|Rivista di Massoneria - Revue de Franc-Maçonnerie - Revista de Masonerìa - Revista de Maçonaria
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by R.W.Bro. LEON ZELDIS
ENGLAND AROUND 1717
It is difficult to imagine the way of life of our early Masonic
ancestors. It is equally difficult to understand the social milieu in which the
founders of the premier Grand Lodge acted, but such understanding is essential
if we want to understand the motives that led to the creation of that body and
its later development.
Let us make an imaginary journey back in time to the London of 1717.
That was a city without sewers, the streets filled with dung from the thousands
of horses and wet with sewage thrown out of the window. The houses were black
with the soot blowing out of numberless chimneys. Some children died asphyxiated
while being used as live chimney brushes. It was dangerous to walk about in the
streets after dark (some street lamps were installed beginning in 1677, but
public lighting with gas started only in 1786). Criminality was rampant,
punishment brutal, prison for debt was common.
Witchcraft was still believed. The Scottish teenager Patrick Morton was
allegedly bewitched in 1704. [i]
The last execution for witchcraft in England took place in 1712.
The industrial revolution had not started yet – that would come in the
course of the 18th and 19th centuries – but a class of
have-nots already existed, homeless, beggars, criminals of every kind.
This brings us to the marked class differences. The aristocracy and the
land owners, generally the same, whose wealth was based on the land, were on
top. Below them came the bourgeoisie, merchants, lawyers, doctors, educators,
shippers, men of arms. All these constituted a small minority. And then the vast
mass, those who would eventually be called the proletariat. There were no
factories as yet, but numerous workshops, craftsmen of many trades, and many,
multitudinous servants, butlers, footmen, cooks, housemaids, porters, gardeners,
and also farm workers, shepherds, fishermen, all of them completely separated
form the upper classes by their lack of education, the language, the customs,
with no possibility to move up the social scale.
This was also the time when the increase of wealth in the upper classes
created the beginnings of what would later be known as the "consumer
There was a parliament, and there were elections, but the vast majority
of Englishmen had no right to vote, that would take another hundred years to
become true for the men, and two centuries for women (only in 1918). Common law
allowed marriage at fourteen for boys and at twelve for girls. Only in 1929
legislation was introduced for the first time, prohibiting marriages under the
age of sixteen. [iii]
The Christian religion, which had dominated the life of the people
during the Middle Ages, codifying to the least detail the way of life, the
practice of trades, the separation of classes, was only now recovering from the
sanguinary wars caused by its internal divisions. The various reformers, though
rejecting the dominion of Rome, were different, but no more liberal.
Inside this stratified society, voices began to be heard proposing
changes, making appeal to reason instead of subservience to dogma; these
thinkers regarded society as a living organism, they were aware of its defects
and wanted to find solutions to improve it.
Science and philosophy, which were then almost indistinguishable, were
the tools in the hands of the intellectuals to implement their aspirations. The
Rosicrucian manifests, published a century earlier (1613-1615) had made a strong
impact on European intelligentsia, announcing the political and social
revolution to come. In 1690 John Locke published his Essay Concerning Human
Understanding, maintaining that all our knowledge is derived from what we
receive through the senses, that our will is determined by our mind, guided by
the desire for happiness, and defending the possibility of studying the world
rationally, without being shackled by dogmas or preconceived ideas.
This was the "Age of Reason". Rationalism and science would
open the way to make a perfect society. The 17th century had marked a
turning point in the interests of scholars, who now began to focus their
attention on the natural sciences and started researching nature, making
experiments in all its areas. Astrology gradually gave way to astronomy, alchemy
to chemistry; the study of anatomy and physiology revolutionized medicine, for
long the province of barbers and quack doctors. New fields of study opened every
This is reflected in the creation of numerous scientific academies which
joined the literary and philosophical ones, such as the French Academy, founded
Already in 1621 Cósimo de Médici established in Florence the Platonic
Academy, while in Rome the Academia dei Lincei, dedicated to scientific
research, especially astronomy, was founded in 1603; one of its members was
Galileo Galilei. And in 1607 Florence saw the creation of the Academia del
Cimento, likewise destined to serve as forum for experimenters. Later, in
1666, the Royal Academy of Sciences was created in Paris, while four years
earlier, in 1662, the Royal Society had started meeting in London, providing a
platform for researchers and scholars. Some of the most prominent founders of
the premier Grand Lodge were also active in it.
