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speculative craft freemasonry


part I - the heritage of freemasonry

W. M. Don Falconer PM, PDGDC

It is now generally accepted that speculative craft freemasonry began to emerge in the seventeenth century.


Guild masonry


Speculative craft freemasonry is a descendant, directly and indirectly, of the Guild masonry of the Middle Ages. The skill of the medieval operative freemasons was outstanding, reflecting the experience gained throughout the evolution of civilisation over some 12,000 years, using brick and stone to construct every conceivable building from the humblest dwellings to the stateliest edifices. The medieval freemasons were renowned for the cathedrals they built and their work was the pinnacle of operative freemasonry. The expression craft freemasonry is used to distinguish purely speculative freemasonry from the practical craft of operative freemasonry, but it should not be inferred that there was no speculative component in the work carried out in medieval operative lodges. They had developed their own rich tradition and ceremonials, some very similar in presentation to the Passion Plays of the Middle Ages. As the medieval guilds were highly secretive concerning their private proceedings, information about their ceremonials is sketchy. Very few relevant records have survived from Guild masonry in England. This fact has often led masonic writers to infer that operative freemasonry had no speculative component and therefore that speculative freemasonry could not have derived from it. Having regard to the circumstances prevailing in those times, it is remarkable that any documentary evidence has survived and been discovered!


Lodges of operative masons must have worked independently in the earliest days, because travel was difficult and time consuming. However, some time in the twelfth century the operative masons in England appear to have been organised under the protection of craft guilds that came into existence to watch over the interests of skilled workers in the various trades. The guilds were known as Fellowships or Fraternities and with the exception of the operative masons their constituent trades worked under the provisions of relevant ordinances. Craft guilds were also religious fraternities, whose members were required to attend church frequently, if not regularly. Frith, or family peace guilds, existed in London around the middle of the tenth century. The first merchant guild is believed to have originated in Dover around the middle of the eleventh century, when the weaver guilds also appear to have been formed. There is no doubt that many craft guilds were well established in England during the reign of Henry I, by around 1135. There is evidence that annual assemblages of masons were being held from the 1300s onwards and that they were the gatherings that Henry VI unsuccessfully sought to prohibit by the Statutes of 1436-1437. Under the guild system many families rose from serfdom to become employers in a few generations. The system was highly successful until the Reformation, when Henry VIII enforced the Act of 1547. It disendowed all religious fraternities, including lodges of operative masons. Henry VIII confiscated most of the guilds’ possessions and his son Edward VI seized nearly all of the remaining guild funds that had been dedicated to religious purposes. It was then that most guild records were destroyed to conceal the identities of members of the guilds who might otherwise have suffered persecution. The operative masons appear to have been the worst affected by the confiscations of property and funds.


As in the other craft guilds, lodges of operative masons were subject to a strong religious influence and their ceremonials had a significant religious component. Practical work and its related instruction took place in the stone yards, but all moral and ethical instruction and matters relating to general conduct, as well as the modes of recognition, were imparted in the ceremonial lodges held weekly on Saturdays commencing at noon. All apprentices were obligated and indentured in the ceremonial lodges, where candidates for promotion also were examined, tested for proficiency in the non-manual aspects of their work, obligated and entrusted. Lodges of operative masons were unique, because the rules and regulations for their establishment and operation were set out in documents called the Old Charges. The possession of an authentic copy of the Old Charges was the authority under which a lodge worked. The Old Charges included a traditional history, rules governing work practices and codes of conduct for behaviour at church, in the home and in company. The oldest known record of the Old Charges is a document written by a priest, comprising thirty-three vellum sheets and entitled the Poem of the Craft of Masonry, believed to have been based on a much older document. It is known as the Regius MS or Halliwell MS and is Document No 23,198 in the British Museum. It was discovered in 1839 and was thought to have been written about 1390, which was later revised to 1410. In modern terminology it is classified as dating from the first quarter of the fifteenth century. The rules and regulations set out in the Regius MS are stated to have been established at a great assemblage of masons ordered by King Athelstan. They are arranged under fifteen Articles for ye maystur mason and fifteen Points for felows and prentes.


