Origins of Early Freemasonry

by MasterMason
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Origins of Early Freemasonry

Adapted by Norman McEvoy from a paper by Freddy Berdach SLGR, PPSGW (Middx)


This subject has been written and talked about for many years – and by many more eminent people than myself, but in this paper, I am hoping to show that speculative Freemasonry developed directly from the operative masons at a time when religious freedom was in danger.

I think the key question is why should members of the Upper Class join a group of men who are, after all, artisans?  It is my hope that through this paper I can give a sound reason for this to have happened. The fact that the operative masons needed men who were intelligent enough to be architects, quantity surveyors and mathematicians meant that they could only have come from the Upper Classes who had some education and that the tolerance of the guild of masons, banning religious prejudice, encouraged the aristocracy to join them to form speculative masonry, which developed over the centuries to what we know to-day.

Freemasonry is said to have been going ‘from time immemorial ‘.

But what does from time immemorial really mean?

According to the Freemason’s Guide and Compendium

it is that time where the memory of man runneth not to the contrary.”

In this paper, I am going to show that Freemasonry evolved from operative masons to the speculative version we know to-day and will try to prove from various Manuscripts and historical records how this could have come about.

The Paper

The Grand Lodge was formed in 1717, but we know that there were lodges, not only in London, but in various parts of the country long before then. One of the earliest records of a lodge was from the initiation of Elias Ashmole into a Warrington lodge in 1646. Now Warrington was not a London, Birmingham or Manchester. It was a pleasant, small, dull country town. Therefore, lodges must have been in existence long before then and long before the 4 London Lodges formed themselves into the ‘Grand Lodge’.

Operative Masons were building Gothic Cathedrals and castles in some parts of England from 1200 to 1500. The stonemasons of medieval times probably spent their entire working life on a few big sites. On each site some kind of hut would be erected where masons could shelter in bad weather, store tools, organise work rotas and even sleep. The medieval word was ‘alogement’ from which the English word ‘Lodge’ is derived.

After the Black Death of 1348 – 9, which killed as many as 1.5 million people in Britain, there was such a shortage of stonemasons that the survivors were able to bargain high wages through annual assemblies and when they met it was like the meeting place of a Guild and it is from the guilds that we get most of our officers’ names; Like Master, Wardens, Deacons, Scribe or secretary, Treasurer, Almoner and most important of all, Chaplain.

Through their ‘lodges’, the stonemasons protected themselves against a harsh and unforgiving world. They safeguarded their own jobs, and maintained work standards through a controlled rank structure and developed a system of mutual aid. Like the city guilds of the day, they seem to have given charity to members in hard times. These Lodges were governed by Masters and there is even mention of Fellows of the Craft and Entered Apprentices (that is ‘entered on the books’) .

There is evidence that they were known to possess secrets related to the taking of oaths, and they probably ‘worked’ rituals in which initiates swore not to reveal the skills and trade secrets of their craft. There must have been a secret understanding between masons in widely separated places which enabled them to recognise each other as such.  The diary entries of Elias Ashmole illustrate the position as to modes of recognition because they show that Ashmole, who had been initiated in 1646 in Warrington, was acknowledged as a mason at another lodge in London some 35 years later.

The stonemasons were economically vulnerable because they did most of their work for one supremely rich patron – the Christian Church. At that time, there was only one Church in the West, and headed by the Pope of Rome. The Church was the greatest employer of masons as is evidenced by the building of the great churches of Westminster, Windsor and Cambridge during the sixteenth century. John Harvey in his Gothic England shows to what extent church building was going on in England in the 1530’s which were at the expense of laymen, who were building in wood and mud.

The fabulous great fan vault of the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, built from 1512 to 1515, was regarded as a miracle of design and construction and the Chapel was one of the few Gothic buildings to be praised unstintingly when classical architecture was at the height of fashion. To the same period belong King Henry Vll’s Chapel at Westminster Abbey, the magnificent tower of Canterbury Cathedral and many glorious parish churches of which Lavenham, Saffron Waldon, Cirencester, St. Mary’s Beverly and the spire at Louth are a few outstanding examples.

The magnificence of English and European cathedrals and the brilliance of the Master Builders and Craftsmen who designed and built them is for all to see. Cathedral building is a fusion of man’s greatest accomplishment in the arts, sciences and humanities over the centuries.

During the Middle Ages, and the rise of Gothic architecture, there were two distinct classes of Masons. The Guild Masons, who, like the Guild carpenters or weavers or merchants, were local in character and strictly regulated by law, and the Freemasons, who travelled about from city to city as their services were needed to design and erect those marvellous churches and cathedrals which still stand to-day.

The history of the Freemasons through their cathedral building ages up to the Reformation and the gradual decline of the building art, needs volumes, where here are but pages.

