Dogged by conspiracy theories, implicated in countless political intrigues and long seen as a secretive, shadowy international society dominated by ancient rituals, there are very few people who can accurately or confidently describe who the Freemasons are or what they do. Yet Freemasonry is ‘one of the world’s oldest and largest non-religious, non-political, fraternal and charitable organisations’, according to the United Grand Lodge of England, the governing body of Freemasonry in England, which teaches ‘self-knowledge through participation in a progression of ceremonies’ and is ‘a society of men concerned with moral and spiritual values’. Working to make ‘good men better’, Masons call each other brothers because they believe they are all equal. Through charitable work they climb up the hierarchy, wearing traditional regalia to indicate their rank within the organisation. Generally, to be accepted for initiation as a regular Freemason a candidate must be male; aged over 21; come of his own free will; be of good morals, reputation and financial standing and believe in some kind of Supreme Being.
The basic, local organisational unit of Freemasonry is the Lodge, usually supervised and governed by a sovereign Grand Lodge, who meet regularly to conduct organisational business, elect new members, have dinners and perform ceremonies to confer Masonic degrees. The bulk of Masonic ritual consists of degree ceremonies, through which candidates are progressively initiated in to Freemasonry. There are three basic degree levels: Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason.
The first Grand Lodge was founded only a few years after George I, the first Hanoverian king of the Kingdom of Great Britain, ascended to the throne in August 1714 and the end of the first Jacobite rising of 1715. Officially, the Grand Lodge was founded on 24 June 1717, St. John the Baptist’s day, when four existing Lodges gathered at the Goose and Gridiron alehouse in St Paul’s churchyard, London and constituted themselves as a Grand Lodge. It is this date which is often cited as the ‘founding’ day of Freemasonry in its modern sense.
The four Lodges, which had existed for some time, had previously met together in 1716 at the Apple Tree Tavern and resolved to hold an annual assembly and feast and choose a Grand Master from amongst themselves. All four Lodges were simply named after the public houses in which they met: the Goose and Gridiron alehouse (now called Lodge of Antiquity No.2); the Crown alehouse in Parker’s Lane, off Drury Lane; the Apple Tree Tavern in Charles Street, Covent Garden (now called Lodge of Fortitude and Old Cumberland No.12); and the Rummer and Grapes tavern in Channel Row, Westminster (now called Royal Somerset House and Inverness Lodge No. IV). The new body became known as the Grand Lodge of London and Westminster, later calling itself the Grand Lodge of England (although convention calls it the Premier Grand Lodge of England to distinguish it from its rival the Ancient Grand Lodge of England). Anthony Sayer, believed to be the oldest of the existing Master Masons, was elected the first Grand Master, although little is known about him. The next, George Payne, was the last commoner to serve as Grand Master – he rose to a high position within the Commissioners of Taxes and served as Grand Master twice in 1718-19 and 1720-21. The year in between was taken by John Theophilus Desaguliers, an eminent scientist, clergyman, Fellow of the Royal Society and pupil of Sir Isaac Newton. Thereafter, in what might be regarded as a deliberate attempt to raise the profile of the organisation, every Grand Master has been a member of the nobility.
Since no records were taken until 1723, the early history of the Grand Lodge is uncertain. However, in 1720 Payne took it upon himself to write the General Regulations of a Free Mason, which were later incorporated into Revd. Dr. James Anderson’s The Constitutions of the Free-Masons, which was published in 1723 and contained the history, charges, regulations of ‘that most ancient and right worshipful fraternity’ to be used in Lodges in London and Westminster. According to Anderson, he was commissioned to digest the old ‘Gothic Constitutions’ in palatable, modern form and, for the first time, all of freemasonry, except for the ritual, was available in a printed book. Anderson’s Constitutions claim that the history of Freemasonry is ancient, tracing the fraternity back to biblical roots. Whilst it is generally accepted that much of this is based on myth and legend and therefore unreliable, the work remains a milestone in masonic history and the claim that Freemasonry dates back to ancient times continues to be repeated to this day. So important was Anderson’s work, it was reprinted in 1734 by one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin, who in that year was elected Grand Master of the Masons in Philadelphia.
By the time Anderson’s rule book was published in 1723, the Grand Lodge was meeting quarterly and had extended its authority outside London. By 1725 there were lodges at Bath, Bristol, Norwich, Chichester, Chester, Reading, Gosport, Camarthen, Salford, Warwick and embryonic Provincial Grand Lodges in Cheshire and South Wales. The first Grand Lodge of Ireland was also established that year.
The history of Freemasonry is generally separated into two time periods: before and after the formation of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717. The facts and origins of Freemasonry before the Grand Lodge existed are not absolutely known and are still subject to intense speculation. Most Masonic scholars believe that it descends from the emergence of organised lodges of operative stone masons who built the cathedrals and castles of the Middle Ages, but in its ritual context Freemasonry employs an allegorical myth – that the fraternity was founded by the builders of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Other popular theories as to the origins of Freemasonry include: it is a direct descendant of the Knights Templar; the construction of the Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland being the interface between the Knights Templar and Freemasonry; it was created by Francis Bacon, Oliver Cromwell or Stuart pretenders to the British Crown; it was a result of Sir Christopher Wren and the rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Throughout the early years of the new Grand Lodge many Lodges never affiliated with it. These independent Masons and Lodges were referred to as ‘Old Masons’, ‘St. John Masons’ or St. John Lodges’. In 1725 a lodge in York founded the rival Grand Lodge of All England in protest against the growing influence of the Grand Lodge of England and in the 1730s and 1740s antipathy between the two Grand Lodges, and those of Scotland and Ireland, increased when some Masons considered the Grand Lodge of England to have deviated considerably from the ancient practices of the Craft.
Things rose to a head, when, in 1751, representatives from a group of mostly Irish unaffiliated Lodges met at the Turk’s Head Tavern in Greek Street, Soho – to form the Grand Committee of a new, rival Grand Lodge, which they call The Most Antient and Honourable Society of Free and Accepted Masons. This society – ‘The Antients’ – practiced a more ancient form of Masonry, which they considered to be purer and more authentic and grew rapidly under the influence of Laurence Dermott, who was Grand Secretary from 1752 to 1771 and Grand Master intermittently after. The Antients referred to those affiliated to the Grand Lodge of England using the derogatory epithet ‘The Moderns’.
In the 1790s relations between these two major English Freemasonry bodies thawed, and on 27 December 1813 (the day of Saint John the Evangelist), after four years of negotiations the Grand Lodge of England and Antient Grand Lodge of England came together to form the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) with the Duke of Sussex as Grand Master.