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by Dr ANDREW PRESCOTT
THE OLD CHARGES REVISITED
Printed in the Transactions of the Lodge of Research No. 2429 (Leicester), 2006.
Where does Freemasonry come from? Since 1717, this has been a subject of passionate concern to almost every freemason. There remain a mass of competing views and theories, and this question has dominated research into Freemasonry. I have suggested elsewhere that this obsessive devotion to what the French historian Marc Bloch called ‘the idol of origins’ has profoundly distorted the historiography of Freemasonry, and has led to a neglect of its more recent history.[i] But nevertheless it is a question which will not go away. English freemasons consulting that imposing new reference work, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, will perhaps be surprised to find that, in the view of Oxford University Press at least, the problem has been solved. There you will find that William Schaw, the Master of the King’s Works of James VI of Scotland from 1583 to 1602, is described as ‘a founder of freemasonry’.[ii] Other authoritative reference works such as the Oxford Companion to British History[iii] also describe Freemasonry as a social organisation which was essentially created by Schaw in Scotland at the beginning of the seventeenth century.
These views on the origins of Freemasonry derive from the researches of the eminent historian of Scotland, David Stevenson, who was the author of the entry on Schaw in the new Dictionary of National Biography. Stevenson describes in his book The Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland’s Century 1590-1710[iv] how Schaw, in two sets of statutes issued in 1598 and 1599 in his capacity as Master of the King’s Works and General Warden of the Craft of Stonemasons in Scotland, reorganised the Scottish stonemasons. Previously stonemasons had met together informally in lodges set up for particular building projects. Schaw established permanent lodges for particular towns which were removed from the burgh jurisidiction and placed under Schaw’s direct control. These lodges started to keep regular minutes, in which the initiation of entered apprentices and fellow crafts is recorded. Schaw encouraged members of the lodges to take an interest in the latest philosophical and esoteric movements, such as aspects of Rosicrucian thought. These new lodges attracted interest from men who were not working stonemasons, and intellectuals like Sir Robert Moray joined Scottish masonic lodges and enthusiastically incorporated imagery drawn from the craft and legends of stonemasons in their own philosophy. Eventually, these gentleman masons were to dominate the membership of the Scottish masonic lodges, so that their roots in the sixteenth-century craft would be almost forgotten.
In Stevenson’s view, the ideologues of the early years of English Grand Lodge Freemasonry such as John Theophilus Desaguliers were profoundly influenced by Scottish precedents,[v] a contribution reflected in the choice of the Scottish clergyman James Anderson to compile the Grand Lodge’s first printed Book of Constitutions.[vi] The evidence assembled by Stevenson is very imposing and it is not surprising that his views have been generally accepted by academic historians, but on the whole they have failed to find favour with English masonic scholars.[vii] To some extent, this appears to be an issue of definitions. The assumption of English masonic commentators appears to be that Scottish Freemasonry of the seventeenth century was entirely concerned with trade organisation and lacked the philosophical dimension which is so evident in eighteenth-century English Freemasonry. This however appears to be a rather dismissive view of the highly speculative concerns of men like Moray and overlooks such Scottish references to esoteric traditions as the claim in the 1658 indenture of the Lodge of Scoon that the ‘uniforme communitie and wnione’ of stonemasons had its origins in the building of Solomon’s Temple, the ‘Temple of temples’.[viii] Stevenson’s fundamental argument has generally not been addressed by English masonic scholars, who are simply unwilling to accept a Scottish origin for Freemasonry. Stevenson points out that in Scotland there is continuous and extensive documentary evidence for the operation of recognisably masonic lodges from 1599. In England during the seventeenth century we have only fragmentary references, such as the celebrated notes of the initiation of Elias Ashmole at Warrington and Randle Holme at Chester.
However, there is one major body of documentary evidence for seventeenth-century English Freemasonry. These are the copies of masonic legends known as the ‘Old Charges’. Insofar as they provide direct evidence of legends circulating among craftsmen from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, these are among the most extraordinary and fascinating historical documents of the pre-modern period. The oldest of these documents are the two fifteenth-century manuscripts in the British Library known as the Regius and the Cooke manuscripts.[ix] More than twenty manuscripts compiled between 1583 and 1717 have been identified whose contents ultimately derive from these medieval exemplars, and these charges continued frequently to be copied after 1717, so that altogether more than 120 versions have so far been traced.[x] These documents originate from England, although, as Stevenson stresses, they were also known in Scotland by at least 1600 and circulated separately there.[xi] They represent a substantial documentary corpus and if we want to find out how the situation in England in the seventeenth century compared with that in Scotland, we need to start with the Old Charges.
