The Historical Origins of Freemasonry


Linking the Invention of Freemasonry to an Effort to Dethrone the King

Three fables have been invented to establish a connection between Freemasonry and the dynasty of the Stuarts one which made it the purpose of the adherents of James II to use the Institution as a means of restoring that monarch to the throne; a second in which the Jesuits were to employ it for the same purpose, as well as for the re-establishment of the Roman Catholic religion in England; the third and most preposterous of these fables is that which attributes the invention of Freemasonry as a secret society to Oliver Cromwell, who is supposed to have employed it as a political engine to aid him in the dethronement of Charles I, in the abolition of the monarchy, and in the foundation of a republic on its ruins, with himself for its head.

The first and second of these fables have already been discussed. The consideration of the third will be the subject of the present chapter. The theory that Freemasonry was instituted by Oliver Cromwell was not at first received like the other two by any large portion of the fraternity. It was the invention of a single mind and was first made public in the year 1746, by the Abbe Larudan, who presented his views in a work entitled Les Franc-Macons Ecrasses, a book which Klass, the bibliographer, says is the armory from which all the enemies of Masonry have since delved their weapons of abuse.

The propositions of Larudan are distinguished for their absolute independence of all historical authority and for the bold assumptions which are presented to the reader in the place of facts. His strongest argument for the truth of his theory is that the purposes of the Masonic Institution and of the political course of Cromwell are identical, namely, to sustain the doctrines of liberty and equality among mankind.

Rejecting all the claims to antiquity that have been urged in behalf of the Institution, he thinks that it was in England where the Order of Freemasonry first saw the light of day, and that it is to Cromwell that it owes its origin. And this theory he claims, with what truth we know not, to have received from a certain Grand Master with whose astuteness and sincerity he was well acquainted. But, even this authority, he says, would not have been sufficient to secure his belief, had it not afterward been confirmed by his reading of the history of the English Protector and his mature reflections on the morals and the laws of the Order, where he detected at every step the presence of Cromwell.

The object of Cromwell, as it has been already said, was by the organization of a secret society, whose members would be bound by the most solemn ties of fraternity, to reconcile the various religions and political sects which prevailed in England in the reign of Charles I to the prosecution of his views. These views were equally opposed to the supremacy of the king and to the power of the Parliament, and as a consequence of the destruction of both, to the elevation of himself to the headship of affairs. In the execution of this plan, Cromwell proceeded with his usual caution and address.

He first submitted the outline to several of his most intimate friends such as Algernon Sidney, Harrington, Monk, and Fairfax, and he held with them several private meetings. But, it was not until the year 1648 that he began to take the necessary steps for bringing it to maturity. In that year, at a dinner which he gave to a large number of his friends, he opened his designs to the company.

When his guests, among whom were many members of Parliament, both Presbyterians and Independents the two rival religious sects of the day, had been well feasted, the host dexterously led the conversation to the subject of the unhappy condition of England. He showed in a pathetic manner how the unfortunate nation had suffered distracting conflicts of politics and religion, and he declared that it was a disgrace that men so intelligent as those who then heard him did not make an exertion to put an end to these distracting contests of party.

Scarcely had Cromwell ceased to speak when Ireton, his son-in-law, who had been prepared for the occasion, rose, and, seconding the sentiments of his leader, proceeded to show the absolute necessity for the public good of a conciliation and union of the many discordant parties which were then dividing the country. He exclaimed with fervor that he would not, himself, hesitate to sacrifice his fortune and his life to remedy such calamities, and to show to the people the road they ought to take, to relieve themselves from the yoke which was oppressing them and to break the iron scepter under which they were groaning.

But, to do this, it was first necessary, he insisted, to destroy every power and influence which had betrayed the nation. Then, turning to Cromwell, he conjured him to explain his views on this important matter, and to suggest the cure for these evils. Cromwell did not hesitate to accept the task which had, apparently without his previous concurrence, been assigned to him.

Addressing his guests in that metaphorical style which he was accustomed to use, and the object of which was to confuse their intellects and make them more ready to receive his boldest propositions, he explained the obligation of a worship of God, the necessity to repel force by force, and to deliver mankind from oppression and tyranny.

He then concluded his speech, exciting the curiosity of his auditors by telling them that he knew a method by which they could succeed in this great enterprise, restore peace to England, and rescue it from the depth of misery into which it was plunged. This method, he added, if communicated to the world, would win the gratitude of mankind and secure a glorious memory for its authors to the latest posterity.

