Review of Freemasonry

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Robert Cooper
by W. Bro. Robert L. D. Cooper
We publish two excerpts from "Cracking the Freemason’s Code" a book written simultaneously with "The Rosslyn Hoax?" by Robert L. D. Cooper.

Robert L. D. Cooper is the Curator of the Grand Lodge of Scotland Museum and Library (Edinburgh) and is custodian of the oldest and most precious Masonic documents anywhere in the world. He is in the most privileged position to know ‘from the inside’ the truth about all the various theories regarding Rosslyn Chapel, Freemasonry, the Knights Templar and the St. Clair family.
HE became a Freemason in The Lodge of Light, No.1656 (Edinburgh) and was a Founder member of Lodge Edinburgh Castle, No.1764. He became Master of the latter in 1998. In February 2001 he was proud and honoured to be the first Scot in fifty years to be admitted to full membership of Quatuor Coronati Lodge, No.2076 (London, England).
He took the three Holy Royal Arch degrees (Mark, Excellent Master and Royal Arch) in Castle Park RAC, No.520 – of which he was Scribe E for many years and is a Past Principal thereof, serving for three years (1987-89). He is also a Knight Templar, (Preceptory of the Eastern Marches – Eyemouth) and a member of the Red Cross of Constantine (St Giles, No.2) and a member of the Supreme Council for Scotland (Edinburgh Conclave, No.1). He was admitted a member of the Grand Lodge of the Royal Order of Scotland in 2003.

Schaw's Legacy

Schaw's lasting impact was to formalize a pre-existing, probably very casual, system of stonemasons' lodges that were already in possession of a number of traditions, lore, ceremonies and a system of esoteric knowledge. In doing so he began a process that would ultimately lead to modem Freemasonry. His statues meant that lodges had for the first time to keep records, which is why the oldest lodge records in the world exist in Scotland. Aitcheson's Haven's records commence on 9 January 1599, followed by those of the lodge of Edinburgh on 31 July 1599.
Bruno Gazzo Robert Cooper

You argue that modern Freemasonry has its origin in Scotland...
Bruno V. Gazzo, Editor of PS Review of Freemasonry interviewed the author to find out more...

Robert L. D. Cooper, the Curator of the Grand Lodge of Scotland Museum and Library interviewed by the Editor about his new book.
The Author has chosen an intriguing title for his book "Cracking the Freemason’s Code"
The Editor asked the author: "You argue that modern Freemasonry has its origin in Scotland. Could you tell me why you think so?

Bruno Gazzo (BG): When first I read the title of your book “Cracking the Freemason’s Code” frankly I was startled. Had my friend and dear Brother Bob, the Curator of the Grand Lodge of Scotland and the organiser of the International Conference on the History of Freemasonry (ICHF) become a novelist? He hasn’t. 
On the contrary I would like to congratulate you for your work based on historical documents and separated from hysterical fiction.
The first question is regarding your statement that the book is from an “avowed Scottish perspective”. You argue that modern Freemasonry has its origin in Scotland. Could you tell me in a few words why you think so?

Robert Cooper (RC): The question you have asked raises a whole host of other questions and issues which are not possible to answer in a brief reply. 
May I firstly address the surprise you express regarding the title and, I suspect, the cover design of the book: ‘Cracking the Freemasons Code.’ These apparently show that this book is very different from my other book The Rosslyn Hoax? The Hoax is a pretty dense read, packed with facts and figures and lots of discussion as well as 11 appendixes (yes, 11!) of various old and little known Scottish Masonic documents. In that sense the Hoax can be considered to be a reference book, Cracking the Freemasons Code, although it deals with some of the same material, it is written in a very different style. I did so because not everyone wants a book densely packed with facts, figures and a discussion of them. The Code has a much lighter touch and is intended to be an easier read. 

The cover design is another matter which ought perhaps requires some explanation (they are different in Europe and in the USA and I can let you have pictures of each if you wish). Readers of The Da Vinci Code were presented with a novel which the author implies is a blend of fact and fiction but there is no indication of what is fact and what is fiction. This is not a criticism, in fact we Scots point out that the author, Dan Brown, is merely following in the footsteps of the Scottish Freemason who invent the genre of the historical novel – Sir Walter Scott (1771 – 1832). However, modern novels tend to have a particular style or ‘type’ of cover and in order to ‘reach’ the readers of The Da Vinci Code a book of a similar look was designed but with very different contents so that they could judge for themselves the accuracy, or otherwise, of the parts of Dan Brown’s book which cover Freemasonry, Rosslyn Chapel and the St. Clair family etc. 

