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’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
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.
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
“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”
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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