Sunday, May 27, 2007

Synopsis of Prof. Andrew Prescott's 'History of British Freemasonry: 1425-2000'

Recently a good brother from Alabama sent me a copy of a very interesting document titled "A History of British Freemasonry: 1425-2000."

The document is the text of Prof. Andrew Prescott's farewell speech to the Centre for Research into Freemasonry, given on February 20, 2006.

What makes Bro. Prescott's history interesting is that he didn't rely on the Internet for his research. No conspiracy theories or Templar fantasies colored his studies. He is a library hound. He searched through old dusty books and documents in England's old dusty libraries.

What he found is truly enlightening.

Unwilling to create a typical history, arbitrarily dividing it into decades or centuries as many historians would do, or merely pointing out Masonic highlights that occurred, say, in 1717, 1751, and 1813, Bro. Prescott has, by referring to particular dates of particular documents, pinpointed Masonic history in a whole new way.

He has divided Masonic history into 10 periods: 1425-1583; 1583-1717; 1717-1736/7; 1737-1763; 1763-1797-8; 1798-1834; 1834-1855-6; 1856-1874; 1874-1967; and 1967 to the present day.

We see in Bro. Prescott's history that there is indeed nothing new under the sun. Early Masonry was rife with corruption, conflict between educated thinking men and lower-class working men, and religious fervor butting its head against atheistic or naturalist philosophies. Grand Lodges came into being, fought amongst themselves and with each other, split away. In some cases, they made peace with each other. In other cases, they still to this day refuse to recognize each other.

The first known use of the word freemason occurred as a man's name, Nicholas le Freemason, and he was a mason. In 1325 he was accused of helping prisoners escape from Newgate jail in London.

Religious fraternities existed in the 1300's. Their primary function was to pay the Church for prayers for their members. Various craftsmen would favor and join particular groups. After the Black Plague of 1349 that killed between 1/3 and 2/3 of Europe's population, and over 75 million worldwide, skilled artisans and craftsmen were in high demand, and the fraternal groups became active in trade negotiations and regulation. Elite people became involved, and class tensions increased. The term freemason came to be used by more prosperous stonemasons and builders who became contractors, while the less-skilled workers used the term mason.


The government, which was basically the Church, struggled to keep wages low. In 1425 a law was passed forbidding masons from holding assemblies to demand higher wages. From this event, two myths of Masonry sprung. The craftsmen began making up legends that they had been given ancient charters allowing them to hold their assemblies. They also reacted against the increasing stratification of their trade by developing legends which sought to demonstrate that all masons were brethren of equal status. These legends were written into the Regius and the Cooke manuscripts. It is probably from this event that the well-known phrase about "working for and receiving a Master's wage" comes from.

The Regius and Cooke manuscripts tell of a charter given to masons by a non-existent Prince Edwin, Bro. Prescott says. The legends were created just after the 1425 law, in an attempt to protect stonemasons from the effects of recent labor legislation.

The legend was amplified in 1552, placing Prince Edwin in York, just as a strike of building workers was taking place in York. The leaders of the strikers were imprisoned.


In 1583, William Schaw was appointed Master of Works to King James VI of Scotland. Two days later, a new manuscript had been written, containing copies of the legends first recorded in the Regius and Cooke manuscripts. This document became known as Grand Lodge Manuscript 1, or the Old Charges.

Schaw reorganized Scottish stonemasons, and by 1599 had produced two sets of statutes that ordered the establishment of separate lodges based on locale, which would answer only to the General Warden. Regular meetings were scheduled, and minutes were required to be kept. There are hints that Schaw also sought to interest members of these lodges in the new esoteric and philosophical developments, such as the "art of memory."

Soon, men who were not working stonemasons were attracted to these lodges, including Sir Robert Moray, who became interested in the legends and symbolism of the stonemasons.

