While there is general consensus that Freemasonry originated in the British Isles, the exact line of descent (direct or indirect) from the Operative stone masons remains an oft posed question. Although the “Direct” argument has the most supporting evidence, the problem of a final resolution of this question remains complicated by the dearth of primary material.
The occupation of “stone mason” began in the British Isles about the beginning of the eleventh century and received great stimulus after the Norman Conquest. The occupation was broadly divided into two strands - the Hewers, who worked in the quarries rough shaping the stones and the Layers (or Setters) who worked on the building site(s).
Until the Elizabethan era they were engaged almost entirely on cathedrals, churches, abbeys and castles which often took an inordinate time to complete. While each building site was under the direction of a Master Builder or Master Mason, as with most members of a recognized craft, the stone masons were also organized under the protection of craft guilds which had arisen as guardians of the interests of the skilled workers; a kind of medieval unions. But, importantly, the guilds also required their members to regularly (if not frequently) attend church.
Frith, or family peace guilds, existed in London about the middle of the tenth century, while the first merchant guild is believed to have originated in London about the middle of the eleventh century. Although weaver guilds also appear to have originated about the same time, there is no doubt that the Craft guilds in Britain were well established by the reign of Henry I (around 1135).
On each construction site was erected a small, dedicated building called a “lodge” which served as a repository for their working tools and as a meeting place and school room for apprentice stone masons. Not only practical instructions were imparted to the apprentices, but evidence suggests moral and ethical teachings, modes of recognition and all matters relating to general conduct were imparted in the ceremonies lodge meetings held on Saturdays at high twelve. All apprentices were obligated and indentured in the ceremonies lodges and candidates for promotion were likewise examined, tested for proficiency, obligated and entrusted in these lodges.
Most members of the craft guilds could readily find employment at all levels in the society from the large projects to cottage industries. But major construction programs were expensive and rare. As each phase of the building was concluded or local requirements for their labour exhausted, some stone masons may have been forced to leave and travel to a new building site to find continued employment. Their trade and skills could be confirmed by certain signs, tokens and words which would serve as introductions and certification in this largely illiterate society.
In the earliest days, many of the established lodges must have worked independently since travel was difficult, dangerous and time-consuming. Nevertheless there is evidence that annual assemblages were probably taking place in the 1300’s. It was these gatherings that Henry VI in 1436-1437 sought to prohibit by Royal Statute.
Under the Guild system, many families rose from serfdom to become successful employers in a few generations and the system was highly successful until the Reformation. At this time, Henry VIII confiscated most of the Guilds’ possessions and his son, Edward VI, in 1547, confiscated nearly all the remaining Guild funds that had been dedicated for religious purposes. The Guilds that survived developed into the Liveried Companies as we find in the City of London today.The records suggest that the stone masons were probably the worst affected by these travails and many of their records were destroyed.
The direct case argues that, in the seventeenth century, lodges of stone masons which controlled their trade began accepting men who were not stonemasons-non Operatives-and called them “accepted” masons. Over the subsequent years, the numbers of accepted masons grew and transformed the Operative lodges into Speculative lodges. The evidence in support of this comes primarily from Scotland where the minute books of Scottish operative lodges shows that from 1599 onwards, in addition to the management of the masons’ trade, some form of ritual work was being undertaken.
We must be careful to distinguish between Operatives’ ritual (their body of stone masons’ customs, craft lore and professional ‘secrets’) and non-operative ceremony which contains a nucleus of catechisms and esoteric teachings. Our earliest evidence as to the contents of the non-operative Craft ritual is from a series of Scottish Masonic aide-memoirs compiled c.1696-c.1714 which show ceremonies as practiced at that time. They depict a rite of two degrees - Entered Apprentice and Master or Fellow Craft - each containing an obligation, ‘secrets’ and a series of questions and answers. The texts contain nothing that might be described as “Speculative” masonry and on these documents alone there is no grounds to infer that the same ceremonies were practiced in England.
If you accept the present-day sense of the adjective “Speculative” as applied to the Craft, it is highly improbable that such a definition would/could apply to the seventeenth century lodges in either Scotland or England.
So, while the direct case relies on the Scottish evidence, there is not extant record of the form or nature of the rituals worked in the transitional operative-to-speculative lodges. Without the details of the rituals, the accepted masons in Scotland may not have had any links with Speculative freemasonry and it may be they may simply have been honorary members or patrons of the operative lodges.
Lodge minutes of Aitcheison’s Haven shows non-operative admissions in 1672, 1677 and 1693 and the membership roles at Aberdeen in 1670 shows ten operative and thirty-nine non-operatives drawn from the nobility, gentry, professional men, merchants and tradesmen. Yet the lodge continued to conduct itself as an operative lodge.
While the purely operative antecedents of the Scottish lodges made them reluctant to change to non-operative workings, seventeenth century minute books of Scottish operative lodges increasingly show the admission of Accepted Masons and, by the eighteenth century, they had in fact lost most of their Operative functions.
So you can perceive of a three-stage development: Operative Lodges to Transitional Lodges to Speculative Lodges.
But this appears confined to Scotland.
In England it is as Freemasonry sprang into existence fully formed without a trail and development period. A kind of Speculative spontaneous generation.
The earliest operative lodge in England whose records survive is the Lodge at Alnwick in Northumberland. The records show a code of operative and “moral” regulations drawn up in 1701 and so far as can be ascertained, all members listed as being admitted at this time were operative masons. Surviving minutes of another operative lodge at Swalwell in Durham are sufficiently similar to confirm that these lodges are representative of their time ̶ purely operative lodges with no non-operative members.
