The Historical Origins of Freemasonry


A Household of Princes with Connections to the Operative Masons

We have seen, in the preceding chapter, that Nicolai had sought to trace the origin of Freemasonry to a society organized in 1646 by a sect of philosophers who were contemporary with, but entirely distinct from, those who founded the Royal Society.

Though he does not explicitly state the fact, yet, from the names of the persons to whom he refers, there can be no doubt that he alluded to the Astrologers, who at that time were very popular in England. Judicial astrology, or the divination of the future by the stars, was, of all the delusions to which the superstition of the Middle Ages gave birth, the most popular. It prevailed over all Europe, so that it was practiced by the most learned, and the predictions of its professors were sought with avidity and believed with confidence by the most wealthy and most powerful.

Astrologers often formed a part of the household of princes, who followed their counsels in the most important matters relating to the future, while men and women of every rank sought these charlatans that they might have their nativities cast and secure the aid of their occult art in the recovery of stolen goods or the prognostications of happy marriages or of successful journeys.

Astrology was called the Daughter of Astronomy, and the scholars who devoted themselves to the study of the heavenly bodies for the purposes of pure science were often called upon to use their knowledge of the stars for the degrading purpose of astrological predictions.

Kepler, the greatest astronomer of that age, was compelled against his will to pander to the popular superstition, that he might thus gain a livelihood and be enabled to pursue his nobler studies. In one of his works he complains that the scanty reward of an astronomer would not provide him with bread, if men did not entertain hopes of reading the future in the heavens.

And, so, he tampered with the science that he loved and adorned, and made predictions for inquisitive consulters, although, at the same time, he declared to his friends that "they were nothing but worthless conjecture." Cornelius Agrippa, though he cultivated alchemy, a delusion but little more respectable than that of astrology, when commanded by his patroness, the Queen mother of France, to practice the latter, expressed his annoyance at the task.

Of the Astrologers, he said, in his great work on the Vanity of the Arts and Sciences:

These fortune tellers do find entertainment among princes and magistrates, from whom they receive large salaries; but, indeed, there is no class of men who are more pernicious to a commonwealth. For, as their skill lies in the adaptation of ambiguous predictions to events after they have happened, so it happens that a man who lives by falsehood shall by one accidental truth obtain more credit than he will lose by a hundred manifest errors.

The 16th and 17th centuries were the golden age of Astrology in England. We know all that is needed of this charlatanism and of the character of its professors from the autobiography of William Lilly, himself an English astrologer of no mean note; perhaps, indeed, the best-educated and the most honest of those who practiced this delusion in England in the 17th century. He is one of those to whom Nicolai ascribes the formation of that secret society, in 1646, which invented Freemasonry.

It will be remembered that Nicolai says that of the society of learned men who established Freemasonry, the first members were Elias Ashmole, the skillful antiquary, who was also a student of astrology, William Lilly, a famous astrologer, George Wharton, likewise an astrologer, William Oughtred, a mathematician, and some others. He also says that the annual festival of the Astrologers gave rise to this association.

“It had previously held," says Nicolai, "one meeting at Warrington, in Lancashire, but it was first firmly established at London." Their meetings, the same writer asserts, were held at Masons' Hall, in Masons' Alley, Basinghall Street. Many of them were members of the Masons' Company, and they all entered it and assumed the title of Free and Accepted Masons, adopting, besides, all its external marks of distinction.

Such is the theory which makes the Astrologers, incorporating themselves with the Operative Masons, who met at their Hall in Basinghall Street, the founders of the Speculative Order of Free and Accepted Masons as they exist at the present day.

It is surprising that in a question of history a man of letters of the reputation of Nicolai should have indulged in such bold assumptions and in statements so wholly bare of authority. But, unfortunately, it is thus that Masonic history has always been written. I shall strive to eliminate the truth from the fiction in this narrative. The task will be a laborious one, for, as Goethe has well said in one of his maxims:

It is much easier to perceive error than to find truth. The former lies on the surface, so that it is easily reached; the latter lies in the depth, which it is not every man's business to search for.

