The Historical Origins of Freemasonry


From the time of the conquest of Britain by Claudius to the final evacuation of the island by the Romans in the beginning of the 5th century, a period of about three hundred and fifty years had elapsed. During this long occupation the Romans had held, if not undisputed, at least dominant sway over the greater part of the island.

Roman legions had been permanently stationed in different towns; Roman colonies had been established; Roman citizens had immigrated and settled in greater numbers; Roman arts and civilization had been introduced; and, as we have already shown in a preceding chapter, the native inhabitants had become almost Romanized in their manners and customs.

It is not to be supposed that the domination for so long a continuity of years of a powerful empire, distinguished for its cultivation of the arts, should not have been productive of the effects that must always result from the protracted mixture of a refined with an uncivilized people. Among the arts introduced by the Romans, there is none that could have so much attracted the attention of the natives as that of architecture.

Of all the methods of human industry that are intended to supply the wants or promote the comforts of life, the art of building is placed in the most prominent position. All the arts says Cicero, which relate to humanity have a certain bond of union and a kind of kinship to each other. But it must be acknowledged that the art which proposes to secure to man a protection from the elements and a shelter from the inclemencies of the seasons must hold the highest place in the family scale.

It is the first art that man cultivates in his progress from utter barbarism to civilization. It is the most salient mark of that progress. No sooner did the primitive Troglodytes emerge from their cave dwellings than they began to erect, however rudely, huts for their habitation. And so when a nation or a tribe begins to make an advancement in civilization, its first step is to improve its mode of dwelling.

When conquest brings a superior race to ail ignorant and uncultured people, the industrial arts of the former are speedily diffused among the latter, and architecture, as the most striking and the most useful, more speedily attracts the attention and is more readily imitated than any other. When the Romans first invaded Britain they found the country inhabited by various tribes deriving their origin from different nomadic stocks, and therefore somewhat heterogeneous in their condition and their habits.

The Belgians, for instance, who had passed over from Gaul and occupied, by the right of conquest, the coast bordering on the British Channel, were an agricultural people, and are described by Camar as being more advanced in the arts of civilized life than the tribes in the interior who were pastoral, who lived on milk and flesh and were clothed in skins. Mela Pomponius, the Roman geographer, who wrote about the same time, describes the Britons as being in general uncivilized and much behind the continental nations in their social culture. Fields and cattle constituted their only wealth.

Mr. Wright, in an Essay of the Ethnology of South Britain at the Extinction of the Roman Government, says that:

"we may form a notion best and most correctly of the mode of life and of the degree of civilization of the ancient Britons, by comparing them with what we know of those of the wild Irish and of the Celtic highlanders of Scotland in the Middle Ages.

Living in sects or clans, each collected round a petty chieftain, who had his residence or place of refuge in the least accessible part of his little territory, they had no towns, properly so called, and no tie of union except the temporary one of war or a nominal dependence on some powerful chieftain who had induced by some means, a certain number of the smaller clans to acknowledge his sovereignty." [i]

Their houses, says Turner, were chiefly formed of reeds or wood, and were usually seated in the midst of woods, a space being cleared on which they built their huts and folded their cattle. [ii] The improved condition of Britain, in consequence of their intercourse with their more civilized conquerors, is thus described by Mr.Wright:

"Under the Romans, on the contrary, Britain consisted politically of a number of cities or towns, each possessing its own independent municipal government, republican in form and principle within themselves, but united under the empire through the fiscal government of the province to which they were tributary.

Each of these cities inhabited by foreigners to the island, was expected to defend itself if attacked, while three legions and numerous bodies of auxiliaries protected the province from hostilities from without and held it internally in obedience to the imperial government. The country was unimportant and the towns were everything." [iii]

The numerous inscriptions found in England in recent times prove another fact, namely, that the legionary troops which were sent from Rome to Britain did not pay merely ephemeral or transitory visits, from which no important influence could have been derived, but that they remained in the same locality during the whole occupation of the country by the Romans, and actually constituted military colonies, making homes in the towns in which they lived, and insensibly imparting the use of the Latin language and the adoption of Roman manners to the people.

So much, in fact, did they become identified with the native inhabitants, that they often made common cause with them in tumults or insurrections against the imperial government. The result of this constant intercommunication must have been just that which might anywhere, under such circumstances, have been expected.