Prior to the Reformation, the guilds and other religious fraternities undoubtedly were the guardians of centuries-old traditions and esoteric ceremonies, carefully concealed from public scrutiny. Guilds that survived the Reformation became Livery Companies, some of which still operate in the City of London. Livery comes from the Anglo-French liveré meaning handed over, derived from the Latin liberäre meaning to free. The Worshipful Company of Ffree Masons of the City of London was one guild that survived. It had existed for several hundred years before the Reformation, continued through the Reformation hidden from public view, then resurfaced after the Reformation. It was commonly known as The Fellowship of Masons but in 1655, long after the Reformation, it changed its name to The Company of Masons. Because all of the Company’s books and documents were destroyed during the Reformation, those in existence only date from 1620. Fortunately a collection of letter-books and various other records of the City of London during the period of the Reformation are in existence, which confirm that The Company of Masons existed without a break from late in the thirteenth century until the middle of the seventeenth century. During the reconstruction of London after the Great Fire in 1666, the Company was in serious decline. The last great work in which it was involved was Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral reconstructed from 1675 to 1707, when eighty percent of the masons had to come from the country.


Operative influences


The unbroken existence of The Company of Masons over some four hundred years maintained the continuity of operative lodges in England, even through the fifteenth century persecutions, which enabled their traditions and practices to be preserved. Possibly other operative lodges also survived, though hidden from public view. Entries in the books of The Company of Masons in 1620 and 1621 show that the membership then included “accepted masons” as well as “operative masons”, but no records have been found to indicate when or why any of the masons were “accepted”. Entries in 1648 and 1650 clearly indicate that the Company had an inner fraternity, known as the Acception, that could be entered only on being made a freemason, but as there are no details of the ceremonials associated with admission it is not known whether they were of an esoteric nature. It is a matter of conjecture whether the “accepted masons” were speculative in the modern sense, but it is reasonable to assume that some special benefit of membership was perceived. From 1663 onwards the Company admitted to membership a number of people who were not craftsmen, including several women. In 1713, six years after St Paul’s Cathedral was completed, a woman was apprenticed for the usual term of seven years.


The usages and customs of operative masons that have come down to us in speculative craft freemasonry include various traditions concerning the construction of the temple at Jerusalem, the symbolic use of the working tools to impart moral instruction and the modes of recognition used in the various grades of membership. When persons other than tradesmen were first received into operative lodges, they were men of learning and public stature who undoubtedly would have been welcomed because of their erudition and the influence they could bring to bear in the community for the benefit of the members. Those who had been received into membership also would have benefited from the widening of their interests in the new avenues of tradition and knowledge that were then available to them. As long ago as the 1500s many Scots lodges welcomed local lairds as honorary members. Although they would not be regarded as speculative freemasons in the modern sense, they were the forerunners of the many who joined Scottish operative lodges when work was declining. The Lodge of Edinburgh minutes in 1600 record that James Boswell, the Laird of Auchinleck, was in attendance and the minutes of 1634 record the admissions of Lord Alexander, Sir Antony Alexander and Sir Alexander Strachan as Fellows of the Craft. Those wishing to pursue these aspects in more detail would find The Pocket History of Freemasonry by Fred L. Peck and G. Norman Knight, revised by Frederick Smyth and the Freemasons’ Guide and Compendium by Bernard E. Jones of considerable interest.