The Astrologers, to whose meeting in the Masons' Hall is ascribed the origin of the Freemasons, were not a class of persons who would have been likely to have united in such an attempt, which showed at least a desire for some intellectual progress. Lilly, perhaps the best-educated and the most honest of these charlatans, has in the narrative of his life, written by himself, given us some notion of the character of many of them who lived in London when he practiced the art in that city.[i]

Of Evans, who was his first teacher, he tells us that he was a clergyman - of Staffordshire, whence he "had been in a manner enforced to fly for some offences very scandalous committed by him.” Of another astrologer, Alexander Hart, he says "he was but a cheat." Jeffry Neve, he calls, “a smatterer.” William Poole was a frequenter of taverns with lewd people and fled on one occasion from London under the suspicion of complicity in theft. John Booker, though honest was ignorant of his profession. William Hodges dealt with angels, but "his life answered not in holiness and sanctity to what it should," for he was addicted to profanity. And, John A. Windsor was given to debauchery.

Men of such habits of life were not likely to interest themselves in the advancement of science or in the establishment of a society of speculative philosophers. It is true that these charlatans lived at an earlier period than that ascribed by Nicolai to the organization of the society in Masons' Hall, but in the few years that elapsed it is not probable that the disciples of astrology had much improved in their moral or intellectual condition.

Of certain of the men named by Nicolai, as having organized the Society of Freemasons in 1646, we have some knowledge. Elias Ashmole, the celebrated antiquary, and founder of the Ashmolean Museum in the University of Oxford, is an historical character. He wrote his own life, in the form of a most minute diary, extending from July 2, 1633, to October 9, 1687.

In this diary, in which he registers the most trivial as well as the most important events of his life - recording even the cutting of his wisdom teeth, or the taking of a sudorific. He does not make the slightest allusion to the transaction referred to by Nicolai. The silence of so babbling a chronicler as to such an important event is itself sufficient proof that it did not occur.

What Ashmole has said about Freemasonry will be presently seen. Lilly, another supposed actor in this scene, also wrote his life with great minuteness. His complete silence on the subject is equally suggestive. Nicolai says that the persons he cites were either already members of the Company of Masons or at once became so. Now, Lilly was a member of the Salter's Company, one of the twelve great livery companies, and would not have left it to join a minor company, which the Masons was. Oughtred could not have been united with Ashmole in organizing a society in 1646, for the latter, in a note to Lilly's life, traces his acquaintance with him to the residence of both as neighbors in Surrey.

Now, Ashmole did not remove to Surrey until the year 1675, twenty-nine years after his supposed meeting with Oughtred at the Masons Hall. Between Wharton and Lilly, who were rival almanac-makers, there was, in 1646, a bitter feud, which was not reconciled until years afterward.

In an almanac, which Wharton published in 1645, he had called Lilly " an impudent, senseless fellow, and by name William Lilly." It is not likely that they would have been engaged in the fraternal task of organizing a great society at that very time. Dr. Pearson, another one of the supposed founders, is celebrated in literary and theological history as the author of an Exposition of the Creed. Of a man, so prominent as to have been the Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, and afterward Bishop of Chester, Ashmole makes no mention in his diary. If he had ever met him or been engaged with him in so important an affair, this silence in so minute a journal of the transactions of his every-day life would be inexplicable.

But enough has been said to show the improbability of any such meeting as Nicolai records. Even Ashmole and Lilly, the two leaders, were unknown to each other until the close of the year 1646. Ashmole says in his diary of that year, “Mr. Jonas Moore brought and acquainted me with Mr. William Lilly: it was on a Friday night, and I think on the 20th Nov. (1646)."

That there was an association, or a club or society, of Astrologers about that time in London is very probable. Pepys, in his memoirs, says that in October of 1660, he went to Mr. Lilly's, "there being a club that night among his friends."

There he met Esquire Ashmole and went home accompanied by Mr. Booker, who, he says, " did tell me a great many fooleries, which may be done by nativities, and blaming Mr. Lilly for writing to please his friends, and not according to the rules of art, by which he could not well use as he had done."

The club, we may well suppose, was that of the Astrologers, held at the house of the chief member of the profession. That it was not a secret society we conclude from the fact that Pepys, who was no astrologer, was permitted to be present. We know also from Ashmole's diary that the Astrologers held an annual feast, generally in August, sometimes in March, July, or November, but never on a Masonic festival.

