A 1657 Masonic? Bookplate

Masonic bookplates – the ‘Brethren’s spiritual coats of arms and marks’



In a previous work, we called Masonic bookplates the ‘Brethren’s spiritual coats of arms and marks’ [1]

We would now like to add a new item to the file, one which raises many questions for the historian of Freemasonry.

It is a ‘typographical’ bookplate, i.e. without fine heraldry or specific picture; just a label mentioning the name of the owner of the book.

What makes it interesting for us is its date: 1657, and the fact that the possessor of the book presents himself as a ‘Free Mason’.

This paper was first published in French in Franc-maçonnerie Magazine, n°63, July 2018.
Translated from the French by Jean-Pierre Gonet.

Robert Trollap’s bookplate
IMAGE CREDIT:  Author’s private collection

The inscription is ‘Robert Trollap (of Yorke and Newcastle, Free-Mason) his booke, 1657’.

Infrequent as it is, this bookplate is well known of British specialists: it can be found on a number of books kept to this day in public or private collections.

Why is this date mentioned – a rather unusual practice with bookplates? One can imagine that Trollap wished to take stock of his books in 1657, or even to take a first inventory.

But we are, of course, primarily interested in this display of his quality of ‘Free-Mason’, more so as it is associated with the old City of York.

What can we know of Robert Trollap? [2]   What kind of ‘Free-Mason’ could he be?

York Castle (Clifford’s Tower) in 1644. Source: Cooper, Thomas (1869-1937), ‘History of York Castle’,
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

He was born in Yorkshire, probably circa 1620, in an old family of York stonecutters.

He was a member of the craft himself, received as ‘Freeman’ of the City of York in 1647, although he joined the elite of the construction world by becoming an architect.

He mainly worked in Northumberland and Durham. He settled in Gateshead, opposite Newcastle on the other bank of the Tyne.

He is known especially for various country manors in the region, as well as for the covered market and the Newcastle Guildhall – the headquarters of corporations, built between 1653 and 1658.

Headquarters of the Guild of Merchants in York, where Robert Trollap was made a ‘Freeman’ in 1647
IMAGE CREDIT:  Author’s private collection

In 1660, he adopted the ‘Palladian style’ to build the new manor hall of Eshott and he introduced baroque elements in the construction of Capheaton Hall in 1667.

He was a man of culture: having a plate for one’s books shows a special relationship to them.

The library at Harvard University – the remote repository of various fields of interest – still has a musical score for viola da gamba by William Lawes which belonged to him.

Perhaps the ‘Free-Mason’ on the bookplate simply refers to his quality as an ‘operative’ Mason.

The expression ‘Freemason’, deriving from ‘Free-stone Mason’, that is a Mason who works on a quality of stone particularly adapted to stone cutting, is typically English, while it is, for example, ignored by the Scots.

This is all the more interesting as, whereas Newcastle is still in England, the city is quite close to Scotland.

Moreover, the ‘operative character’ of his Masonic quality seems to be confirmed by an inscription on a rare threefold carpenter’s ruler kept in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

On one of the folds there is the following engraving: ‘1655, Robert Trollap of Yorke free mason’. The matter would therefore be rather simple.

Robert Trollap would have just mentioned his membership in the world of operative Masons by using the English phrase or ‘Free-Mason’.

Graduated three-foot brass scale in three parts, inscribed ‘1655 Robert Trollap of Yorke Free Mason’, 1655
IMAGE CREDIT:  © National Museums Scotland

Some elements, however, incite the historian to inquire further.

In fact, the name Trollap also appears in a context which seems more ‘speculative’ than ‘operative’.

In 1671, the bishop (Church of England) of Durham delivered a charter to the ‘Guild of Freemasons, carvers, stone cutters, brickmakers, glaziers, painters, founders, nailers, etc.’ of the small town of Gateshead.[3]

It was, indeed, upon Trollap’s initiative that the charter was requested from the bishop. It was hoped that by such official recognition and a few privileges, social and economic life could be restored in that small town which had been weakened by the civil war and Cromwell’s regime.

Now, out of the five names linked with the ‘Free-Masons’…four, including the bishop’s secretary himself, could not have been ‘operatives’.

They were minor notabilities who left their mark in local history and were altogether unconnected with the craft.

Therefore, Robert Trollap’s rich personality provides a link between operative Freemasonry and the ‘Accepted masons’ of the 17th century.

Those English ‘non-operatives’ so well portrayed by Robert Plot in his Natural History of Staffordshire in 1686.

Natural History of Staffordshire Robert Plot, 1686
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The bookplate is a testimony of that intermediate and still somewhat mysterious period in the formation of modern Freemasonry.

Our Brother Robert Trollap died on 11 December 1686 and had this little quatrain engraved on his stone:

Here lies Robert Trollap
Who made yon stones roll up
When death took his soul up
His body filled this hole up.

Robert Trollap’s grave is at St Mary’s Church, Gateshead
IMAGE CREDIT:  © Peter McDermott – geograph.org.uk/p/668118 Attribution  (CC BY 2.0)

[1]  Curiosités Maçonniques. Énigmes, intrigues et secrets dans les archives des Loges, Éditions Jean-Cyrille Godefroy, 2014, chapter XVII.

[2]  Many thanks to my colleague Diane Clements, former Director of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry in London, for having set me up Robert Trollap’s trail at the occasion of a discussion about masonic bookplates.

[3]  Speculative members included in Bishop cosins’ charter incorporating the trades of Gateshead, 1671, AQC. 18, 1905, p. 53-55.

Article by: Pierre Mollier

Pierre Mollier, born in Lyon,  is the director of the Library of the Grand Orient de France and the curator of the Paris Museum of Freemasonry.

Editor-in-chief of the symbolic and Masonic periodical, Renaissance Traditionnelle https://rt.fmtl.fr/ and of the online open access journal Ritual, Secrecy, and Civil Society http://www.ipsonet.org/publications/open-access/ritual-secrecy-and-civil-society

He has published more than 100 papers and 5 books: among them La Chevalerie Maçonnique: Franc-maçonnerie, imaginaire chevaleresque et légende templière au siècle des Lumières on the origins of the chivalric degrees of Freemasonry, and, most recently, Curiosités Maçonniques. Énigmes, intrigues et secrets dans les archives des Loges… on some fancies of Masonic history.

He is also the Grand Archivist of the Grand Collège des Rites Ecossais, the oldest French Supreme Council.

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