The Origin of our
Institution and Mediaeval Masonry
Adapted by VW. Bro Norman
McEvoy from a paper by W. Bro. A. J. Chapman, P.M., 28th June, 1945.
It may be truthfully said that the beginnings
of Freemasonry are unknown, and that the actual history of Freemasonry, as we
know it today, can strictly be considered to commence only from that period
which gives us reliable information by means of Lodge records. The earliest
minute books relating to Scottish Masonry are dated 1599, and no Lodge records
in England are known to exist, even as late as the 17th century. There is only
the record of a single Lodge (Alnwick) between 1700 and the date of the
formation of the first Grand Lodge in 1717.
The object of this paper is to trace as far as
possible the growth of Freemasonry. From the earliest date at which the
organisation is traceable, down to the time when operative masonry began to
develop into speculative in the 17th and early 18th centuries, at the same
time indicating as far as can be ascertained, the conditions and customs of
our early brethren.
That there have been masons form earliest times
is evident. Such remains as have been left to us from the period between Roman
times and the Norman Conquest, in the form of stone churches, crosses and
other monuments, prove their existence, but no record remains of the system of
training, organisation if any, or the working conditions of the very early
No doubt their numbers were small, as wood and
clay were the ordinary building materials in Britain at that period, buildings
erected in stone being comparatively rare. The art of building in squared
stones and mortar was almost certainly introduced by the Church, and seems to
have required the importation of craftsmen from the Continent. Bede informs us
that soon after the founding of Wearmouth in 674, Benedict Biscop sought in
Gaul for masons to build him a stone church. St. Wilfrid also, who died in
709, is recorded as having brought masons from Rome to build his church.
After the Norman Conquest (1066), building activity greatly increased; kings,
nobles and churchmen were very active supporters of the building industry, and
the probability is that Freemasonry had its first beginnings about that time,
and that some form of organisation existed among the increasing number of
By the 13th century large and elaborate
buildings were being erected, and from this time onward we are able to trace
Freemasonry as a continuous institution. We need not look for an exactly
similar institution, as in the passage of time, changes must inevitably take
The long series of some 1500 building accounts
kept in the Public Records Office, relate to every reign from Henry III
(1216-1272) to the 17th century. From these building records it is possible to
gain much information which enables us to draw a fairly accurate picture of
the early building industry.
The earliest mention of a Lodge, as far as can
be ascertained, is in a record of Vale Royal Abbey, 1278, but no doubt Lodges
existed at a much earlier period. Primarily the Lodge was a workshop and
store, and a necessity to every building of any size.
It probably served several other purposes. A
working day was very long and some meals were of necessity partaken. It was
also a custom to take a siesta a mid-day, and they also had their “Drinking
Times”, and as no doubt the Lodge would be used for these purposes, it would
all tend to develop a social aspect.
From old building accounts for materials for
building the Lodge, the picture we get is of a closed wooden shed roofed with
boards, straw, reeds, or tiles, and normally accommodating from twelve to
twenty masons. There are instances on record of two or more Lodges being
erected a one building at the same time, as at Vale Royal Abbey (1279)
probably three; at York Minster (1412) two, and at Westminster (1413) two.
Lodges were also often established at the
quarries, sometimes far distant from the building. It is not until we reach
the seventeenth century that the word “Lodge” sometimes came to be used in the
sense of a body of masons associated with a particular town instead of with a
particular building. The winter working hours were from daylight to dark, with
one hour for dinner, and fifteen minutes for “drinking” in the afternoon. The
summer hours were from sunrise to thirty minutes before sunset, with one hour
for dinner, thirty minutes for “sleeping” and thirty minutes for “drinking”.
The average working hours would thus be about 8 3/4 in the winter months, and
12 1/4 in the summer months. One recorded complaint is that “divers artificers
and labourers waste much part of the day in late coming unto their work, early
departing there from, long sitting at their breakfast, dinner and noon meat,
and long time sleeping after noon”.
Mediaeval wage rates are generally expressed as
so much per day, week or fortnight, and occasionally as so much per annum.