I make no apologies for this lengthy introduction as it is intended to ‘set the scene’ for my actual answers to your questions! 

The origins of Freemasonry have been obscured for hundreds of years, ever since James Anderson (a Scotsman) wrote the Constitutions for the Grand Lodge of England in 1723 (and a second version in 1738). Almost as if they took Anderson as their cue people ever since have speculated about Freemasonry rather than analysed the material which exists on the subject. Anderson after all said that it all started with Adam in the garden of Eden and said that virtually every king, emperor or dictator ever since has been a Grand Master of Freemasonry! The fact that this speculation has gone on for so long and has been so wide ranging means that the waters have been well and truly muddied! The Rosslyn Hoax? and Cracking the Freemasons Code are both in their own way an attempt to clear the waters by exposing the fundamental errors that much of the speculative history is based. Please do not misunderstand me. I am all for speculating, especially in the field of history, as that often leads to very interesting questions and discoveries which would not otherwise be made but it is essential that accurate facts are used in the first place otherwise all such speculation would begin based on fundamental errors. 

I now turn to your question: ‘You argue that modern Freemasonry has its origin in Scotland. Could you tell why you think so?’ 

First and foremost an historian has to look at known facts, assess evidence and come to a judgement as to their worth, their ‘weight.’ Speculation is fine so far as it goes in raising interesting and often provocative questions. However, without evidence it remains speculation no matter how interesting. 

Instead as an historian I have examined early Scottish documents about ‘Masonry’ and they tell a very different story from that offered by popular writers. It is appropriate here to make a point about definitions. If you ask anyone in the street what they understand when talking about ‘masons’ nearly every answer would be along the lines of: ‘Oh, you mean the Freemasons – they have a Lodge down the street’ or something similar. Whilst some of us understand that this is not always a correct answer it does cause confusion especially when discussing ‘masonry’ and Freemasonry in Scotland. I have met people in Freemasons’ Hall who have proudly declared to me that we ‘masons’ built Rosslyn Chapel! Many writers simply do not explain what kind of ‘mason’ they are discussing. Of course ‘masons’ built Rosslyn Chapel – stonemasons not Freemasons! By talking or writing about the ‘masons’ nearly everyone assumes, wrongly, that what is being discussed is Freemasonry. Writers therefore need, in my opinion, to be more rigorous in explaining exactly who they are discussing and writers such as myself are very keen to see the terminology standardised to avoid exactly this kind of confusion. For example: 

Mason = Freemason
mason = stonemason 
Lodge = Freemasons’ Lodge
lodge = stonemasons’ lodge 

This would greatly assist the reader to understand exactly what, or what group, the writer is discussing but until that kind of standardisation is adopted I strong suggest that the reader (and now even occasionally the viewer) keeps one question in mind at all times: ‘What kind of ‘mason’ is the author discussing at any particular point in time? Hopefully that will provide some focus on the subject. 

My apologies for the digression but it is, I believe, an important one. I will now (again) return to your question! These early Scottish documents reveal the existence of a system of stonemasons’ lodges scattered across the country. There was no central authority and lodges acted independently of each other although clearly they had a common purpose although there were almost certainly local variations. This rather haphazard collection of Scottish lodges formed a kind of national federation (and I use that term very loosely) but was later brought together by one man, William Schaw (c.1550 – 1602) of whom more later. These lodges remained exclusively for stonemasons until 1634 when the first non-stonemasons were admitted to a stonemasons’ lodge. These were therefore the first ‘speculative’ Masons (Freemasons) and pre-date Elias Ashmole’s (1617 – 1692) initiation in 1646 by more than 10 years. Oddly, he continues to be cited as the first ‘Speculative Freemason’ despite the evidence to the contrary. The transition from stonemasons’ lodges to modern Masonic Lodges is well documented in Scottish records. It is this process of ‘transition’ from one to the other that I examine in both books albeit using rather different approaches.

BG: You examine the principal theories about the origins of Freemasonry and I now think that all the connections with the medieval Order of the Templar Knights may be pure fancy. From a “hard-headed” historian’s point of view which theory (the KT or stonemasons’) the most reliable? 

RC: First and foremost the ‘theories’ being promoted by any number of popular writers on the origins of Freemasonry are not theories at all – they are more correctly hypotheses, that is ideas, for which no evidence, or at least viable evidence, has been produced. A theory on the other hand is a hypothesis, an idea, which has been tested against some evidence and found to have some validity. When that validation takes place the hypothesis becomes a theory but even then it may still not be accepted as absolute fact. For example, the Big Bang Theory for the creation of the universe began as a hypothesis until scientists used data from astronomy etc. with which to test the hypothesis and that testing resulted in it being accepted as a viable theory but it still cannot be proved to be true. It is quite wrong, therefore, for people to say "I have a theory that life on earth began when an alien organism, arrived here from the moon" - that is merely and an idea, a hypothesis. It is not a theory until some evidence is forthcoming, which support that view. In other words there are many so-called "theories" about the origins of Freemasonry but they are actually speculation, hypotheses, not theories. I have laboured this fact because it is important for the reader of books on Freemasonry to understand what it is an author is offering – an idea or a real theory. 