Yet the manuscripts of the Old Charges have excited little enthusiasm among modern masonic scholars. While some scholars such as Wallace McLeod have looked at the textual relationships of the Old Charges, there are has been very little recent work on the dating and localisation of these manuscripts. The heroic days of work on these documents was before the First World War, when W. J. Hughan in particular made a systematic search for pre-1717 manuscripts relating to Freemasonry. Virtually every week in the 1880s and 1890s, the masonic newspaper The Freemason carried news of yet another manuscript of the Old Charge or ancient Scottish masonic record identified by Hughan.[xii] Since Hughan’s time, this impetus has been lost, and we remain very dependant on Hughan’s work. This is surprising, since there are still many exciting discoveries to be made. David Stevenson has recently identified in the Bodleian Library a previously unknown copy of the Old Charges dating from 1666. Moreover, a number of other ordinances and regulations relating to stonemasons survive. There are, for example, in the National Archives in London ‘Certeyn ordinaunces made by the treasowur and comptroller of the towne of Calis and marches of the same concerning carpenters and masons’ dating from 1474-5, which refer to the maintenance of common funds, known as ‘Saynte Johns boxe’, by the ‘felliship’ of craftsmen.[xiii] Likewise, Gérard Dielemans has recently published in Thoth, the Dutch masonic research journal, a transcript and facsimile of ordinances of a guild of stonemasons in Maastricht written down in the sixteenth century but said to incorporate regulations dating back to circa 1400.[xiv] While these ordinances from Calais and Maastricht are not textually related to the tradition stemming from Regius and Cooke and are thus not strictly speaking Old Charges, they are nevertheless vital evidence of the forms of organisation adopted by groups of working stonemasons in the middle ages and thus essential in understanding the context from which the Old Charge tradition emerged.
Not only are there important new documentary discoveries to be made, but the fact that there has been little recent scholarly work on the Old Charge manuscripts means that many of the most widely-held assumptions about these manuscripts are out of date and should be discarded. For example, it has been assumed since the time of Hughan that the copy of the Old Charges in London, British Library, Lansdowne MS. 98, dates from about 1600, because it occurs in a volume of papers said to be connected with Elizabeth I’s Secretary of State and Treasurer, William Cecil, Lord Burghley. However, the manuscript also contains some much later papers and it is clear from the handwriting that this copy of the Old Charges dates from the end, not the beginning, of the seventeenth century. Likewise, the Regius manuscript has been generally dated to circa 1390. However, this dating is dependent on opinions given by David Casley before 1730 and James Halliwell in 1839, long before the modern study of palaeography had begun. In fact, it seems that the Regius manuscript should be ascribed instead to the second quarter of the fifteenth century. Such a view of Regius’s dating is supported by other texts incorporated in it.[xv]
There is clearly a need for a detailed new study of the Old Charge manuscripts. It is not possible to present such an analysis here, but I should like to suggest some lines of interpretation by focussing on just one aspect of the Old Charge manuscripts, that is the origins of what has been called the York legend.[xvi] From the medieval period, stonemasons claimed that they had been given a charter by the Anglo-Saxon King Athelstan (who reigned from 924-939) which permitted them to hold an assembly. As this legend developed, it was claimed that Athelstan’s charter was obtained through the mediation of his son (and in later versions his brother) Edwin. Edwin was said to have convened such an assembly at York at which he gave ordinances to the stonemasons. A date has been ascribed to this York assembly of 926.
In considering the origins of this story, it is necessary first to consider the relationship between the Regius and the Cooke manuscripts.[xvii] Both Regius and Cooke date from the fifteenth century. Their dating largely depends on analysis of the handwriting, which is always an inexact science, but comparison with other manuscripts suggests a date for Regius of the second quarter of the fifteenth century, and Cooke the middle of the century. In other words, they are not very far separated in date, with Regius perhaps slightly earlier. Both are in Middle English, with Regius in verse. Recent analysis of the dialect of Regius has indicated that it was compiled in Shropshire.[xviii] The language of Cooke cannot be so precisely located, but it probably also comes from the West Midlands. It has been assumed that stonemasons were unlikely to have compiled either manuscript, since they were thought to be illiterate, but recent work on lay literacy has stressed that many urban craftsmen were literate in English – according to one estimate, half of the male inhabitants of late fifteenth-century London could read English.[xix] In 1417, the stonemason John Clifford of Southwark, who had been master of the London Masons’ Company in 1386, left to the church of St Olave Southwark his ‘principal psalter and another book of gospels in English’ for use in the church.[xx] In this context, it seems probable that Regius and Cooke were made for, and used by, working stonemasons.
It has also previously been assumed that, although Cooke was written after Regius, it incorporates an older form of the text. This seems difficult to sustain from a close reading of the texts. Both manuscripts start with a legendary history of the craft of stonemasonry. In Regius, it is claimed that stonemasonry was invented by Euclid to provide employment for sons of the nobility in ancient Egypt. In Cooke, this account of the antiquity of the craft has been extended back beyond Egypt to biblical times, with the origins of the craft placed in the pre-flood era during Cain’s lifetime. The legendary history in Cooke reads very much like an attempt to claim both an even greater antiquity for the craft than that claimed in Regius and also to demonstrate a biblical origin.