But Freemasons were far more than architects and builders; they were artist, teachers, mathematicians and poets of their time. There were some Stone Masons who could readily grasp the spatial concepts of geometry and conceive designs of structures not yet built.

The Regius and Cook manuscripts of 1390 had shown that masons aspired to a connection with the ‘Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences, perhaps suggesting that master masons sought to be regarded as ‘scholars and gentlemen’.

It speaks of meeting in ‘Logge’, calls the regulations ‘Constitutions’, enjoins secrecy, exacts an oath of obedience, forbids the slandering of a brother and requires that the local gentry be allowed to participate in the assembly. To these skilled artisans with their secrets and modes of recognition came Masters and architects who were not necessarily artisans or craftsmen.

Work for the operative masons did not only deal with church building. There was also work to be done in building large country houses, mainly for the new aristocracy. Such work must have involved private transactions often of a modest nature compared to the building of castles and the great churches. Work on country estates may not have involved the general public with the masons’ craft as much as church work did, but this type of work surely brought the operative masons into closer contact with the learned gentry, the property based Middle Class, who were more likely to become involved with speculative masonry. This would have involved groups of masons, nobles, gentlemen and even monks.

This, it is thought, inspired the public financing of parish churches to a remarkable extent. Parish church maintenance was a divided responsibility, the chancel being at the expense of the rector and the naïve at the expense of the parishioners. In the same way, a lord of the manor or a rich merchant would sometimes pay for an entire manor house building.

This was the reason for bringing together masons and non-masons with some degree of permanency. It gives a very good reasons for the gentry to be interested in the operative mason’s lodges – the practical working out the planning to build a parish church, with donors and builders working together to guarantee a successful outcome. It would seem to me that craftsmen would probably have admitted architects, planners and administrators such as chaplains, treasurers and those responsible for the highly complicated logistics with their operation.

Hence the entry of non-operatives into their lodges, and WHY they were called Accepted Masons.

Some evidence as to the possible existence of non-operative Masons earlier than that of 1646 relates to the London Company of Masons, whose earliest surviving records commence in 1621 and show payments for ‘making masons’ which include names of men who were already members of the Company. From an entry of 1631 it refers to ‘Masons that were to be ‘accepted’, and from subsequent entries it is clear that non-operative masons were being ‘accepted’ into the company, this being the same expression as that used to describe non-operative masons in the latter part of the seventeenth century. A Grant of Arms to the London Company of Masons has been traced back to 1472 and its existence to 1356.

Through the years, particularly those which saw the decline of great building and the coming of the Reformation, more and more became the Accepted Masons and less and less the operative building Freemasons.

In 1482, in Scotland, during the reign of James ll, a stone mason by the name of Cochrane, who had been the architect of the Great Hall in Stirling Castle, became so popular with the king that he made him an Earl and so moved into the upper class of society.

The office of Warden General and Master of Work is known to have existed as early as 1539.

Sir Alexander Strachan was made a member of a Lodge as early as 1600 as were Lord Alexander, Sir Anthony Alexander, John Boswell and the Laird of Auchinleck.

The records of the Lodge of Aberdeen at their commencement in 1670 show that of the forty-nine fellow crafts or master masons who were then members of the lodge, only ten were operative masons. The other thirty nine consisted of four noblemen, three gentlemen, eight professional men, nine merchants and fifteen tradesmen, indicating that Freemasonry, more or less as we know it, could have started in Scotland. The concept that it could have originated in two adjoining countries, quite independently, is most unlikely.

It is clearly shown that persons of nobility, high birth or rank, good social position were actually members of Freemasonry, which was an institution where men of very different walks of life could meet in brotherhood. Sir John Savile, Warden of Merton College Oxford (1619), invited the masonic families of Akroyd and Bentley to Oxford to stay with him to extend Merton College Fellows’ Quadrangle and the Bodleian library. This is the kind of association that may have developed into something resembling the ‘fellowship’ that Robert Plot describes in his book

‘The Natural History of Staffordshire’.

We can no longer be in any doubt that the Freemasons’ Lodges which arose in 1717 were nothing else but a new sort of club. It stated that the newly initiated brother found in the Lodge a safe and pleasant relaxation from intense study or hurry of business, without politics or party. Yet those Lodges had ceremonies which were a connecting link with the older Freemasonry. In the early years from and before 1717 the Craft Lodges were purely convivial societies and nothing more. At the same time, the new Masonry had its roots in a certain amount of mystic ceremonies which had been handed down and providing them to be a survival of something else.

Hughan, in his ‘Origin of the English Rite’, points out the importance of this by remarking: “Freemasonry has a history based upon veritable documents, such as  the ‘Old Charges’ dating back some five hundred years and actual records from the sixteenth century.