The Society of Antiquaries, which had been organized originally in 1572
by Archbishop Parker, and had been disbanded in the reign of James I, was
revived in 1717 owing to the efforts of William Stukeley, a prominent Mason. The
Society received a charter in 1751. [iv]
We must remember, however, that sciences were in their early stages of
development. Robert Boyle died in 1691, Leibnitz in 1716 and Newton in 1727, but
Priestly was born only in 1733, Cavendish in 1731 and Faraday seventy years
later. Lavoisier was born in 1743 and Alexander Humboldt even later, in 1769.
England still used the Julian calendar dating from the time of Julius
Caesar. The Gregorian calendar was adopted only in 1752, almost 200 years after
being established by Pope Gregory XIII.
European thought was strongly influenced by esoteric thinking, the
Rosicrucians, the Cabbala, alchemy and tarot. Hebrew was highly regarded, as the
sacred language of the Bible, and also as the language spoken by God when
addressing man. Some scholars believed that all other languages were derived
In 1684, Knorr von Rosenroth published Kabbalah Denudata (Kabbalah
Unveiled), a translation of passages from the Zohar and essays on the
meaning of Kabbalah (including portions of Cordovero's Pardes Rimonim)
examined from a Christian point of view. Rosenroth's work was the most important
non-Hebrew reference book on the Kabbalah until the end of the 19th
century and it became the major source on this subject for non-Jewish scholars.
After Cromwell allowed – unofficially - the return of Jews, a small
community began to form in England, integrated almost exclusively by Sephardic
Jews, mainly immigrants from the Netherlands, where many Jews expelled from
Spain and Portugal had found refuge and freedom to practice their religion
openly. The strength of the Jewish community in Amsterdam can be judged by the
fact that the first Hebrew newspaper appeared in that city in 1728 (5488),
edited by a Sephardic Rabbi, Shlomo Salem. It was a religious newspaper called Pri
Etz Hayim (Fruit of the Tree of Life). British lodges, too, opened their
doors and Jewish Masons appear in lodge registers as soon as the Grand Lodge was
founded, and it is almost certain that some Jews were accepted in the lodges
The study of nature was still based on the treatises of the Greek
philosophers, which began to be translated. The evolution to more scientific
studies was driven by the development of technology and changes in the economic
structure of the country. The beginnings of the industrial revolution are linked
with the mechanization of the textile industry. For centuries, spinners and
weavers worked together at home. Four spinners were required to keep a weaver
supplied with cotton yarn, and ten spinners were required to keep a wool weaver
busy. In 1733 John Kay patented his "flying shuttle" and suddenly the
productivity of each weaver was multiplied several-fold, creating unprecedented
demand for more yarn. The first spinning machine was invented as early as in
1738, but it was unsuccessful. In 1764 Hargreaves patented his "spinning
jenny" (named, according to legend, for his daughter), a machine based on
the spinning wheel but with several spindles working in tandem; the machine,
however, was slow and inefficient. Only in 1769 Arkwright built his
roller-spinning machine (the "water frame") and the first industrial
spinning mill was established, using horses for power, and in 1779 Samuel
Crompton patented his "spinning mule" combining the principles of the
water frame and the spinning jenny, a ten-yard long machine with hundreds of
spindles working simultaneously. These machines, with some improvements, were
still in use until the middle of the 20th century.
In 1712 Thomas Newcomen patented the atmospheric steam engine, designed
to pump water from the coal mines. James Watt, the inventor of the double-action
steam engine, was born in 1736, when the Grand Lodge of London and Westminster
(its original name) was less than 20 years old.
As we can see, the principal discoveries and inventions of science and
technology were unknown in 1717, and only in the course of that century and the
next were the developments made which set the foundation for modern science.
Explorers, too, were still operating at full steam. Easter Island was discovered
only in 1722, by Dutch seamen. Africa was largely unexplored.
Let us now examine other aspects of society at the time we are studying,
starting with the situation of arts and letters.
In music, string orchestras began to be formed. Stradivarius (1644-1737)
was building his famous violins. The clarinet had been invented in 1690, and in
1709 the Italian Bartolomeo Cristofori invented the piano. The Englishman John
Shore invented the tuning fork in 1711. Dance masters still played the pochette,
the miniature fiddle that could be held in a pocket while not in use.
Purcell had died in 1695, but Bach, Haendel, and Domenico Scarlatti were
32 years old in 1717 (all three had been born in the same year: 1685). Haendel's
Water Music, was played for the first time on July 17, 1717, celebrating
the trip of George I's royal barge on the Thames, only a few weeks after the
foundation of the Grand Lodge. Corelli wrote his 12 Concerti Grossi in
1712, and died a year later.
In the theater, Congreve and Racine were the current star playwrights.