The way in which Cooke is an elaboration of Regius is particularly evident from comparing their accounts of the history of stonemasonry in England. According to Regius, the craft, having been invented by Euclid, spread from land to land, coming eventually to England ‘in time of Good King Athelstan’s day’. Regius claimed that Athelstan summoned every mason from across his realms to meet with his nobles in a great assembly, where ordnances were made to regulate the craft of masonry and to protect the status of masons. The poem claims that these consisted of fifteen articles and fifteen points, which it then recites. These articles and points comprise detailed regulations on the pay and working conditions of masons. There is a particular emphasis on the fair treatment of apprentices, and a number of specific restrictions on the actions of masters, who are prohibited for example from poaching work or undertaking work which they cannot finish. An annual assembly was established as the governing body of the craft, with responsibility for the enforcement of Athelstan’s ordinances.
In Cooke, the history of English masonry has been hugely expanded. Cooke introduces an elaborate story to explain the spread of the craft into France. It then pushes back the story of the introduction of the craft into England to the earliest days of Christianity in Britain. It claims that the Roman martyr St Alban was the first to make regulations for the trade. Cooke emphasises that St Alban enjoined that masons should be well paid for their work. Moreover, in describing Athelstan’s grant to the masons, Cooke suggests that rather than being the first such king to make such a grant, he was acting in accordance with precedents set by many other kings dating back to Nimrod. Cooke also introduces for the first time the figure of Athelstan’s supposed son. Cooke states that Athelstan’s youngest son loved the masons and understood their craft. This unnamed son became a mason himself, gave them charges, and ordained that they should have reasonable pay. He also purchased a patent from his father to allow the masons to hold an assembly. The regulations for masonry made by Edwin are then repeated.
If Cooke is read, as it apparently should be, as having been composed after Regius, it can be seen as elaborating the legendary history of stonemasonry in order to strengthen the claims of stonemasons. The central character of these claims is clear: that the masons should have reasonable pay and that they should be permitted to hold an annual assembly. In Regius, it is claimed that these demands were warranted by the charter of Athelstan. In Cooke, the first regulation that masons should be properly paid is extended back to the time of St Alban, and Athelstan is presented as confirming these ancient provisions and authorising the assembly. Why then is the figure of Athelstan’s son introduced? Almost certainly because the author of Cooke was anxious to claim another royal freemason and also to more firmly establish the right of masons to hold their own assembly. In Regius, the assembly held by Athelstan consisted of the king and many nobleman. In Cooke, the introduction of the figure of Athelstan’s son who becomes a mason changes the character of the assembly. It becomes an assembly held by masons for their own regulation. In other words, the introduction of a king’s son is designed to establish the right of stonemasons to meet together and regulate their craft – stonemasonry is both a royal art and self-regulating.
Masonic historians since the time of Gould have harboured a sneaking hope that the stories in Regius and Cooke perhaps embody an ancient oral tradition among stonemasons and that there might be a germ of truth somewhere in their legendary stories. Unfortunately, it is difficult to sustain this view confronted with the evident manipulation and elaboration of the stories between Regius and Cooke. Clearly, the stonemasons were seeking to claim greater and greater antiquity for their right to meet together to ask for better wages. We do not have to look very far to find reasons for this. Since 1351, legislation had been introduced to control wages in the wake of the labour shortages produced by the Black Death.[xxi] The prosecutions undertaken under these statutes show that the pressure for higher wages was particularly acute in all the building trades.[xxii] Legislation continued to be introduced in a vain attempt to keep a lid on wages throughout the fifteenth century. In the 1425 parliament, the commons presented a petition complaining that the annual congregations and confederacies made by the masons in their general chapters and assemblies were publicly violating and undermining the statutes of labourers. The commons asked King Henry VI and the lords to ordain that the holding and gathering of such chapters should be utterly forbidden and judged a felony, and requested that the justices of the peace should be given authority to enquire into these chapters and assemblies. King Henry replied that such chapters and congregations should not be held, and declared that those who convene such chapters should be adjudged felons. Any masons who attended such congregations should be imprisoned without fine or ransom at the king’s will. A statute to this effect was duly enacted.[xxiii]
The stories in Regius and Cooke were intended to authorise the continued holding of such assemblies notwithstanding the statutory provision. It is probable that the assemblies to which the statute refers consisted of wage-earning journeymen masons, who had completed their apprenticeship but were not yet masters. The stress of Regius and Cooke on the social equality of masons and the claim that the craft was of noble origin were apparently a reaction to the rise of a distinct group of masters. It was for this reason that both Regius and Cooke insisted (almost certainly unsuccessfully) that master masons were obliged to attend the assemblies. Regius and Cooke then are probably manuscripts compiled by gatherings of junior stonemasons held in Shropshire and elsewhere in the west of England to authorise the holding of gatherings which sought to improve their wages and conditions.
