Message from the West

June 2000

The Old Charges of Freemasonry - The Operative Craft...there exists a collection of documents which has been called up as evidence both for the operative and non-operative origins of Freemasonry.   Described by Anderson as the Gothic Constitutions, and now known collectively as the Old Charges, some 127 versions have been traced of which 113 are still in existence....All have a common form:

     a. an opening prayer

     b. a legendary history of the mason craft tracing it from biblical origins to its establishment in  England

     c. a code of regulations for Masters, Fellows and Apprentices covering both craft practices and  morals

     d. arrangement for large-scale 'territorial' assemblies at which attendance was obligatory

     e. procedures for the trial and punishment of offenders

     f. admission procedures 'for new men that were never charged before', including an oath of  fidelity."

Historically, the Old Charges fall into three groups. The first comprises the two earliest versions, the Regius MS of c.1390 and the Cook MS of c.1420...The second, and largest, group begins with the Grand Lodge No. 1 MS, dated 25 December 1583, and covers all the versions datable before the formation of the premier Grand Lodge in 1717.  The third group comprises manuscript and printed versions produced after 1717, the majority of which appear to have been produced as antiquarian curiosities.  The Wood manuscript, written in 1610 "traces the history of the Order from two pillars that were found after Noah's Flood, none made of a marble that would not burn with fire, the other made of a substance known in Masonic legends as Laterus, which would not dissolve, sink or drown in any water. One of these pillars was found and upon it were inscribed the secrets of the sciences from which the Sumerians developed a moral code that passed to the Egyptians  through the Sumerian Abraham and his wife Sarah. The script goes on to describe Euclid teaching geometry to the Egyptians, from whom the Israelites took it to Jerusalem, which resulted in the building of King Solomon's Temple.   A record of the society written in the reign of Edward IV, said to have been in the possession of the famous Elias Ashmole, founder of the Museum at Oxford, and which was unfortunately destroyed, with other papers on the subject of Masonry, at the Revolution, gives the following account of the state of Masonry at this period.   That though the ancient records of the brotherhood in England were many of them destroyed, or lost, in the wars of the Saxons and Danes, yet king Athelitane, (the grandson of King Alfred the  Great, a mighty architect,) the first anointed king of England, and who translated the Holy Bible into the Saxon tongue, (AD 930) when he had brought the land into rest and peace, built many great works, and encouraged many Masons from France, who were appointed overseers thereof, and  brought with them the charges and regulations of the lodges, preserved since the Roman times; who also prevailed with the king to improve the constitution of the English lodges according to the foreign model, and to increase the wages of working Masons.   The history of Masonry in England, beginning with the Druids and Romans, are based on the mythical history included in Anderson's Constitutions (1773) and his own 1776 Appendix.   In the west of England there is a magnificent chain of cathedrals without parallel elsewhere: Exeter, Wells, Gloucester, Worcestershire and Hereford, as well as many abbeys and castles, on which building was carried out almost continuously during the five centuries before A.D. 1500.  The Regius MS and the Cooke MS, based on a lost 1360 manuscript, are the only pre-Reformation versions of the Old Charges still extant. Both say that Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great gave charges to masons for he was the King of Wessex before he became King of All England [c.895-939], and he is reputed to have been the founder in 932 of the monastic house which was the fore-runner of the cathedral at Exeter.   According to the Cooke MS, Athalstan's youngest son ' loved well the science of Geometry' and he became a mason  himself.  He, in turn, gave charges to masons 'as it is now in England'. Moreover he obtained a patent from the king  that they should 'make assembly when they saw reasonable time to come together'.   During the reign of Henry II, the Grand Master of the Knights Templars superintended the Masons, and employed them in building their Temple in Fleet-street, A.D. 1155. Masonry continued under the patronage of this Order till the year 1199, when John succeeded his brother Richard in the crown of England.   The term freemason appears as early as 1375 in the records of the city of London. It referred to working masons who were permitted to travel the country at a time when the feudal system shackled most peasants closely to the land.  Unlike the members of other crafts of the time - smiths or tanners for example - the masons gathered in large groups to work on majestic, glorious projects, moving from one finished castle or cathedral to the planning and building of the  next. For mutual protection, education, and training, the masons bound themselves together into a local lodge - the building, put up at a construction site, where workmen could eat and rest. Eventually, a lodge came to signify a group of masons based in a particular locality.  At the beginning of the reign of Henry VI, in 1425, a ban was placed on holding them [annual assemblies of masons]on the ground that they contravened the Statutes of Labourers. The masons protested that they were as loyal and law-abiding as other trades and objected to being singled out for attack. Condor (The Hole Craft and Fellowship of Masons, p.77) observes that 'we do not hear of this Act being put into force' and he gives high legal opinion that it was repealed in 1562. It may be a coincidence but it was about this time that the earliest extant post-reformation versions of the Old Charges appeared.