The suggestion that Freemasonry is descended from the Medieval Order of Knights Templar is an hypothesis, even although many writers claim to be able provide evidence thereby making it a theory. Sadly, nearly all such evidence used is not valid evidence at all but is merely material which has been manipulated or reinterpreted to make it appear to support the hypothesis. These various pieces of evidence, and how they have been used are explained and discussed in the book and I am sure that we shall find a couple of examples to examine later in this interview - if you have the time! 

BG: You call William Schaw as “The Father of Freemasonry” and “The First Modern Freemason”. Why is Schaw so much relevant for Freemasons? 

RC: William Schaw (c.1550-1602) is of crucial importance in the process of the transition from stonemasonry to modern Freemasonry. The reasons are simple. Stonemasons’ lodges existed all over Scotland and in 1583 Schaw became responsible for them. He was a senior civil servant and formalised what seems to have been a very loose confederation of lodges, which had no set rules and no set procedures. Schaw changed that by writing the now famous Schaw Statutes of 1598 and 1599, which set down specific rules and regulations for all Scottish lodges. I included these documents in both books because I consider them to be of prime importance in the change from stonemasonry to Freemasonry. 

BG: I personally know several English Freemasons that would pay a kings ransom to have Rosslyn Chapel just one mile on their side of the border. Is it true that the Scottish stonemasons asked William Sinclair to become their ‘Patron and Protector’? 

RC: Rosslyn Chapel is a wonderful, fascinating, place and the St. Clair Family Trust, the charity which is responsible for its upkeep has recently been given more work than £7 million (€10,000,000) of tax-payers money to restore the chapel. This is in addition to the 100’s of thousands who pay the admission fee of £7 (€10) and should go a long way towards completing the work. Given the number of claims made over the last 25 years or so that the Chapel is actually a Masonic structure, containing Masonic symbolism, has Masonic purposes and holds Masonic secrets, it will be very, very interesting to see if the Grand Lodge of Scotland (representing Scottish Freemasonry) will be consulted on how to restore the Masonic Rosslyn Chapel in accordance with the tenets of Scottish Freemasonry. 

Now to answer your question: “Is it true that the Scots stonemasons asked William St. Clair to become their "Patron and Protector?" The answer also relates to the above discussion, on the differences between a hypothesis verses a theory. The first of the St. Clair "Charters" (c.1601) (an inaccurate description because they are actually letters) is addressed to the head of the St Clair family and in it he is asked to become "patron and protector" of Scottish stonemasons – just like the queen today is patron of a variety of charities and other organisations. The problem is that nearly every popular writer of the recent past has changed, in their books, "patron and protector" to "Grand Master." This is quite wrong and is another reason why I published those documents to highlight that fundamental error about Scottish history. 

The second St. Clair "Charter" addressed by the Scottish stonemasons to the son of the above (also William) again asked him, as head of the St. Clair family, to become their "patron and protector" but it is essential to know that he, like his father, was merely being asked to be their arbitrator – someone who would resolve their internal arguments for them - and at no cost! 

I think that it is essential to bear in mind that at this time Scotland was an independent country. It had its own parliament and monarchy (which later ‘took over’ the English throne in 1603), as well as other institutions of state, different from those which existed in England - examples are the legal system, religion and education. All of these were and remain quite separate from any other country. This means that Scotland has its own distinct history, culture, traditions, language etc. It is a common, but understandable, mistake to think of British history as English history but in so doing everything that happened in Scotland is either ignored or is overlooked. This is something that Professor David Stevenson, Emeritus Professor of Scottish History at the University of St Andrews, has described as being "anglo-centric." I make the point at some length, because it has a direct bearing not only on the history of Freemasonry, but also on other aspects of Scottish society which are often of interest to Freemasons.

BG: You are the custodian of the St.Clair "Charters" which are property of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. From your reading of them can we consider William Sinclair to be the first Grand Master Mason of Scotland? 