The “Old Charges” may be claimed by the Craft Masons, but in them there occur certain Hebrew pseudonyms and other features indicating the existence side by side with the Building Guilds of secret societies of a Speculative character.

Freemasonry in the seventeenth century related to Lords, gentlemen, merchants and professional men at one end of the social scale and employers of labour and self employed tradesmen, at the other. Something must have attracted and retained the members of the nobility and gentry to non-operative masonry. Whatever the attraction was, it must have been very strong indeed. Even the skilled mason was still a member of the labouring class, the lowest of the four main classes of society identifiable at that time, so it is difficult to visualise the upper classes descending the social ladder to associate with the operative craft, but we know that this is what they did.

Masonry was spread – more or less – all over the Nation. The Lodge at Warrington of 1646 could be the only piece of surviving evidence that provincial Freemasonry was fairly widespread.

The existence of non-operative Masonry in the early seventeenth century in places as divergent as London, Warrington and Scotland, as well as the development of the difference in form as between English and Scottish lodges, suggest that the origins of the movement could well have been in an era before 1600 and possibly considerably before that.

The age of medieval church building came to an end abruptly. There were cross currents in religious feeling. The strong support for parish church building seems to have been based on prosperity, local pride and a spirit of material disinterestedness, combined with the idea of providing for the life to come. At the same time, there was a growing disenchantment with the worldliness of the monks and the clergy, a distaste for the government of Church & State and in particular for Cardinal Wolsey, and a hatred of the financial taxations of the Roman Church.

In 1534 it all changed. Henry VIII broke with Rome, denied the authority of the Pope, became an Anglican and threw England into the Reformation. In a few years he seized the Church’s wealth, dissolved and dispossessed the monasteries and brought ecclesiastical building to a halt. Suddenly the number of stonemasons far exceeded demand. They lost their bargaining power, their lodges decayed and their assets, if any, were looted by the State.

In 1545, Henry desperately needed money for the maintenance of the war with France. This gave him an excuse to confiscate the assets of all ‘fraternities’ and Guilds which were Catholic institutions and thus considered as ‘fair game’. By 1600 most of these had disappeared along with their records, which is why the true history of the stonemasons’ lodges are lost.

The breach with Rome opened the floodgates Royal domination of the Church, and the dissolution of the monasteries. Equally important was the printing of the English Bible which gave literate men the capability of forming their own views on religion. The old enthusiasm for church building was continuing in some places while roofs were being pulled off monastic churches in others. But soon it was evident that the country as a whole had become surfeited with parish church building. The groups of operative masons, who, it is suggested, had obtained continuous employment at one place or another, found suddenly that the pattern of demand for their services had greatly altered, partly due to the use of bricks in building rather than stone.

Severe trauma arose from religion in the reign of Edward VI, with extreme austere Puritanism and the destruction of much that was beautiful in churches. There were horrific burnings in the name of Roman Catholicism in the reign of Mary.

Elizabeth attempted a compromise which did not satisfy many of her subjects.

The Catholic Mary Queen of Scots as heiress to the English throne, or, according to one view, the rightful sovereign, represented a threat to Protestant England.

If operative masons’ lodges existed during this period with ‘associated’ brethren who were not operative masons and who had never worked a stone in their life, the disintegration of the operative side of the lodges’ activities on the cessation of church building could well have been the reason why non-operatives such as merchants, landed gentlemen and aristocrats would have continued and might well have become a well established entity.

Plot’s History of 1586 coincided with a period when the study of architecture was a gentleman’s pastime and if non-operative masonry existed, with harmony between brethren as one of its precepts.

Also, the prohibition of religious and political disputes would have been a step which would have preserved the movement, and would have provided a basis for the future extension of its popularity among the moderate men of differing shades of opinion during a period of religious and political turmoil.

A requirement that the religion of freemasons should be ‘that religion in which all men agree’ was another way of saying the same thing. Secrecy of what they were doing in their Lodges would have been another enormous incentive.

It must be borne in mind that the political and religious unrest had existed for a lengthy period of time. Starting with the disestablishment of the Catholic Church and the destruction of the monasteries under Henry Vlll; the death of Charles lst.; Cromwell; the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion 1685; the flight of James ll in 1688; a new regime under William and Mary, the Union of England and Scotland in 1707; and another new regime when George lst. came to the throne in 1714; and finally the intrigues of the Stuart pretenders; all must have played their part in affecting the secret Fraternity.

Such people were not only attracted by the quaint customs of this workmen’s self-defence organization, they also had the money to revive it. Within decades the landowners and merchants had appropriated an originally Roman Catholic labour union and turned it into a predominantly Protestant gentlemen’s club. The name ‘lodge’ was retained – rather as a façade of an old building is preserved to maintain a historic appearance.