The wages of building workers continued to be a prominent concern of labour legislation up to the early sixteenth century. An act of 1444-5 decreed that freemasons and master carpenters were to take no more than 5½d a day when feeding themselves, while the wages of all other building workers were not to exceed 4½d a day.[xxiv] This suggests that freemasons, originally carvers in freestone, were emerging as an elite within the trade, a trend also apparent from legal cases of the period. However, the position of the freemasons was tenuous. An act of 1495 stipulated that freemasons were to be paid the same as other building workers, namely no more than 6d a day when feeding themselves, with the only exception being master carpenters and masons who were in charge of more than six men.[xxv] These wage rates were repeated in legislation until the middle of the sixteenth century, when steep price rises meant that such wage levels became increasingly unrealistic.[xxvi]
It is probably no coincidence that it is only after building workers began to agitate one more for better wages in the second half of the sixteenth century that manuscripts of the Old Charges start appearing once again. The next oldest surviving manuscript of the Old Charges after Regius and Cooke is London, Library and Museum of Freemasonry, Grand Lodge MS. 1, whose purchase by Grand Lodge in 1839 was facilitated by Robert Crucefix.[xxvii] This manuscript is dated 25 December 1583, just four days after the appointment of William Schaw as Master of the King’s Works in Scotland. Whether this is simply a coincidence, it is impossible to say. Grand Lodge MS. 1 represents a substantial elaboration of the medieval legendary history of masonry as presented in Regius and Cooke. For example, it extends, in a very unlikely way, the story of St Alban’s connection with masonry. It claims that England lacked any charge of masonry until St Alban’s time, when the King of England, who was a pagan, built a wall around the town that is now called St Albans. The manuscript states that St Alban was a worthy knight and a steward of the king’s household who governed the realm and the town walls, ‘and loved Massons well’. Grand Lodge MS. 1 claims that St Alban ordained that the masons should receive 2s 6d a week for their work and 3d a day for food and drink. He is also supposed to have given them a charter authorising them to hold a general council.
According to the manuscript, after the time of St Alban came divers wars until the reign of Athelstan. Grand Lodge MS. 1 adds two components to the story of Athelstan and his son as found in Cooke, namely that the son’s name was Edwin and that he held an assembly of the masons at York. Moreover, Grand Lodge MS. 1 gives a detailed description of Edwin’s alleged proceedings at York. Again, these appear to be designed to improve the narrative consistency and credibility of the story, and to enhance the authority of the supposed charges. The author of the Cooke manuscript had claimed that the various charges promulgated by Nimrod, David, Solomon, Euclid, King Charles of France and so on had survived. Grand Lodge MS. 1 accounts for the lack of any manuscripts of these charges by stating that Edwin in the assembly at York had subsumed them all into his own charges.
The first datable appearance of the York legend in its fullest form, with Athelstan’s son identified as Edwin and his assembly of masons placed in York, thus occurs in 1583. However, there is evidence of an intermediary text between Cooke and Grand Lodge MS. 1. A group of manuscripts, including for example the William Watson manuscript, copied in York in 1687,[xxviii] apparently preserve an earlier state of the text than Grand Lodge MS. 1. They retain the spurious references to medieval authorities such as the Polychronicon and Isidore of Seville which are a feature of the Cooke manuscript, but are expunged in Grand Lodge MS. 1. William Watson and the other manuscripts present the story of St Alban and the York Legend in much the same form as Grand Lodge MS. 1, but add an additional claim that the charges had been seen and approved by King Henry VI and his council. These manuscripts also make the surprising and wrong claim that Edwin succeeded Athelstan as King. The garbled information about Edwin in this text indicates that the manuscript is not, as it claims, a reliable copy of a fifteenth century document. It seems rather that the reference to Henry VI was introduced to counter any suggestion that meetings of stonemasons had been outlawed by his parliament.