Ashmole regularly attended it from 1649 to 1658, when it was suspended, but afterward revived, in 1682. In 1650, he was elected a steward for the following year he mentions the place of meeting only three times, twice at Painters' Hall, which was probably the usual place, and once at the Three Cranes, in Chancery Lane.

Had the Astrologers and the Masons been connected, Masons' Hall, in Basinghall Street, would certainly have been the place for holding their feast. Again, it is said by Nicolai that the object of this secret society which organized the Freemasons was to advance the restoration of the King. But Lilly had made, in 1645, the year before the meeting, this declaration:

Before that time, I was more Cavalier than Roundbead, but after that I engaged body and soul the cause of Parliament.

He still expressed, it is true, his attachment to monarchy; but his life during the Commonwealth showed his devotion to Cromwell, of whom he was a particular favorite.

After the Restoration, he had to sue out a pardon, which was obtained by the influence of his friends, but which would hardly have been necessary if he had been engaged in a secret society the object of which was to restore Charles II to the throne. But Charles I was not beheaded until 1649, so that a society could not have been organized in 1646 for the restoration of his son. But, it may be said that the Restoration alluded to was of the monarchy, which at that time was virtually at an end. So, this objection may pass without further comment. But the fact is that the whole of this fiction of the organization, 1646, of a secret society by a set of philosophers or astrologers, or both, which resulted in the establishment of Freemasonry, arose out of a misconception or a misrepresentation - whether willful or not, I will not say - of two passages in the diary of Elias Ashmole.

Of these two passages, and they are the only ones in his minute diary of fifty-four years in which there is any mention of Freemasonry, the first is as follows:

1646, October 16th, 4 Hours and 30 minutes post merid, I was made a Free- Mason at Warrington in Lancashire, with Colonel Henry Mainwarring of Karticham in Cheshire; the names of those that were then at the lodge, Mr. Richard Penket Warden, Mr. James Collier, Mr. Richard Sankey, Henry Littler, John Ellam, and Hugh Brewer.

And then, after an interval of thirty-five years, during which there is no further allusion to Masonry, we find the following memoranda:

1682, March 10th, about 5 Hours Post merid, I received a summons to appear at a lodge to be held the next day at Masons Hall, London II. Accordingly, I went, and about noon was admitted into the fellowship of Freemasons, by Sir William Wilson Knight, Captain Richard Borthwick, Mr. William Wodman, Mr. William Grey, Mr. Samuel Taylour, and Mr. William Wise.

I was the senior fellow among them, it being thirty-five years since I was admitted, there was present besides myself, the fellows after mentioned. Mr. Thomas Wise, Master of the Masons Company, this present year; Mr. Thomas Shorthose, Mr. Thomas Shadbolt, Wardsford, Esq; Mr. Nicholas Young, Mr. John Shorthose, Mr. William Hamon, Mr. John Thompson, and Mr. William Stanton.

We all dined at the Half-Moon-Tavern, in Cheapside, at a noble dinner prepared at the charge of the new accepted Masons.

Without the slightest show of reason or semblance of authority, Nicolai transmutes the Lodge at Warrington, in which Ashmole was made a Freemason, into an annual feast of the Astrologers. The Society of Astrologers, he says, “had previously held one meeting at Warrington, in Lancashire, but it was first firmly established at London."

And he cites as His authority for this statement the very passage from Ashmole's diary in which that antiquary records his reception in a Masonic Lodge. These events in the life of Ashmole, which connect him with the Masonic fraternity, have given considerable embarrassment to Masonic scholars who have been unable to comprehend the two apparently conflicting statements that he was made a Freemason at Warrington in 1646 and afterward received into the fellowship of the Freemasons, in 1682, at London.

The embarrassment and misapprehension arose from the fact that we have unfortunately no records of the meetings of the Operative Lodges of England in the 17th century, and nothing but traditional and generally mythical accounts of their usages during that period. The sister kingdom of Scotland has been more fortunate in this respect, and the valuable work of Brother Lyon, on the History of the Lodge of Edinborough, has supplied us with authentic records of the Scottish Lodges at a much earlier date.