Molière had died in 1673 and Corneille in 1684. In Japan, the Kabuki theatre
was in its infancy, replacing the more conservative No.
In literature, John Dryden had died in 1700, but the satirist Jonathan
Swift, the novelist Daniel Defoe and the poet Alexander Pope were well known and
productive. Defoe's Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719. A few years
later, some thirty unsigned pamphlets, ballads, plays and other pieces were
published about the lives of a criminal called John Sheppard and his nemesis,
Jonathan Wild, which can be considered the first popular biographies written
about contemporary subjects. Five of the pamphlets were attributed to Defoe,
published between 1724 and 1725.
The novelist Henry Fielding and Dr. Samuel Johnson on the other hand,
were only 10 years old in 1717. All the great Russian novelists belong to a
later age. In Spain, Calderón de la Barca had died in 1681, and then Spanish
letters, after its brilliant Golden Age (17th century), became
D'Alembert, the immortal creator of the Encyclopedia, was born in the
same year as the Grand Lodge, 1717.
In painting, Gainsborough was born only in 1727, but Hogarth was in his
most productive epoch. His etching "Night", published in 1727, is
justly famous for showing the tipsy Master of the lodge walking on the street
supported by the Tyler while a disgruntled housewife throws water or some other
liquid (!) from an upper floor window.
Rembrandt had died in 1669, closing a brilliant era of Flemish painters.
In France, Watteau (1684-1721) and Boucher (1703-1770) enchanted the court of
the Sun King, while in Venice, Canaletto (20 years old) and Tiepolo (21) would
achieve fame later. Spain, after a 17th century plethoric of great
artists had an 18th devoid of masters. An artistic disaster took
place in 1718, when a fire destroyed all thirty-nine ceiling paintings by Van
Dyck in the Jesuit church in Antwerp. Those were "the only secure
touchstone for Van Dyck's work in collaboration with Rubens" [v]
Let us turn now to the political developments in England. The 17th
century was a time of endless struggles and tragedies. The Turks had failed to
conquer Vienna in 1683, but the memory of that siege and the threat of Moslem
advances in Europe were still fresh in 1717. London had suffered the scourge of
the Black Death, the bubonic plague, which reached its peak in 1665; a year
later the great fire devastated the city, but at the same time extirpated most
of the rats that transmitted the plague. Reconstructing the capital city gave
great impulse to the building trades, and was perhaps one of the antecedents for
the development of masons' lodges.
The religious wars between Catholics and Protestants which desolated
Europe for a century resulted in England's civil war, the execution of Charles I
(in 1649) and the Commonwealth presided by Oliver Cromwell, the
"Protector". England then had its single period as a republic, which
lasted only 11 years. And then, in 1660, the Stuart king Charles II, son of
Charles I, returned to power. He was followed by his brother James II until
Parliament, fearing that the Catholicism of the king would result in renewed
warfare, deposed him in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, offering the British
throne to protestant William, Prince of Orange, born in Holland, but grandson of
King Charles I.
James II did not accept his dethronement with grace. He continued
plotting his return, gaining the support of Catholic Spain. His military
aspirations, however, suffered a dramatic defeat at the battle of the Boyne, in
Ireland, on July 12, 1690. James fled back to France putting an end to the
Stuart dynasty. William III reigned
together with his wife Mary II until her death in 1694, and continued ruling
alone until 1702.
The Stuart king and his son, in exile in Europe, continued dreaming of
recovering their lost kingdom. In fact, a Spanish force supporting the Stuarts
landed in Scotland in 1719 (two years after the foundation of Grand Lodge), but
the invaders were roundly defeated in the battle of Glenshiel. That was not the
end of Stuart ambitions, which continued plotting throughout the period that
Some Stuart supporters, mainly Scots, followed him in exile and were
involved in the creation of the first Masonic lodges in the continent. Here they
received the influence of the mystic trends current in Europe, and they created
the additional degrees which, not surprisingly, were called
"Scottish". In later years, after a long evolution, the Ancient and
Accepted Scottish Rite was born.
King William was not much loved by his subjects. He was a Dutchman at
heart, and his willful character did not win him popularity. However, he
accepted the Act of Consent, which banned any Catholic from ever becoming king.
During his reign the first insurance company was formed (1699). At his death was
crowned Anne, the second daughter of James II, who ruled only from 1702 to 1714.
Her short reign was marked, however, by several important developments. During
her reign Scotland and England became finally united in 1707, which for the
Scots meant the loss of their Parliament. This situation continued until a few
years ago, when Scotland recovered a measure of autonomy. Anne's reign also
marked the issue of the Copyright Act (1708-09) which gave absolute control of all
printed matter to the Stationers' Company in England, later extended to
Scotland, Ireland and the American Colonies, thus abolishing in fact freedom of
the press. However, this also gave limited-term protection on the "literary
property", for the first time anywhere in Europe. [vi]
A postal system was instituted in England in her time, and a First
Minister was appointed for the first time (1710).