The architects who accompanied the legions in their visits to Britain and who remained with them during its occupation did not confine their labors to the construction of military works, such as the erection of defensive walls and fortresses. They engaged during the period tranquillity which had been secured by the presence of strong bodies of troops in the peaceful avocations of their art.

They organized their Colleges of Artificers, which, considering the works in which they were engaged, might correctly be designated as Colleges of Masons; they began the building of temples and other public edifices; they took to their assistance the more intelligent natives, and introduced their Roman architecture by methods which imitated those of the Colleges at home.

The rude huts of the native Britons were replaced by more comfortable houses, and the art of building, under the guidance of the Roman Masons, assumed a new form and was prosecuted by new methods, which thus introduced the character and customs of the Roman Colleges into the island, and thus by the example of associated workmen continued the chain of connection which was to be more fully extended in Anglo-Saxon times by the establishment of building guilds.

Tacitus has shown us, in his Life of Agricola, how and at what an early period this system of Romanizing Britain began. In the last quarter of the 1st Christian century, Agricola arrived in Britain, having been appointed governor of the province. The island, which had hardly yet recovered from the recent insurrection of Queen Boadicea, was still in an insurgent condition.

The first efforts of Agricola were of course directed to the restoration of peace and order, and to the correction of civil and political abuses. His next business was to introduce a system of regulations whose tendency should be to civilize the natives. He encouraged them, therefore, says Tacitus, [iv] by his exhortations and aided them by public assistance to build temples, courts of justice, and commodious dwellings.

He praised those who were cheerful in their obedience; he reproached those who were slow and uncomplying, and thus excited a spirit of emulation. He established a plan of education and caused the sons of the chiefs to be instructed in learning and to cultivate the Latin language.

The Roman dress was adopted by many, and the Britons, allured by the luxurious example of their conquerors, began to erect baths and porticoes and to indulge in sumptuous banquets. To do all this was not within the narrow scope of native skill. In the erection of these improved edifices the Britons, being only partly reclaimed from their pristine barbarity, must have invoked and received the advice and assistance of the Roman architects.

The cooperative and guild-like methods of building practiced by these, as well as their skill in architecture, was thus imparted to the Britons. What had been wisely begun by Agricola was as wisely imitated by his successors in the provincial government, and the Roman Collegiate system was completely established in the island long before the extinction of the Roman domination and the fall of the Roman empire.

That the builders or Masons introduced into Rome, or educated there by their Roman Masters, had increased to a very great number is evident from a remark of the panegyrist Eumenius in his Panegyric of the Emperor Maximian. He describes the ancient Gallic city of Bibracte, afterward Augustodunum, but now the modern Autun, which abounds in the remains of Roman architecture, many of them in a good state of preservation.

The re-edification of private houses and the construction of temples and other buildings with which Maximian had embellished the city, he attributes to the concourse of architects whom the emperor had brought from Britain, which province, he says, abounded with them. The number of these Roman architects in Britain was so great and their skill so preeminent, that, as we shoal hereafter see they were exported into many of the continental cities to construct buildings in the Roman method.

The remains of Roman buildings found at different times in England and a multitude of ancient inscriptions testify to the fact that the conquerors had brought their architectural art with them into Britain. But the mere existence of pieces of architecture would not alone serve to establish the connection of these Roman architects and their British disciples with the mediaeval guilds.

In this way we might, as Anderson has done, write a history of architecture, but would hardly be authorized to call it a history of Freemasonry. It is necessary to show that the Roman architects not only brought with them their skill in the art of building but also introduced the associated methods of organization which had been practiced by the ancient Roman Colleges.

Of this we have ample evidence. The Reverend James Dallaway, in his Collections for an Historical Account of Masters and Free Masons, appended

to his Discourses upon Architecture in England, says that the first notice that occurs of an associated body of Roman artificers who had established themselves in Britain is a votive inscription in which the College of Masons dedicate a temple to Neptune and Minerva, and to the safety of the family of Claudius Caesar.

It was discovered at Chichester in the year 1725. It is a slab of gray Sussex marble and was found by the workmen who were digging a cellar and who ignorantly or carelessly fractured it. Having been pieced together the slab is now preserved at Goodwood, the seat of the Duke of Richmond, near Chichester. In his History of West Sussex, Mr. Dallaway gives a facsimile of the slab and the inscription, which is in the following words:



GIDVBNI. R. IC. . . . . . CAI. BRIT. . . . . GIVM.



The original is here given, to furnish to the unlearned reader an idea of the character of the inscriptions, which are the palpable monuments of the labors of these Colleges of Artificers, which have been found in all countries into which the Romans extended their power.