A  record in the reign of Edward IV runs thus;  “The company of Masons, being otherwise termed Free-Masons, of auntient staunding and good reckonings, by means of affable and kind meetyngs dyverse tymes, and as a lovinge brotherhode use  to doe, did frequent this mutual assembly in the tyme of Henry VI in the twelfth yeare of his most gracious reign, A.D. 1434”.   It has been demonstrated that freemason - in an operative context - is a contraction of 'freestone mason'....The earliest printed use so far traced comes in The Pilgrimage of Perfection - usually attributed to William Bonde - printed  in 1536 by Wynkyn de Worde. The freemason setteth his pretyss first long tyme to learn to hewe stones and whan he can do that perfectly he admytteth him to be a freemason and choseth hym as a conynge man to be master of the Craft.  Guilds of mason  were  common,  and  can be found emerging in Scotland (where guilds were generally known as incorporations) in the late Middle Ages...The Masons were countenanced and  protected  in  Scotland by King James I. After his return from captivity, he became the patron of the learned, and a zealous encourager of Masonry.  The Scottish records relate, that he honored the lodges with his royal presence; that he settled a yearly revenue of four pounds Scots, (an English noble,) to be paid by every Master-Mason in Scotland, to a Grand Master, chosen by the Grand Lodge, and approved by the crown, one nobly born, or an eminent clergyman, who had his deputies in cities and counties, and every new brother at entrance paid him also a fee. His office empowered him to regulate in the fraternity what should not come under the cognizance of law-courts.  In Scotland such lodges [established for long-term site building activity], under burgh control, can be traced in Aberdeen and Dundee in the late fifteenth and early sixteen centuries. But they appear to have declined or disappeared entirely shortly before or after the Reformation of 1560 brought a new protestant church to Scotland.   The legacy of the Medieval masons obviously contains much that is later found in freemasonry; the mythical history of the craft, the identification of masonry with mathematics; organization in 'lodges'; secret signs and words; and  rituals of initiation.  Concerning stonemasons in the Middle Ages, their vocabulary and most likely their ability for abstract thought must have been very limited indeed. Travel for all but the most highly skilled master masons was a rare event so secret  signs, grips and passwords would not be of much value; end even if they did travel from one building construction to another why would they need secret means of recognition?  A final check at Oxford's Bodleian, one of the great libraries of the world, and I finally felt absolutely secure in stating that Freemasonry did not evolve from the medieval guilds of stonemasons in Britain because it would appear  that there were no medieval guilds of stonemasons in Britain.  The French-language roots of the lost words of Masonry indicate the strong possibility that the society was in existence in the first half of the fourteenth century...Masonic expressions that  were derived from French language roots include:


