The Historical Origins of Freemasonry


The suppression of all architectural art and enterprise having lasted for so long a period in Britain, the Legend of the Craft next proceeds to account for its revival in the 10th century and in the reign of Athelstan, whose son Edwin called a meeting, or General Assembly, of the Masons at York in the year 926, and there revived the Institution, giving to the Craft a new code of laws.

Now, it is impossible to attach to this portion of the Legend, absolutely and without any reservation, the taint of fiction. The convocation of the Craft of England at the city of York, in the year 926, has been accepted by both the Operative Masons who preceded the Revival, and by the Speculatives who succeeded them, up to the present day, as a historical fact that did not admit of dispute. The two classes of Legends - the one represented by the Halliwell poem, and the other by the later manuscripts - concur in giving the same statement. The Cooke MS., which holds an intermediate place between the two, also contains it. But the Halliwell and the Cooke MSS., which are of older date, give more fully the details of what may be called this revival of English Masonry. Thoroughly to understand the subject, it will be necessary to collate the three accounts given in the three different sets of manuscripts.

The Halliwell poem, whose conjectural date is about 1390, contains the account in the following words. I will first give it, relieved of its archaisms, for the convenience of the reader inexpert in early English, and then follow with a quotation of the original language:

"This craft came into England, as I tell you, in the time of good King Athelstane's reign. He made them both hall and also chamber, and lofty churches of great honour, to recreate him in both day and night and to worship his God with all his strength. 'This good lord loved this craft full well, and purposed to strengthen it in every part, on account of several defects which he discovered in the craft. He sent about into the land after all the masons of the craft to come straight to him, to amend all these defects by good counsel, if it could be done. Then he permitted an assembly to be made of various lords according to their rank, dukes, earls, and barons also, knights, squires, and many more, and the great burgesses of that city, they were all there in their degree; these were there, each one in every way to make laws for the society of these masons. There they sought by their wisdom how they might govern it.

There they invented fifteen articles, and there they made fifteen points. The original is as follows:

"Thys craft com ynto England as y you say, Yn tyme of good kynge Athelston's day; He made the both halle and eke boure, And hye templus of gret honoure, To sportyn hym yn bothe day and nyghth, And to worschepe his God with alle hys myghth. Thys goode lorde loved thys craft ful wel, And purposud to strenthyn hyt ever del, For dyvers defautys that yn the craft he fonde; He sende aboute ynto the londe After alle the masonus of the crafte To come to hym ful evene strayfte, For to amende these defaultys alle By good counsel gef hyt mygth falle. A semble thenne he cowthe let make Of dyvers lordis in here state Dukys, erlys and barnes also, Knygthys, sqwyers and mony mo, And the grete burges of that syte, They were ther alle yn here degre; These were there uchon algate, To ordeyne for these masonus estate, Ther they sowgton ly here wytte How they mygthyn governe hytte Fyftene artyculus they there sowgton, And fyftene poyntys ther they wrogton." [i]

One hundred years afterward we find the Legend, in the Cooke MS., as follows:

"And after that was a worthy kynge in Englond that was callyd Athelstone, and his yongest sone lovyd well the sciens of Gemetry, and he vont well that handcraft had the practyke of Gemetry so well as masons, wherefore he drew him to consell and lernyd [the] practyke of that sciens to his speculatyfe. [ii]For of speculatyfe he was a master, and he lovyd well masonry and masons. And he bicome a mason hymselfe. And he gaf hem [gave them] charges and names [iii] as it is now usyd in Englond and in other countries. And he ordeyned that they schulde have resonabull pay. And purchesed [obtained] a fre patent of the kyng that they schulde make a sembly when they saw resonably tyme a [to] cume togedir to her [their] counsell of the whiche charges, manors & semble as is write and taught in the boke of our charges wherefor I leve it at this tyme." [iv]

In a subsequent part of the manuscript, which appears to have been taken from the aforesaid "boke of charges," with some additional details, are the following words:

"After that, many yeris, in the tyme of Kyng Adhelstane, wiche was sum tyme kynge of Englonde, bi his counsell and other gret loritys of the lond by comyn [common] assent for grete defaut y-fennde [found] among masons thei ordeyend a certayne reule amongys hem [them]. On [one] tyme of the yere or in iii yere as nede were to the kyng and gret loritys of the londe and all the comente [community], fro provynce to provynce and fro countre to countre congregacions schulde be made by maisters, of all maisters masons and felaus in the forsayd art. And so at such congregacions, they that be made masters schold be examined of the articuls after written & be ransacked [examined] whether they be abull and kunnyng to the profyte of the loritys hem to serve [to serve them] and to the honour of the forsayd art." [v]