The York legend thus appears in its full form sometime between 1450 and 1583. The spurious introduction of Henry VI indicates that it emerged sometime after 1471, and probably sometime in the middle of the sixteenth century. This suggests an evident context for its emergence. From the middle of the sixteenth century, there was renewed pressure for increased rates of pay for building workers. While in southern England wages for building workers were allowed to rise, in northern England more vigorous attempts were made to control wages. In his recent book on building workers in the north of England, Men at Work, Douglas Woodward has described how the Council in the North put pressure on local authorities in towns such as Hull, Beverley, Chester and York to prevent wages to building workers exceeding the statutory levels.[xxix] In York, matters came to a head in 1552 when building workers refused to obey the city council’s ordinance that they should work for 6d a day and went on strike. The leaders submitted an eloquent plea that ‘all things are so dear and out of the way that we are not able to work for that wage unless we should be forced and constrained to be run out of the city or else our wives and children to go on begging for ever’.[xxx] The city council refused to accept these pleas, and the leaders of the strike were imprisoned. These protests were echoed across the north of England. In 1560, the Council in the North wrote to the mayor and aldermen in Hull expressing its concern that ‘we be informed that there is much disorder within our town of Kingston upon Hull by labourers, artificers and other workmen against our laws and statutes’.[xxxi] By contrast, in southern England, the Privy Council allowed building workers to receive much higher wages. As Woodward puts it, ‘It is clear that the government adopted a two-pronged strategy, attempting to enforce a rigid policy in the north (insisting upon the implementation of the maxima of 1514), but experimenting with a more conciliatory and flexible approach in the south and midlands’.[xxxii]
The mid sixteenth-century elaboration of the York legend, with its identification of Athelstan’s son as Edwin and the place of assembly specified as York, is evidently a reflection of these attempts to enforce more rigorously labour legislation in the north of England. Most of the surviving seventeenth-century English copies of the Old Charges can be linked with northern England and a number derive from York. It is obvious why York would have been chosen as the seat of the assembly, and the old legend that the minster was founded by the Northumbrian King called Edwin made this a natural choice of name for Athelstan’s son. But perhaps the most telling detail are the wages which these versions of the Old Charges specify as having been set by St Alban, namely 2s 6d a week for work and 3d a day for food and drink. Assuming a six day week, this works out as 6d a day for work and 3d for refreshment. In 1552, the York strikers specified the customary rates as 5d a day with food and drink and 8d a day without. In other words, the wages said to have been customary in Grand Lodge MS. 1, the William Watson manuscript and elsewhere are much the same as those demanded in 1552.
The labour disputes of the mid sixteenth century led eventually to a major overhaul of the system for regulating wages with the 1563 Statute of Artificers, which gave local JPs the responsibility for determining wage assessments. In York, this power was vested in the mayor and aldermen, who immediately raised the rates payable, establishing a maximum rate of 10d a day ‘without meat’ for the freemason or master carpenter in charge of works with at least three men working under them.[xxxiii] Although this settled the labour disputes, copies of the Old Charges, repeating the legendary history in the form which had emerged at York in the middle of the sixteenth century in the terms, nevertheless continued to circulate. Why was this? A detailed explanation requires much closer examination of the individual manuscripts, and this is a major desideratum of future research, but it is evident that, as was the case with Elias Ashmole in 1646, copies of the Old Charges were used when individuals were initiated into ad hoc gatherings of stonemasons. Moreover, the case of Ashmole is not exceptional, and he was just one of many non-working stonemasons who were initiated into such lodges in the course of the seventeenth century. For example, Edward Thompson (d. 1701), who copied the William Watson Manuscript in 1687, was a merchant who served as Lord Mayor of York in 1688 and was MP for the city in 1688 and 1700.
If we see the emergence of the Old Charges as linked to agitation by building workers for better wages in the middle of the sixteenth century, why are these alderman and other well-to-do townsfolk becoming involved in associations of freemasons during the seventeenth century? At one level, of course, this may reflect the influence of developments in Scotland, where, in order to bolster funds and membership, masons’ lodges were admitting non-masons from other crafts who had an interest in the craft and skills of the masons. The example of individuals such as Moray doubtless encouraged members of the English intelligentsia to take an interest in the stonemasons’ history and organisations. It is likely however that more local considerations were chiefly responsible for men like Edward Thompson becoming freemasons. Although the system of wage regulation introduced by the Statute of Artificers had taken most of the heat out of the situation, there was, as Woodward points out, a quickening of interest in wage regulation in the middle of the seventeenth century, and in both York and Chester there were further attempts to set wage levels below the market rate.[xxxiv] Significantly, both these towns were to have lodges with a significant non-operative membership shortly afterwards.
Clearly, it was judicious for the stonemasons to encourage local JPs, who controlled their wages, to be aware of the legendary history of their craft and their claims that St Alban had said that they should be well-paid and that Anglo-Saxon kings had authorised them to meet together. A good way of doing this was for stonemasons to encourage city councillors and other prominent townsfolk to join their lodges and to make the legendary history a prominent part of the proceedings, and it seems that this is precisely what happened. The fact that wages remained at the heart of the York legend is reflected in the way that later copies of the Old Charges increase the wage level allegedly set by St Albans to 3s 6d a week, reflecting wage inflation during the seventeenth century.
The lead on agitating for better wages for building workers had been taken in the sixteenth century by the north, but the system of assessment established in 1563 applied across the whole country, and from 1630 references occur in the records of the London Company of Freemasons to a body known as the Acception.[xxxv] This was clearly a distinct and elite group within the company, the names of whose members were recorded on boards displayed in the company’s hall. Again, non-working masons such as Ashmole paid handsomely to join this group, which paraded separately under its own banner. The Acception owned at least one copy of the Old Charges, and it seems to have functioned both as an elite social gathering and as a means of increasing awareness of the special craft claims of the masons among the city’s elite and elsewhere. The Acception died out shortly after the London company was formally incorporated in 1677. The extent to which the demise of the Acception was related to changes consequent upon this incorporation or whether it was due to James II’s attacks on the rights of city companies is not clear.[xxxvi] It is striking that at the time of its incorporation, the name of the company was changed from the Company of Freemasons to the Company of Masons. It is tempting to assume, with Conder, that the revival which took place in 1717 with the formation of a Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons was in effect a revival of the Acception.