These records will furnish us with some information in respect to the contemporaneous English Lodges which was have every reason to suppose were governed by usages not very different from those of the Lodges in the adjacent kingdom. Mr. Lyon has on this subject the following remarks, which may be opportunely quoted on the present occasion.

The earliest date at which non-professionals are known to have been received into an English Lodge is 1646. The evidence of this is derived from the diary of one of the persons so admitted; but the preceding minutes[ii] afford authentic instances of Speculative Masons having been admitted to the fellowship of the Lodge of Edinburgh twelve years prior to the reception of Colonel Main warring and Elias Ashmole in the Lodge of Warrington and thirty-eight years before the date at which the presence of Gentleman Masons is first discernible in the Lodge of Kilwinning by the election of Lord Cassillis to the deaconship.

It is worthy of remark that, with singularly few exceptions, the non-operatives who were admitted to Masonic fellowship in the Lodges of Edinburgh and Kilwinning, during the 17th century, were persons of quality, the most distinguished of whom, as the natural result of its metropolitan position, being made in the former Lodge.

Their admission to fellowship in an institution composed of Operative Masons associated together for purposes of their Craft would in all probability originate in a desire to elevate its position and increase its influence, and once adopted, the system would further recommend itself to the Fraternity by the opportunities which it presented for cultivating the friendship and enjoying the society of gentlemen to whom in ordinary circumstances there was little chance of their ever being personally known.

On the other hand, non-professionals connecting themselves with the Lodge by the ties of membership would, we believe, be actuated partly by a disposition to reciprocate the feelings that had prompted the bestowal of the fellowship partly by curiosity to penetrate the arcana of the Craft, and partly by the novelty of the situation as members of a secret society and participants in its ceremonies and festivities. But whatever may have been the motives which animated the parties on either side, the tie which united them was a purely honorary one.[iii]

What is here said by Lyon of the Scottish Lodges may, I think, be with equal propriety applied to those of England at the same period.

There was in 1646 a Lodge of Operative Masons at Warrington, just as there was a similar one at Edinburgh. Into this Lodge, Colonel Mainwarring and Elias Ashmole, both non- professional gentlemen, were admitted as honorary members, or, to use the language of the latter, were " made Freemasons," a technical term that has been preserved to the present day.

But thirty-five years afterward, being then a resident of London, he was summoned to attend a meeting of the Company of Masons, to be held at their hall in Masons' Alley, Basinghall Street, and there, according to His own account, he was " admitted into the fellowship of Freemasons." How are we to explain this apparent double or renewed admission? But, mark the difference of language.

In 1646, he was "made a Freemason." In 1682, he was admitted into the fellowship of Freemasons." The distinction is an important one.

The Masons' Company in 1682 constituted in London one of those many city companies which embraced the various trades and handicrafts of the metropolis. Stowe, in his Survey of London, says that:

The Masons, otherwise termed Freemasons, were a society of ancient standing and good reckoning, by means of affable and kind meetings divers time, and as a loving brotherhood should use to do, did frequent their mutual assemblies in the time of King Henry IV, in the 12th year of whose most gracious reign they were incorporated.

In Cheswell's New View of London, printed in 1708, it is said that the Masons' Company:

…were incorporated about the year 1410, having been called the Free Masons, a Fraternity of great account, who have been honored by several Kings, and very many of the Nobility and Gentry being of their Society. They are governed by a Master, 2 Wardens, 25 Assistants, and there are 65 on the Livery.

Maitland, in his London and its Environs, says, speaking of the Masons:

This company had their arms granted by Clarencieux, King-at-Arms, in the year 1477, though the members were not incorporated by letters patent till they obtained them from King Charles II in 1677. They have a small convenient hall in Masons' Alley, Basinghall Street.

There were then, in the time of Ashmole, two distinct bodies of men practicing the Craft of Operative Masonry, namely, the Lodges which were to be found in various parts of the country, and the Company of Masons, whose seat was at London.

Into one of the Lodges, which was situated at Warrington, in Lancashire, Ashmole had in 1646 received honorary membership, which, in compliance with the technical language of that and of the present day, he called being "made a Freemason."

