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History of Freemasonry

There are very few incontrovertible facts about the origins of Freemasonry. Probably the single most significant event was the formation of the first Grand Lodge[?] in London in 1717. Working backwards from then the following facts or landmarks along the way stand out.

And that is as far back as documented history goes. Harry Carr[?], a noted masonic historian, was probably meaning this when he said it all began with the formation of the London masons Company in 1356. From that date forward the history of Freemasonry is comparatively well established and there is increasing documentary evidence to study its gradual evolution.

The Craft that evolved into modern Freemasonry emerged in the period between the Black Death, 1348, and the Wars of the Roses, 1453. Before that date there are no trends or events that can be identified as leading definitely towards Freemasonry. It appears to have emerged from the building industry as a whole. Equally, there is no part of England that can claim the honour of originating Freemasonry. The later preeminence of London was not apparent at this era. The Regius Poem and Cooke[?] manuscripts, about 1390 and 1410 respectively, are written in the dialects of west and southwest of England. They may have been written for the school of masonry associated with Salisbury Cathedral.

The first recorded use of the word "Lodge" was in 1278 during the building of a Cistercian Monastery at Vale Royal[?] near Chester. Initially it was no more than a rude hut in which the masons worked and possibly took their midday meal. At other sites they may also have slept in the Lodge. By 1352 there were elaborate rules governing the behaviour of the mason connected with the lodge at York Minster. These regulations are described as the "ancient customs of the masons" (consuetudines antiquae quibus cementarii). The Master and Deputy Master were required to swear an oath that the ancient customs would be adhered to. Fifty years later all masons were required to swear the same oath. We are not aware of anything esoteric about these customs; they mainly concerned rates of pay, hours of work, holidays etc. However, given the medieval obsession with mysticism it is unlikely that their customs were wholly mundane.

A pen drawing by Matthew Paris, circa 1250, purports to show Henry II in conference with his masons. The men building a wall are shown using a level. The mason actually being addressed by the King is holding a large square and compass almost as if to demonstrate his importance, the implication being that he is the Master Mason. There is a similar carving in Worcester Cathedral, circa 1224, which shows the architect clutching a pair of dividers and, apparantly, discussing the plans with a monk. These may suggest the beginnings of the ceremonial significance which is now given to the square and compass.

The earliest occurrence of the word Freemason was in London in 1376. Four men were chosen to represent the city's builders on the Common Council of Trades[?], this was the first time they had been represented. They were originally listed as Freemasons although the word is then crossed out and replaced with Mason. The possible reason for this error is significant. Much of the building in the South of England was done with a material called Freestone. This is a form of limestone which is soft and easily worked when freshly quarried but afterwards hardens and becomes very durable. And the men who worked it were of course, called Freestone Masons. There seems to be no evidence to link the prefix free- with freedom. The balance of probability seems to suggest that Freemason is indeed a contraction of Freestone Mason.

John Wycliffe, writing about 1383, used the terms "men of sutel craft, as fre masons and others" he also refers to "fraternytes or gildis". Then Henry Yevele, a master builder who died in 1400 may have been described as a Freemason on his tombstone. On the other hand the word Freemason appears in neither the Regius or the Cooke Manuscripts.

At this distance in time there can be no certainty but the evidence does strongly support the suggestion the Freemasonry could have developed from Guilds and Lodges of the medieval masons. This does not mean that other movements or bodies of ideas or organizations did not also contribute significantly to survival and growth the Freemasonry. Indeed it seems very probable an organization that has survived five hundred years must have been prepared to absorb and use any ideas that could contribute to its strength and growth.

See also stonemason



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