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The Old Charges of British Freemasons

Rare and out-of-print masonic texts From The Canonbury masonic Research Centre


This is the name generally given to a number of old manuscripts which have been found in England and elsewhere during the last seventy years. They generally consist of three parts — first, an introductory prayer or invocation; second, the history of the Order, or the Legend of the Craft, commencing at the time of Lamech and ending with the era of Athelstan, or about 926; and third, the peculiar statues and duties, the regulations and observances, which the Craft in general or Masons in particular are bound carefully to uphold and inviolably to maintain. There are now some 70 copies of these Charges known to be in existence, and new ones may be discovered at any time, for about 40 have come to light in the last 35 years, chiefly owing to the indefatigable research of Bro. W.J. Hughan, who has made them his especial study.

The earliest known reference to them made by any writer is in Dr. Plot’s Natural History of Staffordshire, published in 1686, in which he gave an account of the Freemasons of that county, and said that they had among them a large parchment volume containing the history and rules of the Craft of Masonry.

Of these Old Charges the earliest so far discovered is a poem of 794 lines, supposed to have been written about 1390, and now in the British Museum; known as the Regius Poem. The next in point of time is in prose and also in the British Museum; experts fix its date as about 1450; it is known as the Matthew Cook MS. Then comes one known as the Grand Lodge MS. No. 1, as being in the possession of the Grand Lodge of England; this was dated by the copyist ‘1583’. And so they approach in date nearer and nearer to our own time, until we come to a copy made in 1869 from a MS. which has since been missing.

Though all have a general likeness, yet no two are precisely the same, showing additions, omissions, variations, and discrepancies of names. It has been supposed that in former times each Lodge possessed a copy of these Charges, which was read to a candidate on his initiation, but there is no actual proof that such was the case.

Bro. W.J. Hughan, in his work The Old Charges, has given full particulars of each of these documents and the Quatuor Coronati Lodge has issued facsimiles and transcripts of several of them.

From A Concise Encyclopædia of Freemasonry by E. L. Hawkins, London 1908

The Old Charges of British Freemasons

THE ancient documents handed down from the operative masons in Great Britain and Germany respectively — all generically described under the misleading title of Constitutions require to be carefully examined, and separately described. The so-called “Constitutions”, peculiar to England and Scotland, contain legends or traditional history, which are not to be found in the regulations or working statutes of the latter country, nor do they appear in the Ordinances of the craft in either France or Germany. The only point of identity between the English and German constitutions in the shape of legend or tradition is the reference to the “Four Holy Crowned Martyrs”, but as they are only mentioned in one of the English versions, and then merely in that portion of the MS. devoted to religious duties, the thread that connects them is a very slender one indeed. It will be found that, as a general rule, early documents of the guilds or crafts commence with an invocation of saintly patronage, and the “Holy Martyrs” were not monopolised in this respect by the masons of Germany, as they were the assumed patrons of numerous other fraternities. Nor can it be maintained, with any show of reason, that the slender thread of union already cited, at all warrants the conclusion that the English masons derived the legend of the “Quatuor Coronati” from their German brethren. The British Constitutions, or “Old Charges”, have indeed neither predecessors nor rivals, and their peculiar characteristics will be found, in truth, to amply warrant the detailed examination which I shall now proceed with.

By no other craft in Great Britain has documentary evidence been furnished of its having claimed at any time a legendary or traditional history. Oral testimony of any real antiquity is also wanting when it is sought to maintain that the British Freemasons are not singular in the preservation of their old legends. The amusing pretensions of certain benefit societies do not affect the claim, for no ‘traditions’ of these associations can be traced historically to a period sufficiently remote to prove their independent origin; the probability being that they are all modern adaptations of masonic traditions and customs.

In saying “no other craft”, I exclude from consideration the French Compagnons, who were members (latterly) of all crafts, though in the first instance the association was confined to the masons and carpenters. Not that the "Compagnons" were without legendary histories, but they now possess no early writings with which we can compare the “Old Charges of British Freemasons” as the “Constitutions” under examination have been aptly termed by the masonic author whose labours have been the longest sustained in this branch of archæological research.