Sixty years afterward we find this Legend repeated in the Dowland MS., but with some important variations. This Legend has already been given in the Legend of the Craft, but for the convenience of immediate comparison with the preceding documents it will be well to repeat it here. It is in the following words:

"Right soone after the decease of Saint Albone there came divers warrs into the realme of England of divers Nations, soe that the good rule of Masonrye was destroyed unto the tyme of Kinge Athelstones days that was a worthy Kinge of England, and brought this land into good rest and peace and builded many great works of Abbyes and Towres and other many divers buildings and loved well Masons. And he had a Sonn that height Edwinne, and he loved Masons much more than his father did. And he was a great practiser in Geometry, and he drew him much to talke and to commune with Masons and to learne of them science, and afterwards for love that he had to Masons and to the science he was made Mason, [vi] and he gatt of the Kinge his father a Chartour and Commission to hold every yeare once an Assemble wher that ever they would within the realme of England, and to correct within themselves defaults and trespasses that were done within the science.

And he held himselfe an Assemble at Yorke, and there he made Masons and gave them charges and taught them the manners, and commanded that rule to be kept ever after. And tooke them the Chartour and Commission to keepe and made ordinance that it should be renewed from kinge to kinge. "And when the Assemble was gathered he made a cry that all old Masons and young, that had any writeings or understanding of the charges and the manners that were made before in this land, or in any other, that they should shew them forth. And when it was proved there was founden some in Frenche and some in Greek and some in English and some in other languages; and the intent of them all was founden all one. And he did make a booke thereof, and how the science was founded. And he himselfe bad and commanded that it should be readd or tould, when that any Mason should be made, for to give him his Charge. And fro that day into this tyme manners of Masons have beene kept in that forme as well as men might governe it. And furthermore divers Assembles have beene put and ordayned certain charges by the best advice of Masters and Fellowes."

It will be remarked that in neither of the two oldest manuscripts, the Halliwell and the Cooke, is there any mention of Prince Edwin, or of the city of York. For the omission I shall hereafter attempt to account.

As to that of the lauer I agree with Bro. Woodford, that as the fact of the Assembly is stated in all the later traditions, and as a city is mentioned whose burgesses were present, we may fairly, understand both of the oldest manuscripts also to refer to York. [vii] At all events, their silence as to the place affords no sufficient evidence that it was not York, as opposed to the positive declaration of the later manuscripts that it was.

We see, then, that all the old Legends assert expressly, or by implication, that York was the city where the first General Masonic Assembly was held in England, and that it was summoned under the authority of King Athelstan. The next point in which all the later manuscripts, except the Harleian, [viii] agree is, that the Assembly was called by Prince Edwin, the King's son.

The Legend does not here most certainly agree with history, for there is no record that Athelstan had any son. He had, however, a brother of that name, who died two years before him.

Edward the Elder, the son of Alfred the Great, died in the year 925, leaving several legitimate sons and one natural one, Athelstan. The latter, who was the eldest of the sons of Edward, obtained the throne, notwithstanding the stain on his birth, in consequence of his age, which better fitted him to govern at a time when the kingdom was engaged in foreign and domestic wars.

All historians concur in attributing to Athelstan the character of a just and wise sovereign, and of a sagacious statesman. It has been said of him that he was the most able and active of the ancient princes of England. What his grandfather, the great Alfred, commenced in his efforts to consolidate the petty monarchies into which the land was divided, into one powerful kingdom, Athelstan, by his energy, his political wisdom, and his military prowess, was enabled to perfect, so that he has been justly called the first monarch of all England.

Although engaged during his whole reign in numerous wars, he did not neglect a cultivation of the employments of peace, and encouraged by a liberal patronage the arts and especially architecture.

The only stain upon his character is the charge that having suspected his brother Edwin of being engaged in a conspiracy against his throne, he caused that prince to be drowned. Notwithstanding the efforts of Preston to disprove this charge, the concurrent testimony of all the old chroniclers afford no room to doubt its truth. But if anything could atone for this cruel act of state policy, it would be the bitter anguish and remorse of conscience which led the perpetrator to endure a severe penance of seven years.

