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The Operative Masons


History of Freemasonry

IF the date assigned by scholarship is correct, the oldest
existing Masonic manuscript, the Regius poem, was penned
in the year 1390. In that year King Richard II was on the
throne of England the battle of Agincourt had not yet been
fought the War of the Roses as yet in the future and the first
voyage of Columbus to the New World was not to begin for
more than another century. Almost three-quarters of a
century were to pass before Martin Luther's birth. All over
Europe men were still building cathedrals in the Gothic style,
although that school of architecture had entered upon its
final phases of decline. The guild system was in its heyday in
England and on the continent. It had not yet become
fashionable - in England at least - to burn heretics at the
stake. Legal issues might still be decided in trial by combat.

The Regius manuscript contains a set of rules and
regulations for the government of what was obviously a guild
of craftsmen in the light of modern research it is possible to
ascertain that the society was organized upon much the
same general plan as were the majority of operative guilds of
that day. But the Regius poem is of far greater importance
than that. It was a patent attempt to account to the English
members of an English institution for an antiquity of that
institution in which they already believed. Presumably it was
to be read to men whose fathers and grandfathers and
probably great grandfathers had belonged. It gave naive
credence to a tradition that the society had been in
continuous existence on English soil since the days of
Athelstan - which was to say since before the Norman
conquest. It is clear from the rhymed narrative itself that its
author had no real sense of the passage of time. What he
did know, however, was that the society was very old - or at
least so old that the traditions and memories of persons then
living did not run back to a time when it did not exist.

In some manner this particular manuscript was lost to sight,
to remain lost for some 450 years. At any rate when the first
Grand Lodge was formed, about 325 years after it was
penned, and diligent search was made for all the writings
having to do with Operative Masonry, this one for the time
escaped attention. There were other and later ones,
however, and these contained substantially the same
material, thus indicating the persistence of the Regius
tradition. At least six of these were in possession of the old
"immemorial" Lodge at York - a lodge which held itself out to
be the direct lineal descendant of the masonry of Athelstan's
day. Not a few such lodges were scattered about England
and Scotland at that time, unmistakable survivors of the guild
system of the Middle Ages. One of the first tasks the new
Grand Lodge set for itself was to gather, digest and publish
in literary form all that could be learned of the operative
guilds and particularly their legends, customs, laws and
regulations. More than a century after that had been done,
the Regius manuscript was rediscovered, to bear eloquent
testimony to the fact that there had been no great alteration
in the practices and beliefs of the operative masons between
the reign of Richard II and the reign of George I, a period of
more than three centuries.

Taking the year 1400 as a point of departure from which to
measure English Masonic history both forward and
backward, it is therefore clear: (1) that before that time, and
probably for a considerable period before it, operative
masonic guilds were in existence in England that they had a
substantial literary tradition and customs established by
immemorial usage (2) that they continued to exist for
another 300 years with relatively little change in either
customs or traditions and (3) that surviving units or "lodges"
of them participated in the eighteenth-century movement
which centered on the formation of the first Grand Lodge,
from which Speculative Freemasonry dates its present form
of existence.

For purposes of discussion it may be assumed that even if
there had been no operative societies coming down from a
remoter antiquity, the guild system itself would have
produced them. When artisans of all other classes and
callings were uniting themselves into such groups, it would
have been strange indeed if the stone masons had not done
so also. If not a single record of their medieval existence
could be found, it still would be safe to infer they did exist. As
a matter of fact there are records of Masonic guilds both in
England and on the continent. The term Freemason occurs
in the fabric rolls of Exeter Cathedral in the year 1396. The
guild at London in 1537 called its members Freemasons at
Norwich in 1375 masons appear to have been attached to
the guild of carpenters whether that was a purely local or a
general arrangement at the time there is no way of knowing.

It is interesting to observe, however, that in the year 1350
two separate classes of masons were recognized. A statute
of that period describes a mestre mason de franche pere - a
master mason of free stone - as being different from other
masons and entitled to higher pay. That distinction is
maintained in a statute of 1360 except that in the later one
the preferred workman is called a "chief mestre" of masons.
The common mason appears to have been classified
generally with "carpenters, tilers, thatchers, daubers and all
other labourers." As late as 1604 an incorporation at Oxford
included freemasons, carpenters, joiners and slaters. It is
evident from the records of smaller towns that mason guilds
were not numerous or particularly important, a fact which in
itself is illuminating. It marks one great respect in which
these bodies differed from all other craft organizations, for
they were essentially local institutions, made up of workmen
who remained in one town and usually in one quarter of the
town, whereas the skilled masons who worked in the
building of the Gothic cathedrals had from the nature of their
calling to be more or less itinerant, moving about from place
to place as work was to be found.