The literal, but in some places conjectural, translation of this inscription is as follows:

"The College of Artificers and they who there fireside over the sacred rites by authority of King Cogidubnus, the Legate of Tiberius Claudius Augustus in Britain, dedicated this Temple to Neptune and Minerva, for the welfare of the imperial family. Pudens, the son of Pudentinus,having given the site."

In an article on the Origin and Progress of Gothic Architecture, by Governor Pownall, inserted in the 9th volume of the Archaeologia of the London Society of Antiquaries, this subject of the influence of the Roman artists on the native Britons is exhibited in an interesting point of view.

When the Romans conquered and held possession of our isle, says Governor Pownall, they erected every sort of building and edifice of stone or of a mixture of stone and brick, and universally built with the circular arch. The British learned their arts from these Masters.

But the Continent being more subject to the ravages of invading barbarians than the isolated province of Britain, many of the Gaulish cities and the fortresses on the Rhine were destroyed. And when Constantius Chlorus resolved, at the close of the 3rd century, to rebuild them, he sent to Britain for architects to execute the work of re-edification.

By this withdrawal of the builders from the island of Britain and by transferring them to the Continent, Britain itself soon lost the knowledge which it had formerly acquired of the Roman architecture.

But after the establishment of the Christian religion in the empire, missionaries being sent to the provinces to convert the inhabitants, they brought with them from Rome not only the new religion but a revived knowledge of the arts, and especially of architecture, which was necessary for the building of churches.

As to the influence produced upon the Britons by their conversion to Christianity, Camden tells us that no sooner was the name of Christ preached in the English nation, than with a most fervent zeal they consecrated themselves to it and laid out their utmost endeavors to promote it by discharging all the duties of Christian piety, by erecting churches and endowing them; so that no part of the Christian world could show either more or richer monasteries.[v]

Thus the skill, which for a time had been suspended if not lost, was again revived by the architects and builders who were again brought from Rome to Britain by the Christian missionaries, who, says Pownall, were the restorers of the Roman architecture in stone.

The huge buildings of stone erected by the monks in England, ought perhaps to be attributed to a later period when the Saxons had gained possesion of the island But as Christianity had been introduced into England before that period and under the Roman domination, we may accede to the hypothesis that some of that kind of work was done at that early period.

We may, therefore, grant a large amount of plausibility to that part of the Legend of the Craft which reports the tradition that under the usurped reign of Carausius, St. Alban had organized the fraternity of Masons and bestowed upon them his patronage.

Whether the Legend is correct or not in attributing this important work to the protomartyr, it may at least be accepted as traditionally preserving the historical fact that Freemasonry was reorganized after the Roman method by the Christian missionaries.

There is abundant evidence in the old chronicles that the method of building in stone and with circular arches was always designated as opus Romanum or the Roman work, and an edifice so constructed was said to be built more Romanum, or according to the Roman method.

The error of the legendists, however, is that they attributed personally to Carausius, the usurper of the imperial power, the patronage of Masonry and the appointment of St. Alban as his chief architect or Master Mason; an error in which they have been followed by Anderson and all other Masonic writers. Of this statement there is no competent historical evidence.

Bede, Matthew of Westminster, and all the other old chroniclers, describe Carausius as a man of very mean extraction, treacherous to the government which employed him, unfaithful to the people whom he was sent to protect, sacrificing their interests to his own greed for spoil, and distinguished only for his ability as a soldier.

Of the piety and Christian constancy of Alban the same writers are lavish in their praises, but they make no reference to his skill as an architect or to his labors under Carausius as a builder. Even of his martyrdom there are said to be great chronological difficulties.

Matthew of Westminster places its date eleven years after the death of Carausius. This would not militate against his previous employment by Carausius as the steward of his household, to use the words of Anderson, and the Master of his works, if there were any historical evidence of the fact.

If we appeal to the testimony of Camden, whose laborious researches have left no authority uncollected and no statement unexamined which refer to the early history of Britain under the Romans, we shall find no support for the traditions of the legendists or for their expansion by Anderson and the writers who have servilely followed him.

Of Carausius we only learn from Camden that after his reconciliation with Maximian, he governed Britain in perfect peace, and that he repaired the wall at the mouth of the Clud and fortified it with seven castles. [vi] The only reference made by Camden to St. Alban is in a passage where he says that toward the end of Diocletian's and Maximian's reign a long and bloody persecution broke out in the Western Church and many Christians suffered martyrdom, among the chief of whom he names Albanus Verolamiensis or St. Alban. But he makes no allusion to him as an architect, nor does he mention the name of the apocryphal Amphibalus.