In England the Civil War of 1642-1646 led to the domination of Oliver Cromwell, which was followed by a very turbulent period until the settlement reached in 1689 when William of Orange and Mary acceded to the throne of England. The few surviving records that have been discovered now show that this was the formative period of modern speculative freemasonry in England. This is in contrast with Scotland, where records reveal that many of the operative lodges progressively became speculative lodges. A significant event during that period is the first known initiation on English soil of someone who was not an operative mason. He was the Right Honourable Robert Moray, General Quartermaster of the Scots army, who was admitted into the Lodge of Edinburgh at a meeting held near Newcastle in May 1641. This lodge was also known as “Mary’s Chapel”. Robert Moray later became Secretary of Scotland and in 1673 was buried in Westminster Abbey under the name Murray. The earliest known record of an Englishman initiated as a speculative freemason on English soil is of Elias Ashmole, the renowned antiquary, who was made a mason in a lodge at Warrington in Lancashire in October 1646. Nothing is known about the admissions into freemasonry of any of the other members of the lodge at that time, but there is reason to believe that they included Royalists as well as supporters of Parliament. There is no record of any of the members being an operative mason, although one may have been.


In England some operative masons, such as the members of lodges engaged on the construction of the York Minster, could work for a lifetime on a single project. Other lodges could work for many years on smaller cathedrals before having to move to a new work site, often in the same district. However, there always were small lodges that had to move frequently, as well as many itinerant masons moving from site to site in search of work. In Scotland the whole mason trade revolved around smaller operative lodges, of which there were many more than in England. The territorial lodges in Scotland were organised under the supervision of head lodges, which were not always in large towns. The repressions of the Reformation were much less severe in Scotland than in England, so that many of the Scottish operative lodges were able to become speculative lodges, a development that had no direct parallel in England.


Throughout the Middle Ages and afterwards until well into the eighteenth century, travel in Britain was greatly restricted and very hazardous. Although the more affluent residents could make journeys on horseback or by horse and coach, ordinary persons were usually confined to travelling on foot, commonly called going “on tramp”. Robbery under arms was commonplace, so that the general population avoided travel whenever possible. However, because of their vocation, operative masons often had to travel long distances in search of new work. A unique custom in the craft was that an itinerant mason, when seeking work in an operative lodge, had either to be given employment for an appropriate minimum period or to be provided with sufficient sustenance to reach the next nearest place of work. To facilitate their travel in safety, the operative masons in those days had unobtrusive distinguishing signs enabling them to seek out members of the craft at roadside hostelries, as well as modes of recognition with which to establish their credentials with a prospective employer. Some masonic researchers hold the view that the possession of masonic credentials for safe travel was a primary objective of those who were “made” masons in the seventeenth century, calling it the “passport theory” for the development of speculative craft freemasonry. While this might have been a contributing factor in the development, it would not explain why the working tools and procedures of operative masons were adopted as the basis of moral instruction in speculative craft freemasonry.


Modern speculative craft freemasonry


It is now generally accepted that speculative craft freemasonry began to emerge in the seventeenth century. This is when many operative lodges in Scotland already were transforming into speculative lodges, when Elias Ashmole was made a mason in England and when The Company of Masons in London had been admitting persons other than masons to the Acception from about 1648. Of particular interest is a note in Elias Ashmole’s diary in March 1682, recording his attendance at “a lodge held at Masons Hall London”. He states that he was the “Senior Fellow among them”, that six gentlemen were admitted into the “Fellowship of Free Masons” and that afterwards they dined at a tavern in Cheapeside “at a Noble dinner prepaired at the charge of the New-accepted Masons”. Excepting the new admissions, all but three of those present were members of The Company of Masons, including its Master and several who had been Master in previous years. References in various pamphlets and periodicals between 1676 and 1710 confirm that Londoners then were more familiar with Freemasonry than with The Company of Masons or the Acception. It is not known how many speculative lodges had been formed in England before June 1717, when four or possibly six among the oldest of them assembled in London and established the first Grand Lodge, claiming jurisdiction over all lodges meeting in London and Westminster. Its sphere of jurisdiction included at least sixty-four lodges by 1726, when it had become known as the Grand Lodge of England and its first two Provincial Grand Masters had been appointed. Of the founding lodges, it is recorded that the Original No 1 was constituted in 1691, but it is believed to have had an earlier origin and that its members almost certainly had been members of an operative lodge involved in the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral from 1675 to 1710.


