Review of Freemasonry

Make this site your Home Page Print this page Send Masonic E-card Subscribe News Alerts by Email RSS News Feed
PS Review of FM Search Engine:
recommend PS Review of Freemasonry

Bro. Jack Buta

From the records of the Masons Company of London concerning its 'accepted members' we find without doubt the earliest authentic evidence of 17th century Freemasonry in England.
by W. Bro. Jack Buta MPS
PM Paradise Valley Silver Trowel Lodge #29
Arizona Grand Lodge, USA
32 degree Scottish Rite Mason

“But, by whatever name it was known in this or another country, Masonry has existed as it now exists, the same in spirit and at heart, not only when Solomon built the temple, but centuries before--before the first colonies emigrated into Southern India, Persia, and Egypt, from the cradle of the human race.”

Albert Pike 1857

Most modern Masonic writers today do not head down to their local Grand lodge or public library to begin a research project. They simply sit down at their computer keyboard and ‘Google’ it. The idea of actually picking up a history book much less reading it doesn’t even come up.

Why bother? Everything you need to know about everything has already been written down, published, converted to a PDF format and uploaded to the Internet ready for everyone else to download into his or her laptop. Want to cite a reference but can’t find one? No problem, just add your own entry into Wikipedia, and Voila! You are now an expert.  This ability to cut and paste articles and even entire books complete with reference notes is so prevalent few people ever actually do any real original research. They simply borrow a few paragraphs here and there to arrive at previously decided conclusions.  Many cite the same references or cryptic archive codes they found on the Internet without ever bothering to verify the original source of any relevant data, preferring profit to scholarship.

All of which is very nice, until you decide to check out those sources. There is one very popular writer of Masonic books who is notorious for this practice. I have followed many of his references only to find they do not exist or are totally off point. 

Even serious authors will at times give misleading references where the archive and or document location do not correspond because the citation was copied from an even older book and the source material has long since been moved.

Robert Freke Gould Robert Freke Gould’s work has become the gold standard for Masonic research for over 100 years, but even Gould was human and subject to an occasional error. The problem with Gould making an occasional error is his work is so well respected no one ever questions it. His is after all the most quoted source for Masonic history.   So what do you do when you stumble across an error which changes some of the most basic understanding of who were the first non-operative or speculative Masons, when this occurred and what documentation do we have to substantiate it?

It is tough question, and it leads to another. Who am I to challenge the work of a Masonic icon?

I seriously considered not writing this article at all. In fact, I sat on it for a year and my only purpose in writing it today is not to impugn Gould’s work but to bring to light the names and lives of six non-operative Freemasons who worked within the craft for decades long before Elias Ashmole was initiated in 1646.  It is high time they were recognized as the first recorded Speculative Freemasons.

In writing this article I am in no way attacking Gould or his work. I refer to his works for confirmation and inspiration on an almost constant basis. I believe that as a man of great integrity, he would want the record set straight and that while the error is significant, it does not detract from his enormous contributions to our understanding of the history of the craft.

Ok, so what is the error and how did I stumble upon it?

I’ll answer the second part of the question first. I had written an article for “On the Level”, a local newsletter I had been sending out to the Lodges in Arizona. In it I quoted Gould from his ‘Concise History of Freemasonry’ page 111, Seven persons were received into the ‘acception’ (i.e., the Acception) or Lodge in 1620-21, all of whom were already members of the company…” 

In response to the article I received an email from Jim May PGM of Arizona, who asked if I knew the names of these seven men and if there was anything significant about them?

Since I had recently obtained a copy of Edward Conder’s book ‘Records of the Hole Crafte and Fellowship of Masons’ which Gould used as his source for the information, I sat down to see if I could find some answers for Jim.

 I opened Gould’s ‘Concise History of Freemasonry’ to page 111 to compare his statement to what Conder wrote and got the first shock of the evening. They did not come close to agreeing with each other! Here I am, reading the absolute historic standard for Masonic history and it is wrong. Not only is it wrong, it is terribly wrong on a critical piece of history. Keep in mind Conder and Gould had communicated on the subject of Conder’s work. In fact, Conder acknowledges Gould’s help in the introduction of the book. In this same introduction Conder states; “As early as the year 1620 or twenty-one years before any mention of the society is made by any writers of the 17th century, we find in the first years entered in the account book, which is the earliest document concerning the Guild still remaining in the company’s possession, an entry referring to certain gratuities received from new members in consequence of their being accepted on the livery.