This was the "golden age" of piracy in the Atlantic and the
Mediterranean. [vii] Roughly between 1716 and
1726 there would be between 1,000 and 2,000 pirates in the Atlantic at any time.
"Nearly half of them were by origin English, about a tenth Irish, and
another tenth combined from Scotland and Wales. The remainder came from British
North America or the West Indies, with a scattering from Holland, France,
Portugal and other European countries, and Africa…. Over the ten years on
which Rediker focuses, pirates probably captured and plundered about 2,400
A radical change in the British throne came about in 1714, when George
I, ascended to the throne. Although he was the son of a German princess, and had
only a distant relationship with the English royal line, he was the closest
George I, founder of the House of Hanover, was a stolid German soldier
without imagination, who never learned to speak English and preferred to
continue living in Hanover rather than London. He allowed his English ministers
to run the country, while he devoted himself to hunting and ruling with iron
hand his German subjects.
The British government was left in the hands of ministers like Robert
Walpole, the first Prime Minister of England. During his term of office erupted
the financial scandal known as the South Sea Bubble. A stock company
established in 1710 called the
South Sea Company engaged in triangular trade, sending ships with English
merchandise (mainly whiskey, weapons and textiles) to western Africa, buying
there African slaves, transporting them to America, and returning home with goods like sugar and tobacco. This commerce was so
profitable that the company could give its stockholders enormous dividends,
reaching 100% in a year. Frenzied speculation followed, the company issued
additional shares without any control, and many copycat companies were formed,
some of them existing only on paper. Finally, the soap bubble burst in 1720, the
price of the stock dropped 98.5% and the unfortunate investors were left
penniless. It is said that Dr. James Anderson, the author of The
Constitutions of the Freemasons (1723, 1738) also invested in the Bubble and
lost heavily. The memory of this scandal lasted for many decades.
France, too, had been rocked by scandal, the rash of accusation and
convictions for poisoning which gripped Versailles in 1679-80, culminating in
suspicion that the king's mistress, Mme. De Montespan, had made at attempt to
poison Luis XIV.
When George I died of a stroke in 1727, his son George II succeeded him.
The young king was a soldier like his father, his morals were doubtful, but his
reign lasted longer, until 1760. Canada was conquered during this period, the
last rebellion of the Stuart pretender was suppressed, and the foundations of
the Indian empire (later developed by Disraeli) were established. These were
also the years when Freemasonry flourished amazingly both in Great Britain and
in the European continent, especially in France and Germany. A second Grand
Lodge was formed in London, known as the "Antients", founded mainly by
Irish immigrants who disliked the innovations introduced by the older Grand
Lodge, which they designated disrespectfully as the "Moderns".
Possibly, another factor leading to the creating of a competing Grand Lodge was
the poor reception given by the British to the Irish Masons.
To conclude this survey, I'll broaden the scope to look at the world in
general at the beginning of the 18th century. In France, King Louis
XIV, the Roi Soleil governed until 1715. During his reign he revoked the
Edict of Nantes (1685), leading to the emigration of many Huguenots, some of
whom became active in the creation of the Grand Lodge of London, and in
formulating its principles of tolerance. His attempt to annex Spain to create a
joint Bourbon kingdom led to the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713), in
which France fought the armies of the Grand Alliance (England, the United
Provinces and the Habsburg empire), finally being defeated. He was succeeded by
his great-grandson, who was only 5 years old, so France was governed for many
years by a regent, starting with the Duke of Orleans.
In Russia, Peter the Great was building Saint Petersburg (which
celebrated the third centenary of its foundation in 2003). The Turks declared
war on Russia in 1711, defeating the Tsar. King Phillip IV, the first Hapsburg,
reigned in Spain, while in India the Mogul rulers (descendants from Tamerlan)
completed their conquest and Mohammed Shah was the Grand Mogul. In China,
Emperor Kangxi was nearing the end of his reign (1662-1722). He was the first of
the Three Emperors of the Qing dynasty (1662-1795) of Manchu invaders, who had
overthrown the Ming dynasty of Han Chinese. [ix]
Although the great wars of religion of the 17th century had
concluded, military spending did not drop; on the contrary, about 1700,
countries like France, Austria and Sweden devoted between 75 and 90 percent of
total government expenditure for military purposes. Britain became the most
highly taxed nation; between 1688 and 1815, taxes increased sixteen-fold and
borrowing 240 fold. [x]
Let us now return to the way of life of London citizens at that time,
the early 18th century. Their world lacked any fast means of
communication. The fastest transport was by horse. No daily newspapers existed
– the first English papers were weeklies, and the first daily was born only in
1769, and had very small circulation. Mass journalism came about only in 1811
when the rotary press was invented.