Further on he attributes to the town of Verulam the honor of having given birth to St. Alban, whom he calls a man justly eminent for his piety and steadiness in the Christian faith; who with an invincible constancy of mind suffered martyrdom the first man in Britain. [vii] He relates the legends which were extant in connection with his passion, but while he dwells on his piety and his constancy to the faith which gave him all his fame, he says nothing of his labors as an architect nor does he in any way connect him with Carausius.

We must, therefore, reject the whole story of Carausius and St. Alban as apocryphal; so far as it implies that the Emperor was a great patron of Masonry and the Saint his Master Workman, we find no historical foundation for it; but we may accept it as a mythical statement, the true interpretation of which is that there was a revival of Masonry in England toward the time of the extinction of the Roman , through the influence of the Christian missionaries, a fact for the truth of which we have, as has already been seen, sufficient authority.

Anderson says that the true old Masonry departed from Britain with the Roman legions; for though many Roman families had settled in the south and were blended with the Britons, who had been well educated in the science and the art, yet the subsequent wars, confusions, and revolutions in this island, ruined ancient learning, till all the fine artists were dead without exception.[viii]

Mr. Fergusson, a more learned and more accurate writer than Anderson, has arrived at almost the same conclusion. He says:

"When Rome withdrew her protecting care, France, Spain, and Britain relapsed into, and for centuries remained sunk in, a state of anarchy and barbarism as bad if not worse than that in which Rome had found them three or four centuries before. It was in vain to expect that the hapless natives could maintain either the arts or the institutions with which Rome had endowed them." [ix]

But Fergusson subsequently makes a very important admission which greatly modifies the opinion he had just expressed when, in continuing the paragraph, he says:

But it is natural to suppose that they would remember the evidences of her greatness and her power, and would hardly go back for their sepulchers to the unchambered mole-hill barrows of their fore-fathers, but attempt something in stone, though only in such rude fashion as the state of the arts among them enabled them to execute.

This is all that the theory advanced in this work contends for. The assertion of Anderson is altogether too sweeping and general. That of Fergusson admits that the influences of Roman domination had not been entirely obliterated by the departure of the legions. Rome, which had administered the government for centuries, could hardly fail, to use his own language, to leave some impress of her magnificence in lands which she had so long occupied.

The concurrent testimony of all historians will not permit us to deny or to doubt that after the extinction of the Roman dominion in Britain, there was a decadence of architecture as well as of the other arts. But this did not amount to a total destruction, but only to a suspension. Nations who have emerged from barbarism to civilization, and who for centuries have enjoyed the refinements of culture, do not at once relapse into their primitive savage state.

There was certainly not sufficient time for the exhibition of this ethnological curiosity in the period embraced between the departure of the Romans and the firm establishment of the Anglo-Saxons. Nor was there that isolation which was necessary to hasten this fall from national light to national darkness. The southern parts of Britain, at least, were in too close a propinquity to more civilized and more Romanized Gaul to lose at once all traces of Roman refinement.

And above all, the presence and the influence of the Christian missionaries who, coming from Rome, were uninterruptedly engaged in the task of converting the natives to the new faith, must have been a powerful stay to any downward progress to utter barbarism. The links of the chain that united the builders of Britain with those of Rome had only rusted; they were not rudely snapped asunder.

The influence of the methods of building pursued by the Roman Colleges of Artificers, who had done so much work and left so many memorials in Britain, were still to be felt and to be renewed when these links were strengthened and brightened by the Anglo- Saxons. But this is anew and an important subject that demands consideration in another chapter for it brings us to an interesting phase in the history of Freemasonry.



[i] Thomas Wright, "Essays on Archaeological Subjects," vol. i., p. 68.



[ii] "History of the Anglo-Saxons," vol. i., p. 64.

[iii] "Essays on Archaeological Subjects," vol. i., p. 69.

[iv] "Vita Agricolze," cap. xxi.

[v] Camden, "Britannia," p. cxxxii.

[vi] Camden, "Britarinia," p. lxxiv.

[vii] Camden, "Britannia," p. 296.

[viii] "Constitutions," second edition, p. 59.

[ix] Fergusson, "Rude Stone Monuments," p. 394.

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


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