RC: I have answered this, at least in part, in the answer above. However, it is an opportunity to emphasis a couple of points. Grand Master (or Grand Master Mason in Scotland) is a Masonic title. It was not a title used by stonemasons using instead "Patron and Protector" and further highlights the differences between stonemasons and Freemasons. 
Of course the first Grand Master Mason of the Grand Lodge of Scotland was William St. Clair of Rosslyn (1700 – 1778) but he was a Freemason not a stonemason! This no doubt is one reason for the confusion as to the involvement of the St. Clair family in stonemasonry/Freemasonry. 

BG: Why you included in your book a chapter on the Order of the Free Gardeners? 

RC: Why did I include a chapter on the Order of Free Gardeners? Some people will be aware of the existence of organisations such as the Foresters, Druids, and the Oddfellows (for example). These were "invented" organisations. By that I mean, groups of people got together to "design" these organisations from scratch. 

In Scotland Orders such as the Free Gardeners, Free Carpenters, Free Fishermen, Free Colliers, and, of course, the Free Masons grew ‘organically’ out of the working man’s daily life. I mentioned the Free Gardeners in Cracking the Code, because I had previously published a book about the Order (it is long out of print) where I identified very close parallels in terms of the transition from operative lodges – that is lodges whose members were only working gardeners. The Free Gardeners had lodges, conferred three degrees and also had ‘higher’ Orders and they too experienced a transition from operative to speculative or "Free" Gardeners. The similarities between Freemasonry and the Free Gardeners were striking. 

I was once asked mischievously that if the Free Masons descended from the Knights Templar did that mean the Free Gardeners descended from the Knights of St John! The point here is that Freemasons were, at one time, not at all unique or unusual, but were simply one of the number of similar Initiatic Orders, all offering degrees that contained esoteric knowledge and moral lessons, but all had a very different basis compared to Freemasonry. The disappearance of all those other Orders has left Freemasonry "sticking out like a sore thumb." At one time, nearly every man would have been a member of one of these organisations. It also suggests that of all the Orders which worked degrees, wearing aprons, jewels and other regalia and imparted their version of esoteric knowledge Freemasonry is the only one about which books are being written by the dozen. Could that be because we are the last organisation with members willing to buy books (any books) about "themselves" or is that just me being a cynical Scot?!

BG: The title of your book is “Cracking the Freemason’s Code”, but in the introduction you wrote that “Freemasonry can mean many things to many men”. Isn’t it a contradiction? 

RC: Freemasonry is a personal matter – it can be a lonely journey. I do not think that we make this sufficiently clear to candidates before they join and that is one reason why we lose so many. The title: Cracking the Freemasons Code really should have been called Cracking A Freemasons Code. Explaining Freemasonry, its individuality and what it means to individuals is something I try to do very early in the book. Nearly member understands Freemasonry differently, has different Masonic experiences, meets different Freemasons, visits different Masonic sites - be they Lodges or places where significant Masonic events took place. In other words Freemasonry is different for every member yet we all share the same common bond and that is what makes Freemasonry special and unique. It is those very characteristics, which cause Masonophobes (see below) to ridicule and denigrate the Order. I think that that reflects far more on their paranoia and phobias than on our attempts to become better men. 

A note by Robert Cooper 

Anti-Masonry is a common and frequent pass-time and everyday somewhere in the world someone, some newspaper, some radio show etc. is attacking us, poking fun at us or accusing us of terrible crimes. I think that it is time to fight back. 

Compared to Homophobe, anti-Semitic, Islamophobe etc. ‘anti-Masonic’ lacks any impact. I, and a few others, think that it is time use a more forceful word that makes it clear that an anti-Mason is actually someone who HATES Freemasons. Masonophobe does exactly that. 

It is just a suggestion but perhaps we Freemasons should all now stop using ‘anti-Mason and use Masonophobe instead?

With these formalities the organization (and I use the term 'organization' in its loosest possible sense) slowly began to acquire all the trappings of a permanent institution. Whereas before the time of Schaw the stonemasons' meetings had probably been held as and when necessary, the new formal requirements to keep written records, gather and record money collected and spent etc. meant that the proceedings began to become more regular, more fixed. Many of the aspects introduced by Schaw are still to be found within modem Freemasonry. These include records of meetings and proceedings, as well as the terminology used, a few examples of which are: the craft, cowan, entered apprentice, fellow craft, master, warden, lodge, mark and deacons.

It seems obvious that by putting his statutes in place, Schaw was attempting to create a national organization with himself at its head. If this is correct then it is unfortunate that its exact shape and purpose is unknown. Schaw died in 1602 but he had begun another initiative involving the stonemasons which introduced the St Clair family into the history of Freemasonry. Moreover, the Second Schaw Statutes even imply that Schaw was attempting to involve the King in his plans, but whether this was in order to seek the King's permission to establish the stonemasons as a national body is also frustratingly unclear. In any event, the King did not become involved- again for reasons unknown. It is possible that, in attempting to promote his plans, Schaw knew he was dying and was worried about how the stonemasons would manage after his death.

