Freemasonry Before 1717
by Midnight Freemason Guest Contributor
Bro. Michael Worrell
The topic of the History of our Fraternity seems at first overwhelming. Each mason, by taking the degrees, is told straight forward that King Solomon of Israel was an Ancient Grand Master, and this idea is one of the main traditions and central themes of the Fraternity. There have been over 55,000 books written on the subject of the history of our Fraternity, and I have selected three of my favorites to share with you this evening.
When we look into Masonic History, we quickly run into roadblocks. Who thinks Freemasonry goes back further than 1717? Now who thinks our Fraternity goes back to the men who built King Solomon’s Temple? This is the problem with looking into the History of our Fraternity: the further into the past we trace the Craft, the more obscure and mythological it becomes.
It is well known that a Grand Lodge was formed in London in 1717 when 4 Lodges of Masons in London and Westminster came together at the Goose and Gridiron Ale-house in St. Paul's Church-yard. Where did these 4 Lodges come from? Who were their members? Who gave them authority and taught them the secrets of the craft? These are questions I have been thinking about and researching.
The amount of research into the History of Freemasonry is enormous; the first known attempt at a history of the Freemasons was in 1661, when the Royal Society in London proposed a history of all trade guilds, with Freemasonry being listed as one of the guilds. The task of preparing this History was given to Robert Moray, who was initiated in Mary’s Chapel Lodge #1 of Edinburgh in 1641. It is not known if he completed this project, possibly due to the Great Fire of London in 1666.
After this new Grand Lodge was formed in 1717, James Anderson published a History of the Craft in his 1723 Constitutions. This was accepted as the official history for over 100 years. He was ordered to digest the Old Gothic Constitutions or “Old Charges” in a new and better method by John Montagu, Duke of Montagu on the 29th September, 1721. Then on 27th December, Montagu appointed fourteen learned brothers to examine the MS., and that after they had approved it was ordered to be printed on 25th March, 1722.
Anderson’s Constitution compiled and expanded on the Legendary History of Masonry as contained in the Gothic Manuscripts or “Old Charges” such as the Halliwell Manuscripts, which is believed to have been written around 1390. Similar to the Old Charges, Anderson’s Constitution tells a legendary history of Masonry, including among the list of patrons of Freemasonry many biblical characters such as Noah, Tubal Cain, Abraham, and King Solomon. Excerpt from Lansdowne Manuscript of 1560.
In 1751, a different group of Masons, calling themselves the Ancient Masons, published their own Constitution, which they called the Ahiman Rezon, Hebrew for “to help a brother.” This Constitution and the Author, Laurence Dermott, largely mocks Anderson’s. Excerpt, first 2 pages.
This began the rivalry between the Ancients and the “Moderns” which is what they called the 1717 Masons. This rivalry is very interesting, and was eventually settled when the two competing Grand Lodges merged in 1813, creating the United Grand Lodge of England.
One of the main claims of the Ancients was that there was already in existence a Grand Lodge in York, which was the true governing body of Masonry in England. The Reverend Neville Barker Cryer, Past Master of Quatuor Coronati Lodge of Research, retired to the City of York to research this claim, and a product of his research was this book, York Mysteries Revealed. He affiliated with York Lodge #236 to gain access to their private collection of artifacts and records of the Operative Masons in York, called the fabric rolls, which cover the records of the Masons’ Guild from the period 1350-1500.
This Lodge was taken on the rolls of the “Modern” 1717 Grand Lodge as Union Lodge #236. This Lodge in 1870 requested a name change in 1870 making a petition to the Grand Master which reads:
“We, the undersigned, the Masters and Wardens of the Union Lodge, No. 236, … Humbly request your Lordship to grant permission that the name of this Lodge may be changed from that of Union, to that of York Lodge.
It has long been the wish of the Brethren of the Lodge that is should be more closely connected with that of our Ancient City, and with the Masonic Glory with which it is associated. Our early traditions inform us, that from the time of Prince Edwin, AD 926 when the first Lodge was held in Norman Crypt of York Minster, under a Charter from King Athelstan, a Grand Lodge existed in an uninterrupted stream until about the year 1780.”
The Request was granted, and what is now still York Lodge #236 may be the only operating Lodge which can claim over 1000 years of operation.
