by The Old Epsomian Lodge #3561



When a Freemason completes his masonic degrees, it has been customary for nearly two hundred years to present a certificate from United Grand Lodge of England stating the dates on which those degrees were attained. The certificate also contains much masonic symbolism and the formality of the presentation is often accompanied by drawing the recipient’s attention to the significance of the document and the nature of its design. However, very little detail is offered about the history of the certificate.

The history of Grand Lodge certificates is difficult to research because their exact origins have been lost in antiquity. This paper is largely based upon the two leading research papers on the subject and aims to provide a brief summary for the enquiring Freemason.



The very earliest mention of the necessity for a freemason to be certified was published in “The Roberts Pamphlet” in London in 1722. It was a printed version of the Old Charges which claim to have been written in 1663 and required a mason to bring “a certificate of the time and place of his acception from the lodge that accepted him”. The Rev. James Anderson then introduced the “1663” regulations from “The Roberts Pamphlet” into his Constitutions of 1738 and certification on behalf of individual lodges and Grand Lodges flourished from then on.

The recorded history of English Grand Lodge certificates starts with a minute from Premier Grand Lodge of England (the “Moderns”) in 1755 which stated that all certificates must be sealed and signed by the Grand Secretary. Their seal is shown to the right. Ironically, this can be corroborated from the minutes of the Grand Lodge of England (the “Antients”) which stated that “This year 1755, the Modern Masons began to make use of certificates: Though the Ancient Masons had granted certificates time immemorial” This scornful remark by their secretary, Dermott, could not have referred to his Grand Lodge, the “Antients”, because they had only broken away from the Premier Grand Lodge in 1751; instead, he was probably referring to independent old masons and Irish immigrant masons who had never thrown in their lot with Premier Grand Lodge. Therefore, it seem likely that a certification system of one kind or another existed or some time before 1755.




The oldest engraved certificate in United Grand Lodge of England’s (“UGLE”) collection is commonly called the “De Pinna” certificate, shown left. It was issued by Premier Grand Lodge of England and presented in 1767. This certificate is of the “Three Graces” style and ran from 1757 until it was replaced in 1809 by the “St Pauls” certificate. Despite its age, it is in very good condition with the original seal still clearly recognisable.

The earliest surviving “Antient” certificates are called the “Universis”. They have nothing of the splendour of the “Moderns” certificates, being non-pictoral and looking no more attractive than a dues card. They were issued between 1766 and 1792. All subsequent certificates, whether “Antient” or “Modern”, have a key feature in common: The columns of the Three Orders of Architecture; however, the “Antients” certificates never managed to match the skill and artistry of the “Moderns” designs.

All “Antient” Grand Lodge certificates from 1766 onwards had text in both Latin and English. “Moderns” certificates were in English only. The benefit of including Latin seems lost on us these days, but in the Mid 18th century, it would have impressed and added prestige as well as being understood by the educated classes around the world where English was not understood.



In the early years of Grand Lodge Freemasonry, brethren were not automatically issued with Grand Lodge certificates upon attaining qualification as they are these days. Prior to Union in 1813, certification, if sought, came in two stages.

Firstly: A lodge could prepare their own private certificate stating the dates a brother had undergone his degrees. Those Private lodge certificates were rarely requested by lodge brethren and were often filed away by lodge secretaries as a record card. Nevertheless, private lodge certificates were varied in their design and sometimes displayed considerable artistry.

Secondly: If a freemason contemplated travel around the UK or abroad and needed universally recognised proof of masonic standing, he could surrender his private lodge certificate to the Grand Secretary who would replace it with a Grand Lodge certificate. This procedure was more common amongst “Antients” freemasons. The “Antients”drew more heavily from military and artisan backgrounds and would therefore be more likely to be dispersed over the “face of earth and water”. This is possibly why the “Antients” felt the need to write their certificates in Latin as well as English.

The first “Antients” seal they applied to Grand Lodge certificates is shown on the right and was used from 1760. The seal on the left came into use by the “Antients” in 1775. It was designed by Kirk, hence his name appears as Kirk F(ecit). Freemasons will notice that UGLE’s current seal and motif has incorporated much of the artistry and symbolism of the “Antients” second seal and practically ignored the entire design of the “Moderns” seal, shown above.

The “Antients” also stole a march on the “Moderns” by issuing the first Royal Arch certificates in 1791 with the “Moderns” lagging behind until 1801 before they produced Chapter certificates.



Freemasons are told that a Grand Lodge Certificate may be regarded as a kind of masonic passport to help gain admission to a lodge. In the 18th Century, a Grand Lodge Certificate would not only assist gaining admission, but was also an invaluable insurance against immediate need and the grim vicissitudes of 18th Century life.

Applications for relief were commonplace, particularly for the “Antients” who were routinely petitioned by itinerant Scottish and Irish freemasons. Certification therefore acted as a safeguard for limited charitable funds. The “Antients” Grand Lodge minute books of the day abound with innumerable cases for charity which was granted only if the petitioner could present proper documentation. Curiously, the “Moderns” did not face the same volume of immigrant petitions. Perhaps the increasing burden of charity dispensed to itinerant freemasons was a key factor motivating Premier Grand Lodge to change the ritual and passwords thus preservng their charitable reserves? The changes effectively barred Scottish and Irish freemasons access to English lodges and so inflamed some UK freemasons that many, such as the “Antients”, broke away to form their own version of freemasonry.

