THE ORIGINS OF SPECULATIVE FREEMASONRY AND
MODERN ACADEMIC DISCIPLINE
By Bro Robert Hughes Montgomery, Past District Grand Master, District Grand Lodge New Zealand South, Grand Lodge of Scotland, and a PM of The Research Lodge of Otago No 161, GLNZ
New Zealand’s Kellerman Lecture for the ANZMRC Conference held in Wellington, November 2012
Read by Bro Gary Muir at the 3 February 2014 meeting of the Hawke’s Bay Research Lodge No 305 held in Hastings
It is now more than twenty years since Prof David Stevenson boldly answered the age-old question – Where and when did speculative Freemasonry begin?
His answer was – In Scotland with the Schaw Statutes of 1598. His presentation of this thesis at a meeting of the Quatuor Coronati Lodge of Masonic research in London in 19941 was rejected with hostility (Prof Stevenson is not a freemason) especially by London-centric Masonic scholars. An earlier review of his book, “The Origins of Freemasonry”2 was also critical3.
Since then Freemasonry has become a topic of academic study by history and sociology scholars in universities in Britain, Europe and North America. It is fair to say that conclusions pertaining to Freemasonry by other academicians have also not always been well received by the Masonic establishment, but there is now an awareness that applying the blow-torch of academic rigour to the history, and influence on society, of Freemasonry can do nothing but good.
Modern academic discipline demands that all the facts on a matter are gathered; that a theory or a conclusion arising from these facts be advanced; that the exceptions be explained; and that the results are published so that the conclusions can be subjected to examination by others and so confirmed, corrected or rejected. It does not matter whether it is in science or the arts, providing all the material is made available, a theory or conclusion is accepted until such time as contradictory evidence arises. If a theory or a conclusion cannot be disproved by new facts, then it is a matter of faith or dogma and is not susceptible to academic rigour.
The Quatuor Coronati Lodge is regarded as the foremost lodge of research in the English-speaking world. “The Lodge was basically formed to correct fake claims for a bogus antiquity for Freemasonry as we know it. This may have been simply because the founders could not tolerate historical inaccuracy or it may have been because they realised the dangers of a trend towards mystery and an insupportable quasi-religious status.”4 It promoted reference to original documents; it published facsimiles or reprints of such documents; it encouraged the reading of papers in the lodge, and for them to be open for discussion and criticism, and for the papers and the discussion to be published.
These objectives are remarkably similar to the modern rules of academic research. Quatuor Coronati Lodge is not the only Masonic research body in England (Leicester and Manchester should be noted) but it does tend to be the most influential. Its reluctance to ascribe any significance to the Scottish Schaw Statutes of 1598/99 can only be described as peculiar.
William Schaw, Master of Works to the King of Scotland, and Warden-General of the “Mason-craft,” issued in 1598 a set of regulations controlling the stone-masons’ trade in Scotland. A supplementary set was issued the following year. While these were initially addressed to “The Lodge of Edinburgh”, and the lodge at Kilwinning, they were to be observed by all operative lodges in Scotland.
The statutes controlled employment conditions, apprenticeship and the settling of disputes, and it also stipulated fines, some quite harsh, for breaches. Health and safety entered too – any master whose scaffolding was faulty or in disrepair, so that a mason was killed or injured there from, was banned from employing masons for the rest of his life and could only work on projects involving scaffolding under the supervision of another master. While these statutes were not always fully observed, they were still the basis of regulation for the stonemasons’ trade in Scotland seventy years later.
Their importance to us lies in the recognition of lodges as specific entities in a locality with some central co-ordination and for the two grades of apprentice and fellow-craft. They also resulted in records being kept. A number of the lodges named in these statutes still exist today, but it should be noted that at the time of Schaw, they were solely operative in character. One copy of the “Statutes” is in the minutes of The Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary’s Chapel) No 1, and another, from Eglinton Castle in Ayrshire, is now in the library of the Grand Lodge of Scotland.