But, this did not constitute him a member of the Masons' Company of London, for this was a distinct incorporated society, with its exclusive rules and regulations, and admission into which could only be obtained by the consent of the members. There were many Masons who were not members of the Company.

Ashmole, who had for thirty-five years been a Freemason, by virtue of his making at Warrington, was in 1682 elected a member of this Masons' Company, and this he styles being "admitted into the fellowship of Freemasons." That is, he was admitted to the fellowship or membership of the Company and made "free" of it.

From all of which we may draw the following conclusions: First, that in 1646, at the very date assigned by Nicolai for the organization of the Freemasons as a secret political society, under the leadership of Ashmole and Lilly, the former, being as yet unacquainted with the latter, was at Warrington, in Lancashire, where he found a Lodge of Masons already organized and with its proper officers and its members, by whom he was admitted as an honorary non-professional member of the Craft.

And secondly, that while in London be was admitted, being already a Freemason, to the fellowship of the Masons' Company. And thirdly, that he was also a member of the fraternity of Astrologers, having been admitted probably in 1649, and regularly attended their annual feast from that year to 1658, when the festival, and perhaps the fraternity, was suspended until 1682, when it was again revived. But during all this time it is evident from the memoranda of Ashmole that the Freemasons and the Astrologers were two entirely distinct bodies.

Lilly, who was the head of the Astrologers, was, we may say almost with certainty, not a Freemason, else the spirit of minuteness with which he has written his autobiography would not have permitted him to omit what to his peculiar frame of mind would have been so important a circumstance as connecting him still more closely with his admired friend, Elias Ashmole, nor would the latter have neglected to record it in his diary, written with even still greater minuteness than Lilly's memoirs.

Notwithstanding the clear historical testimony which shows that Lodges of Freemasons had been organized long before the time of Ashmole, and that he had actually been made a Freemason in one of them, many writers, both Masonic and profane, have maintained the erroneous doctrine that Ashmole was the founder of the Masonic Society.

'Thus Chambers, in their Encyclopedia say that " Masonry was founded by Ashmole some of his literary friends," and De Quincey expressed the same opinion. Mr. John Yarker, in his very readable Notes on the Scientific and Religious Mysteries of Antiquity, offers a modified view and a compromise of the subject. He refers to the meeting of the chemical adepts at Masons' Hall (a fact of which we have no evidence), and then to the " Feast of the Astrologers " which Ashmole attended.

He follows Nicolai in asserting that their allegories were founded on Bacon's House of Solomon, and says that they used as emblems the sun, moon, square, triangle, etc. And, he concludes:

It is possible that Ashmole may have consolidated the customs of the two associations, but there is no evidence that any Lodge of this, his speculative rite, came under the Masonic Constitution.[iv]

We may also say that it is possible that Ashmole may have invented a speculative rite of some kind, but there is no evidence that he did so. Many things are possible that are not probable, and many probable that are not actual.

History is made up of facts, and not of possibilities or probabilities. Ashmole himself entertained a very different and much more correct notion of the origin of Masonry than any of those who have striven to claim him as its founder.

Dr. Knipe, of Christ Church, Oxford, in a letter to the publisher of Ashmole's Life, says:

What from Mr. E. Ashmole's collections I could gather was, that the report of our society's taking rise from a bull granted by the Pope in the reign of Henry III, to some Italian architects to travel over all Europe, to erect chapels, was ill-founded. Such a bull there was, and these architects were Masons; but this bull, in the opinion of the learned Mr. Ashmole, was confirmative only, and did not, by any means, create our Fraternity, or even establish them in this kingdom.

This settles the question. Ashmole could not have been the founder of Freemasonry in London in 1646, since he himself expressed the belief that the Institution had existed in England before the 13th century. There is no doubt, as I have already said, that he was very intimately connected with the Astrologers.

Dr. Krause, in his Three Oldest Documents of the Masonic Brotherhood, quotes the following passage from Lilly's History of my Life and Titles.[v]

The King's affairs being now grown desperate, Mr. Ashmole withdrew himself, after the surrender of the Garrison of Worcester, into Cheshire, where he continued till the end of October, and then came up to London, where he became acquainted with Master, afterwards Sir Jonas Moore, Mr. William Lilly, and Mr. John Booker, esteemed the greatest astrologers in the world, by whom he was caressed, instructed, and received into their fraternity, which then made a very considerable figure, as appeared by the great resort of persons of distinction to their annual feast, of which Mr. Ashmole was afterwards elected Steward.

