The origins of Freemasonry prior to 1691 are lost in the mists of time. But Freemasonry, as we know it today, is based on the first Grand Lodge founded on 24 June 1717 formed by four London Lodges. The oldest of which was thought to have existed in 1646.
While there are many theories there is no concrete evidence of where Freemasonry originated. Nevertheless it is generally agreed that freemasonry developed from the medieval stonemasons. These were the operative masons who built the cathedrals and castles.
For security they met and lived in buildings or Lodges. To enable the Master in charge to ascertain the range of skills of the travelling stonemasons, who came to offer their services, the stonemasons guilds, like other crafts or guilds, developed basic ceremonies for passing their skills onto new apprentices. Therefore, like all Guilds, when the apprentice stonemason had achieved a certain skill level he was informed of certain recognition signs, tokens and words.
This was necessary as there were no trade union cards, nationally recognised examination bodies or certificates of apprenticeship. But, these recognition signs were used to regulate the craft. Communication of these signs, tokens and words enabled the Master Mason in charge of a project to know a man’s ability.
These signs, tokens and words were closely guarded secrets and, to ensure that the young apprentice understood their importance to the craft, there were many blood curdling oaths placed on him. These have no place in today's society but the initiate is informed that these were once traditional to becoming a stone mason.
The signs in the ovals, in the picture opposite, are the recognition marks of stonemasons who worked on Egyptian temples over 3,000 years ago. It is reference to these signs, tokens and words which Freemasons today observe and are related to the signs to know a Mason by.
No one knows why, but in the early 1600s, these operative Lodges began to admit non stonemasons. They were “accepted” or “gentlemen” masons. Gradually they took over and became Lodges of free and accepted or speculative masons, no longer having any ‘practical’ connection with the stonemasons’ craft.
In 1646 Elias Ashmole, the Antiquary and Founder of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, records in his diary that he was made a Free Mason at his father-in-law’s house in Warrington. None of those present, had any connection with operative masonry. Therefore, as speculative Freemasonry, it must have been in operation before that date!
Another theory, which could run alongside, is that freemasonry was started because the late 1500s or early 1600s was a period of religious and political turmoil and intolerance. It was difficult to express differences of political and religious opinion. Opposing views often split families and resulted in the English Civil War of 1642 to 1646.
Supporters of this theory state that the originators of Freemasonry were men who wished to promote tolerance and build a better world in which men of differing opinions could peacefully co-exist and work together for the betterment of mankind. In the custom of their times they used allegory and symbolism to pass on their ideas.
They borrowed their central allegory from the Bible; in which the only building described in any detail is King Solomon’s Temple. They then used the stonemasons’ tools as the emblems to practically illustrate the principles they were putting forward. This being based on the square and compass. Then they used the recognition signs to ensure that their assemblies were not infiltrated by anyone who would report them or cause a problem.
The reason for the strong charitable ethic of Freemasonry dates back to the 1600s when there was no welfare state, so becoming disabled or falling ill meant relying on friends or the Poor Law for help. Many trades had “box clubs” which grew out of members putting money into a communal box, so that if they fell on hard times they could apply for relief from the box.
These box clubs had many characteristics of early Masonic Lodges; meeting in taverns, simple initiation ceremonies and passwords.
Premier Grand Lodge was established in 1717 and Freemasonry grew in popularity, becoming world wide and attracting many famous and notable personalities.
In 1721 Grand Lodge began to be a regulatory body and in 1723, as the membership grew, a ‘Book of Constitutions’ was published which outlined the rules and regulations governing freemasonry. In 1730, with more than 100 Lodges under its jurisdiction, it had begun to operate a central charity fund.
In 1751, a rival Grand Lodge, the Antients, was formed as it was claimed that the original Grand Lodge, the Moderns, had departed from the established customs of the Craft. When the Duke of Sussex became the Grand Master of the Moderns and his brother the Duke of Kent became Grand Master of the Ancients the two rival Grand Lodges came together on 27 December 1813, under the Grand Mastership of HRH Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, the sixth son of King George III.
The Book of Constitutions, which ‘governs’ the craft has been reprinted and gone through many editions since its initial publication, but the fundamental rules laid down in 1723 still apply today.
World wide there are over six million Freemasons. Today there are approaching 9,000 lodges in England and Wales attended by over 200,000 brethren. In Gloucestershire there are 82 lodges meeting in 19 Masonic halls attended by 3,000 brethren. 9 lodges meet in Cheltenham Masonic hall which is used by 400 brethren
Masonic Hall, 2 Portland Street, Cheltenham, Glos, GL52 2PB
Copyright © All Rights Reserved