In the meantime, the York legend was becoming subject to critical scrutiny. In his 1686 Natural History of Staffordshire Robert Plot, who had access to a text of the Old Charges similar to the William Watson manuscript, subjected the York legend to merciless criticism, pointing out for example that there was no evidence that Athelstan had any children, let alone a son called Edwin.[xxxvii] Plot declared that there was only one possible way of salvaging the legend. He noted that there was a story that Athelstan had a brother called Edwin, who was supposed to have plotted against the King and to have drowned in 933 while making his escape on a ship.[xxxviii] However, Plot pointed out, it was highly unlikely that such a prince, forced into exile by Athelstan, would have obtained a charter from the king or held an assembly at York: ‘Who how unlikely to learn their manners; to get them a Charter; or call them together at York let the reader judg [sic.]’. The immediate reaction of copyists of the Old Charges was to assume that there was a mistake. Some attempted clumsily to remove any reference to Edwin in the text and to suggest that Athelstan summoned the York assembly.[xxxix] Others altered the text to state that Edwin was Athelstan’s brother.[xl]
James Anderson, in attempting to synthesise and complete the legendary histories of the Old Charges for the first Book of Constitutions published by the Grand Lodge in London in 1723, was aware of Plot’s criticisms and treated the York legend very warily. He did not mention the assembly in his account of Athelstan’s reign, but instead inserted under his entry for Edward IV an extract from a copy of the Old Charges supposedly compiled in Edward’s reign in which Edwin is described as Athelstan’s son.[xli] In this way, Anderson recorded the story, but distanced himself from it. By the time Anderson came to issue an expanded and revised version of his history of masonry in the second edition of the Book of Constitutions in 1738, he felt more confident about the York legend. It may be that his work on the royal genealogies had convinced him that the Edwin of the legend should indeed be identified with Athelstan’s brother but, whatever Anderson’s reasoning, he moved the York legend into his entry for Athelstan, thus more directly endorsing it.[xlii]
In doing so, Anderson amended his extract from the Old Charges to state that Edwin was the King’s brother, although he noted that he is ‘call’d in some copies his son’. Anderson had then to deal with Plot’s objection of the supposed circumstances of Edwin’s death. He did this in three ways. First, he claimed that the York assembly was held at the beginning of Athelstan’s reign, when Edwin was more likely to have been in royal favour. However, in doing so, Anderson assigned to the assembly an impossibly early date of 926, which predates by a year Athelstan’s acquisition of York following the death of the Viking King of York Sihtric Cáech in June 927. In choosing this date, Anderson was probably trying to work out the earliest feasible date at which such an assembly could have been held in York but was hampered by his reliance on the imprecise statements of Latin chronicles. Second, Anderson drew attention to the fact that William of Malmesbury, the main English chronicle source for the death of Edwin, emphasised that his information was drawn from a popular ballad, and therefore not necessarily reliable. Finally, Anderson draws attention to the suggestion in Henry of Huntingdon, and to the suggestion by Henry that Athelstan was angered by Edwin’s death.
It was thus Anderson who, trying desperately to reconcile the available evidence, added in 1738 the last component to the York legend by proposing a date for Edwin’s assembly of 926. Ironically, Plot’s criticism of the legend, by pointing out that while Athelstan did not have a son called Edwin, he did have a brother of that name, seems to have helped to breathe new life into it. The identification of the Edwin of the masonic legend with the prince who died in 933 became accepted from this point. In his 1756 revision of the Book of Constitutions, the hack writer John Entick incorporated without acknowledgement a long footnote from the entry on Athelstan in the Biographia Britannica reviewing the various chronicle discussions of the death of the king’s brother.[xliii] This footnote was also reprinted, this time with acknowledgement, in the 1775 edition of William Preston’s popular and influential guide to Freemasonry, Illustrations of Masonry.[xliv]
The development of the York legend thus spread over a period of about three hundred years from circa 1430 to 1738. However, in tracing the gradual articulation of the legend, we can also get an enormous insight into the various factors which ultimately resulted in the first meeting of the English Grand Lodge in the Goose and Gridiron in 1717. Above all, in tracing the development of the York legend we can see how the organisations formed by stonemasons changed substantially in character over this long period of time. Nor did these changes stop after 1717. The body which met in 1717 was still very different to modern Freemasonry. The infusion of scientific and philosophical interest which the new Grand Lodge received soon after its formation from men like Desaguliers again utterly transformed its character. It was to change radically again in the period of the French Revolution and again in the second half of the nineteenth century. Freemasonry as we have it today irrevocably bears the hallmark of all these historical processes. This is another reason why the obsessive search for the idol of the origins of Freemasonry has distorted our understanding of both Freemasonry and its historical development. The assumption has been that there is a single point of origin of Freemasonry and that, if we could find that point, we would immediately understand its inner truth. There is no such point. Freemasonry is part of history, and like all institutions it changes in time. It is that process of constant flux and change that we must study.