Ashmole left Worcester for Cheshire July 24, 1646, and moved from Cheshire to London October 25th of the same year. In that interval of three months, he was made a Freemason, at Warrington. At that time, he was not acquainted with Lilly, Moore, or Booker, and knew nothing of astrology or of the great astrologers. This destroys the accuracy of Nicolai's assertion that the meeting held at Masons' Hall, in 1682, by Ashmole, Lilly, and other astrologers, when they founded the Society of Freemasons, was preceded by a similar and initiatory one, in 1646, at Warrington.

A few words must now be said upon the subject of Bacon's House of Solomon, which Nicolai and others supposed to have first given rise to the Masonic allegory which was afterward changed to that of the Temple of Solomon. Bacon, in his fragmentary and unfinished romance of the New Atlantis, had devised the fable of an island of Bensalem, in which was an institution or college called the House of Solomon, the fellows of which were to be students of philosophy and investigators of science. He thus described their occupations:

We have twelve that sail into foreign countries, who bring in the books and patterns of experiments of all other parts; these we call merchants of light. We have three that collect the experiments that are in all books; these are called depredators. We have three that collect experiments of all mechanical arts, and also of liberal sciences, and also of practices which are not brought into the arts; these we call mystery men. We have three that try new experiments such as themselves think good; these we call pioneers or miners. We have three that draw the experiments of the former four into titles and tablets to give the better light for the drawing of observations and axioms out of them; these we call compilers. We have three that bind themselves looking into the experiments of their fellows and cast about how to draw out of them things of use and practice for man's life and knowledge as well for work as for plain demonstrations and the easy and clear discovering of the virtues and parts of bodies; these we call doing men and benefactors.

Then after divers meetings and consults of our whole number to consider of the former labors and collections, we have three to take care out of them to direct new experiments of higher light, more penetrating into nature than the former; these we call lamps. We have three others that do execute the experiments so directed and report them; these we call inoculators. Lastly, we have three that raise the former discoveries by experiments into greater observations, axioms, and aphorisms; these we call interpreters of nature.[vi]

It is evident from this schedule of the occupations of the inmates of the House of Solomon that it could not in the remotest degree have been made the foundation of a Masonic allegory. In fact, the suggestion of a Masonic connection could have been derived only from a confused idea of the relation of the House to the Temple of Solomon, a misapprehension which a reading of the New Atlantis would readily remove. As Plato had written his Republic and Sir Thomas More his Utopia to give their ideas of a model commonwealth, so Lord Bacon commenced his New Atlantis to furnish his idea of a model college to be instituted for the study and interpretation of nature by experimental methods.

These views were first introduced in his Advancement of Human Learning, and would have been perfected in his New Atlantis had he ever completed it. The new philosophy of Bacon had produced a great revolution in the minds of thinking men, and that group of philosophers who in the 17th century, as Dr. Whewell says, "began to knock at the door where truth was to be found" would very wisely seek the key in the inductive and experimental method taught by Bacon.

To the learned men, therefore, who first met at the house of Dr. Goddard and the other members, and whose meetings finally ended in the formation of The Royal Society, the allegory of the House of Solomon very probably furnished valuable hints for the pursuit of their experimental studies.

[i] "The Life of William Lilly, Student in Astrology,” wrote by himself in the 66th year of his Age, at Hersham, in the Parish of Walton upon Thames, in the County of Surrey, Propria Manu.

[ii] Minutes of the Lodge of Cannongate, Kilwinning, for 1635, quoted by him in a preceding page.

[iii] Lyon, "History of the Lodge of Edinburgh," p. 81.

[iv] "Notes on the Scientific and Religious Mysteries of Antiquity," p. 106.

[v] I cannot find it in my own copy of that work, but the statements are corroborated by Ashmole's diary.

[vi] "New Atlantis," Works, vol. ii., p. 376.

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


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