In an enumeration of the guilds entitled to representation in
the Common Council of London in 1370, a Company of
Freemasons was listed and a Company of Masons, standing
respectively as No. 17 and No. 34 on a roll of forty-eight. The
Company of Masons appears to have been of greater
numerical strength than the Company of Freemasons, since
it had four representatives as against two for the other.
Whether, as Mackey's History of Freemasonry suggests, this
indicates that the Freemasons formed a smaller and more
select society, is pure speculation, since no proof one way or
the other has been found, but as a guess it is decidedly
plausible. In any event, the list establishes the existence of
two separate guilds. Ultimately they were merged, taking a
coat of arms which displayed three white castles with black
doors and windows on a black field, together with a silver or
scalloped chevron and on it a pair of black compasses.

It is therefore possible to be reasonably sure of the following
facts pertaining to the general situation of Operative
Masonry at the time the Regius manuscript was presumably
written, that is, in the year 1390:

I. That it was occasionally divided into two general classes
respectively mentioned as Freemasons and as Masons

II. That town guilds of masons were small and relatively
unimportant as compared with town guilds of other kinds

III. That town mason guilds frequently united with, or formed
parts of, guilds of other workers employed in the building

IV. That it is probable no wide gulf separated the two classes
of Masons, since separate guilds of them in London found
no insuperable obstacle in the way of union and particularly
since the Old Charges mention their common art as
Masonry, without drawing invidious distinctions between
Masons and Freemasons

V. That the rules laid down for practical guidance of
members of the Craft corresponded in the main with similar
rules laid down in other craft guilds of that period.

But when the Regius poem was drafted, the active period of
Gothic architecture was already drawing to a close. That
period for centuries had given to the stone masons of
Northern and Western Europe their principal occupation. Its
work required a high degree of skill, which for the most part
could not be acquired except by actual practice in the labor
of building just such edifices as the great churches
themselves. The stonework of successive cathedrals
discloses that as fast as problems of construction were
solved, the solutions were passed along to succeeding
builders. From quarry to the finished task every stone had its
separate purpose, and preparation of every stone involved
conscious and more or less skilled direction at the hands of
every workman through whose hands it must pass.

When the curtain first rises on the stage of organize
Operative Masonry, it discloses a society proudly an
profoundly self-conscious. It is a society of aristocrat among
workmen, boasting of an ancestry of incredible age and
distinction. It has noble traditions, and it has dignity of a high
order to maintain. Moreover, it has secrets which at all costs
must be preserved, and a esoteric philosophy which is
rooted in the lore of the past. True, it is a guild and in many
respects like all the other guilds which then flourished as
such societies had not flourished before and as they have
not flourished since. But it is more than a guild it is also a
cult, for it practices mystical rites which are now known to
have been survivals of magic rites and religious
observances, coming down from a past which was
indefinitely remote.

The Old Charges bear abundant witness to all these things.
Most of them prescribe the ritualistic manner in which oaths
of secrecy must be administered. One reveals that the
candidate was compelled to swear, "in the presence of
Almighty God and my Fellows and Brethren here present"
that he would not by any act or under any circumstance,
"publish, discover, reveal or make known any of the secrets,
privileges or counseIs of the fraternity or fellowship of Free
Masonry." (Harleian MSS.) Those secrets were indeed well
kept so well, in fact, that the modern Freemason is much in
doubt as to what many of them were and can only suppose
that they had to do with the mechanical science of the
operative calling. As Operative Masonry fell into disuse,
some of them undoubtedly became imbedded in the
symbolism and allegory of rite and ritual, where they remain
to this day. Of their origin, practical use, and indeed of their
scope, the present day knows almost nothing. It is by no
means unlikely that as cathedral building masons merged
with the guild masons of the towns, they saw no reason to
impart to their less skilled companions more of their own
secret art than was necessary to give it symbolical or
emblematical preservation and as "accepted," or non-
operative, masons came in time to outnumber them both, the
value of purely mechanical secrets naturally tended diminish
and ultimately to disappear.