Unlike the situation in Scotland, only one lodge of operative masons in England that is known to have become a speculative lodge is still in existence. Originally it was located at Stalwell in County Durham and accepted a warrant from the Grand Lodge of England in 1735. It continued to work as an operative lodge for another twenty years before becoming speculative and moving to Gateshead, where it still meets as the Lodge of Industry No 48. By way of contrast another lodge of operative masons meeting at Alnwick in Northumberland, that had been in existence long before the Grand Lodge of England was formed, did not accept a warrant and appears to have ceased to function in about 1763. Its minutes from 1703 onwards are still in existence, together with a copy of the Old Charges and a code of rules devised by the lodge in 1701. It is of note that when Dr James Anderson drafted the original Constitutions for the Grand Lodge of England in 1723, not more than ten copies of the Old Charges were available for his reference, although more than a hundred have now been found and classified. The Cooke MS was the oldest copy of the Old Charges used when compiling the Constitutions. It is the second oldest known to be in existence and is held in the library of the British Museum. As its date of origin has been assessed to be around fifty years after the Regius MS, it also was in use before the Act of 1547 that disendowed all religious fraternities. These two documents have many similarities, although the Cooke MS was intended primarily as a history. The third oldest copy of the Old Charges is known as the Grand Lodge MS No 1, dated 25 December 1583. Having been written after the Act of 1547, it is significant because it reflects a distinct transition from the purely operative nature of earlier documents and includes much that is of a speculative nature.


In 1725 an operative lodge of great antiquity in York, then in the process of becoming speculative, proclaimed itself to be a Grand Lodge. In the following year it also claimed to be the “Grand Lodge of All England”, because of its “undoubted right”, disputing the superiority of the Grand Lodge of England, even though its authority never extended beyond Yorkshire. This operative lodge was dormant from 1740 to 1760 and finally ceased to operate in about 1792, although it was never formally dissolved. In Ireland there is no record of any operative lodge becoming a speculative lodge. The earliest reference to a speculative lodge is in the opening address given in 1688 by John Jones at Trinity College in Dublin. Of interest is The Dublin Weekly Journal report in June 1725 that six “Lodges of Gentlemen Freemasons” met and elected a new Grand Master. This is the earliest reference to the Grand Lodge of Ireland, because all official records prior to 1760 have been lost. This contrasts with Scotland where most operative lodges continued into the 1750s and even longer, although by then many of them had become speculative. The Masters and Wardens of four old lodges that were or had been operative met in Edinburgh in October 1736 and formed the Grand Lodge of Scotland. Two of those lodges and several others joining soon after still exist and have records substantiating their continuity from operative days. The “Grand Lodge of Antients” was formed in England in 1752, to protest against the apathy and neglect being displayed by the Grand Lodge of England, which they dubbed “the Moderns”, as well as expressing dissatisfaction with the rituals being used and the ceremonials being practised. The Antients and the Moderns finally settled their differences when their two Grand Masters signed and sealed twenty-one Articles of Union in 1813. These were quickly ratified by the two Grand Lodges representing 647 lodges, thus establishing the United Grand Lodge of England which continues in existence. The Grand Lodge of Antients undoubtedly had a substantial influence on the rituals used in modern speculative freemasonry.