In England, too, non-stonemasons became interested in the meetings of stonemasons, including the scientists Elias Ashmole and Randle Holme. There is some speculation that the working stonemasons purposefully recruited men of weath, knowledge and stature, as these were the people paying their salaries. By this time, there were legends dating back to Biblical times giving the impression that it was a God-given right to be paid a fair wage.

As these early Masonic lodges became more elite, inner groups sprang up, including one called the Acception, a part of the London Company of Freemasons, of which Ashmole was a member. Eventually, the London Company of Freemasons became impoverished as they focused less on stonemasonry, and a backlash occurred. In an attempt to create more business, the elite fell out of favor, and the junior members gained more authority. The name of the group was changed to the London Company of Masons.


The creation of the Grand Lodge in 1717 was a direct result of the crisis within the London Company of Masons. Though it was later claimed that the Grand Lodge was a revival, it was most likely the members of the Acception, now out of favor, who set it up.

The next 20 years in England were contentious at best. The new Grand Lodge demanded that other lodges be subordinate to it, that they must obey the Grand Lodge's rules, and that new lodges must obtain warrants to come into existence.

Chaos ensued. Even members of the new Grand Lodge didn't necessarily obey the new rules. William Stuckley authorized a new lodge in Grantham without official approval of the Grand Lodge.

The new Grand Lodge, being made up of thinkers, not craftsmen, focused on social, cultural, political, scientific and aesthetic matters. Even the Gothic architecture long commonplace in England was disregarded. Vitruvian architecture was favored.

These were the "Moderns."

Grand Lodge Freemasonry was a metropolitan, elitist yet inclusive Freemasonry. Jews and Huguenots were members. William Hogarth, the painter famous for his Masonic works of art, was a member in 1730, but had quit in disillusionment by 1736. Other towns, especially York, which considered itself the birthplace of Freemasonry, grew tired of the London Grand Lodge's prideful attitude. Scotland and Ireland, fed up with the London Grand Lodge, formed their own Grand Lodges.


Tension between the London Grand Lodge and other Masons came to a head when the Moderns initiated Frederick Lewis, the Prince of Wales, in 1737. This was the same year that Lewis moved politically against his father, King George II. The Prince's supporters were ostracized by the royal court. The Masonic initiation of Lewis was a politically charged act. Immediately thereafter, a new edition of the Book of Constitutions appeared, describing the initiation of the Prince, further inflaming the king's loyal subjects.

Prof. Prescott says that "Freemasonry cannot be explained by Freemasonry"; it must be viewed in its historical context.

A group known as the Scald Miserable Masons began to stage mock parades timed to interfere with the pompous and solemn parades of the members of the London Grand Lodge. In 1741, they clashed, with some amount of violence. By 1747, the London Grand Lodge was no longer able to safely form a parade or procession.

During this time, Freemasonry had spread to America and other parts of the growing British empire, as well as to France. Benjamin Franklin had published an American edition of the Book of Constitutions in 1734, and in 1749 the London Grand Lodge warranted him as the Grand Master of Philadelphia. French and English Masonry experienced culture clash. The Pope began issuing bulls against Freemasonry in 1738. British Freemasonry became very anti-Catholic, in part because of the popularity of a book telling of a Mason who had suffered at the hands of the Portuguese Inquisition.

It was from this politically and culturally charged era that the Antients sprang. The Antients (Ancients) Grand Lodge was established in 1751 as an upstart competitor to the London Grand Lodge, driven by the Scald Miserable Masons and other lower-class loyalists to the king.


1763 marked an increased attempt by the London Grand Lodge, now calling itself the Premier Grand Lodge, to remake itself into the leading power behind Freemasonry worldwide. It also marked the end of the Seven Years War, which had greatly increased Britain's role on the world stage.

