The Historical Origins of Freemasonry


Anderson tells us, in the second edition of the Book of Constitutions, that in the year 1719,

"at some private Lodges several very valuable manuscripts concerning the Fraternity, their Lodges, Regulations, Charges, Secrets, and Usages, were too hastily burnt by some scrupulous Brothers, that these papers might not fall into strange hands." [i]

Fortunately, this destruction was not universal. The manuscripts to which Anderson alludes were undoubtedly those Old Constitutions of the Operative Masons, several copies of which, that had escaped the holocaust described by him, have since been discovered in the British Museum, in old libraries, or in the archives of Lodges, and have been published by those who have discovered them. [ii]

These are the documents which have received the title of "Old Records," "Old Charges," or "Old Constitutions." Their general character is the same. Indeed, there is so much similarity, and almost identity, in their contents as to warrant the presumption that they are copies of some earlier document not yet recovered.

The earliest of these documents is a manuscript poem, entitled the Constitutiones artis geometriae, secundum Eucleydem, which is preserved in the British Museum, and which was published in 1840 by Mr. Halliwell, in his Early History of Freemasonry in England. The date of this manuscript is supposed to be about the year 1390. A second and enlarged edition was published in 1844.

The next of the English manuscripts is that which was published in 1861 by Bro. Matthew Cooke from the original in the British Museum, and which was once the property of Mrs. Caroline Baker, from whom it was purchased in 1859 by the Curators of the Museum. The date of this manuscript is supposed to be about 1490.

All the English Masonic antiquarians concur in the opinion that this manuscript is next in antiquity to the Halliwell poem, though there is a difference of about one hundred years in their respective dates. It is, however, mere guesswork to say that there were not other manuscripts in the intervening period. But as none have been discovered, they must be considered as non-existent, and it is impossible even to conjecture, from any groundwork on which we can stand, whether, if such manuscripts did ever exist, they partook more of the features of the Halliwell or of the Cooke document, or whether they presented the form of a gradual transmission from the one to the other.

The Cooke MS. is far more elaborate in its arrangement and its details than the Halliwell, and contains the Legend of the Craft in a more extended form. In the absence of any other earlier document of the same kind, it must be considered as the matrix, as it were, in which that Legend, in the form in which it appears in all the later manuscripts, was moulded.

In the year 1815, Mr. James Dowland published, in the Gentleman's Magazine, [iii] the copy of an old manuscript which had lately come into his possession, and which he described as being "written on a long roll of parchment, in a very clear hand, apparently early in the 17th century, and very probably is copied from a manuscript of an earlier date." Although not as old as the Halliwell and Cooke MSS., it is deemed of very great value, because it comes next to them in date, and is apparently the first of that series of later manuscripts, so many of which have, within the past few years, been recovered.

It is evidently based on the Cooke MS., though not an exact copy of it. But the later manuscripts comprising that series, at the head of which it stands, so much resemble it in details, and even in phraseology, that they must either have been copies made from it, or, what is far more probable, copies of some older and common original, of which it also is a copy. The original manuscript which was used by Dowland for the publication in the Gentleman's Magazine is lost, or can not now be found. But Mr. Woodford and other competent authorities ascribe the year 1550 as being about its date.

Several other manuscript Constitutions, whose dates vary from the middle of the 16th to the beginning of the 18th century, have since been discovered and published, principally by the industrious labors of Brothers Hughan and Woodford in England, and Brother Lyon in Scotland.

The following list gives the titles and conjectural dates of the most important of these manuscripts: [iv]

Halliwell MS..... 1390

Cooke MS..... 1490

Dowland MS..... 1500

Landsdowne MS..... 1560

York MS., No. 1..... 1600

Harleian MS., NO. 2054..... 1625

Grand Lodge MS..... 1632

Sloane MS., NO. 3848..... 1646

Sloane MS., NO. 3323..... 1659

Harleian MS., No. 1942..... supposed, 1660.

Aitcheson-Haven MS..... ;1666

Edinburgh-Kilwinning MS.....supposed, 1670.