We are now starting to blur the lines between History and Mythology. While Athelstan was King of England and did grant Charters to several guilds during his reign, there is no surviving evidence of him granting a charter to a Guild of Masons. This event, however, is mentioned in many of the Old Charges.
Leaving Mythology aside for the moment, let’s think about the actual practice of building with stone. In the City of York, following the destruction of the pagan idols, Edwin, King of North Umbria converted to Christianity in the year 627 and was baptized in a church he had commissioned to be built out of timber. Following his baptism, he ordered a larger and nobler church to be built out of stone, and here begins the historical practice of stone masonry in York.
The Guilds at this time had feast celebrations, and it was custom for each of the various guilds to put on Morality Plays at different times of the year, acting out some story from the bible to teach the local population, who were largely uneducated, a lesson, and to promote themselves to the town. The plays were often followed by a feast, a tradition that we still enjoy to this day.
Joseph Fort Newton in his book titled The Builders, takes this same approach to the History of the Craft, examining the people who built buildings out of stone throughout history. We are taught in the Middle Chamber Lecture of the 3 Ancient Grand Masters, Solomon King of Israel, Hiram, King of Tyre, and Hiram Abiff. Josephus gives a detailed account of the correspondence between the two kings in Volume 2, Chapter 3 of his Histories.
Newton goes on to explain that at that period, the Stone Masons had their headquarters on the Island of Tyre, which was the Capitol of the Phoenicians. They worshipped Dionysus and were known as the Dionysian Artificers, which is also the title of this book by Hippolyto Joseph da Costa.
Newton continues to quote Strabo, who wrote of the Dionysian’s travels into Syria, Persia, and even India. They entered Europe through Greece, and in Rome several Centuries before Christ they were in corporations known as Collegia. From there the Collegia flourished all over the Roman Empire. The Collegium or roman guilds from the earliest times decorated the gravestones of their members with emblems of their trade: if they were a group of bakers, the decoration would be a loaf of bread, if they were stone masons, the emblems on the gravestone would be a Square, Compasses, and a Level.
By law the minimum number of members was three, and each College was presided over by a Magister, or Master, and two Decuriones, or Wardens. They further had a Treasurer, a Secretary, a Keeper of the Archives, and a Sacerdos, or Chaplin. One such Collegium was discovered during the excavations at Pompeii in 1878, referred to as a Lodge room and containing two pillars at either side of the entrance.
Christianity was founded by a carpenter, and was found to be very appealing to the working classes of Rome. During the persecutions of the Christians, the Collegia were for the most part unharmed, that is until they refused to make a statue of Aesculpius for Diocletian. Because of their refusal, Diocletian turned on the stone masons at some point around the year 311, torturing and killing four Master Masons and one Apprentice. Their names were Claudius, Nicostratus, Simphorianus, Castorius, and Simplicius. The Four Masters were later referred to as the Four Crowned Martyrs, or the Quatuor Coronati, which is where the premier Masonic Research Lodge in the world derives their name, Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076.
Following the persecution, the Masons guild relocated their headquarters to an island on Lake Como in northern Italy, and took the name The Comacine Masters. Following the death of Diocletian they returned to Rome and worked with Emperor Constantine. From this time forward they were the ones travelling as free men throughout Europe, building stone buildings when they were commissioned to do so. Out of the darkness of history we find them in England, and from the stonemason guilds we eventually arrive at the present time with the Fraternity as we know it.
The great men who designed and built ancient temples such as the Temple of Solomon certainly did not practice Freemasonry the same way that we do, but that does not say that they did not hold some of the same beliefs and traditions we still hold dear today. I encourage each of you here tonight to look into the history of our craft with an open mind, for there may be some truth to the mythology and traditions after all. Thank you.
Bro. Michael Worrell, is the Supply Officer for the Grand Lodge of MA, AF&AM. He is the current Junior Warden of St. John’s Lodge of Boston, Senior Warden of Boston Commandery #2 KT, and a member of St. Andrew’s RAC and Boston Council R&SMM, the Scottish Rite bodies in the Valley of Boston and Paul Revere Council #401 AMD. He is also the Grand Representative of the Most Holy Supreme Royal Arch Chapter of Ireland near the Grand Chapter of MA, and the Grand Representative of the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons in Virginia near the Grand Council of R&SMM of MA. A resident of the city of Boston, Michael enjoys researching Masonic History, Genealogical Studies, and Hiking and Rock Climbing in his free time.