“In the following year occur entries of certain payments made by these new members when they were made masons, doubtless by some ancient ceremony which survived the troublous period of the Reformation.”  

Gould says these men were already members of the company and “were received into the ‘acception’ (i.e., the Acception) or Lodge”, but according to Conder the records state otherwise. His book includes copies of the minutes which make it quite clear these men were first Accepted and then Made Masons and not the other way around. He goes on to say the word “accepted” is rarely used throughout the 500 pages of the surviving account book. When it is used, it is always used to describe someone who is admitted into the company upon accepting Masonry. They did not serve an apprenticeship because, if they had, there would have been no reason to accept Masonry in order to join the company.

The words “coming on the Acception” Gould uses are not to be found anywhere in the records for the year 1620 or 1621 provided to Conder by the Company of Masons.  Nowhere in the records of the Worshipful Company of Freemasons, is there any mention of an ‘acception’ (i.e., the Acception) or of a ‘Lodge’ in 1620-21. However, Conder does make the following statement about Speculative Masonry on page 9:

“This we cannot say for certain, but we can say that as early as 1620 and inferentially very much earlier, there were certain members of the Masons Company and others who met from time to time to form a Lodge for the purposes of Speculative Masonry; and this account given by the records of the Masons Company concerning its ‘accepted members,’ is without doubt the EARLIEST AUTHENTIC EVIDENCE of 17th century Freemasonry in England”

 Contrary to Gould’s statement, the only occurrence in the records of the Masons Company of the word ‘acception’ is found in a 1648 entry made in regards to a Warden paying for “coming on the Acception”. By 1648 already have separate evidence of at least two other lodges, one in Chester and one in Warrington, being run by Speculative Masons.

Conder states there could be little or no inducement for persons not in any way connected with the building trade to join this small and comparatively poor company. Yet a careful reading of the records of the Masons Company which Condor provides us show these six men, not seven as Gould states, did more than just join, they contributed greatly to the company for more than a decade.

These men were not operative Masons as clearly indicated in the way they joined the company by immediately coming on to the livery. This shows that as early as 1621 non-operatives were able to gain admission into a guild of operative stonemasons by paying a huge sum of money. It is in direct contrast to the normal way an apprentice gains his freedom of the company.  Condor tells us the act of joining on the livery normally comes years after a man finishes his apprenticeship. More importantly we see here in the earliest extant records of the Worshipful Company of Freemasons there is already in existence a set fee for joining the company by acceptance of Masonry. This fact suggests this practice may have predated 1620. How far back, is anyone’s guess?

Conder quotes from the existing records the account of six men paying “for their gratitude at their acceptance unto the livery”.  Livery is the second highest standing in the company.  According to the records of the Masons Company it also requires those being elevated to be able to afford the robes of a Gentleman and to outfit one’s servants in robes. It was an expensive undertaking and not one easily affordable to the average craftsman. 

So who were these six men? The records identify them as Evan Lloyd, Thomas Preestman, James French, Timothy Townsend, John Hince, and John Kifford.  There is a follow-up entry regarding some of these men being ‘made’ Masons in 1621. Three of them Hince, Lloyd and French are listed along with four others, who were presumably apprentices. This is could account for Gould’s tally of seven persons. 

How expensive was it for a man to join the Masons Company by accepting Masonry? To get an idea, compare that cost in comparison with the wages of a Stonemason in the early 1600’s, did it represent a week’s wages, a month, or even longer?

In 1620 Nicholas Stone was the King’s Master Mason.  His charter set his wages at 12 pence (one shilling or one 20th of a pound) per day and as the King’s Master Mason he would have been one of the highest paid masons in England. Using his pay scale as a guide we can compare the various costs of becoming a mason in that period.

 At the completion of his apprenticeship a mason would pay one pound, three shillings and four-pence, or about a month’s earnings at Stones wage scale, to become a Journeyman. To advance to Livery a mason would need to pay an additional fee of nine pounds, almost a full year’s earnings. It becomes clear that anyone who can afford to do that were not  simple masons but well to do gentlemen. Though in fairness, it should be noted that the records do show James French did defer half of his steward’s fine (3 pounds) until 1621.

So why would six well-to-do gentlemen pay so much to join the Worshipful Company of Freemasons?  Conder writes, “There could be little or no inducement for anyone not in the building trade to join this small and poor company”. Certainly in view of the cost, there would have to be a compelling reason for them to do so. The question is what was it?