The modern student must bear in mind also that from their
very nature it was unlawful for these things to be written,
carved or engraved upon any movable or immovable thing,
in such fashion that they might become legible or intelligible
to a "cowan," or outsider. The Old Charges must therefore
be studied for what they may suggest "between the lines" as
well as for what they openly say. In actual practice Masons
appear always to have been singularly tenacious of their
secret ritualistic "work." Although no particular care appears
to have been taken to keep the Old Manuscripts from public
inspection, secretaries of many immemorial lodges burned
their records rather than have them fall into the hands of
historians appointed by the first Grand Lodge. Even today
conservative brethren, fearing improper disclosures will be
made, look askance upon public discussions of esoteric
matters, and although various Monitors have been published
officially for guidance in the ritualistic labors of the Craft, by
far the greater part of modern ritual may not be lawfully
written even in cipher Masons who compose ciphers for that
purpose or make use of them are subject to the severest
penalties. The only legal method of passing these secret
things from man to man and from generation to generation is
that of mouth-to-ear communication. It is truly astonishing
how accurate and uniform these oral transmissions have
been, and this accuracy is in itself the best justification of a
jealous zeal which forbids oral alteration or other innovation
upon the fundamentals of Craft Masonry.


History of Freemasonry

That it began, in the prosperous times of the guilds, by the
admission of clerics, mathematicians and others especially
interested in the craft has already appeared. Its expansion in
later days is disclosed by the few fugitive records and
minutes that have been preserved. Of these the minutes of
Scottish lodges are oldest and it is of importance to notice
that the oldest Scottish minutes record the practice as a
matter of course. Murray Lyon in his History of the Lodge of
Edinburgh remarks that in 1598, William Schaw, who in all
probability was a non-operative, was described as Master of
the Work and Warden of the Masons. That lodge was then
made up in the main of operatives, and the Scotch
Constitutions prepared by Schaw were obviously intended
for the government of operatives. Furthermore, it is indicated
that Schaw's own predecessor was a nobleman the
wardenship over Masons in Aberdeen, Banff and Kincardine
was held by another non-operative, the Laird of Udaught.
From these accounts it appears that distinguished patrons
not only were accepted as members of the Craft but also
that they were chosen for administrative posts of the highest

These outsiders were sometimes known as "Gentlemen
Masons," sometimes as "Theoretical Masons," sometimes as
"Geomatic Masons," and sometimes by other titles. In July of
1634 the Lodge of Edinburgh admitted as Fellowcrafts three
gentlemen, Lord Alexander, Viscount Canada, his brother,
Sir Anthony Alexander, and Sir Alexander Strachan.
Subsequent records indicate that these afterwards assisted
at the "making" of other Masons. In 1637 David Ramsay, a
gentleman of the Privy Chamber, was admitted and in the
following year admission was granted to Henry Alexander,
son of the Earl of Stirling. In 1640 General Alexander
Hamilton was accepted and in 1667 Sir Patrick Hume
received the same honor. In 1670 the Right Honorable
William Murray and two members of the Bar, Walter Pringle
and Sir John Harper were admitted.

In England the same custom was followed by some of the
lodges, if not by all. An obscure note in the records of the
Mason's Company of London suggests that it may have
been a practice of that body for a considerable length of
time, although the matter is by no means certain. That
organization was incorporated in the years 1410-1411 and
received a coat of arms in 1472 or 1473, but records of the
city show that as an unincorporated guild it was in existence
as early as the year 1356, when rules were formed for its
guidance. In 1530 its name was changed to "The Company
of Freemasons." Associated with it was an organization
known as "The Accepcon," or "The Acception," which, met in
the same hall and seems to have been subordinate to the
Company. Edward Conder in his Hole Crafte and Fellowship
of Masons remarks that an account book of The Acception
shows that in 1619 payments made by newly made Masons
were paid into the funds of the Company, and that in case of
deficits in banquet expenses of The Acception, the money to
meet them was paid out of the Company's treasury.

If this is correct it indicates: (1) that The Acception collected
money from newly made Masons (2) that it gave banquets
to newly made Masons (3) that its financial affairs were
strictly supervised by the Mason's Company. Now the
Mason's Company was an operative organization, and surely
there is nothing far-fetched in supposing - especially in view
of the significant title of the subordinate body - that The
Acception was made up of a group of non-operative, or
honorary, members. Moreover, that hypothesis is strongly
ported by the testimony of the first distinguished non-
operative known to have been accepted by an operative
English lodge.