This is not to say that operative lodges did not exist before that time. The existence of semi-permanent groups of stone masons forming themselves into lodges in England before the seventeenth century is, however, purely speculative (no pun intended), for there is no evidence by which we could prove that they existed. The Reformation, when Henry VIII confiscated most of the guilds’ property and his son, Edward VI, in 1547, took possession of nearly all the remaining guild funds, virtually destroyed the stone masons who were perhaps the hardest hit by these confiscations of property. Henry VI in 1436-1437 had sought to prohibit the annual assemblages of the guilds. So the guilds, and by extension the masons’ lodges, had a history of opposition to their existence in England.
Yet in 1646, Elias Ashmole was made a Free Mason in a lodge specially convened for that purpose. Ashmole, in his account of the ceremony, recorded the names of those present and none were operative masons or had any connection with the craft of stonemasonry. Other seventeenth century evidence from England shows similar events - the lack of operative lodges and the making of Free Masons by other Free Masons with no operative connections.
Supporters of the direct argument will dismiss the lack of Scottish-equivalent evidence in England by claiming that it must have been destroyed. Certainly this was a time of great upheaval. However, their claim that close ties with Scotland and England making the English experience in the development of Accepted Lodges from Operative ones parallel that in Scotland, ignores the very real differences in political, religious, legal and social development between the two countries. Indeed, for much of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Scotland had closer links with France than with its southern neighbor.
Supporters of the Indirect case have approached the problem from a different viewpoint but not asking HOW or WHEN, but WHY Freemasonry should have developed in the first place. Why should non-operatives wish to become Accepted Masons? Why should they turn the trade orientated organizations into a Speculative Art?
By studying primary material some interesting insights become apparent.
The REGIUS MS of c.1390 has a purely operative content. By 1583, the GRAND LODGE #1 MS contains much that is of no relevance to Operative Masonry but highly relevant to Free Masonry. These documents are, respectively, the oldest and third oldest version of the “Old Charges”.
The historical period of the GRAND LODGE #1 MS was one of political and religious intolerance in England leading to the Civil War. It is argued that the Society of Freemasons was founded by men of peace who wished to end the religious and political strife of their day. To achieve this, they founded a brotherhood in which religious and political dissent had no part, belief in God was tantamount, and members were dedicated to brotherly love (tolerance), relief and truth. Thus men of differing views could meet in harmony.
It was common practice at that time to teach and pass on philosophical ideas by means of symbolism and allegory. As the primary aim was to “build” a better man/nation in a better world, the form of the old operative building lodges was adopted with the working tools as symbols on which to moralize. What better allegory could there be than the construction of an actual building? In spite of high levels of illiteracy, the great majority of men were familiar with the Bible - the central source of allegory - and the only building mentioned in the King James version is that of King Solomon’s Temple (although there are conflicting descriptions between Kings and Chronicles).
Harkening back to Ashmole, you will note that, at the time of his initiation (1646) the English Civil War was at its height. Ashmole was a Royalist who had been captured by parliamentarians and was on parole at the house of his father-in-law (a leading Parliamentary supporter in England’s north-west). Importantly, the lodge that convened to initiate Ashmole was a mixed group of Royalists and Parliamentarians.
In time, the English Speculatives never doubted that their craft had descended by some torturous and probably untraceable route from the medieval stone masons’ operative lodges. Nor did it concern them that men of all races, creeds and walks of life met together in their Speculative Lodges. However undemocratic the external English society might be, within the Lodge, all men were equal.
Yet the egalitarian nature of the English Freemasons did not extend to the Continent. The absolute monarchy and lack of democratic institutions in France and elsewhere on the Continent ensured Freemasonry was effectively the province of the nobles and professional classes.
Freemasonry was seen as an extension to their other social activities or as a path to esoteric knowledge. The three Craft degrees with their unassuming ceremonies and direct moral message were too simple and too dull. Membership had to be justified by showing there were other, more elaborate purposes and a more illustrious origin than could be found in a “mere” reconstructed building guild.
On 21 March 1737, Andrew Michael Ramsay presented an address to the Grand Lodge in Paris in his capacity as Official Orator. As a result, the history of the Craft took a new direction.
On the whole, Ramsay’s speech was unexceptional, but he began to emphasize the hypothetical and fanciful origins of the Craft as an order founded in antiquity and revived in the Holy Land during the Crusades.
The idea of a medieval chivalric antecedent for Freemasonry struck a receptive chord, and within a decade a host of new rites and degrees based on the ideals of chivalry and contemporary notions of knightly practices had sprung up in Germany and France.
It must be emphasized that Ramsay himself did not found any of the additional degrees and he made no reference to, for example, the Knights Templar. But the notion of a Masonic descent from the Templars became firmly embedded in the romantic mind of continental masonry.
Outside the lodge room we hear many and varied statements as to what Freemasonry is all about. Whilst most of the assertions contain an element of truth, they all too frequently assign excessive importance to a subsidiary aspect of our Craft, to the extent that the true purpose of Freemasonry is obscured.
What then IS Freemasonry? The speculative free masons who drafted our first ritual in the 1700’s said that freemasonry was a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols. This IS what true Freemasonry always has been and always will be.
There is a wealth of information regarding Freemasonry on the www. Check it out, you may be surprised and certainly enlightened!
(Dennis Stocks is Past Master of Camp Hill Lodge #388, United Grand Lodge of Queensland, Australia. He is also a member of Barron Barnett Lodge #146 (UGLQ), a Masonic Research Lodge; Member of Quatuor Coronati Correspondence Circle (England); and Member of Masonic Research Correspondence Circle (Victoria, Australia).