York MS., No. 5 ..... 1670

York MS., No. 6..... 1680

Lodge of Antiquity MS..... 1686.

York MS., No. 2..... 1693

Alnwick MS.....1701

York MS., No. 4..... 1704

Papworth MS..... supposed, 1714.

All of these manuscripts begin, except the Halliwell poem, with an invocation to the Trinity. Then follows a descant on the seven liberal arts and sciences, of which the fifth, or Geometry, is said to be Masonry. This is succeeded by a traditional history of Masonry, from the days of Lamech to the reign of King Athelstan of England. The manuscripts conclude with a series of "charges," or regulations, for the government of the Craft while they were of a purely operative character. ;

The traditional history which constitutes the first part of these "Old Records" is replete with historical inaccuracies, with anachronisms, and even with absurdities. And yet it is valuable, because it forms the germ of that system of Masonic history which was afterward developed by such writers as Anderson, Preston, and Oliver, and from whose errors the iconoclasts of the present day are successfully striving to free the Institution, so as to give its history a more rational and methodic form.

This traditional history is presented to us in all the manuscripts, in an identity of form, or, at least, with very slight verbal differences. These differences are, indeed, so slight that they suggest the strong probability of a common source for all these documents, either in the oral teaching of the older Masons, or in some earlier record that has not yet been recovered. The tradition seems always to have secured the unhesitating belief of the Fraternity as a true relation of the origin and the progress of Masonry, and hence it has received the title of the Legend of the Craft.

From the zealous care with which many manuscripts containing this legend were destroyed in 1719 by "scrupulous brothers" who were opposed to its publication, we might believe that it formed a part of the esoteric instructions of the Guild of Operative Masons. If so, it lost this secret character by the publication of Roberts's edition of the "Constitutions" in 1722.

In the earlier German and French Masonic records, such as the Ordenung dey Steinmetzen at Strasburg in 1462, and the Reglements sur les Arts et Metiers at Paris in the 12th century, there is no appearance of this legend. But it does not follow from this that no such legend existed among the French and German Masons. Indeed, as it is well known that early English Operative Masonry was derived from the continent, it is natural to suppose that the continental Masons brought the legend into England.

There is, besides, internal evidence in the English manuscripts of both French and German interpolations. The reference in the Legend to Charles Martel connects it with the French Masonry of the 12th century, and the invocation to the "Four Crowned Martyrs" [v] in the Halliwell MS. is undoubtedly of German origin. [vi]

The importance of this Legend in the influence that it exerted for a long period on the Craft as the accredited history of the Institution makes it indispensably necessary that it should form a part of any work that professes to treat of the history of Masonry.

For this purpose I have selected the Dowland MS., because it is admitted to be the oldest of those that assumed that general form which was followed in all the subsequent manuscripts, between which and it there is no substantial difference.


[i] Anderson's " Constitutions," 1738, P. 111

[ii] Among these writers we must not omit to mention Bro. William James Hughan, facile princeps of all Masonic antiquarians, who made, in 1872, a valuable contribution to this literature, under the title of "The Old Charges of the British Freemasons," the value of which is enhanced by the learned Preface of Bro. A.F.A. Woodford

[iii] Gentleman's Magazine, vol. 85, P. 489, May, 1815.

[iv] I have relied on the excellent authority of Rev. A.F.A. Woodford for the dates. See Hoghan's "Old Charges of the British Freemasons," p. xii.

[v] Die heiligen Vier gekronten, "Ordenung der Steinmetz, zu Strasburg, 1459," and in all the other German Constitutions, ;

[vi] Findel thinks that this invocation to the Four Crowned Martyrs " must be regarded as a most decided proof of the identity of the German and English Stonemasons, and of their having one common parentage." ("Geschichte der Frei Maurerei." Lyon's translation, p. 31.) Woodford does not concur with this view, but I think without good reason.

"If I have seen further than
others, it is by standing
upon the shoulders of giants."


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