The Premier Grand Lodge sought to "enhance the respectability and prestige of their form of Freemasonry," according to Prof. Prescott. William Preston, Master of one of the four lodges that had originally formed the London Grand Lodge, worked to diminish the social aspects of the Grand Lodge and stress the spiritual and philosophical benefits of Freemasonry, making it into a "highly respectable and elevated form of social activity." Thomas Dunkerley, another member of the Premier Grand Lodge, actively campaigned in the provinces to increase the spiritual and philosophical content of Freemasonry, and was responsible for the creation of additional Masonic orders including the Royal Arch and Mark Masonry.

Their efforts didn't always bear fruit. The Lodge of Nine Muses was composed of luminary and fashionable artists, architects and musicians, while nearby lodges also subordinate to the Premier Grand Lodge were made up of gardeners and tradesmen.


The Premier Grand Lodge continued to push to keep their social prestige high, but were dealt a serious blow by the popularity of books purporting that Freemasonry had been covertly involved in the French revolution, supporting Jacobian interference. Lodges began to split over political issues. Spies were reporting to the British government what was discussed in Masonic lodges. One lodge was accused of an assassination plot against the king. The lodges protested, and proclaimed their loyalty to the Crown; some even changed their names to emphasize their loyalty.

Irish lodges used their meetings to plot the Irish rebellion of 1797. The government contemplated a law forbidding the meeting of all secret societies, and after a long debate in Parliament, the law passed. The Masons, though, had negotiated an exemption for themselves, fueling squabbles with other fraternal groups, such as the Odd Fellows, who were forbidden to meet in secret by the new law.

The government tried to ban meals after meetings of Antient lodges, wanting to keep men from "too much loose talk."

Both the Antients and the Moderns were under scrutiny not only by the British government, but by foreign Grand Lodges as well. The Grand Lodge of Sweden complained, for example, that English lodges too readily accepted low-class sailors, who then returned to their home countries, asking for lodge membership where they were not wanted.

With dual purposes in mind, the Duke of Sussex began negotiations to bring the Antients and the Moderns together into one grand lodge. He wanted to control the groups' loyalty and minimize sedition, and he wanted Freemasonry to become an organization "fit for the empire" by unifying Masonic practice and ritual.

He hoped that after unifying the Antients and Moderns, he could bring the Grand Lodges of Scotland and Ireland into the union as well.

The Antients and Moderns merged into the United Grand Lodge of England in 1813.

The Duke's motivations were lofty. He believed he was performing a "greater service for mankind as a whole." He was fascinated by the remnants of solar worship embodied in Freemasonry, and he "dreamed of using Freemasonry to give a new religion to the world which he felt would be a boon to civilization."

Sussex was against freed slaves becoming Masons. He also was unsympathetic to industrial concerns. These attitudes led to chaos in Masonic lodges in the Caribbean, and, in the new industrial towns in northwest England, many lodges seceded from the Grand Lodge.


Relations between the Grand Lodge and other fraternal organizations continued to deteriorate. In 1834, the group called the Tolpuddle Martyrs were arrested and tried under the Unlawful Societies Act. The Grand Lodge gloated over this, noting that Freemasonry was exempt. Members of the Grand Lodge had different ideas on the direction Freemasonry should take in society. Sussex wanted to create his new religion that superseded Christianity. Dr. Robert Crucefix, a devout Christian, wanted Freemasonry to take more direct social action, and promoted a plan to create a home for elderly, poor Freemasons.

Along with clergyman George Oliver and Richard Carlisle, Crucefix wrote numerous articles for the Freemason's Quarterly Review, developing a Christian theology of Freemasonry. Their campaign was successful, and this Christianized Freemasonry was influential until the end of the 19th century. The idea of Masonic charity had entered the picture.

Crucefix wanted to create a Masonry for the respectable middle class. While he promoted the charitable aspects of Masonry, he also purposely created among the brethren a fear that low-lifes were using their Masonic membership to live off the goodheartedness of their brothers.

While Crucefix was successful in infusing Christianity into Freemasonry, he wasn't very successful at attracting the respectable middle classes, and Masonry remained divided between the elite and the lower-class.