[i] A. Prescott, ‘Freemasonry and the Problem of Britain’, Inaugural Lecture of the Centre for Research into Freemasonry, University of Sheffield, 2001: http://freemasonry.dept.shef.ac.uk/?q=papers_4 (accessed 21 August 2006).
[ii] ‘William Schaw’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
[iii] Ed. J. Cannon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), entry for ‘Freemasonry’.
[iv] Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. See also D. Stevenson, The First Freemasons: Scotland’s Early Lodges and their Members, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: Grand Lodge of Scotland, 2001), pp. 3-11.
[v] Desaguliers visited Edinburgh in 1721. Stevenson has recently drawn attention to a poem addressed on this occasion to Desaguliers by Allan Ramsay: First Freemasons, op. cit., pp. 209-10.
[vi] See also D. Stevenson, ‘James Anderson: Man and Mason’ in Freemasonry on Both Sides of the Atlantic, Essays concerning the Craft in the British Isles, Europe, the United States, and Mexico, ed. R. William Weisberger, Wallace McLeod and S. Brent Morris (Boulder and New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), pp. 199-242.
[vii] See the discussion of Stevenson’s work by members of Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076 in D. Stevenson, ‘Confessions of a Cowan: a Non Mason and Early Masonic History’, Ars Quatuor Coronatorum 107 (1994), pp. 53-84.
[viii] Stevenson, First Freemasons, op. cit., pp. 102-4.
[ix] The Regius manuscript is London, British Library, Royal MS. 17 A.I and the Cooke manuscript is British Library Additional MS. 23198. The standard edition of these manuscripts is D. Knoop, G. P. Jones and D. Hamer, The Two Earliest Masonic MSS. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1938). On the dating and history of these manuscripts, see also A. Prescott, ‘Some Literary Contexts of the Regius and Cooke Manuscripts’ in Freemasonry in Music and Literature, ed. T. Stewart, Canonbury Papers 2 (London: Canonbury Masonic Research Centre, 2005), pp. 1-36.
[x] The most useful starting point for investigating these manuscripts remains W. J. Hughan, The Old Charges of the British Freemasons, 2nd ed. (London: George Kenning, 1895). See also H. Poole’s list of Old Charge MSS. in volume 1 of his 1951 revision of Gould’s History of Freemasonry; W. McLeod, ‘Additions to the List of Old Charges’, Ars Quatuor Coronatorum 96 (1983), pp. 98-110; and W. McLeod, The Old Charges, with an appendix reconstituting the standard original version, The Prestonian Lecture for 1986 (London: privately printed, 1986), also published in Ars Quatuor Coronatorum 99 (1986), pp. 120-30.
[xi] Stevenson, Origins of Freemasonry, op. cit., pp. 18-25, First Freemasons, op. cit., pp. 189-91.
[xii] For example, the Christmas number of The Freemason for 1892 celebrated the festive season by announcing Hughan’s discovery of the Dumfries Kilwinning MSS.
[xiii] London, National Archives, E 101/198/6.
[xiv] ‘Het Reglement van de steinmetzen in Maastricht (AD 1400)’, Thoth 56 (2005), pp. 3-71. I am very grateful indeed to Jan Snoek for kindly providing a photocopy of this important publication, which proved to be completely unobtainable in the United Kingdom.
[xv] On the datings of the Lansdowne and Regius MSS., see further Prescott, op. cit.
[xvi] For reviews of previous masonic scholarship on the York Legend, see A. Horne, The York Legend in the Old Charges (London: A. Lewis, 1978) and N. B. Cryer, York Mysteries Revealed (Hersham: Lewis Masonic, 2006)
[xvii] The following is based on Prescott, op. cit.
[xviii] A. McIntosh, M. I. Samuels and M. Benskin, A Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1986), volume 1, pp. 115, 233-5, and volume 2, pp. 424-38.
[xix] S. Reynolds, An Introduction to the History of English Medieval Towns (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), p. 169.
[xx] London, National Archives, PROB11/2B f. 108. I owe this reference to Professor Sheila Lindenbaum.
[xxi] C. Given-Wilson, ‘The Problem of Labour in the Context of English Government, c.1350-1450’, in The Problem of Labour in Fourteenth-Century England, ed. J. Bothwell, P. Goldberg and W. M. Ormrod (York: York Medieval, 2000), pp. 85-100; D. Woodward, Men at Work: Labourers and Building Craftsmen in the Towns of Northern England, 1450-1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 181-3; S. Penn and C. Dyer, ‘Wages and Earnings in Late Medieval England: Evidence from the Enforcement of the Labour Laws’, Economic History Review 2nd series, 43 (1990), pp. 356-76; and L. R. Poos, ‘The Social Context of Statute of Labourers’ Enforcement’, Law and History Review 1 (1983), pp. 27-52.