Given the Quatuor Coronati Lodge’s objective of publishing copies of early Masonic documents, it might seem suspicious that these statutes were not published either in the Transactions, or as reprints, till 1981 – in a modern translation by Geo Draffen5. Most modern authors refer to the tercentenary edition (1900) of D Murray Lyon’s history of The Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary’s Chapel) No 16 as their source document. This has the Schaw Statutes un translated from the original 16th century Scots, as they appear in the first edition of this book in 18737 and Laurie’s “History of Freemasonry and the Grand Lodge of Scotland”8 of 1859, and the “Constitution and Laws of the Grand Lodge of Scotland”, 18429.
But the work that all Masonic scholars of one hundred years ago were completely familiar with was R F Gould’s “History of Freemasonry”10 in its many different printings and formats. The Schaw Statutes in modern English were published there in 1883. Thus E MacBean, in a paper on the Master Masons to the Crown of Scotland11, and J W Saunders in 193712, when giving a paper on Schaw’s family history and connections, did not have to go in to detail about who William Schaw was. But as these statutes are now widely claimed as the founding document of speculative freemasonry, it is unfortunate that the Quatuor Coronati Lodge, either before Prof. Stevenson’s paper or since, has not published any detailed study of their significance now or their context in 1598.
Prof Stevenson’s two books, “The Origins of Freemasonry” and “The First Freemasons”13, date from 1988. Some of the points he made on the history of masonry in Scotland were: -
- The earliest use of the word “lodge” in a modern Masonic sense and that it was a permanent institution
- Earliest minute books and other records
- Earliest attempts at a national organisation
- Earliest example of “non-operatives” joining
- Earliest evidence connecting lodge masonry with specific ethical ideas, taught by use of symbols
- Earliest Masonic catechisms
- Earliest evidence of two degrees and use of the terms “entered apprentice” and “fellow-craft.”
For the history elsewhere, which in reality meant England, he gave: -
- Earliest copies of the Old Charges
- Earliest (and widespread) use of the term “freemason” and “accepted” mason
- Earliest lodge composed entirely of non-operatives
- Earliest Grand Lodge
In the twenty years since Prof Stevenson’s critical reception in Quatuor Coronati Lodge, has any evidence been published to modify or contradict his Scottish list, or to expand his English list?
One would have thought that Prof Stevenson’s drawing attention to the Scottish elephant in the English lodge room would, after the initial response of disbelief, have provoked detailed study along the following lines: -
- To show error in Prof Stevenson’s Scottish material or its interpretation
- To show error in his English material and the significance he attributed to it
- To show that there was material, Scottish or English, that was ignored
- That new material had become available
Whilst I am totally reliant on published work and I recognize that his list of “firsts” are in fact “first knowns”, my investigation along these four lines is as follows: -
- I have not found anything that challenges his Scottish facts or his interpretation of them, although I have some unease about the operative to speculative transition of the Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary’s Chapel) – the operatives left, so it may have been a divide rather than a transition.
- Concerning his English material, Prof Stevenson rather trailed his coat by saying that English evidence was almost non-existent and assertions that he belittled it, draw the response that there was remarkably little to belittle! There was no contradiction of the English facts of his thesis, but there were three strands to the counter argument: -
- As speculative freemasonry flowered fully formed in London in the early 1700s, there “must have been” some operative/speculative interchange in the previous one hundred and fifty years. Many of the arguments produced related to the 1700s not the 1600s.
- As by definition speculative freemasonry is what the Grand Lodge of England instituted in 1717, all earlier material concerning operatives and admission of non-masons is irrelevant – i.e. freemasonry began in 1717 – end of argument!
- English stonemasons of the 1600s “must have been” more scrupulous than the Scots in not writing anything down, therefore they “must have been” better masons, and so the Scottish documents should be discounted as less reliable
None of these lines have been developed into a printed-paper in the intervening twenty years.
