The Origin of our Institution and Mediaeval Masonry

by MasterMason



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 craftsman.


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 workmen.


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 place.


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 victuals/food.


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 industry.


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 increased wages.


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 of it.


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 Constitutions (1723)


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.

You may also enjoy

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More