Of Edwin, the Saxon historians make no mention, except when they speak of his untimely death. If we may judge of his character from this silence, we must believe that he was not endued with any brilliant qualities of mind, nor distinguished by the performance of any important act. Of all the half-brothers of Athelstan, the legitimate children of Edward the Elder, Edmund seems to have been his favorite. He kept him by his side on battle-fields, lived single for his sake, and when he died in 941, left to him the succession to the throne.

But there is another Edwin of prominent character in the annals of Saxon England, to whom attention has been directed in connection with this Legend, as having the best claim to be called the founder or reviver of English Masonry. Of Edwin, King of Northumbria, it may be said, that in his narrow sphere, as the monarch of a kingdom of narrow dimensions, he was but little inferior in abilities or virtues to Athelstan.

At the time of his birth, in 590, Northumbria was divided into two kingdoms, that of Bernicia, north of the Humber, and that of the Deira, on the south of the same river. Of the former, Ethelfrith was King, and of the latter, Ella, the father of Edwin. Ella died in 593, and was succeeded by Edwin an infant of three years of age. Soon after, Ethelfrith invaded the possessions of Edwin, and attached them by usurpation to his own domains.

Edwin was sent to Wales, whence when he grew older he was obliged to flee, and passed many years in exile, principally at the Court of Redwald, King of East Anglia. By the assistance of this monarch he was enabled to make war upon his old enemy, Ethelfrith, who, having been slain in battle, and his sons having fled into Scotland, Edwin not only regained his own throne, but that of the usurper also, and in the year 617 became the King of Northumbria, of which the city of York was made the capital.

Edwin was originally a pagan, but his mind was of a contemplative turn, and this made him, says Turner, more intellectual than any of the Saxon Kings who had preceded him. He was thus led to a rational consideration of the doctrines of Christianity, which he finally accepted, and was publicly baptized at York, on Easter day, in the year 627. The ceremony was publicly performed in the Church of St. Peter the Apostle, which he had caused to be hastily constructed of wood, for the purposes of divine service, during the time that he was undergoing the religious instructions preliminary to his receiving the sacrament.

But as soon as he was baptized, he built, says Bede, under the direction of Paulinus, his religious instructor and bishop, in the same place, a much larger and nobler church of stone. During the reign of Edwin, and of his successors in the same century, ecclesiastical architecture greatly flourished, and many large churches were built. Edwin was slain in battle in 633, having reigned for seventeen years.

The Venerable Bede gives us the best testimony we could desire as to the character of Edwin as ruler, when he tells us that in all of his dominions there was such perfect peace that a woman with a newborn babe might walk from sea to sea without receiving any harm. Another incident that he relates is significant of Edwin's care and consideration for the comforts of his people. Where there were springs of water near the highways, he caused posts to be fixed with drinking vessels attached to them for the convenience of travelers. By such acts, and others of a higher character, by his encouragement of the arts, and his strict administration of justice, he secured the love of his subjects.

So much of history was necessary that the reader might understand the argument in reference to the true meaning of the York Legend, now to be discussed. In the versions of the Legend given by Anderson and Preston, the honor of organizing Masonry and calling a General Assembly is attributed to Edwin the brother, and not to Edwin the son of Athelstan. These versions are, however, of no value as historical documents, because they are merely enlarged copies of the original Legend.

But in the Roberts Constitutions, printed in 1722, and which was claimed to have been copied from a manuscript about five hundred years old, but without any proof (as the original has never been recovered), the name of Edwin is altogether omitted, and Athelstan himself is said to have been the reviver of the institution. The language of this manuscript, as published by J. Roberts, is as follows:

"He [Athelstan] began to build many Abbies, Monasteries, and other religious houses, as also Castles and divers Fortresses for defence of his realm. He loved Masons more than his father; he greatly study'd Geometry, and sent into many lands for men expert in the science. He gave them a very large charter to hold a yearly assembly, and power to correct offenders in the said science; and the king himself caused a General Assembly of all Masons in his realm, at York, and there were made many Masons, and gave them a deep charge for observation of all such articles as belonged unto Masonry and delivered them the said Charter to keep." [ix]

In the omission of all reference to Prince Edwin, the Harleian and Roberts manuscripts agree with that of Halliwell.

There is a passage in the Harleian and Roberts MSS. that is worthy of notice. All the recent manuscripts which speak of Edwin as the procurer of the Charter, say that "he loved Masons much more than his father did" - meaning Athelstan. But the Harleian and Roberts MSS., speaking of King Athelstan, use the same language, but with a different reference, and say of King Athelstan, that "he loved masons more than his father" - meaning King Edward, whose son Athelstan was.