Tyler: tailleur, "one who cuts" Cowan: couenne, "ignoramus" or "bumpkins" "From the affair of Jephthah, an Ephraimite was termed a cowan. In Egypt, cohen was the title of a priest or prince, and a term of honor. Bryant, speaking of the harpies, says, they were priests of the sun; and, as cohen was the name of a dog as well as a priest, they are termed by Apollonius 'the dogs of Jove'. Now, St. John cautions the Christian brethren, that 'without are dogs', cowans or listeners (Rev. 22:15), and St. Paul exhorts the Christians to 'beware of dogs, because they are evil workers' (Phil. 3:2). Now, a dog, or evil worker, is the masonic cowan."   Historical Landmarks - Due guard (ID sign): geste du garde, "a protective gesture", Lewis (son of a Mason): levees, "sprouts" or "scions",  Abiff: biffer, "to strike out or eliminate",    (Hiram a Biffe, "Hiram who was eliminated"),  Jube: jube, "rood screen" - a place of penance or punishment,  (venir a Jube, "to get one's just desserts),  Intrant (Entered Apprentice): entrant.   The surviving members of the Knights Templars in England would have had to flee or hide to escape persecution and death. "...We can find no fourteenth century precedent for any organization that consistently referred to fellow members as brothers [frere Macon], except for the various religious orders, which, of course, included the Knights of the Temple.   An old charge of Masonry says that if a brother comes to you, give him 'work' for two weeks, then give him some money and direct him to the next lodge. Why the assumption that he will need money? Because he is running, and hiding. What he got was not the allegorical 'work', but actual lodging.

  "The Tyler's Toast" - "To all poor and distressed Masons, wherever dispersed over the face of Earth and Water, wishing them a speedy relief from all their sufferings, and a safe return to their native country; should they so desire it."

    All through the oaths and the Old Charges we see emerging a mutual aid and protection society, protecting men who could die if caught.   You have come to us bound, half-naked, and defenseless. You have no money with which to feed and lodge yourself, no armor to ward off the blows of your enemies, no weapons with which to defend yourself.   Take comfort from the fact that all of your brothers are sworn to help you. If you are naked, we will clothe you. If you are hungry, we will feed you. We will shelter and protect you from your enemies. We will keep your secrets. Your call for help will never go unanswered.   Another Old Charge says that a visitor brother is not to go 'into the town' unless accompanied by a local brother who can 'witness' for him (i.e., vouch for him to the local authorities, who had the right to arrest strangers of unknown business in the town).  There is no record of the seizure of eighteen Templar ships from their naval base at La Rochelle on the French coast, or of any Templar ships anchored in the Thames or at other seaports in Britain....Since many of the Templar ships were galleys, they were ideally suited for piracy, because becalmed ships were always easy prey for those that did not depend upon the wind.   In the lecture that sums up the initiation of a new Master Mason, the newly admitted candidate is told that this degree will make you a brother to pirates and corsairs.' That statement makes no sense whatever in the context of a society descended from medieval stonemasons."  When the Templars processed around their circular churches they had only one way to move: in a circle, just as today's Masons process in their 'circumambulation' of the lodge.


We can now be certain, without any shadow of doubt, that the starting place for modern Freemasonry was the construction of Rosslyn Chapel in the mid-fifteenth century; later historical developments confirm this view because the St. Clair family of Rosslyn became the hereditary Grand Masters of the Crafts and Guilds and Orders of Scotland, and later held the post of the Master of Masons of Scotland until the late 1700s.  William St Clair designed and built Rosslyn Chapel using the plans of Solomon's Temple, and incorporating many Templar and Masonic motifs. Knight and Lomas speculate that the Chapel also contained a copy of the vaults at Solomon's Temple and its hidden treasure. "William St Clair had an obvious problem with security; the masons building his scroll shrine had to know the layout of the underground vault network and they knew that this strange building was to house something of great value.  William St Clair was a brilliant and talented man and we believe that he devised the First Degree of Craft Masonry and the Mark Mason Degree to give his operative masons a code of conduct and an involvement in the secret, without telling them the great secret of living resurrection which was reserved for speculative Masons. It is a matter of record that he had two grades of stonemason on site; the 10 pounds-a-year standard masons (or apprentices) and the 40 pounds-a-year 'mark masons' who were honored by the possession of a personal mark in the continental fashion.


Frank Condello II

Senior Warden