Charity was claimed by a freemason (or his widow) making a petition to the relevant Grand Lodge and presenting the necessary Lodge or Grand Lodge certificate for inspection. Once charity was dispensed, a record was made but, in the case of petitions from widows, the certificate was then destroyed. Although this might explain why so few have survived, such a system for dispensing charity was open to abuse and so after the 1813 Union, the rules were tightened so that no lodge was allowed to issue their own private certificates or even dues cards. That ban still applies in the UK today. Grand Lodge Certificates were then issued automatically by United Grand Lodge of England after completion of the necessary degrees.

Interestingly, Grand Lodge certificates in those days didn’t necessarily vouch that the brother concerned was of good report as they do today. This is illustrated in the following cases recorded in the minutes of the “Antients” Grand Lodge: For example, James McCartney, in June 1811 petitioned for relief on behalf of his family. He sent his apologies for not attending in person owing to a stint in prison. His plea was nevertheless successful. In another case, an Isaac Wise petitioned for charity in June 1813. Reports on his character were sought and it was found that not only was doing porridge in Fleet prison, but was also reported to be of “base character”. In his case, not only was charity refused, but, reassuringly, Grand Lodge ordered that his certificate be detained as well.



Prior to the 1813 Union, the “Antients” and “Moderns” employed a considerable variety of certificates over the years since they were first issued in 1755. Although this paper is not intended to cover the wealth of changes over the years, it is worth commenting on a particular “Moderns” design that differs so much from all the rest, namely the “St Paul’s” issue from 1810.

It is not known why the design of this certificate was so different from all others before or since; its issue only lasted 8 years until it was replaced with our familiar “Pillars” style certificate. Perhaps, with the scene of St Paul’s set behind old Blackfriars Bridge, it was issued to commemorate Wren and the centenary of St Paul’s Cathedral? Alternatively, was it a tribute to Robert Mylne, a Scottish Freemason with distinguished surveying and masonic ancestry who built old Blackfriars Bridge forty years earlier and also looked after St Pauls for fifty years? He died in 1811 and is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral. It is also the first certificate incorporating the name of the Grand Master.

After the Union, the “Pillars” certificate was designed and presented from 1819 and is still in use today. There have been very few major alterations to the design in all this time. In 1910, the detail of the Terrestrial and Celestial globes was made more clear. In 1958 a minor alteration was made to amend the number of divisions in the ruler from twenty four to sixteen. Finally, in 1964, Latin text was dropped from the certificate.




Before the 1813 Union, the “Moderns” certificate usually depicted the allegorical “Three Graces”: Faith, Hope and Charity. The “Antients” certificate had the “Pillars” themed more prominently. After Union, the “Antient” style won the day and the new United Grand lodge of England certificates printed from 1819 took on an additional array of emblems dominated by the three Great pillars and included Latin as well as English. This certificate is shown on the right.

The intellectual and emblematical theme of the pillars and various tools has often led to misunderstandings about why the skirret, a WT, is not included in the design. The reason is that many of the emblems depicted on the certificate, (which include three Pillars, Furniture, Globes and Jewels) comprise the Jewels described in Preston’s First Lecture. It is a coincidence that some of the Jewels double up as WTS. With that in mind, it is easier to appreciate why a skirret, being a WT and not a Jewel, is not included on the certificate. Perhaps the redesigning of the ruler in 1958 indicates UGLE’s view that it was merely a scale and not a ruler symbolising a WT.



The letters “AL” evident on contemporary certificates, according to United Grand Lodge of England, stand for Anno Lucis (“The Year of Masonic Light”). Those letters did not appear on any lodge certificates until @ 1780 and it was not until the “St. Pauls” certificate design issued from 1810 that they became a consistent feature on certificates.

The first Grand Lodge certificates were usually dated with the words “Anno Domini” and “Year of Masonry”. The initials “AL” first came into masonic existence (but not on lodge certificates) in 1725. At the time, they probably stood for “Anno Latomorum” rather than “Anno Lucis”. The Latin word “Latomorum” is derived from Greek meaning “of Stone-cutters” or in modern parlance, “of masons”. The letters “Anno Lat” were first discovered on a set of three jewels presented in 1732 to Dr. Richard Rawlinson of Castle Lodge.

The first masonic reference to “Anno Lucis” however was not made until 1772 when Preston in his tome, “Illustrations of Masonry” referred to a lodge banqueting hall door which bore an inscription which included the date “Anno Lucis 5765”.


United Grand Lodge obviously now considers “AL” to stand for “Anno Lucis”, but is there anything in their history to confirm this? No. If one studies the Articles of Union, the date given is “25th day of November, in the Year of our Lord, 1813, and of Masonry, 5813”. No “Anno Lucis”- and indeed no “A. L.”. Nevertheless, with a little imagination, the modern interpretation of “AL” and “An Lat” (ie “the Year of Masonic Light” versus “the Year of Masons”) are broadly similar.

I urge those seeking serious academic research to read the sources from which this article is derrived and if possible, visit UGLE’s Freemasons’Hall museum in London to see some of the wonderful certificates and documents they hold.

Quatuor Coronati’s details and those of the United Grand Lodge of England may be found on the www.oelodge.org links page.


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