Hawke's Bay Research Lodge No. 305

The Freemason's Apron, More than a coverall

By WBro R C Mercer, AsstGDC, WM
An Address given on 1st November 2004

Brethren, it was necessary to provide a title for this address at an early stage of my research into the subject and had I realised what surprises my study would uncover, I likely would have added a question mark at the end of it. All of my research for this address has been obtained from the Masters' and Past Masters' Lodge No. 130 publication "Questions and Answers", and without individually naming the various contributors, whose opinions I have used, I hereby acknowledge them en masse. I have deliberately avoided unnecessary detail other than that required, to provide an adequate explanation and for the further reason that this lodge has many brethren more learned than myself who may wish to contribute and thus provoke further discussion at the conclusion of this explanation.

Brethren, it is likely that many of us were aware of the existence of our apron, well before electing to become freemasons ourselves, owing to membership of close relatives or family friends. However for all of us the proper introduction came about on the occasion of our initiation after the Worshipful Master delegated to the senior warden the authority to invest us with the distinguishing badge of an "entered apprentice freemason." At that point in the ceremony we had already experienced much that was foreign to us and considerable dialogue was directed at us thereafter. I would suggest therefore, that initially and not surprisingly, we mostly had a blurred recollection of what was said to us regarding it, but accepted the probability that it was quite a lot. On subsequent occasions, we were able to avail ourselves of the opportunity to pay closer attention to the "apron investiture", and, of course, if we attained the office of senior warden, would have delivered this "charge", as a result of which we should have formed a considered opinion of its content.

Brethren, I believe that in comparison with the detail in many of our other charges and explanations, and taking into account the considerable history connected to the apron, our ritual does it little justice. Further more I strongly feel that in the relatively shorter "fellow craft degree" an ideal opportunity to further explain aspects of our apron, is not taken advantage of, and I cringe every-time I hear the brief, matter of fact, and almost dismissive passages of dialogue associated with the apron investitures in the second and third degrees.

Before proceeding to illuminate my contentions further, an examination of the background to what we are told when first presented with the apron, is important. The first part of the narrative states thus: "It (the apron) is more ancient than the golden fleece or the roman eagle, more honourable than the garter, or any other order in existence". It is certainly more ancient than the first two as they only came into being in the early 1400's, the first recorded meeting of freemasons was 1390, and operative stone masons commenced work in England about the beginning of the eleventh century. In medieval England, the great and powerful industry was wool and the one infringement on the English monopoly of this commodity was that of the great corporation of the association of the woollen merchants of Flanders. In 1429, Phillip of Burgundy, in recognition of the enormous wealth they had brought into his country, instituted the order, the Knighthood of the Golden Fleece. Subsequent to this, in time, the kings and rulers of England, bowing to external pressure, allowed this corporation to infiltrate and thereby extend influence in that country. During this same period the carrying or transport trade was monopolised by the "Hanseatic League", with head quarters at Lubeck. Their merchants had privileged settlements in all the great English ports and many towns. They called themselves "Knights of the Roman Empire", their seal was the "Arms of Lubeck", and, at this period, they were the roman eagle. A wide cross section of the English population viewed the new Flemish Knighthood of the Golden Fleece as a poor imitation of their own "Order of the Garter", then nearly a century old, and felt that recognition of it and the roman eagle undermined the status of the "Garter". At this time gilds or associations of workers, dedicated to protecting and promoting their own particular trades (similar to modern day unions) were numerous and very strong. They resented the intrusion of privileged and wealthy foreigners. The craft of stone masonry had its own well established traditions of immense antiquity, so we can appreciate the scorn with which these English builders would teach the apprentices that their simple "apron" was cognisance of a craft not only more ancient than any gild in Europe, but also as the opening line of our first degree apron charge states "more ancient than the Golden Fleece or the Roman Eagle and more honourable than the Garter or any other order in existence".

In the second degree, a candidate's apron is exchanged for one that may bear two rosettes - they have no Masonic symbolism and are affixed merely indicate that the candidate has passed through his fellow-craft degree. Similarly in the third degree, some lodges present the candidate with an apron bearing three rosettes. Also of interest and worthy of mention, is that an E A and F C apron is commonly fastened around the waist with string or cords, while the M M's apron is secured with belt and buckle. Again there is no symbolism associated with that, it is a purely practical cost saving option, the first two aprons are of a temporary nature, while the Master Mason's apron is a much more substantial and expensive piece of regalia and is the candidate's own, intended to last all his Masonic life. The buckle used to fasten the M M's apron is called a snake buckle and is in the form of a snake or serpent. This again, has no attached symbolism. It is likely that, it is preferred by regalia manufacturers as a strong and convenient form of fastening, however those who formerly supposed that it may can take some consolation in the fact that the serpent has long been regarded as a symbol of wisdom.

Stone masonry by nature is a dusty and abrasive trade, the aprons worn by them to protect their clothing were full length from neck almost to floor, fastened around the waist and looped around the neck, and was usually worn by the apprentices in this fashion. The more experienced and expert craftsman were often engaged on finer work which was not as dusty. To mark their superiority and as an aid to keeping cool, they often wore the apron with the top flap turned down. The flap on our current aprons, the shape of which may vary depending on the Masonic tailor who fashioned it, represents this. In Scotland it is round and in Ireland, three sided. If it was to have any connection with a geometric figure, it would likely be in the form of a three-sided triangle, but it has no esoteric symbolism attached to it. Of interest is that prior to 1813 the flap was used to indicate the progress of the candidate through the degrees. The E A wore the apron with the flap inside, the F C had the flap drawn out, turned up, and affixed to the waistcoat button, while the flap of the M M's apron hung down, to indicate that he had passed the previous degrees. The tassels on our apron, usually in the form of chains were added about 1835 and were originally in the centre, representing the frayed ends of the cord which fastened around the waist and were tied off around the front.

Some may think that numbering seven on each side could be representative of the seven that make a lodge perfect, but no, it appears to be merely an idea of a regalia manufacturer who thought that seven would be a good symbolic number, but they have no officially recognised symbolism. On an installed masters apron there are two emblems, which look like levels or inverted T's. Information on them in detail I was unable to access, but it appears most scholars think they should be viewed as double squares, and, as such, they would be appropriate to an I M's apron.

Apron colours I have chosen not to discuss, we all know the variables there are between constitutions, ranks, countries, and in America even between states. The reasons for and backgrounds of the various colours could certainly provide material for a stand-alone address.

In conclusion brethren, for those who may be a little disappointed to discover that for all that is symbolic regarding an apron, there is a far greater amount not so, consolation may be derived from a reminder that our apron does positively represent and stand for the following -

1) It is the badge of innocence
2) It is the bond of friendship
3) It is the badge of a Mason

Brethren, I thank you for your patience and attentiveness. Before we close this Lodge of Research, I invite your comments and discussion, questions or criticism.


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Hawke's Bay Research Lodge No.305

WBro Nigel Friggens

Hawkes Bay Research Lodge meets in the Masonic Centre, Jervois Street, Hastings

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