Origins and Links to English Freemasonry – part 1

Freemasonry as we know it now, was established in 1717 [or 1721], however there is little written about the times before.

We use ritual that supposedly stems from the building of King Solomon’s Temple, but it’s said to be only symbolic. 

So, let’s look at some the links between the Freemasonry of today with the original Operative builders.  I hoped to find out if there is more than just symbolism – do we have a firm and provable link to those who built the earliest of temples? Well, it has been researched many times but here are a few findings.

In China, the implements of architecture were used in a system of moral philosophy at an early date.

Mencius – As depicted in the album Half Portraits of the Great Sage and Virtuous Men of Old
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‘A master mason, in teaching his apprentices, makes use of the compasses and the square.’

Mencius – who wrote around 300 B.C.



What yo do not wish for yourself, do not do to others – Confucius
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‘A man should abstain from doing unto others what he would not they should do unto him; and this is called the principle of acting on the square’.

Great Learning – 500 B.C

Victor Burridge produced an interesting paper entitled ‘The Authentic History of British Freemasonry’, and these are some of his findings.

The Order of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons is of course an adaptation of the system practiced by the Christian Operative Masons of Europe in the Middle Ages but the oldest records in this country date back to the late fourteenth century.  ( Regius Manuscript 1340 )

The first Operative masons to arrive in England came over with the Romans 55 A.D to build roads and dwellings for their armies. The first recorded Guild meeting was in Ullesthorpe, near Leicester. 

 As the system governing Operative masonry developed in this country, the Guild Lodges were formed and were based upon those used at the building of the Tower of Babel and King Solomon’s Temple. 

The masons engaged in the work were divided into seven degrees.

The First consisted of the Apprentices, or men of little experience. They worked on the stone as it came from the quarries. 

The Second Degree consisted of Fellowcrafts who prepared the stone to exact gauges so that every stone was true and to the required standard. 

The Third Degree was the expert workmen who checked every stone before it was shipped to the Temple site. 

The Fourth Degree was the erectors and setters who, according to Hebrew custom, worked barefoot and with heads covered as the ground in which they worked was holy. 

The Fifth Degree comprised of the Superintendents of Works – 33rd degree who ruled over the people who wrought the work. 

 The Sixth Degree consisted of the Experts sixth in rank, while the Seventh Degree was restricted to the three Grand Masters who had supreme command of the Guild.

Under the Norman system the Entered Apprentice served for seven years to become a free man. The Square Mason, or Fellowcraft, was confined to work that was square, straight, level, or upright. 

The regulations state that he was not allowed to carry out any work that was carved, circular or arched, neither was he permitted to use a pair of compasses.  He wore a blue apron and a blue badge on his left breast to indicate his rank. 

The Seventh Degree consisted of the three Master Masons, each of whom had a right-angled square as his emblem. Presumably, this eventually became the Master and the two Wardens.

 When the Lodge was opened, each Master placed his square on the top of the pedestal, together with a fourth that was already there, to form a swastika. Of course, that symbol holds very sinister connotations now, but its original meaning was ‘auspiciousness’. Over the years its significance was lost, and it was eventually dropped in Operative masonry.

Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper
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There is a large gap in the records until the late sixteenth century, owing partly to the lack of writing skills.  There was also a steady decline in Operative masonry after the Commonwealth under Cromwell. They were of course mainly employed in the construction of stately edifices for the church and nobility. 

Gradually they began to admit prominent men who were not Operative masons but spectators of part of their ceremonies; good men who wanted to be better.

It’s interesting to note that ‘Cowans’ were specifically prohibited from joining Operative lodges and this was written into their regulations. The term was applied to a rough builder of dry-stone walls who had not undergone a proper apprenticeship or training. In today’s trade union terms, he would be called a ‘scab‘. 

So the outer guard, or Tyler’s job was specifically to prevent anyone who pretended to be a tradesman from entering a lodge; hence the system of recognition that was applied at the very earliest of times so that different grades of workmen were paid at the correct rate. Admission into a ‘Speculative’ or ‘Spectator’s’ lodge was restricted, as it is today, to only those qualified.

Proof of the admission of Speculative masons into Operative lodges is recorded in the earliest minutes of the Free-masons Company of London, which was founded in 1400. In 1655, the prefix ‘free’ was dropped and the title altered to The Masons Company, and it is recorded in the minutes that a non-Operative lodge was assembled under its wing in 1620, known as the ‘Acception’.

This Lodge ceased before the coming together of the two Grand Lodges.

The Worshipful Company of  Masons: – 

Book of Constitutions in 1723 – Anderson
IMAGE CREDIT:  united grand lodge of england Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Prior to this event, all Masons were required to be Christians. The first edition of the Book of Constitutions in 1723, was altered to allow good men and true of all religions – leaving their particular opinions to themselves.

Speculative Freemasonry expanded rapidly but the records of the London Grand Lodge show that it was anything but a centre of union and harmony.

Anderson’s first Book of Constitutions consisted of the Entered Apprentice and Fellowcraft Degrees, and ‘The Masters Part’ for the Installation. Frequent revisions were made, and the Hiramic Legend was introduced to form the Third Degree [1725]. 

Other changes were also implemented, which led to accusations of gross irregularities and innovations being made – there was widespread dissatisfaction and revolt. 