Each of these six men came from long established families. Lloyd came from the northern city of Chester.  The Hince family held large estates in Lancashire.  French was descended from a Norman family which settled in Ireland and was probably a Catholic.  Preestman (all other company entries refer to him as Priestman, meaning ‘servant of Priest’) is an ancient Anglo-Saxon family which held the county seat in Staffordshire before and after the Norman Conquest in 1066.  Townsend belonged to another very old titled Anglo-Saxon family from Norfolk.  The final member came from a large family of landowners who settled in what is referred to as the Kefford Triangle, so named because in the 16th century the family was concentrated in a small triangle straddling the borders of four counties and formed by the villages of Barley in Hertfordshire, Arrington and Bassingbourn in Cambridgeshire and Wrestlingworth in Bedfordshire. 

            They were not lords of the Shires or the company records would have recorded their titles. So we have six men from established families, not nobles but able to pay a heavy fee to join the guild. More than likely they were members of England’s newly created middleclass, the country’s first capitalists, descendents of Knights and stewards of nobility who had become successful merchants and farmers.  While they were not qualified by rank to be included in the privileged 10% of titled Nobility but probably controlled more wealth than their titled relatives.

Knowing who these men were and what class of English society they belonged to identifies them as prosperous but still doesn’t tell us why they chose to join this small and poor company.  What did they expect to gain from joining?

The answer might have a lot to do with the social and political environment in western Europe in the early 1600’s. They lived in what the Chinese refer to as ‘interesting times’. England was evolving. In 1600 it was a third-rate country but by 1700, it would evolve into an empire. The transition would be both cruel and bloody. In the process, one monarch would be executed, another dethroned and a third put on the throne who did not even speak English.

If we look at the literature of the time is almost entirely didactic in nature. Shakespeare produces plays with definite moral lessons. He is greatly influenced by Chaucer, who in turn had been influenced by the 5th century Roman statesman and philosopher Boethius who had been inspired by the Greek stories concerning Socrates, Plato, Canius, Seneca, and Soranus. This type of English literature goes back as far as the Norman Conquest. Stories of Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable had been told for centuries before the 14th century epic ‘The Green Knight’ appeared. It is clear that the search for enlightenment was underway, but English literature and the realities of life in 17th century England have little in common.

Governments and universities were not open to progressive thought in the late 16th and early 17th century. The Catholic Church, once open to the heliocentric theory of the universe, suddenly collapses inwards retreating to the Ptolemaic theory propounded in 150 AD which views Earth as a stationary center of the universe. Copernicus’ book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) is published and placed in his hands the very day he dies in 1543. However, it would be printed with a preface written by Lutheran theologian Andreas Osiander stating the heliocentric account of the earth's movement is a mere mathematical hypothesis, not an account which contains truth or even probability. In 1600 Giodano Bruno burns at the stake for heresy. Although the Inquisition file on Bruno is lost most believe his death came as a result of teaching the Copernican heliocentric theory in which the earth orbits the sun.

There can be no doubting the rabid fervor of the still powerful Inquisition which brought the greatest inventor, scientist and mathematician of the era Galileo, to his knees.  After inventing the telescope he uses it to observe the four satellites of Jupiter.  For four years scientists, nobles and church leaders use and applaud this great invention and commend Galileo’s work. Then in 1614, a Dominican friar preaches against Galileo for propounding the Copernican theory in which the earth is but one of many heavenly bodies. One month later, a second Dominican friar named Niccolo Lorini, who had earlier criticized Galileo's view in private conversations, filed a written complaint with the Inquisition against Galileo's Copernican views. In 1616 on orders of the Pope Paul V, Cardinal Bellarmine calls Galileo to his residence and administers a warning not to hold or defend the Copernican theory. An unsigned transcript in the Inquisition file, discovered in 1633, states Galileo is also forbidden to discuss the theory orally or in writing. Only Galileo’s fame saves him from the stake.

By this time Europe was being ripped apart by a bloody religious war and those who thirsted after knowledge, who wanted to study the sciences and philosophy risked their freedom by discussing their work in public.

 In England, the harsh realities of early 17th century life belied the stories of chivalry. The country suffered under the iron heel of the Duke of Buckingham.  He had come out of nowhere to gain almost absolute control of the kingdom.  Making his appearance in court for the first time in 1614 he was introduced to King James while the king still grieved over the death of Prince Henry. The grieving monarch apparently saw in the charming young man a substitute for his lost son and Villiers took full advantage. In just four years he became the second most powerful man in Great Britain. He was the first and only Duke to be created by King James. By 1620 he had become immensely rich by granting over 700 monopolies. Almost every product used in the kingdom was subject to a monopoly controlled by Buckingham. The bricks and windows of the house they lived in, the coal which heated it, the tapestries hanging on their walls, the beds they slept in, the soap they washed with, the brush and combs they used on their hair, even the clothing they wore and most of the food and drink they consumed, all were produced and sold by a licensed monopoly, and part of the money found it’s way back to the very deep pockets of Buckingham.