With Schaw's death the lodges did indeed lose their central 'guiding hand'. Over the decades, attempts were made to find a replacement for him (the first of which had been instigated by Schaw himself when he was still alive), but without success. The lodges therefore appear to have relied on the statutes as their only solid form of guidance. For this reason they were extremely important and this was recognized by the lodges themselves, some of which included them in their minute books. It was not until almost one hundred years later that the first lodge ritual, the Edinburgh Register House MS (1696), was committed to paper.


The Father of Freemasonry

Whether Scotland was the last outpost in post-Reformation Europe to retain a secret system of esoteric knowledge or whether Schaw reshaped it we are unlikely to know for certain; but Schaw was certainly the catalyst for a more formal organization that eventually evolved into modem Freemasonry. It is for this reason that, in Scotland at least, he is known as the Father of Freemasonry.

It will no doubt come as a surprise to a great many to learn that William Schaw, the Father of Freemasonry, was a Roman Catholic.

The Earliest Masonic Rituals

The earliest known 'ritual' in manuscript form is the Edinburgh Register House MS, which is dated 1696 and is given in full in Appendix 1of the book. Two further handwritten rituals date from soon after the Edinburgh Register House, the Airlie MS (1705) and the Chetwode Crawley MS (c. 1710).

It is significant that these transcribed Masonic rituals began to appear in the 1690s. That they exist at all is a clear reflection of the changes that had occurred during that century.

The first ceremonies performed by the stonemasons in their lodges were never intended to be written down: even in the sixteenth century, Schaw required that they be memorized.

In any event, there would have been little point in committing the ceremonies to paper, given that the majority of the stonemasons of the period were illiterate.

Knoop, Jones and Hamer in The Early Masonic Catechisms, believed that they 'possibly represent an operative working which existed some decades before the date at which the documents were written'.

As we see lodges evolving and admitting more and more non-stonemasons, we also begin to see the appearance of written ritual. It seems that although the stonemasons themselves adhered to Schaw's instructions, non-stonemasons either could not or would not do so, and took notes for their own personal use.

Perhaps the non-stonemasons felt that they were not bound by Schaw's instructions because they were literate men and therefore thought that the statute's instruction to memorize did not apply to them.

The manuscripts may have come into existence simply because these men wished to consider the ceremony in more detail outside the lodge and needed a form of aide-memoire. If the activities of notable Freemasons such as Sir Robert Moray are in any way indicative, perhaps some did indeed want to make a private, personal study of the ritual in their own homes.

Be that as it may, to ignore Schaw's instruction might be considered by some to be an act of arrogance on the part of the writers of these brief rituals, implying these men thought themselves above the rules of the lodges that they had joined.

However, from a historical point of view it is fortunate that a few did break the rules. In any event, the relatively uniform content of the various catechisms recorded in the manuscripts suggests that there may have been strict controls as to which aspects were permitted to be put into writing.

The early rituals listed above are very similar in content; any differences are owing to variations in spelling, punctuation, grammar and layout, and copying errors. This last point is important because copying errors (and a couple are very obvious) suggest that there may have been even earlier manuscripts in existence than the three we still possess.

Although we have referred to the practices recorded in the three manuscripts variously as 'rituals', as 'catechisms' and as 'aides-memoires' , each of these terms alone is inadequate in that it only describes one aspect of the practices' function.

All three manuscripts contain two sections: a series of questions and answers, and a description of the actions required to give and to receive the 'mason word'. The first part consists of a catechism: a series of sixteen questions and answers, which, once written down, became an aide-memoire. The second part describes the ceremonies of being made an apprentice and a fellow craft.

Unlike the modem system of the three degrees, it is clear that originally there were only these two ceremonies. The first was for giving and receiving the individual words of the entered prentice and the second was for giving and receiving the individual words of the fellows of craft - there is no mention of a master mason's degree.

Finally, the manuscripts contain hints of the ritual or ceremony during which the 'mason word' was imparted. The catechism format implies that it was intended to prompt certain physical responses as well as verbal ones.

All three manuscripts are headed similarly. The Edinburgh Register House MS reads: 'Some questions that Masons will put to those who have ye word before they will acknowledge them.' Right away we can see that the purpose of the questions is one of recognition: the method that Masons once used to identify themselves to each other.

However, although this may have been the primary purpose, the number of questions is too great for that purpose alone. When the content of the catechism is considered it is obvious that it serves another purpose: education.

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