in sleep, and the refection of his body by diet and exercise; another in the dispatch of business; and a third, in study and devotion. That he might more exactly measure the hours, he made use of burning tapers of equal lengths, which he fixed in lanthorns; and expedient suited to that rude age, when the art of describing sun-dials, and the mechanism of clocks and watches, were totally unknown. By this regular distribution of time, though he often laboured under great bodily infirmities, this martial hero, who fought in person fifty-six battles by sea and land, was able, during a life of no extraordinary length, to acquire more knowledge, and even to compose more books, than most studious men, blest with greater leisure and application, have done in more fortunate ages."

As this prince was not negligent in encouraging the mechanical arts, masonry claimed a great part of his attention. He invited from all quarters industrious foreigners to repeople his country, which had been desolated by the ravages of the Danes. He introduced and encouraged manufactures of all kinds among them: no inventor or improver of any ingenious art did he suffer to go unrewarded; and he appropriated a seventh part of his revenue for maintaining a number of workmen, whom he constantly employed in rebuilding his ruined cities, castles, palaces, and monasteries. The university of Oxford was founded by him.

On the death of Alfred in 900, Edward succeeded to the throne, during whose reign the masons continued to hold their lodges, under the sanction of Ethred, his sister's husband, and Ethelward, his brother, to whom the care of the fraternity was intrusted. Ethelward was a prince of great learning, and an able architect; he founded the university of Cambridge.

Edward died in 924, and was succeeded by Athelstane his son, who appointed his brother Edwin, patron of the masons, This prince procured a charter from Athelstane, empowering them to meet annually in communication at York, where the first Grand Lodge of England was formed in 926, at which Edwin presided as Grand Master. Here many old writings were produced, in Greek, Latin, and other languages, from which the constitutions of the English lodges are originally derived.

Athelstane kept his court for some time at York, where he received several embassies from foreign princes, with rich presents of various kinds. He was loved, honoured, and admired by all the princes of Europe, who sought his friendship and courted his alliance. He was a mild sovereign, a kind brother, and a true friend. The only blemish which historians find in the whole reign of Athelstane, is the supposed murder of his brother Edwin. This youth, who was distinguished for his virtues, having died two years before his brother, a false report was spread, of his being wrongfully put to death by him. But this is so improbable in itself, so inconsistent with the character of Athelstane, and indeed so slenderly attested, as to be undeserving a place in history.

The activity and princely conduct of Edwin qualified him, in every respect, to preside over so celebrated a body of men as the masons, who were employed under him in repairing and building many churches and superb edifices, which had been destroyed by the ravages of the Danes and other invaders, not only in the city of York, but at Beverley, and other places.

On the death of Edwin, Athelstane undertook in person the direction of the lodges, and the art of masonry was propagated in peace and security under his sanction.

When Athelstane died, the masons dispersed, and the lodges continued in an unsettled state till the reign of Edgar in 960, when the fraternity were again collected by St. Dunstan, under whole auspices they were employed on some pious structures, but met with no permanent encouragement.

After Edgar's death, masonry remained in a low condition upwards of fifty years. In 1041, it revived under the patronage of Edward the Confessor, who superintended the execution of several great works. He rebuilt Westminster Abbey, assisted by Leofrick earl of Coventry, whom he appointed to superintend the masons. The Abbey of Coventry, and many other structures, were finished by this accomplished architect.

William the Conqueror having acquired the crown of England in 1066, he appointed Gundulph bishop of Rochester, and Roger de Montgomery earl of Shrewsbury, joint patrons of the masons, who at this time excelled both in civil and military architecture. Under their auspices the fraternity were employed in building the Tower of London, which was completed in the reign of William Rufus, who rebuilt London-bridge with wood, and first constructed the palace and hall of Westminster in 1087.

On the accession of Henry I. the lodges continued to assemble. From this prince, the first Magna Charta, or charter of liberties, was obtained by the Normans. Stephen succeeded Henry in 1135, and employed the fraternity in building a chapel at Westminster, now the House of Commons, and several other works. These were finished under the direction of Gilbert de Clare marquis of Pembroke, who at this time presided over the lodges.

During the reign of Henry II. the Grand Master of the Knights Templars superintended the masons, and employed them in building their Temple in Fleet-street, A. D. 1155. Masonry continued under the patronage of this Order till the year 1199, when John succeeded his brother Richard in the crown of England. Peter de Colechurch was then appointed Grand Master. He began to rebuild London-bridge with stone, which was afterwards finished by William Alcmain in 1209. Peter de Rupibus succeeded Peter de Colechurch in the office of Grand Master, and Geoffrey Fitz-Peter, chief surveyor of the king's works, acted as his deputy. Under the auspices of these two artists, masonry flourished during the remainder of this and the following reign.

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