High society met at home, of rather, in their mansions. The well-to-do
gentry lived mostly in the country, and came to the capital only for the
"season" of balls and soirées, focused on the royal court. Garden
design was the newest fashion in all Europe. Germans were building Chinese
pavilions in 1707, before the English did the same.
Which were the public meeting places? The word public indicates
it: the pub (from "public house"), an inn where people gathered to
drink, eat, sing, and exchange ideas. It was at the same time hostel, restaurant
The first London lodges logically met in pubs, in a separate room or a
second floor, where they conducted their ceremonies between one course and
another or else, as practiced in some lodges to this day, had dinner after the
According to what we know of the manner of operating the lodges in that
period, we can infer that the ceremonial part of the meeting was very brief,
symbolism was limited to the lodge panel, the brethren wore gloves and – a
very important point –were armed with swords.
The room where the ceremony was conducted had no special furniture. The
symbols of our tools and other lodge implements were drawn on a panel or board,
the well-known Tracing Board, or else they were drawn on the floor with chalk
and coal, to be erased after the ceremony using bucket and mop. Hogarth's
engraving mentioned earlier shows a mop being carried by one of the lodge
Masonic meetings were marked by conviviality. As stated, dinner was an
important, in fact an integral part of the ceremony. Music and singing were in
order. It is only necessary to open the first book of Anderson's Constitutions
(1723) to confirm this fact. Sixteen of its 90 pages are dedicated to the songs
of the Master, the Wardens, the Fellow-Craft and the Apprentices, all of them
with the corresponding music scores.
The second edition of the Constitutions, of 1738, much more extensive,
also has 16 pages of songs, more numerous but only with the words. Apparently
the music was too well knows to waste good paper reproducing it.
More impressive in this connection is the Book of Constitutions of the
"Ancients" Grand Lodge, Ahiman Rezon, written by its Grand
Secretary Lawrence Dermott; the volume contains almost 100 pages of songs; and
probably the most popular Masonic book of the 18th century, William
Preston's Illustrations of Masonry – a work that enjoyed numerous
printings from the 70's of the 18th until the first decades of the 19th
centuries – held no less than 44 pages of odes, hymns and songs.
A last remark concerning the songs; when mentioning the Master's Song in
the first edition of the Constitutions, that of 1723, this refers to the Master
of the Lodge, not a Master Mason. As we know, the split of the Second Degree
creating the two degrees known today dates from a few years later.
The Masonic lodge was a refuge of peace and tranquility at a time of
political uncertainty, when the memory of religious warfare was fresh in the
memory of all men, when the first discoveries and inventions were transforming
the economy, and opening new perspectives of progress, when the hope that
rationality and humanism would banish from the hearts of men the evils of
fanaticism and intolerance. This was the fertile ground on which early
speculative Freemasonry germinated and grew, spreading its branches throughout
the western world.
[i] P. G. Maxwell-Stuart, Witch Hunters, Stroud: Tempus, 2003.
[ii] In fact, the term was used only around 1950, and only came into general use in the 1960's.
[iii] Stephen Cretney, Family Law in the Twentieth Century, quoted in a review by Justin Warshaw, Times Literary Supplement, January 23, 2004.
[iv] Stuart Piggott, Ancient Britons, and the Antiquarian Imagination, Historians and Archeologists in Victorian England, 1838-1886 (Cambridge University Preess, 1986), p. 33.
[v] Susan J. Barnes, Noora de Poorter, Horst Vey and Oliver Millar, Van Dyck – a complete catalogue of the paintings, Yale University Press, 2005.
[vi] Ronan Deazley, On the Origin of the Right to Copy, Oxford:Hart.
[vii] See Marcus Rediker, Villains of all Nations, Verso, 2004.
[viii] James Sharpe, reviewing Marcus Rediker, op. cit., Times Literary Supplement, August 27, 2004.
[ix] Review of "The Three Emperors" exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, Times Literary Supplement, 16.12.2005, p.19.
[x] Leandro Prados de la Escosura, editor, Exceptionalism and Industrialisation,- Russian and its European rivals, 1688-1815, Cambridge University Press, 2004.
first Grand Lodge building was started only in 1775 and consecrated on May 23,