[xxii] For example, 24 masons are mentioned in prosecutions under the labour legislation in Oxford between 1390 and 1394, one of the largest occupational groups in these prosecutions: H. E. Salter, Medieval Archives of the University of Oxford, volume 2, Oxford Historical Society 73 (1920), pp. 1-127.
[xxiii] D. Knoop and G. P. Jones, The Mediaeval Mason (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1933), p. 183. The original petition of the commons against the assemblies of masons is London, National Archives, SC 8/24/1196.
[xxiv] Woodward, Men at Work, op. cit., p. 181.
[xxv] Woodward, Men at Work, op. cit., p. 182.
[xxvi] Woodward, Men at Work, op. cit., pp. 182-191; D. Woodward, ‘The Background to the Statute of Artificers: the Genesis of Labour Policy, 1558-1563’, Economic History Review, 2nd series, 33 (1980), pp. 32-44.
[xxvii] A facsimile, transcript and description of the manuscript by G. W. Speth is Quatuor Coronatorum Antigrapha 4 part 1 (1892). For a recent authoritative description of the manuscript, see P. R. Robinson, Catalogue of Dated and Datable Manuscripts c. 888-1600 in London Libraries (London: British Library, 2003).
[xxviii] This manuscript is now in the Library and Museum of Freemasonry in London. A facsimile, transcript and description of the manuscript by G. W. Speth and C. C. Howard is Quatuor Coronatorum Antigrapha 3 part 4 (1891).
[xxix] Woodward, Men at Work, op. cit., pp. 182-91; ‘Background to the Statute of Artificers’, op. cit.
[xxx] D. Woodward, ‘Wage Regulation in Mid-Tudor York’, The York Historian 3 (1980), pp. 7-9.
[xxxi] Woodward, Men at Work, op. cit., p. 184.
[xxxiii] Ibid., p. 185.
[xxxiv] Ibid., pp. 188-90.
[xxxv] M. D. J. Scanlan, ‘The Mystery of the Acception 1630-1723: A Fatal Flaw’, Heredom 11 (2003), pp. 55-112; E. Conder, Records of the Hole Crafte and Fellowship of Masons (London: Swan Sonnenschien, 1894).
[xxxvi] On this issue, see now M. Knights, ‘A City Revolution: the Remodelling of the London City Companies in the 1680s’, English Historical Review 112 (1997), pp. 1141-78. The context described by Knights seems essential for understanding the background to the emergence of the first Grand Lodge in 1717.
[xxxvii] Robert Plot, The Natural History of Staffordshire (Oxford: at the Theater, 1686), pp. 316-7.
[xxxviii] The death of Edwin is reported in MS. E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. For a discussion of this incident and the legend which accrued around the death of Edwin, see English Historical Documents c. 500-1042, ed. Dorothy Whitelock, 2nd ed. (London and New York: Eyre Methuen and Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 346-7, and Two of the Saxon Chronicles Parallel, ed. C. Plummer and J. Earle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899), pp. 137-8.
[xxxix] ‘Ye science of Masonry was much decayed, untill the Raigne of Kinge Athelston, (which some call Adleston) who brought the land into peace and rest from the Insulting Danes. He began many Abbeys, Monasterys and other Religious houses, as alsoe Castles and other fortresses for the defence of his Realme. He loved Masons more then his Father, he greatly studied Geometry and sent into many lands for men expert in the Science...And the kinge himselfe caused a generall assembly of all Masons in his Realme at York...’: London, Library and Museum of Freemasonry, Grand Lodge MS. 2, from the facsimile by G. W. Speth in Quatuor Coronatorum Antigrapha 4 part 2 (1892). Emphasis added. Similar clumsy excisions of Edwin can be found in London, British Library, Harley MS 1942, reproduced in Quatuor Coronatorum Antigrapha 2 part 3 (1890), and in the version printed by J. Roberts as The Old Constitutions belonging to the Ancient and Honourable Society of Free and Accepted Masons : taken from a manuscript wrote above five hundred years since. (London: J. Roberts, 1722).
[xl] For example, the Inigo Jones MS.: Quatuor Coronatorum Antigrapha 6 (1895).
[xli] J. Anderson, The Constitutions of the Free-Masons. Containing the History, Charges, Regulations, &c. of that most Ancient and Right Worshipful Fraternity (London: William Hunter for John Senex and John Hooke, 1723), pp. 31-2.
[xlii] J. Anderson, The New Book of Constitutions of the Antient and Honourable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons (London: Caesar Ward and Richard Chandler, 1738), pp. 63-4.
[xliii] J. Entick, The Constitutions of the Antient and Honourable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons (London: Brother J. Scott), 1756, pp. 85-7; Biographia Britannica: or, the lives of the most eminent persons who have flourished in Great Britain and Ireland, from the earliest ages. Volume 1 (London: W. Innys et al., 1747), pp. 63-4, note G.
[xliv] W. Preston, Illustrations of Masonry, 2nd ed. (London: J. Wilkie, 1775), p. 201.