Modern freemasonry has many branches, with a multitude of complementary degrees that are progressive along a variety of paths. The constitutions and laws of modern Grand Lodges usually refer to their members as Antient, Free and Accepted Masons. Most constitutions define Pure Antient Masonry as the three degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason, but frequently also include either or both of the Honourable Degree of Mark Master Mason and the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch, even though these latter degrees usually are not worked under the auspices of the Grand Lodge. The traditional degrees of freemasonry include all of the foregoing and several others that are based on the story of the construction of King Solomon’s temple at Jerusalem, its subsequent destruction when the Jews were exiled to Babylon and its rebuilding by Zerubbabel under the provisions of the Decree of Cyrus. The narratives of the traditional degrees are woven around a series of events recorded in the Old Testament. Other important orders in modern freemasonry are the Royal Order of Scotland, the Ancient and Accepted Rite, the Red Cross of Constantine, the Knights Templar and the Knight Templar Priests, all of which have Christian aspects, as well as others such as the Allied Masonic Degrees. Of particular relevance is “The Worshipful Society of Free Masons, Rough Masons, Wallers, Slaters, Paviors, Plaisterers and Bricklayers”. Commonly referred to as The Operatives, this Society was founded in 1913 by the few remaining members of some English operative lodges that were rapidly becoming defunct, so as to ensure that the traditions and ceremonials of the operative masons would be perpetuated, because they were in imminent danger of being lost.


The purpose of freemasonry


The catechism that every initiate in speculative craft freemasonry is required to learn defines freemasonry as a peculiar system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols, but there are many misconceptions about the purpose of freemasonry. A significant factor contributing to this dilemma is the reversal in the roles of two key elements in the practice of the speculative freemasonry. The available records clearly show that the founders of speculative craft freemasonry in England regarded a lodge meeting primarily as a forum for philosophical communion in search of spiritual elevation, wherein the members could discourse upon a wide range of relevant topics, more or less in the fashion of meetings of the Royal Society to which many of them belonged. Before an application for membership would be considered, the petitioner was required to demonstrate that his interests were compatible with those of the members. Admission into the various degrees was to ensure that all members had a common foundation for their activities in the lodge, as well as establishing a basis for assessing the credentials of strangers wishing to attend meetings. This followed the precedents established in lodges of operative masons and other trade and religious fraternities that had been in existence for many centuries. In contrast, most modern lodges place the greatest emphasis on the working of the various degrees, almost to the exclusion of philosophical discussion on the underlying teachings incorporated in the rituals of those degrees. There can be no doubt that this approach has contributed significantly to the continuing decline in membership.


It would be difficult to find a more comprehensive and enlightening discourse on the purpose of freemasonry than that expounded in The Spirit of Masonry by Foster Bailey, of which the following are some relevant excerpts:


“Masonry might first of all be regarded as a school of ethical training. It is, however, much more than that. Every Mason is supposed to be ‘of good report and well recommended’. He enters Masonry in order ‘to learn to subdue his passions’ and to ‘improve himself in Masonry’.   . . . . .”


“Masonry is also a training school in cooperative and fraternal work. It implies therefore the submergence of all personal and consequently temperamental attitudes in the good of the Craft.   . . . . .”


“From another angle we might look upon speculative Masonry as embodying symbolically the drama of human evolution and as picturing for us the steps by which man reaches the goal of his liberation. The progress made by the candidate as he enters the Temple for the first time and passes from one degree to another, can be studied as a dramatic representation of the search for light and for the Word of God which characterises every soul. Masonry portrays the eternal quest. In total ignorance, blind and defenceless, man enters into the Temple of Life. Progressively he arrives at greater light and knowledge; he becomes worthy of receiving a reward and later can attain to an increase in wages. Still later he comes to a realisation of those hidden indications which warrant his pushing forward in search of the Lost Word which can only be sought by a Master Mason. Steadily he goes forward using all the light available, travelling from the West to the East by way of the North. In spite of the difficulties and dangers encountered, he achieves increased knowledge and begins to ‘perfect himself in Masonry’.”    


“It might in conclusion be pointed out that (in this process of revealing the hidden and secret) certain undesirable aspects of the Masonic work and organisation must inevitably disappear. The appetite of curiosity seekers, the private political machinations of certain Masonic groups and the purely social and commercial incentives which govern much of the Masonic policies in many lands must end. They only besmirch the fair name of a deeply spiritual organisation. The mystery of spirit, the mystery of light, the mystery of our relation to God and to each other, the mystery of our search for truth and divine experience and the mystery of immortality and resurrection must emerge in their true place .   . . . . .”

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