- No material relevant to the 1600s had been produced to show it had been ignored. There was reference to material not mentioned by Prof Stevenson, but invariably from the 1700s. Prof Stevenson showed familiarity with the work of the greatest 20th century minds on this subject – the Sheffield group of Knoop, Jones and Hamer of the 1930s and Harry Carr of the 1960s. Both had studied the Scottish material closely14, 15, & 16 and written about it accurately. Both recognized the documentary evidence of the operative to speculative transition in Scotland. Both restricted this transition to Scotland and believed that the parallel transition in England was undiscovered17 & 18. Of material outside Scotland and England reference was made to France, but once again in the wrong century. The importance of the French exposures19 of the late 1700s to our knowledge is significant, but one hundred years too late. Ireland was mentioned only in passing, but I believe it is worthy of future attention. Dublin was the second city in the British Isles at the time of our interest with an active commercial, cultural and intellectual life. It had close links with the west of England, especially Bristol, and the word “freemason” was used in Ireland, in an operative sense, in the early 1600s. There is a satirical reference in 1688 to a speculative lodge at Trinity College20. The Grand Lodge of Ireland was established in 1725. The settlement of Ulster by lowland Scots commenced in 1598, the same year as the Schaw Statutes. Despite the close connection of some of the leading families with Kilwinning there is no evidence of any transfusion of masonry, operative or speculative, from Scotland.
4. Of new material that has become available since 1988, I am aware of only the Airlie Manuscript, a Scottish catechism of 1705. While this is outside our era, its presentation to the Quatuor Coronati Lodge21 does include the theory that the appearance of these catechisms in the late 1600s was the result of non-operative members of Masonic lodges being able to read and write and not having to, or be willing to, rely on memory.
Thus the corollary is that the absence of such catechisms means the absence of non-operative members. The further implication is that except for Ashmole, non-operative membership did not occur in England till the late 1600s, after the Great Fire of London.
A word needs to be said about the “Old Charges”. These are undoubtedly old (1390 for the Regius manuscripts), undoubtedly English in origin (although also used in Scotland), and undoubtedly entirely operative in origin. They were not associated with speculative freemasonry till Anderson’s “Constitutions” of 172022.
The challenge that Prof Stevenson set was either to show operative lodges in England, and a transition to speculative; or to accept that speculative freemasonry entered England from Scotland.
Government, civic, and family records in England have been scoured for one hundred years looking for the scraps of Masonic material relating to the two hundred years from 1500 to 1700. Nothing new has been found. The response to Prof Stevenson’s paper was not entirely negative and there were several members from an academic background who acknowledged the logic of his thesis. Neville Cryer23 made an especially perceptive comment when he stated that the answer to the embarrassing question of why there is Scottish material and no English, had to be sought in the history of England, from King Henry VIII to the Civil War. The building industry has to be looked at in the wider historical context.
In 1537 – 39, King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in England. Church building came to a complete standstill and this continued through the wildly fluctuating religious upheavals of Queen Mary (Tudor) and the early part of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. It has been claimed that for seventy years, not a single parish church was built. Major projects, such as Burghley House in Northamptonshire, begun in 1575, were rare. “The crash of monastic masonry resounded through the land.” “The lead and stone of Abbey churches were requisitioned for the gentleman’s seats which took their place”. As late as 1611, Fountains Hall was being built from the stones of Fountains Abbey24.
The power and influence of the craft guilds was rapidly waning with the Tudor monarchs of England severely restricting their control of pricing and apprenticeship. Bricks rapidly replaced stone in many sections of the building industry in England25. Bricklayers and brick makers were completely separate from the mason trade. Thus in England, stone masonry became a depressed trade involved in widely dispersed maintenance and repair or small-scale reconstruction with few long-term constructions in stone.
Scotland was not spared religious upheavals. John Knox returned in 1559, and up to the execution of Montrose in 1659, much blood had been shed around covenanters and bishops. But stone masonry there was never as dependant on religious building as in England and stone continued to be the material of choice for mercantile, civic and domestic building. The functions of the lodges and the guilds (“incorporations”) tended to merge in Scotland, and, rather than repressed, were put on some sort of recognized regular footing by the Schaw Statutes. Finally brick had made little penetration in Scottish building – good quality stone was local and cheap.