Crucefix and Sussex clashed many times, and their differences are still apparent today in Freemasonry.

The skirmishes between those of differing opinions were fought mostly with words printed in magazines. Canadian Masons rebelled against the Grand Lodge of England and formed their own grand lodge.

As the newer industrial cities grew, the local elite demanded greater access to social and political power. The Lodge of Progress was formed in Birmingham. They built their own Masonic hall (many lodges still met in taverns at this time), forbade alcohol at Masonic meals, and stressed virtues of charity, temperance and respectability. Other lodges in industrial towns followed suit.

This is the time when, finally, Crucefix's hope for a membership of the respectable middle class came into being.

Opulent lodge halls began to be built, usually near the centers of government, standing next to public buildings.

In India, British Masons and native Indian Masons began to build separate lodges, based on their religious differences. Christianity and "decency" were stressed in the new lodges being formed.


By the 1870s, the Victorian era was in full swing. It wasn't just Freemasons who became more reserved and "proper"; it was British society as a whole. Lodges became respectable, and again Masons began to parade through the streets. An industry of providing expensive Masonic jewels and regalia sprang up. Magazines circulated promoting the pompous side of Freemasonry, writing about Masonic personalities and events, much as our magazines do today. The awards-mentality of Freemasonry had come into being.

Society had become prosperous and stable.

Fewer and fewer lodges met in taverns. Having your own lodge building was dignified and impressive. Lodges became even more class-divided, with men of different professions joining separate lodges. Lodges became a place for men to meet after their day's work; many lodges became "gentlemen's clubs." The London School Board petitioned for its own lodge simply so they could have a nice place to relax after work.

Religion in lodges became even more important as the buildings themselves became more church-like. The chaplain's role in lodge meetings increased, and attending lodge became almost like attending church.

This increased religiosity wasn't universal, and in France lodges became increasingly less religious and more secular and even atheistic. Tensions between the Grand Lodges of England and France came to a head when the Grand Orient of France rescinded the requirement of belief in a supreme being as a requirement for Masonic initiation.

In America, the religious overtones in Freemasonry were not as pronounced until much later, in the mid-20th century, about the time that in England the religious aspects of Freemasonry, left over from the Victorian period, began to fade.

With the societal changes, beginning after World War II and speeding up exponentially in the 1960s, the British became more secular and less religious, and so did British Freemasonry. Americans in general became more secular, too, but American lodges went the opposite way. Lodge membership in America had increased dramatically during those changing 20 years, and then plummeted quickly as the new generation of the 1960s refused to embrace tradition. This left American Freemasonry populated with older, more conservative and more religious men, and the changing tide of society did not wash over the Masonic lodge as it did in England. The 1960s generation of free-thinkers didn't enter the Masonic world, and thus their influence, so pervasive in the rest of American culture, didn't modify Freemasonry to any great degree.

— W.S.

Image: A page from the Cooke Manuscript

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  1. Thanks for posting this, WS. It's rare to see such a concise, grounded history. I've sent a link to this post the EAs in my charge, as well as the rest of my lodge.

  2. While it may read like a betrayal, what I find fascinating and essential in this history is the power of myth in moving people to great works. The real challenge to modern freemasonry could probably be summarized as "How can you keep them down on the farm, after they've seen Parie" -- it is a trick of real Magick now to instill the sense of awe and magic that can propel a group while neutralizing the rampant jaded nihilism that says it's just a bunch of old farts in moth-eaten robes ;)

    Were I a modern grandmaster charged with re-igniting this magical light of the world in the hearts of the cable-TV-fed young, I think I'd start carefully studying the alien sci-fi space-myth pageantry of Sun Ra ...

  3. awesome post WS!
    Great read into the history with much more details about the past.