In 1724, the Grand Lodge issued warrants of constitution to lodges in Bath, Bristol, and Norwich, which apparently angered Brethren in York, who severed their relations with London and constituted themselves as The Grand Lodge of all England. 

In London, the revolt grew rapidly, and by 1751 the rebels, or schismatics as they were called, set up another rival Grand Loge under the title of the Ancients. Their opponents called themselves the Moderns.

I’m sure I don’t need to go into great detail as we all know of the split and subsequent coming together of the two rival Grand Lodges.

However, there are some facts that I didn’t know, so I’ll share them with you. The Ancients included the Royal Arch in their Third Degree ritual – known as Raising to the Royal Arch; they also included Mark, while the Moderns refused to recognise the Royal Arch in Craft but they practiced it in Chapters. Originally only Past Masters were admitted into the Royal Arch, but this was later relaxed to allow all Master Masons to join.

The first meeting of the Premier Grand Lodge of England (originally titled; Grand Lodge of London and Westminster) was held on St John the Baptist’s Day [24 June] in 1717. This day was adhered to for Installations until 1725, after this it fell into abeyance, possibly because of English Freemasonry becoming non-denominational.

Jerusalem Talmud
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There are references in the Jerusalem Talmud of how John foresaw the destruction of the Temple 70 A.D. and the serious risk of the Gentiles falling into vice and cruelty. He therefore resolved to take the ancient teachings, which we now call masonry, and preserve them as the principles of the first and original Grand Lodge. 

The Hebrew scholars set up a Temple of Humanity  with a Court of the Gentiles. Here the Gentiles came in touch with masonry as we now understand it.

Not only for the worship of the Most High, but also the inculcation of His moral Law. Since the precepts bore no reference to any religion, both Jew and Gentile could be, and were, admitted to the fraternity. 

point within in a circle with John the Baptist & John the Evangelist
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The natural ignorance of the Gentile world in the Middle Ages led to Freemasonry being entirely Christian. However, the historical teachings of John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, Johanan ben Zakki or John the son of Zacchaeusus (Za-Kee-Ous) contributed in no small part to the promulgation of the moral truths preserved by the Craft, and St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist were especially recognised in the early days of British Freemasonry.

At the opening of a lodge of Operative masons, called The Worshipful Society of Free Masons, Rough Masons, Wallers, Slaters, Paviors, Plasterers and Bricklayers, the Chaplain recited the prayer that starts with:

Jachin, most Holy and Glorious El Shaddai, thou Great Architect of Heaven and Earth, who art the giver of all good gifts and graces,  it goes on, give us the Holy Spirit to enlighten our minds with wisdom and understanding of this our worthy and worshipful Craft of Free Masons, and finishes with: This we humbly beg in Thy Name O El Shaddai.

So mote it be.

You can see how our prayers have evolved from those used by our operative predecessors.

continue reading next chapter
Origins and Links to English Freemasonry - Part 2

Article by: Barry Stedman


Barry was initiated into Freemasonry in Tudor Lodge 6947 UGLE, and was Master in 1995 and served as Master in other craft lodges and PZ in HRA.  He is also a member of the Essex Provincial Oration team (based in England).  

Barry works in TV and shot a video with Jim Davidson OBE ,Chelsea Lodge 3098, promoting for the RMBI Prince Edward, Duke of Kent Court at Stisted (Essex, England).

The Great Learning

One of the classic 4 books of ancient Confucianism, The Great Learning consists of a short initial commentary attributed to Confucius himself, followed by a lengthier tract written by one of his disciples named Zengzi.

The text emphasises achieving balance in everyday life and in thoughts. For the man who aspires to great wisdom, much time must be set aside for rest and contemplation. Life’s priorities must be organised according to their importance, and harmony must be rigorously cultivated in everyday associations and relationships. In learning, one must not consider one kind superior to the exclusion of others, but must instead strive for balance.

The translator James Legge was a Scottish Sinologist who spent much of his adult life in China collecting and translating the various philosophical and literary classics. Since Legge was present in the pre-modern China of the 19th century, where Confucianism held much sway, the authenticity of the tone cannot be doubted.

Devoting his talents to accurately rendering Confucian thought for Western consideration, Legge’s translations of the Chinese Classics were originally published by Oxford University Press, and remain strongly appreciated for their authenticity to this day.


The book of wisdom by Mencius

The book of wisdom by Mencius, a sage of Ancient China, is presented here in its complete and authoritative English translation. 

Written during and shortly after the Warring States period of Chinese antiquity, the book of Mencius is a selection of conversational dialogues between the philosopher and his various disciples. Together they discuss all manner of topics, from living a happy and virtuous life to the principles of raising a family and educating the young. 

Breaking with Confucius himself, who venerated rulers and strong governance, Mencius argues for the right of common people to overthrow a repressive or brutal regime. The book is rich with analogy, examining the actions of the ancient kings and dukes of China in order to draw comparisons and enhance the lessons offered. 

In life, Mencius was a prominent figure who travelled and lectured widely, serving variously as an educator, official and scholar in the realms of ancient China. His mother was by all accounts a paragon of virtue – to this day, Chinese society considers her and her influence own Mencius’s own published thoughts to be worthy of veneration.


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