There appears to be a differentiation in the daily rate of pay as the days
lengthened. Thus in the London regulations of 1275-1296 fixed the masons’
daily wage at 3 pence in winter, 4 pence in spring and autumn, and 5 pence in
summer. Living accommodation, in some cases at least, was provided, but
whether within or outside the Lodge is not clear. Occasionally an allowance of
beer was made. Taking a general average of the daily rate of pay, we find a
gradual upward tendency, although at times fluctuating, from 4 pence per day
in the 13th century, to 2 to 4 pence per day at the beginning of the 18th
century. The lot of the ancient mason was not always happy as the gradual
increase in wages was often quite disproportionate to the greatly increasing
cost of food, as in the decade 1613-1622 when food prices were five times the
1510 level, and wages hardly doubled. From the 13th century various Statutes
of Labourers had endeavoured to fix wages, but a new Statute of Artificers in
1563 provided that masons’ wages were to be determined with reference to food
thus, in theory at least, embodying one of the most important points in the
Regius and Cooke Mss. that of fixing wages according to the cost of
From official records we can arrive at an
approximate estimate of the cost of some of the work done by our ancient
brethren. There were in England and Wales between 900 and 1000 Monasteries,
Colleges, Churches and hospitals, many of stupendous proportions.
To these must be added thousands of parish
churches, castles, town walls, municipal buildings and bridges. Eton College
in one year (1443044) required over 1,000,000 bricks. Val3 Royal Abbey
(1278-80) required 15 quarrymen and 31 carters. Beaumaris Castle at one period
employed 400 masons, 30 smiths and carpenters. The building of Vale Royal
Abbey cost in three years over £1,500 in the currency of that day, equal to
about £126,000 in normal times in his part of the world and exclusive of stone
and timber which seem to have been shipped from Royal quarries and forests.
Caernarvon, Conway and Harlech Castles cost in one year (1291) over £14,000,
equivalent to well over £1,000,000 today (1945). When we remember that the
erection of many of these buildings occupied a great number of years, some
idea of their ultimate cost may be gained.
Owing to the difficulty in procuring sufficient
local labour, the system of impressments (forced labour) was often used, a
power similar to the rights of purveyance to obtain timber, etc., for
building, or to the press-gang to obtain recruits. Apparently opposition was
encountered or expected, as power was given to imprison those who resisted.
(evidently they had their man-power problems in those days). For this reason,
and also that the mason’s trade was usually carried on outside cities and
towns, a craft gild was presumably not a suitable organisation to control the
While in the later Middle Ages the authorities
sought to control trade and industry usually through Municipal Craft Gilds, it
must be noted that nowhere, except in London, is there any record of a masons’
craft ordinance before the 16th century. It is however, only reasonable to
suppose that some organisation held some form of Assembly as described in the
Regius and Cook Mss,. Be that as it may, we have evidence of masons’
assemblies in Statutes of 1360 and 1425, which attempted to prohibit
congregations or confederations of masons, but the probability is that these
were in the nature of illegal assemblies for the purpose of attempting to gain
Leaving for the moment the matter of
organisation, we should briefly consider the different grades among masons.
Broadly these may be divided into three, viz., apprentices ; journeymen
masons, and master masons. The working mason or journeyman was essentially a
wage earner, with relatively little prospect of attaining to a higher
position, although it was possible to rise from the ranks to become foreman or
overseer, called an apparator or warden, or to secure what may be termed a
staff appointment as a master mason.
Just how the masons received their training is
not clear. No doubt fathers taught their sons while others had servants or
labourers who later became masons. Another source was from the quarries where
much preparatory work was often done and the more expert quarries would attain
sufficient skill to make the transition possible. Presumably there was no
systematic method of training, which points to the absence of any strong
organisation among masons. Normally, on important works a master mason was in
charge, sometimes called master of the fabric. His chief business was to hire
and dismiss workmen, determine the quantities of materials, make the plans and
generally supervise the architectural details.
The office of master mason was one of dignity
as a sign of which he received annually, gloves, a robe, or a sum of money
additional to his daily maintenance. There is numerous mention of plans and
designs prepared by maser masons. They drew their “plot, platt, portraiture,
and uprights” and part of a Lodge equipment comprised tracing boards for the
master mason. In some cases a tracing or tracery house was provided. The
master mason continued to act as architect through the Middle Ages up to the
17th century, at which period the old and the new systems of architecture, as
a separated profession existed side by side.
