British Freemasonry – A Brief Introduction (Part 1)

Richard H. Ryder, 2018

Masonry in America started in 1733 in Boston, Massachusetts when Henry Price received a commission from the Grand Master of England to charter St. John’s Grand Lodge.  Over time Freemasonry spread throughout America with jurisdictions now in each of the 50 states.  American Masonry, like our nation, is rooted in Britain.  As such, an understanding of our heritage provides an appreciation of our British lineage – think of it as Masonic genealogy.

This is the first article in a short series on British Masonry, concentrating on our Masonic parent, England.  As you might expect, there is no shortage of material on this subject; a student of Freemasonry has plenty of available resources.  This series is not an exhaustive study, but rather a brief introduction that may inspire you to expand your study.

Early Manuscripts

In London’s British Museum there exists a document dating back to AD 1390, which defines the rules and regulations of British Masonry.  The Regius Manuscript (A.K.A. The Regis Poem or Halliwell Manuscript), is the oldest of what is known as the Old Charges and addresses the problems of unemployment and finding work.  According to Freemasons for Dummies by Christopher Hodapp “It covers standards of workmanship, a moral code, rules for membership, and an especially strong desire for friendship among the members.” Sixty years later the Cooke manuscript was produced. Named after Mathew Cooke who edited it in 1861, it is believed to be the first document mentioning speculative Masonry.1

The Old Charges, also known as Masonic MSS, consists of 78 manuscripts dating from 1390 – 1852.  This series of regulations, or charges, describe the social behavior of Masons, both within the Craft and society at large.2 Each one typically contained three parts: an opening prayer or invocation; the legendary history of the Craft; and the peculiar statutes and duties, the regulations and observations, incumbent on Masons.  It is believed that readings from the Old Charges were delivered to candidates during membership initiation.3


In Scotland, the Schaw Statues (1598 – 1599) described Masonic practices.  Named after William Schaw it describes duties of lodge members.  King James VI of Scotland charged Schaw with establishing rules for how lodges should function.  According to Giles Morgan in Freemasonry: It’s History and Myths Revealed, the Schaw Statues “detail the duties of lodge members. They ban lodge members from undertaking work with unqualified Masons and reveal that Masons who produced work of a low standard could expect certain penalties. They also allude to Masons sharing knowledge of a spiritual nature. Interestingly, the statues also require that the lodges should test their members’ ability to memorize information.”4

Not everyone, however, was happy with the new rules.  The Lodge of Edinburgh was named the first and principle lodge. However, the Lodge of Kilwinning claimed their lodge was older and thus sent Archibald Barkley to speak with the king and resolve the problem.  The king was not available and so Barkley spoke directly with Schaw, who proposed the Lodge of Kilwinning be the head of the second principle lodge. Schaw refused and a Grand Lodge of Scotland would not be formed until 1736.  To this day, it is generally believed that the oldest Masonic Lodge is that of Kilwinning Lodge No. 0. Also known as the Mother Lodge of Scotland, it is believed to date back to 1140.

Hodapp tells us that by the late 1500’s “Freemasons were admired by society, and suddenly, nobles wanted to join the Scottish Masonic lodges and to bask on some of their reflected glory. They didn’t have any real desire to know how to carve stones, but there was a certain prestige to being an honorary member of a group holding sacred knowledge that had been passed down from biblical times, with a legendary connection to Solomon’s Temple.”5


The Grand Lodge of Ireland is the second oldest Grand Lodge in the world.  Although there is no definitive evidence that operative lodges existed in Ireland, speculative Irish Masonry can be traced to June 26, 1725, when the Grand Lodge of Dublin elected its first Grand Master, the First Earl of Rosse.   Interestingly, however, according to Wikipedia, a brass square, the Baal’s Bridge Square, dating back to 1507 contains the following inscription: “I will strive to live with love and care, upon the level and by the square.”

Masonic Craft Guilds

Originally, craft guilds in Britain existed to provide high standards of technical workmanship, to protect trade secrets, and provide rules for governing members and membership. All this was true for a variety of trade crafts.  Typically, guilds tended to be local, with members residing in the same, small geographic area, where they fulfilled their careers throughout their life.  Like other guilds, the masons, through financial contributions, helped feed sick members who were unable to work; in addition, the funds helped offset the cost of funeral arrangements. Guild members also worshipped together. However, unlike other guilds, masons travelled throughout England and Scotland, searching for work, and their organizations tended to be regional in nature.

Early British Lodges

Documented accounts from 1277 indicate that physical lodges were not only places where masons worked, as in Europe, but also where Masons resided.  It is where they slept and ate their meals, allowing workers to avoid the issues associated with traveling to work from the local village, oftentimes a long distance away. In 1598 we learn via the minutes from Scotland’s Aitchison Lodge that the lodge was not only a physical structure, but also a community.6

(In the next edition of the Maven’s Journal the story continues, including a description of the different grades of membership in British lodges.)


1 Christopher Hodapp, Freemasons for Dummies, (Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2005) p. 25
2 Robert Gilbert and John Hamill, Freemasonry: A Celebration of the Craft, (J. G. Press, 1993), p. 13
3 Albert G. Mackey and Charles T. Clenachan, Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, (The Masonic History Company, 1920) p. 464
4 Giles Morgan, Freemasonry: It’s History and Myths Revealed, (Fall River Press, 2008) p. 96
5 Christopher Hodapp, Freemasons for Dummies, (Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2005) p. 26
6 Michael Johnstone, The Freemasons: The Illustrated Book of an Ancient Brotherhood, (Arcturus Publishing, 2012) p. 36