    It seems Freemasonry has been tried to be controlled and manipulated since the inceptions of "Grand Lodges". Again, how often are we actually going to be sitting in a tiled lodge with all these other masons?
    Universal recognition would create a public harmonious picture, where within we could point fingers at the "non-regular" masons, and warn our young niave members about the perils of inter-recognition on a public level.

    it is our souls we are talking about when inter recognising and the damage that could be done to one eternal existence by fraternising with "un-recogonised or irregular masons".
    the perils that lurk behind every masonic corner.........


  4. My research agrees with that of Prof. Prescott. It's unfortunate that this is only a short essay as there is much more available.

    As you can see from Prescott's work, Freemasonry has from the beginning been schismatic in nature. What we are seeing to day is nothing more that history repeating itself.

  5. Thank you for your information in tne comment space of my blog A Partir Pedra ( I see you took notice of Prof. Prescott's paper a litle bit earlier than me. As you could see in my post, i've decided to publish a synopsis of this paper too, only in several different posts.
    Reading your high quality post puts me a problem: in tne next chapters of the synopsis I'm going to publish, I must take care not to plagiate you! I expect to succeed...
    I loved the image you chose to put in your post. Woul you allow me to use it in one of my next chapters (with proper mention of the blog where I found it, of course)?
    I made a tour in your blog and I liked it very much. Next week or so I will publish a post about it (No objections from you, I hope).
    Fraternal greetings from a Portuguese Brother.

  6. While I appreciate the quality of scholarship applied to this research, I wanted to mention one caveat.

    Paul Naudon wrote a very good book (though the title is perhaps overly melodramatic):

    The Secret History of Freemasonry: Its Origins and Connection to the Knights Templar by Paul Naudon (2005)

    The author has definitively demonstrated continuity in Europe of the Templars and operative masonry from the fall of the Templars right up to the French revolution. These are important findings.

    Naturally, connecting this to British freemasonry is more challenging. But considering the centuries of probable contact, it becomes difficult to believe there is no influence.

    However, let's be precise. The author is not saying operative masons are simply the Templars by a different name. He has proof, however, that European operative masons maintained contact with Templar traditions and even feudal rights and privileges. It's rather impressive.

    Considering how easy it was for British freemasonry to broadly influence European culture, it is completely reasonable to expect European freemasonry to influence the specific sub-group of British operative freemasonry.


    Brother George

  7. Unfortunately Prescott's work is well out of date, and poor history.

    For Prescott to discount Prince Edwin of York as being a non-existent myth in a throwaway line is wholly risible.

    Even allowing for the recent announcement that the final resting place of Prince Edwin of York has been traced to Northern France, Prince Edwin is chronicled in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People where it is recorded that he ordered the construction of a church on the former Roman fortress site of Eboracum (York).

    He is also chronicled immediately after "Exemptus" King Athelstan in the Rosicrucian Chronology for the year AD925.

    In one of Symeon of Durham's Northumbrian Annals dated AD933, which he used as material for his Historia regum Anglorum et Dacorum, he states that: "King Ethelstan ordered his brother Edwin to be drowned in the sea".

    William of Malmesbury expressed grave doubt about this story "on account of the extraordinary affection he [Athelstan] manifested towards the rest of his brothers".

    The Anglo-Saxon chronicles of AD933 report that "This year died Bishop Frithestan; and Edwin the atheling was drowned in the sea".

    Milton Abbey in Blandford Forum, Dorset, England was founded by King Athelstan to commemorate the death at sea of his brother Edwin.

    Prince Edwin, the brother of King Athelstan is recorded in all of the important Masonic manuscripts dating back to the Halliwell Manuscript of c1360.

    Now we find that the records of the Abbey of St Bertin in Flandres, make note of King Athelstan's expressions of gratitude for their burial of Edwin, who had drowned in a storm escaping from England during a period of turmoil (AD933).

    Historical fact - Prince Edwin of York lived, and he was the brother of King Athelstan, howsoever inconvenient this may be to some.


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