This was none other than Elias Ashmole, one of the most
eminent of the scientists, philosophers and antiquarians of
his day. Ashmole was a man of prodigious energy and
catholic interests. He appears to have dipped into most of
the activities of the strenuous times which he lived. He was
born in 1617 at Lichfield and was educated for the practice
of law. When the Great Rebellion came along, he took up
arms, with the of Captain. He was a student of botany,
chemistry and what passed for physics in those times, with a
string leaning toward occultism and especially the cults of
alchemy and astrology. He was an inveterate collector of
curious objects of antiquarian interest, and his collection is
preserved at Oxford University, where is known as the
Ashmolean Museum. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society,
received the degree of Doctor of Medicine and was made a
Windsor Herald. His diary was published in 1717 and from it
certain important extracts relating to Freemasonry have
been culled. The following entry appeared in the diary for

Oct. 16th - 4:30 p.m. - I was made a Free Mason a
Warrington in Lancashire, with Coll: Henry Mainwaring of
Kanincham in Cheshire. The names of those that were of the
Lodge Mr. Rich Penket Warden Jr., James Collier, Mr. Rich
Sankey, Henry Littler, John Ellam, Rich Ellam and Hugh

In the diary for March, 1682, or thirty-six years later,
appeared the following entry:

10th - About 5 p.m. I recd. a Sumons to appe. at a Lodge to
be held the next day at Mason's Hall London.

11th - Accordingly I went, and about Noone were admitted
into the Fellowship of Free Masons.

Sr. William Wilson Knight, Capt. Rich Borthwick, M Will:
Woodman, Mr. Win. Grey, Mr. Samuel Taylour, and Mr.
William Wise.

I was the Senior Fellow among them (it being 35 years since
I was admitted). There were present beside my se the
Fellows after named.

Mr. Tho: Wise Mr of the Masons Company this present
yeare. Mr Thomas Shorthose, Mr. Thomas Shadbolt
Waindsford Esqr., Mr. Nich: Young, Mr. John Shorthose Mr.
William Hamon, Mr. John Thompson, and Mr. Will Stanton.

Wee all dyned at the halfe moone Taverne in Cheapside at a
Noble Dinner, prepaired at the Charge of the New accepted

In endeavoring to arrive at a conclusion as to whether the
acceptance of non-operatives was a general practice the
operative bodies, it is important by way of recapitulation to
bear certain dates in mind. It is clear that at the time to which
the oldest Scottish minutes can be traced) a non-operative
was a Master of the Work and Warden of the lodge at
Edinburgh and that his predecessor also had been a non-
operative. It is clear also that non-operatives were made
Masons in various Scottish lodges down to the beginning of
the of the first Grand Lodge. It is furthermore clear at the
London Company had a subordinate society known as The
Acception in 1619 and that sixty-three years later, non-
operatives were made Masons in the halI of that Company
with its Master in attendance.

But the custom was not confined to London and Edinburgh.
Ashmole was made a Mason in Lancashire. And there is
additional testimony to the same effect, this time from a non-
Mason who was not friendly to the institution. In his Natural
History of a Staffordshire (1686) Dr. Robert Plot wrote:

To these add the Customs relating to the County, whereof
they have one, of admitting Men into the Society of
Freemasons, that in the moorelands of this County seems to
be of greater request, than anywhere else, though I find the
Custom spread more or less all over the Nation for here I
found persons of the most eminent quality, that did not
disdain to be of this Fellowship. Nor indeed need they, were
it of that Antiquity and honor, that is pretended in a large
parchment volum they have amongst them, containing the
History and Rules of the craft of masonry.

Into which Society when they are admitted, they call a
meeting (or Lodg as they term it in some places), which must
consist of at lest 5 or 6 of the Ancients of the Order, when
the candidats present with gloves, and so likewise to their
wives, and entertain with a collation according to the Custom
of the place: This ended, they proceed to the admission of
them, which chiefly consists in the communication of certain
secret signes, whereby they are known to one another all
over the Nation, by which means they have maintenance
whither ever they travel: for if any man appear though
altoger unknown that can show any of these signes to a
Fellow of the Society, whom they otherwise call an accepted
mason, he is obliged promptly to come to him, from what
company or place soever he be in, nay, tho' from the top of a
Steeple (what hazard or inconvenience soever he run) to
know his pleasure and assist him viz., if he want work he is
bound to find him some or if he cannot doe that, to give him
mony or otherwise support him till work can be had which is
one of their Articles.