Behind it, the old structure had been demolished and a new one was rising in its place. The fact the ‘secrecy’ was part of their ceremonies only enhanced their desire to take part.

The Constitution of 1723 suggests the existence of regulations which excluded religious differences and stopped religious and political quarrels. It was the Toleration Act of 1689 which granted religious freedom to all save Roman Catholics and Unitarians and was a concession secured only under the direst necessity of forming a united front of Tories and Whigs to eject James II.

By putting an end to religious persecution, an immense amount of pressure was released which previous Freemasons were under, to provide members with a refuge from religious and political strife and the violence that sometimes followed. It provided something of an escape by enabling men of different faiths to meet in harmony, freed from the stress which separated Whig from Tory and in a previous generation, Roundhead from Cavalier.

The involvement in Freemasonry in both sides in the Civil War is shown by Elias Ashmole’s initiation at Warrington in October 1646. Ashmole was a Royalist, but his co-initiate, Col. Henry Mainwaring, who was his brother-in-law, was a Parliamentarian and, since they were on opposite sides of the early Civil Wars, who would have quite cheerfully killed each other only a few months earlier. Ashmole, though a Royalist, joined what was in effect a Lodge of Roundheads, whilst staying with his Parliamentarian in-laws, showing that Freemasonry had something both could accept without quarrelling.

The exact origins of Freemasonry are certainly not clearly defined however I would find it difficult to believe that Ashmole and Mainwaring would have ridden over to Warrington to join a society which required them to hobnob with members of the working class.

On the one hand, I have tried to show that speculative Freemasonry grew out of Operative masons, via non-operative masons, who joined the band of craftsmen, firstly so as to supervise the work on buildings, then perhaps to pay for their construction, to becoming architects in their own right and finally to find a group of men, who behaved honourably, had laws of conduct and behaved in a general moral sense.

With the increase in wealth in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the political and religious turmoil that raged, quite a number of Lords of the manor, gentlemen and merchants found refuge in the society of masons who barred religious and political discussions.

Lodges became more and more intertwined between operative and non-operative masons and to lend distinction and honour to them, some nobility and gentry were asked to become their leaders.

On the other hand, I have tried to give some idea of a time-scale when all this could have started. As we know, written records are rare and therefore we can only try to put some logicality to it.

In Gould’s History of Freemasonry, certain copies of the Old Charges shed a light on Masonic activities, both operative and non-operative and we now come to the question of whether versions of the Old Charges might have been adopted by non-operative masons to provide a background of antiquity and honour for what was mainly, a new idea, namely the requirement that members were to be ‘of that Religion in which all men agree’ – new in the sense that such a provision must be post-Reformation.

Entry to a lodge was, and is, opposed by a guard wearing a duelling sword and a poniard, normal dress of the early 17th Century middle class male. Before 1600, naval swords, cutlass like, predominated. After 1640, pistols and cavalry swords were the normal protection weaponry.

Elizabeth’s reign may seem a period when non-operative Masonry might have originated because it is sufficiently previous to the earliest known existence of the “Acceptance” in the London Company of Masons and Ashmole’s initiation in 1646 to be possible.

The superficial historical character of speculative Masonry, whilst having extensive reference to parts of the Old Testament and references to the Classical Orders of Architecture, has no language indicative of medieval Christianity – normally a sign of being medieval, and there are no obvious features in speculative Masonry, either verbal or visual, suggestive of Gothic  architecture.

A time of the Renaissance: a time of fierce intellectual strife and conflict between old hallowed ideas and emerging new visions; a time of social, spiritual and moral dimension in all aspects of human existence. It was a time to offer safe havens for those honestly searching for wisdom and truth

It is therefore quite possible that the origins of what we are looking at now, is on the one hand pre-seventeenth century and on the other, post-medieval, a requirement suggesting Queen Elizabeth’s reign. The most probable dates for the commencement of Speculative Freemasonry would seem to be between 1563 and 1612

The ancient sources upon which every such paper as this has to be based, are tantalizingly fragmentary, intractable and enigmatic. Yet although I realize all too well how inadequate my story is, I believe that the evidence is at least sufficiently extensive and varied to justify this further attempt to describe that part of our history, and to show how Freemasonry could have evolved.


Constitution of the Free-Masons   James Anderson (reprint 1976)

Freemasons Guide and Compendium  E. Jones  (1956)

Gothic England  – John Harvey  (1947)

Plot’s History of 1686


I have long held the opinion that what we refer to as Freemasonry was not organized in any way and its attraction was the opportunity to meet with like minds and do so without fear of persecution and possible death. Being in that frame of mind, I offer my deepest gratitude to Bro. Berdach for his extremely interesting paper.

Have a Wonderful Day & God Bless








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