The Historical Origins of Freemasonry


The Legend of the Craft now proceeds to narrate the history of the introduction of Masonry into England, in the time of St. Alban, who lived in the 3d century.

The Legend referring to the protomartyr of England is not mentioned in the Halliwell poem, but is first found in the Cooke MS., in the following words:

"And sone after that come seynt Adhabell into Englond, and he convertyd seynt Albon to cristendome. And seynt Albon lovyd well masons, and he gaf hem fyrst her charges and maners fyrst in Englond. And he ordeyned convenyent [i] to pay for their travayle." [ii]

The later manuscripts say nothing of St. Adhabell, and it is not until we get to the Krause MS. in the beginning of the 18th century, that we find any mention of St. Amphibalus, who is described in that document as having been the teacher of St. Alban. But St. Amphibalus, of which the Adhabell of the Cooke MS. is undoubtedly a corruption, is so apocryphal a personage, that I am rejoiced that the later legendists have not thought proper to follow the Cooke document and give him a place in the Legend.

In fact, amphibalum was the ecclesiastical name of a cloak, worn by priests of the Romish Church over their other vestments. [iii] It was a vestment ecclesiastically transmuted into a saint, as the handkerchief on which Christ left the image of His face when, as it is said, it was handed to Him on His way to Calvary, by a pious Jewess, became from the Greco-Latin vera icon, "the true image," converted into St. Veronica. The Masonic are not the only legendists who draw deeply on our credulity.

Of St. Alban, ecclesiastical history furnishes only the following meager details, and even of these some are apocryphal, or at least lack the stamp of authenticity. He was born (so runs the tradition) in the 3d century, in Hertfordshire, England, near the town of Verulanium. Going to Rome, he served for seven years as a soldier under the Emperor Diocletian. He then returned with a companion and preceptor Amphibalus, to Britain, and betook himself to Verulanium.

When the persecutions of the Christians commenced in Britain, Amphibalus was sought for, as one who had apostatized to the new religion; but as he could not be found, St. Alban voluntarily presented himself to the judge, and after undergoing torture was imprisoned. Soon after this, the retreat of Amphibalus having been discovered, both he and St. Alban suffered death for being Christians.

Four centuries after his martyrdom, Offa, King of the Mercians, erected a monastery at Holmehurst, the hill where he was buried, and soon after the town of St. Albans arose in its vicinity. When the Christian religion became predominant in England, the Church paid great honors to the memory of the protomartyr. A chapel was erected over his grave which, according to the Venerable Bede, was of admirable workmanship.

The Masonic Legend contains details which are not furnished by the religious one. According to it, St. Alban was the steward of the household of Carausius, he who had revolted from the Emperor Maximilian, and usurped the sovereignty of England. Carausius employed him in building the town walls. St. Alban, thus receiving the superintendence of the Craft, treated them with great kindness, increased their pay, and gave them a charter to hold a general assembly. He assisted them in making Masons, and framed for them a constitution - for such is the meaning of the phrase, "gave them charges."

Now, there is sufficient historical evidence to show that architecture was introduced into England by the Roman artificers, who followed, as was their usage, the Roman legions, habilitated themselves in the conquered colonies, and engaged in the construction not only of camps and fortifications, but also when peace was restored in the building of temples and even private edifices. Architectural ruins and Latin inscriptions, which still remain in many parts of Britain, attest the labors and the skill of these Roman artists, and sustain the statement of the Legend, that Masonry, which, it must be remembered, is, in the Old Records, only a synonym of architecture, was introduced into England during the period of its Roman colonization.

As to the specific statement that St. Alban was the patron of Masons, that he exercised the government of a chief over the Craft, and improved their condition by augmenting their wages, we may explain this as the expression of a symbolical idea, in which history is not altogether falsified, but only its dates and personages confused. Carausius, the Legend does not mention by name. It simply refers to some King of England, of whose household St. Alban was the steward.

Carausius assumed the imperial purple in the year in which St. Alban suffered martyrdom. The error of making him the patron of St. Alban is not, therefore, to be attributed to the legendist, but to Dr. Anderson, who first perpetrated this chronological blunder in the second edition of his Constitutions. And though he states that "this is asserted by all the old copies of the Constitutions," we fail to find it in any that are now extant.

This "Legend of St. Alban," as it has been called, is worthy of a farther consideration. The foundation of this symbolical narrative was first laid by the writer of the Cooke MS., or, rather, copied by him from the tradition existing among the Craft at that time. Its form was subsequently modified and the details extended in the Dowland MS., for tradition always grows in the progress of time. This form and these details were preserved in all the succeeding manuscript Constitutions, until they were still further altered and enlarged by Anderson, Preston, and other Masonic historians of the last century.

With the gratuitous accretions of these later writers we have no concern in any attempted explanation of the actual signification of the Legend.

Its true form and spirit are to be found only in the Dowland MS. of the middle of the 16th century, and in those which were copied from it, up to the Papworth, at the beginning of the 18th. To these, and not to anything written after the period of the Revival, we must direct our attention.

Admitting that on the conquest of England by the Roman power, the architects who had accompanied the victorious legions introduced into the conquered colony their architectural skill, it is very likely that some master workmen among them had been more celebrated than others for their skill, and, indeed, it is naturally to be supposed that to such skillful builders the control of the Craft must have been confided.

Whether there were one or more of these chief architects, St. Alban, if not actually one of them, was, by the lapse of time and the not unusual process by which legendary or oral accretions are superimposed on a plain historical fact, adopted by the legendists as their representative. Who was the principal patron of the Architects or Masons during the time of the colonization of England by the Romans, is not so material as is the fact that architecture, with other branches of civilization, was introduced at that era into the island by its conquerors.

This is an historical fact, and in this point the Legend of the Craft agrees with authentic history. But it is also an historical fact that when, by the pressure of the Northern hordes of barbarians upon Rome, it was found necessary to withdraw all the legions from the various colonies which they protected from exterior enemies and restrained from interior insurrection, the arts and sciences, and among them architecture, began to decline in England.

The natives, with the few Roman colonists who had permanently settled among them, were left to defend themselves from the incursions of the Picts on the north, and the Danish and Saxon pirates in the east and south. The arts of civilization suffered a depression in the tumult of war. Science can not flourish amid the clang and clash of arms. This depression and suspension of all architectural progress in England, which continued for some centuries, is thus expressed in the quaint language of the Legend:

"Right soone after the decease of Saint Albone, there came divers wars into the realme of England of divers Nations, soe that the good rule of Masonrye was destroyed unto the tyme of Kinge Athelstone's days."

There is far more of history than of fiction in this part of the Legend. The next point of the Legend of the Craft to which our attention is to be directed, is that which relates to the organization of Masonry at the city of York, in the 10th century. This part of the Legend is of far more importance than any of those which have been considered.

The prehistoric here verges so closely upon the historic period, that the true narrative of the rise and progress of Masonry can not be justly understood until each of these prehistoric and historic elements has been carefully relegated to its appropriate period. This will constitute the subject matter of the next chapter.


[i] Cooke translates this "convenient times," supplying the second word. But a more correct word is suitable or proper, which is an old meaning of convenient. "He ordained suitable pay for their labor," and this agrees with the Iater manuscripts which impress the fact that St. Alban "made their pay right good."

[ii] Cooke MS., lines 602 - 611.

[iii] It is significant that among the spurious relics sent, when fearing the Danish invasion, in the reign of Edward the Confessor, by the Abbot of St. Albans, to the monks of Ely, was a very rough, shagged old coat, which it was said had been usually worn by St. Amphibalus.

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


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