Almost every man in England viewed the Duke of Buckingham as the most dangerous man alive.  He became so unpopular that upon hearing of his murder in 1628 Londoners celebrated openly and cheered the assassin as he was taken to the Tower to be hanged.

There are no declarations of support for the Stuart King in the existing Worshipful Company of Freemasons records but they did record their feelings about the execution of their lawful king. On January 30, 1649 there is a note in the records of the company, which read, “King Charles murdered at Whitehall”.

Just before the execution of King Charles, London had elected a wealthy merchant Sir Abraham Reynardson, a Royalist and one of the first governors of the East India Company, to the office of Lord Mayor. In defiance of Cromwell, he refused to declare the Monarchy was dissolved.  Cromwell replaced the Mayor and sent Sir Reynardson to the tower for two months. When Cromwell died nine years later, the Roundhead Lord Mayor of London Cromwell had replaced Reynardson with, was in turn sent to the Tower.

The age of enlightenment had yet to dawn.

It is difficult today to comprehend the level of fear and frustration existing in Europe and particularly in England in 1620.  Scientists, philosophers, and astronomers were forced to work in secret to avoid being branded as heretics. Some, like the men who would later form the Royal Society, met quietly in locations around Oxford. There were few places in England where one could speak his mind in safety.

The masons of the 17th century understood that mathematics and geometry are not restricted to the building trades but expand into the fields of navigation and astronomy. They were among those who sought knowledge, kept their trade secrets, and by adhering to the ancient charges of their craft, each man was committed to the protection and support of his fellow mason. These would have been valid reasons why these six men  might have sought the sanctuary offered within the lodge rooms of The Worshipful Company of Freemasons.

No matter their reasons for joining, these six men left their mark on the company. Out of the original six, at least three became Wardens of the company and two or three, would actually serve as Master. John Hince served as Warden in 1626 and in 1628 while he served as Master of the company, Thomas Priestman was one of his wardens. The kings’ architect, Nicholas Stone served with Timothy Townsend as a Warden in 1630. Thomas Priestman would be elected Master of the company in 1636. Lloyd only appears in the records twice, one of which is in connection to being fined for having an argument in the company.

There is some question as to what happened to French.  There is no record of any activity in the company by James French but from 1629 on we see “Frances” French begin to appear as an elected officer in the company. To have two men named French in this small company at the same time is unlikely. However if French, like many Irish Catholics used his middle name for everyday use and his first name only for legal matters like joining the company, then he would have been the fourth of our six speculative Freemasons to hold office and the third to became Master of the company.  Frances French became Master of the company in 1637, the year after Priestman. He previously served twice as a Warden, the last time being in 1633 under the king’s Master Mason, Nicholas Stone.

By the 1640’s the word “Accepted” had begun to be replaced with a new description. Ashmole uses the word “Freemason” in his description of his initiation into the society. In Ashmole’s description of those present at the time there is a striking example of the tremendous pull of the growing fraternity of men who would lay aside their religion and politics to meet as Brothers.  There, in a small room in Warrington in 1646, with the civil war still raging, Roundhead sat down with Royalist, Catholic with Protestant; each man trusting the others enough to risk their life in the pursuit of light, just as six other men had done 21 years before.


Records of the Whole Crafte and Fellowship of Masons by Edward Conder
The Concise history of Freemasonry R.F. Gould 
The Century of Revolution 1603-1714, Christopher Hill
In the Wake of the Plague, Norman Cantor
Royalists and Patriots Politics and Ideology in England 1603-1640, (II ed.) J P Sommerville
A Brief History of British Kings & Queens by Michael Ashley

Home Page | Alphabetical Index | What is New | Freemasons World News
Research Papers | Books online | Freemasons History | Symbolism & Rituals
Saggi in Italiano | Essais en Langue Française | Monografias em Português | Planchas Masonicas en Español

| Sitemap | Privacy Policy | How to Contribute a Paper |

RSS Feed News Feed | News Alerts Subscribe News by Email

visitor/s currently on the page.