prior to 1691 are lost in the mists of time.
Freemasonry, as we know it today, is based on the first Grand Lodge founded on
24 June 1717 formed by four London Lodges. The oldest of which was thought to
have existed in 1646.
While there are many theories
there is no concrete evidence of where Freemasonry originated. Nevertheless it
is generally agreed that freemasonry
developed from the medieval stonemasons. These were the operative masons who
built the cathedrals and castles.
For security they met and
lived in buildings or Lodges. To enable the Master in charge to ascertain the
range of skills of the travelling stonemasons, who came to offer their services,
the stonemasons guilds, like other crafts or guilds, developed basic ceremonies for
passing their skills onto new apprentices. Therefore, like all Guilds, when
the apprentice stonemason had achieved a certain skill level he was
informed of certain recognition signs, tokens and words.
This was necessary as there
were no trade union cards, nationally recognised examination bodies or certificates of apprenticeship.
But, these recognition signs were used to
regulate the craft. Communication of these signs, tokens and words enabled the
Master Mason in charge of a project to know a man’s ability.
These signs, tokens and words were closely
guarded secrets and, to ensure that the young apprentice understood their
importance to the craft, there were many blood curdling oaths
placed on him. These have no place in today's society but the initiate is
informed that these were once traditional to becoming a stone mason
The signs in the ovals, in
the picture opposite, are the recognition marks of stonemasons who worked on
over 3,000 years ago. It is reference to these signs, tokens and words which Freemasons today
observe and are related to the signs to know a Mason by.
No one knows why, but in the early 1600s, these operative
Lodges began to admit non stonemasons. They were “accepted” or “gentlemen”
masons. Gradually they took over and became Lodges of free and accepted
or speculative masons, no longer having any ‘practical’ connection with the
In 1646 Elias Ashmole,
Antiquary and Founder of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, records in his diary
that he was made a Free Mason at his father-in-law’s house in Warrington. None
of those present, had any connection with operative masonry. Therefore, as
speculative Freemasonry, it must have been in operation before that
Another theory, which could
run alongside, is that freemasonry was started because the late 1500s or
early 1600s was a period of religious and political turmoil and intolerance.
It was difficult to express differences of political and religious opinion.
Opposing views often split families and resulted in the English Civil War of 1642 to 1646.
Supporters of this theory state
that the originators of Freemasonry were men who wished to promote tolerance
and build a better world in which men of differing opinions could peacefully
co-exist and work together for the betterment of mankind. In the custom of
their times they used allegory and symbolism to pass on their ideas.
borrowed their central allegory from the Bible; in which the only building
described in any detail is King Solomon’s Temple. They then used the
stonemasons’ tools as the emblems to practically illustrate the principles
they were putting forward.
This being based on
the square and compass. Then they used the recognition signs to ensure
that their assemblies were not infiltrated by anyone who would report them
or cause a problem.
The reason for the strong
charitable ethic of Freemasonry dates back to the 1600s when there was no welfare
state, so becoming
disabled or falling ill meant relying on friends or the Poor Law for help.
Many trades had “box clubs” which grew out of members putting money into a
communal box, so that if they fell on hard times they could apply for relief
from the box.
These box clubs had many
characteristics of early Masonic Lodges; meeting in taverns, simple initiation
ceremonies and passwords.
Premier Grand Lodge was
established in 1717 and Freemasonry grew in popularity, becoming world wide
and attracting many famous and notable personalities.
In 1721 Grand Lodge began to be a
regulatory body and in 1723, as the membership grew, a ‘Book of
Constitutions’ was published which outlined the rules and regulations
governing freemasonry. In 1730, with more than 100 Lodges under its
jurisdiction, it had begun to operate a central charity fund.
1751, a rival Grand Lodge, the Antients, was formed as it was claimed that the
original Grand Lodge, the Moderns, had departed from the established customs
of the Craft. When the Duke of Sussex became the Grand Master of the Moderns
and his brother the Duke of Kent became Grand Master of the Ancients the two
rival Grand Lodges came together on 27 December 1813, under the Grand Mastership of HRH Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, the sixth son of
The Book of
Constitutions, which ‘governs’ the craft has been reprinted and gone through
many editions since its initial publication, but the fundamental rules laid
down in 1723 still apply today.
World wide there are
over six million Freemasons. Today there are approaching 9,000 lodges in
England and Wales
attended by over 300,000 brethren. In Gloucestershire there are 80 lodges
meeting in 17 Masonic halls attended by 3,000 brethren. Ten lodges meet in
Cheltenham Masonic hall which is used by 400 brethren.