The society of which Dr. Plot was writing was undoubtedly
an association of operative masons, but it was one to which
"persons of the most eminent quality" did not disdain to
belong. Ashmole was certainly eminent, as was also his
friend and father-in-law, Sir William Dugdale, who was
likewise an antiquarian, and Sir Christopher Wren, the
architect. That Dugdale was a Mason is not established, but
he undoubtedly had intimate knowledge of the institution and
is known to have discussed its practices and origin. Whether
Wren was accepted into the fraternity is a subject of much
debate, Robert Freke Gould having strongly supported the
negative. But John Aubrey, antiquarian and author, left a
memorandum saying Sir Christopher was "adopted a
brother" at a convention of Masons at St. Paul's Church on
May 18, 1691. The Postboy, a London publication, in a
contemporaneous account of his death described him as
"that worthy Freemason." F. De P. Castells in an essay in
the Transactions of the Author's Lodge records an excerpt
from the minutes of the Lodge of Antiquity, dated June 3,
1723, which says: "The set of Mahogany Candlesticks
presented to this Lodge by its worthy old Master, Sir
Christopher Wren, ordered to be carefully deposited in a
wooden case lin'd with cloth to be Immediately purchased for
the purpose."

That at the two Bacons, Roger and Sir Francis, were
Masons has long been a legend both believed and disputed,
although there is no reliable evidence either way. A
discussion of this question belongs properly to the obscure
and troublesome problem of the Rosicrucians and kindred
occult societies. Much more has been said about it than can
be proved, and in the present work it can be noticed only in

There can be little doubt that during the Middle Ages more
than one society was devoted to the pursuit of studies which
were forbidden by Church and State. Kabbalism, astrology,
alchemy, and various mystical philosophies were ticklish
things to deal with in an age which believed in witchcraft and
sorcery and which, in a heated moment, was likely to lay
hold upon a sorcerer and burn him to death. Now and then
men engaged in these occult concerns united themselves for
the purpose of carrying on correspondence and transmitting
their discoveries. They were the scientists of their day, and
to their labors may be traced the beginnings of modern
chemistry, physics and astronomy. Of all the associations
into which the Alchemistical Philosophers or Hermetic
Philosophers, as they are variously called, formed
themselves, the most considerable appears to have been
the Rosicrucian. Whether that body was more than a
shadow organization is far from certain, but, at any rate, it
afforded a cover sufficient for the purpose and many learned
men called themselves Rosicrucians in their books and other

The supposition that a considerable number of them also
became Freemasons is only supposition. There are survivals
in the modem Masonic ritual which strongly suggest
hermetic influence, and not a few students have believed
that it is through this channel some of the Fraternity's oldest
cult survivals ought to be traced. Albert Pike was inclined to
suspect that Ashmole became interested in Freemasonry
because he was particularly concerned with hermetic
philosophy and believed that the secrets of the society would
throw light upon his hobby. Others have hinted that
Ashmole's acceptance in itself forged a connecting link
between Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism.

It is entirely possible that more than one distinguished
Englishman who dabbled in occultism dabbled also in
Freemasonry. Indeed, it would be rather curious if, after
making the acquaintance of the one, they had not
investigated the other. Men in an age of mental tyranny
searching for a medium through which they might be able to
find liberty for philosophical thought and the safe interchange
of ideas might well hope to find it behind the tyled door of a
Masonic lodge. It is reasonably certain that many scholars
who entered the Fraternity in the eighteenth century did so
for the freedom they expected to find there. But the whole
matter is so befogged in doubt, uncertainty, hypothesis and
speculation that it scarcely belongs to the realm of Masonic
history, strictly so called.

At all events, the structure of Operative Masonry had altered
by imperceptible stages between the days of Richard II and
those of James II. At the time of the Revolution of 1688, the
camel which had got its nose through a flap of the tent in
1390 had managed to get almost its whole body inside. In
other words, the non-operatives were rapidly driving the
operatives into a small corner of what had once been their
own domicile. But the tent itself was still. a good one,
offering refuge to new purposes in need of just such shelter.
The final stage of transition was to take place in the thirty
odd years which intervened between the time when Dr. Plot
wrote the spirited paragraphs recently quoted and the
beginning of the Grand Lodge era in 1717.

By then the operative art itself had become little more than a
memory. The old lodges were collections of individuals who
met occasionally because they had been in the habit of
meeting. Their rosters contained the names of many who
had never earned blisters to their hands by wielding setting
maul or chisel. Many had already closed their doors for the
last time. The Old Manuscripts were still treasured, but they
had become too worn and too precious to be handled except
upon occasions of state. Such craftsmanship as was actually
performed was but a shadow of that which had once given
vitality to the brotherhood. Tools and implements of
architecture were still employed, but more as symbols for the
inculcation of moral lessons than as instruments of labor.
Now and then, on some St. John's day, there might be a
banquet and assembly of a given lodge, but as a going
concern the institution was moribund. Thus the curtain of
history falls, at the end of an act, upon a scene of
deterioration and decay, only to rise again upon a new scene
- this time of health and prosperity.

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