The discourse was well managed and well received. All of his guests earnestly besought him to make this admirable expedient known to them. But Cromwell would not yield at once to their importunities, but modestly replying that so important an enterprise was beyond the strength of any one man to accomplish, and that he would rather continue to endure the evils of a bad government than, in seeking to remove them by the efforts of his friends, to subject them to dangers which they might be unwilling to encounter.

Cromwell well understood the character of every man who sat at the table with him, and he knew that by this artful address he should still further excite their curiosity and awaken their enthusiasm. And so, it was that, after a repetition of importunities, he finally consented to develop his scheme, on the condition that all the guests should take a solemn oath to reveal the plan to no one and to consider it after it had been proposed with absolutely unprejudiced mind. This was unanimously assented to, and, the oath of secrecy having been taken, Cromwell threw himself on his knees and, extending his hands toward heaven, called on God and all the celestial powers to witness the innocence of his heart and the purity of his intentions.

All this the Abbe Larudan relates with a minuteness of detail which we could expect only from an eye-witness of the scene. Having thus made a deep impression on his guests, Cromwell said that the precise moment for disclosing the plan had not arrived, and that an inspiration from heaven, which he had just received, instructed him not to divulge it until four days had elapsed. The companion though impatient to receive a knowledge of the important secret, were compelled to restrain their desires and to agree to meet again at the appointed time and at a place which was designated.

On the fourth day, all the guests repaired to a house in King Street, where the meeting took place, and Cromwell proceeded to develop his plan.

And here the Abbe Larudan becomes fervid and diffuse in the minuteness with which he describes what must have been a wholly imaginary scene.

He commenced by conducting the guests into a dark room, where he prepared their minds for what was going to occur by a long prayer, in the course of which he gave them to understand that he was in communion with the spirits of the blessed. After this, he told them that his design was to found a society whose only objects would be to render due worship to God and to restore to England the peace for which it so ardently longed.

But this project, he added, requited consummate prudence and infinite address to secure its success. Then taking a censer in his bands, be filled the apartment with the most subtle fumes, so as to produce a favorable disposition in the company to hear what he had further to say.

He informed them that at the reception of a new adherent it was necessary that he should undergo a certain ceremony, to which all of them, without exception, would have to submit. He asked them whether they were willing to pass through this ceremony, to which proposition unanimous consent was given. He then chose from the company five assistants to occupy appropriate places and to perform prescribed functions.

These assistants were a Master, two Wardens, a Secretary, and an Orator. Having made these preparations, the visitors were removed to another apartment, which had been prepared for the purpose, and in which was a picture representing the ruins of King Solomon's Temple.

From this apartment, they were transferred to another, and, being blindfolded, were finally invested with the secrets of initiation. Cromwell delivered a discourse on religion and politics, the purport of which was to show to the contending sects of Presbyterians and Independents, representatives of both being present, the necessity, for the public good, of abandoning all their frivolous disputes, of becoming reconciled, and of changing the bitter hatred which then inspired them for a tender love and charity toward each other.

The eloquence of their artful leader had the desired effect, and both sects united with the army, in the establishment of a secret association founded on the professed principles of love of God and the maintenance of liberty and equality among men, but whose real design was to advance the projects of Cromwell, by the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a commonwealth of which he should be the head.

It is unfortunate for the completed symmetry of this rather interesting fable that the Abbe has refrained from indulging his imagination by giving us the full details of the form of initiation. He has, however, in various parts of his book alluded to so much of it as to enable us to learn that the instructions were of a symbolic character, and that the Temple of Solomon constituted the most prominent symbol. This Temple had been built by divine command to be the sanctuary of religion and as a place peculiarly consecrated to the performance of its august ceremonies.

After several years of glory and magnificence, it had been destroyed by a formidable army, and the people who had been there accustomed to worship were loaded with chains and carried in captivity to Babylon. After years of servitude, an idolatrous prince, chosen as the instrument of Divine Clemency, had permitted the captives to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the Temple in its primitive splendor. It was in this allegory, says the Abbe, that the Freemasons of Cromwell found the exact analogy of their society.