Scotland and England were not always at war, but with the union of the two crowns under James VI/I in 1603, intercourse between the still two separate countries became common. Move on forty years and England is racked by civil war (in which pie Scotland has a messy finger) and once again large scale building in England is at a standstill, but then came 1666 and the Great Fire of London. The result was that the city was to be rebuilt in fireproof materials, of which the prime one was stone. It has been claimed that there was not a stonemason to be had in the whole of London. This was undoubtedly an exaggeration, as there was active building at Canterbury Cathedral close-by, but certainly in the city they were few in number. Stonemasons flocked into London from all over Britain and even from continental Europe. The masons’ guild lost what little control it had over the trade and anybody who could wield any working tool could get work26.
Among those flocking to London were Scottish stonemasons with their experience of well-established lodge structure and speculative membership north of the border. It should be noted that Edinburgh had its own series of fires from 1670 – 1690 just at the time of the major rebuilding of London and so Scottish stonemasons were drawn back north. Thus for one hundred and fifty years, conditions in England were not conducive for any sort of structure of the mason trade and any sort of “lodge” meeting was likely to be ephemeral and with written records improbable. The admission of Elias Ashmole at Warrington in 1646 probably had more to do with Civil War politics than a “thirst for knowledge”27. However, this does show that “lodge” activity did occur on an occasional basis and that non-operatives may have been admitted as members and unlike the contemporary admissions at Newcastle, this was not in an area under the influence of Scotland.
It is significant that speculative lodges with no known operative connection did not appear in England till after the Civil War and the Great Fire of London. In the aftermath of the bitter political and religious disputes of the previous forty years, the tolerance of speculative freemasonry must have been attractive to thinking men in what one now calls the “Age of Enlightenment”. This translated into an enthusiasm, which resulted in rapid development of ideals and ritual and a grand lodge; and shortly lodges throughout England, Ireland and France. While acknowledging that some stonemason “lodge” activity in England in the one hundred years from 1550 is probable, and that there was a non-operative event in 1646, the fragmented and unsettled nature of the trade means that documentation is highly unlikely. The first records of speculative lodges in England that we already have are therefore almost certainly all that we are going to get. Applying academic rigour to the matter, we have to accept the sequence of (a) Schaw Statutes regulating operative masons in lodges in Scotland, (b) admission of non-operatives to lodges in Scotland, (c) influx of masons into London, (d) appearance of speculative lodges in London, (e) rapid development of speculative freemasonry in London and England, (f) spread to the rest of the world. While we may suspect a certain element of parochialism, rather than sound argument, in the resistance to the notion that speculative freemasonry arose in Scotland, the Scots themselves must bear some blame for never promoting the known facts or sponsoring any study into the significance of the Schaw Statutes. It should be noted that the Grand Lodge of Scotland did not have a research lodge till 1968, although looser “Research Associations” have functioned.
We must also be aware that the English innovations, especially the third degree, were not always well received when they spread into Scotland, particularly by lodges with an operative connection. When coupled with the concern of the English freemasons over the fission in their grand lodge system in the late 1700s, we can imagine that freemasonry in the two countries went their separate ways with little thought for the origins of the other.
Until such time as documentary evidence can show otherwise, speculative freemasonry must now be considered a consequence of the publication of the Schaw Statutes in Scotland in 1598 and 1599, no matter how uncomfortable this is to London brethren. The named operative stonemason lodges in Scotland took in non-operative members for reasons of prestige, financial security or social opportunity. The popularity of non-operative membership spread to London and England where the movement was taken up in great enthusiasm with the rapid development of speculative lodges, ritual, customs, a “traditional” history, and eventually a grand lodge. Such innovations characterized English freemasonry as it spread around the world including back into Scotland.
Here in the Antipodes we are entitled to look on the suspicion of a parochial attitude to this matter as distasteful, but in our own publications, we no longer have to fudge the issue of the origins of freemasonry by using terms such as “lost in the mists of time,” but can confidently state that speculative freemasonry began with the publication of the Schaw Statutes in Scotland in 1598.