The apprenticeship system seems to be a late
development among masons. Previously it was very limited, as only masters
appear to have had apprentices, and as usually there was only one master mason
on each job, the number of apprentices would thus be relatively small. There
is no record of a mason’s apprentice in any building record prior to 1350, and
few between 1350 and 1450. The instruction given was no doubt in that part of
the work which only such as a master mason would known, and they would also
doubtless be bound by their indentures to keep their master’s secrets. The
first indication of any ceremony attaching to apprenticeship seems top be in
the Apprentice Charge appearing in certain versions of the Ms. Constitutions,
dating from the second half of the 17th century, and while operative in
character, there is no evidence that it was ever used among operative masons.
Direct evidence in connection with masons’
craft gilds in the 14th and 15th century is very slight. Such gilds have been
assumed to exist because gilds existed n other trades. This lack of
organisation was no doubt due to the necessity of moving from place to place,
which would preclude their having such associations as those by which other
trades were controlled, and for which a local habitation were necessary. It is
not clear that any sharp line of distinction existed between so-called
Cathedral Masons, and those employed in towns, sometimes called Gild Mason.
Records show that masons ere drawn form all classes of work and from all
districts as required. Some trace of organisation among journeymen masons is
found in London records of 1306, when certain newcomers were threatened with a
beating if they worked for lower wages than the city craftsmen.
Municipal records of 1356 inform us of disputes
between hewers and layers, and the statement that “the trade had no been
regulated in due manner by the folk of the trade” implies that there was no
craft gild operating at that time. The first definite reference to an
organisation occurs in 1376, so that the gild must have been established at
some time between 1356 and 1376.
In 1389 William Hancock, mason, bequeathed
twelve pence to the fraternity of Masons, London, and in 1419 Walter Walton
gave a legacy of 6pounds 8pence to the fraternity & his livery coat to a
brother mason. It is doubtful whether this organisation ever was a genuinely
democratic craft gild, or that a working mason could aspire to become a member
It is possible that it was mainly composed of
building contractors. Gilds practically came to an end in 1547 when they were
suppressed but we have evidence of an Operative Lodge at Alnwick in 1598.
Any organisation which existed among our early
brethren was probably due to the existence of certain customs and traditions,
a knowledge of which has been handed down to us in the form of manuscripts.
These rules and traditions were preserved and from time to time written down
and further copies made.
There are no less than one hundred known
versions of the Manuscript Constitutions of Masonry, and of these the
importance of the Regius and Cooke Manuscripts (two of the oldest known
versions, dated approximately 1390 and 1420 respectively) cannot be
over-estimated as a link uniting ancient operative masonry with modern
speculative masonry. These early manuscripts inform us that 14th and 15th
century masons were subject to recognised customs, embodied in so-called
“charges”. Almost without exception they each contain the same two elements,
viz., the legend or history of the building industry and the regulations or
charges to be obeyed by masters, fellows and apprentices.
In the 16th and 17th centuries these legends
and customs were incorporated in successive versions of the Manuscript
Constitutions of Masonry, and modern “Speculative Masonry” is the outcome of
this. When the Grand Lodge of England was formed in 1717 there appear to have
been copies of the Manuscripts in the possession of several Lodges, and some
of these were no doubt used by Dr. Anderson in compiling the first Book of
It is difficult to conclude a paper of this
nature without traversing the period of the merging of operative into
speculative masonry. It is, however, a big subject, and time will not permit.
And now a word in connection with the origin of
the word “Freemason”. Opinions differ, but it seems likely that the freemason
was so called on account of the material in which he worked. While Mediaeval
builders used a great variety of stones ranging from the hardest of granite to
perishable chalk, the building stones most widely used were the various
limestones which were found extensively in a broad belt stretching from the
Yorkshire coast to Dorset, and commonly called free-stone. Free-stone is the
name given to any fine grained sandstone or limestone that can be easily
worked or carved in any direction, and the mason who worked this stone was
often known as a freestone mason. The earliest known reference to a freemason,
or freestone mason, is contained in the London Assize of Wages, 1212, .
In 1361 forty “freestone masons” were ordered
to work to impress (forced hiring) twenty-four freemasons”, and it would
appear that the term “freestone mason” became abbreviated to “freemason” just
as the words “Freemason” and “Mason” are often used to mean the same thing.
By W. Bro. A.
J. Chapman, P.M.; 28 June 1945; Published in
United Masters Lodge, No. 167 SELECTED
PAPERS, Vol. II;
Auckland, New Zealand; 1961.