The Temple in its first splendor is figurative of the primitive state of man. The religion and the ceremonies which were there practiced are nothing else than that universal law engraved on every heart whose principles are found in the ideas of equity and charity to which all men are obliged. The destruction of this Temple, and the captivity and slavery of its worshippers, symbolized the pride and ambition which have produced political subjection among men. The unpitying hosts of Assyrians who destroyed the Temple and led the people into captivity are the kings, princes, and magistrates whose power has overwhelmed oppressed nations with innumerable evils.

And finally, the chosen people charged with the duty of rebuilding the Temple are the Freemasons, who are to restore men to their original dignity. Cromwell had divided the Order which he founded into three classes or degrees. The third or Master's degree was of course not without its Hiramic legend, but the interpretation of its symbolism was very different from that which is given at the present day.

The Abbe thus explains it. The disorder of the workmen and the confusion at the Temple were intended to make a profound impression upon the mind of the candidate and to show him that the loss of liberty and equality, represented by the death of Hiram, is the cause of all the evils which affect mankind.

While men lived in tranquility in the asylum of the Temple of Liberty, they enjoyed perpetual happiness. But they have been surprised and attacked by tyrants who have reduced them to a state of slavery. This is symbolized by the destruction of the Temple, which it is the duty of the Master Masons to rebuild; that is to say, to restore that liberty and equality which had been lost. Cromwell appointed missionaries or emissaries, says Larudan, who propagated the Order, not only over all England, but even into Scotland and Ireland, where many Lodges were established.

The members of the Order or Society were first called Freemasons. Afterward, the name was repeatedly changed to suit the political circumstances of the times, and they were called Levelers, then Independents, afterward Fifth Monarchy Men, and finally resumed their original title, which they have retained to the present day.

Such is the fable of the Cromwellian origin of Freemasonry, which we owe entirely to the inventive genius of the Abbe Larudan. And, yet, it is not wholly a story of the imagination, but is really founded on an extraordinary distortion of the facts of history.

Edmund Ludlow was an honest and honorable man who took at first a prominent part in the civil war which ended in the decapitation of Charles I, the dissolution of the monarchy, and the establishment of the Commonwealth. He was throughout his whole life a consistent and unswerving republican, and was as much opposed to the political schemes of Cromwell for his own advancement to power as he was to the usurpation of unconstitutional power by the King.

In the language of the editor of his memoirs, it was written:

He was an enemy to all arbitrary government, though gilded over with the most specious pretenses; and not only disapproved the usurpation of Cromwell, but would have opposed him with as much vigor as he had done the King, if all occasions of that nature had not been cut off by the extraordinary jealousy or vigilance of the usurpers.[i]

Having unsuccessfully labored to counteract the influence of Cromwell with the army, he abandoned public affairs and retired to his home in Essex, where he remained in seclusion until the restoration of Charles II, when he fled to Switzerland, where he resided until his death.

During his exile, Ludlow occupied his leisure hours in the composition of his Memoirs, a work of great value as a faithful record of the troublous period in which he lived and of which he was himself a great part. In these memoirs, he has given a copious narrative of the intrigues by which Cromwell secured the alliance of the army and destroyed the influence of the Parliament. The work was published at Vevay, in Switzerland, under the title of Memoirs of Edmund Ludlow, Esq., Lieutenant-General of the Tories in Ireland, One of the Council of State, and a Member of the Parliament which began on November 3, 1640. It is in two volumes, with a supplementary one containing copies of important papers. The edition from which I cite bears the date of 1698. There may have been an earlier one.

With these memoirs, the Abbe Larudan appears to have been well acquainted. He had undoubtedly read them carefully, for he has made many quotations and has repeatedly referred to Ludlow as his authority. But, unfortunately for the Abbe's intelligence, or far more probably for his honesty, he has always applied that Ludlow said of the intrigues of Cromwell for the organization of a new party as if it were meant to describe the formation of a new and secret society.

Neither Ludlow, nor any other writer, refers to the existence of Freemasonry as we now have it and as it is described by the Abbe Larudan in the time of the civil wars. Even the Operative Masons were not at that period greatly encouraged, for, says Northouck:

…no regard to science and elegance was to be expected from the sour minds of the puritanical masters of the nation between the fall of Charles I and the restoration of his son.[ii]

The Guild of Freemasons, the only form in which the Order was known until the 18th century, was during the Commonwealth discouraged and architecture was neglected. In the tumult of war, the arts of peace are silent.

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


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