The legends peculiar to the Compagnonage have been very lightly passed over by masonic and other historians. This is in a great measure to be accounted for, no doubt, by the absence of any literature bearing on the subject until a comparatively recent date. Authors of repute have merely alluded to this obscure subject in the most casual way, and virtually the customs and legends of this association were quite unknown to the outer world, until the appearance of a small work in 1841, by Agricol Perdiguier, entitled Le Livre du Compagnonage.

Perdiguier, who was a ‘Compagnon’, writes of the organisation as a Freemason would of Freemasonry, i.e., without disclosing aught of an esoteric character; but the legends and customs are carefully described. The analogies between distinctive portions of the English and French legends occur too frequently, and are too strongly marked to be accidental. If then, we may assume — and I apprehend we may do so safely — that certain legends were afloat in early days of the Compagnonage, anterior to the date of our earliest British “Constitution” — the “Halliwell”, circa 1390 — the following is the result: in the fourteenth century there is, on the one hand, an organisation (the Compagnons) in full activity, though without manuscript constitutions, or legends, which has endured to this day. On the other hand, there is documentary evidence satisfactorily proving that the legendary history of the English masons was not only enshrined in tradition, but was embalmed in their records. Yet we have little or no evidence of the activity of English masons in their lodges at so early a period, beyond what is inferentially supplied by the testimony of these Old Charges or Constitutions, which form the subject of our present investigation.

On the whole, it may be reasonably concluded that the Compagnons of the Middle Ages preserved legends of their own which were not derived from the Freemasons (or masons); and the latter, doubtless, assembled in lodges, although Acts of Parliament and other historical records are provokingly silent upon the point.

But if the legends of the Compagnonage were not derivative, can the same be said of those which have been preserved by the masons? The points of similarity are so varied and distinct, that if it be conceded that the present legends of the two bodies, have been faithfully transmitted from their ancestors of the Middle Ages, the inference is irresistible, either that the masons borrowed from the Compagnons, or that the traditions of both associations are inherited from a common original.

At no previous period have equal facilities been afforded for a study of these “Old Charges of British Freemasons”, either as respects their particular character, or their relations to the Compagnonage and other organisations, masonic or otherwise. Within living memory barely ten copies were known to be in existence, but since 1860, and particularly during the last decade (chiefly through the zeal of Mr Hughan, who published the result of his 1abours in 1872, and the patient and discriminative research of the Rev. A.F.A. Woodford) more than double that number have been brought to light. Many extracts from manuscripts, which were missing, have now been noted, and all references to such documents, for the last two hundred years, have been duly arranged, and their precise nature estimated.

Without an exception, all these “Old Charges” have been carefully collated, and their points of agreement and divergence as far as possible extracted, in order that their value as ancient masonic chronicles may be accurately gauged. One at least of these MSS. and possibly two, date before the introduction of the printing press. Of the remainder, some twenty were in emulation amongst the masonic lodges prior to the last century, the majority being over two hundred years old, and all being copies of still older documents.

No two of the MSS. are exactly alike, though there is a substantial agreement between them all, and evidently they had a common origin, just as they were designed to serve a common purpose. As it is probable that each lodge, prior to the last century, had one of these “Old Charges” amongst its effects, which was read to an apprentice on his introduction to the craft, it is almost certain that additional scrolls still await discovery, the only wonder being, that considering how numerous the lodges must have been, so few have yet been traced. Possibly, however, the several very valuable manuscripts concerning the fraternity (particularly one written by Mr Nicholas Stone, the warden of Inigo Jones), too hastily burned by some scrupulous brothers, mainly consisted of forms of the “Old Charges”. When and how the first of these documents was compiled, or by whom, it is impossible now to decide, for we possess no autographic versions of the masonic constitutions.

Whilst anxious, however, to disconnect such ancient writings from modern adaptations and erroneous interpretations, I yield to none in my appreciation of their importance and value, as the repertories of our time-honoured traditions and regulations. Even regarded in this light alone these old legends and traditions, these bygone usages and regulations of the operative guilds, thus happily preserved, have, and always must have for all thoughtful Freemasons, the deepest value and the most lasting interest.

From Chapter II of History of Freemasonry, by Robert Freke Gould, London 1883


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