Now, of the two statements, that of the Harleian and Roberts MSS. is much more conformable to history than the other. Athelstan was a lover of Masons, for he was a great patron of architecture, and many public buildings were erected during his reign. But it is not recorded in history that Prince Edwin exhibited any such attachment to Masonry or Architecture as is attributed to him in the old records, certainly not an attachment equal to that of Athelstan. On the contrary, Edward, the son of Alfred and the father of Athelstan, was not distinguished during his reign for any marked patronage of the arts, and especially of architecture; and it is, therefore, certain that his son Athelstan exhibited a greater love to Masons or Architects than he did.

Hence there arises a suspicion that the Legend was originally framed in the form presented to us by the Halliwell poem, and copied apparently by the writers of the Harleian and Roberts MSS., and that the insertion of the name of Prince Edwin was an afterthought of the copiers of the more recent manuscripts, and that this insertion of Edwin's name, and the error of making him a son of Athelstan, arose from a confusion of the mythical Edwin with a different personage, the earlier Edwin, who was King of Northumbria.

It may also be added that the son of Athelstan is not called Edwin in all of the recent manuscripts. In one Sloane MS. he is called Ladrian, in another Hegme, and in the Lodge of Hope MS. Hoderine. This fact might indicate that there was some confusion and disagreement in putting the name of Prince Edwin into the Legend. But I will not press this point, because I am rather inclined to attribute these discrepancies to the proverbial carelessness of the transcribers of these manuscripts. How, then, are we to account for this introduction of an apparently mythical personage into the narrative, by which the plausibility of the Legend is seriously affected?

Anderson, and after him Preston, attempts to get out of the difficulty by calling Edwin the brother, and not the son, of Athelstan. It is true that Athelstan did have a younger brother named Edwin, whom some historians have charged him with putting to death. And in so far the Legend might not be considered as incompatible with history. But as all the manuscripts which have to this day been recovered which speak of Edwin call him the king's son and not his brother, notwithstanding the contrary statement of Anderson, [x] I prefer another explanation, although it involves the charge of anachronism.

The annals of English history record a royal Edwin, whose devotion to the arts and sciences, whose wise statesmanship, and whose patronage of architecture, must have entitled him to the respect and the affection of the early English Masons. Edwin, King of Northumbria, one of the seven kingdoms into which England was divided during the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy, died in 633, after a reign of sixteen years, which was distinguished for the reforms which he accomplished, for the wise laws which he enacted and enforced, for the introduction of Christianity into his kingdom, and for the improvement which he emeacd in the moral, social, and intellectual condition of his subjects. When be ascended the throne the northern metropolis of the Anglican Church had been placed at York, where it still remains.

The king patronized Paulinus, the bishop, and presented him with a residence and with other possessions in that city. Much of this has already been said, but it will bear repetition. To this Edwin, and not to the brother of Athelstan, modern Masonic archaeologists have supposed that the Legend of the Craft refers.

Yet this opinion is not altogether a new one. More than a century and a half ago it seems to have prevailed as a tradition among the Masons of the northern part of England. For in 1726, in an address delivered before the Grand Lodge of York by its Junior Grand Warden, Francis Drake, he speaks of it as being well known and recognized, in the following words:

"You know we can boast that the first Grand Lodge ever held in England was held in this city [York]; where Edwin, the first Christian King of the Northumbers, about the six hundredth year after Christ, and who laid the foundation of our Cathedral, sat as Grand Master." [xi]

Bro. A.F.A. Woodford, a profound Masonic archaeologist, accepts this explanation, and finds a confirmation in the facts that the town of Derventio, now Auldby, six miles from York, the supposed seat of the pseudo-Edwin, was also the chief seat and residence of Edwin, King of Northumbria, and that the buildings, said in one of the manuscripts to have been erected by the false Edwin, were really erected, as is known from history, by the Northumbrian Edwim

I think that with these proofs, the inquirer will have little or no hesitation in accepting this version of the Legend, and will recognize the fact that the writers of the later manuscripts fell into an error in substituting Edwin, the son (as they called him, but really the brother) of Athelstan, for Edwin, the King of Northumbria.

It is true that the difference of dates presents a difficulty, there being about three hundred years between the reigns of Edwin of Northumbria, and Athelstan of England. But that difficulty, I think, may be overcome by the following theory which I advance on the subject.

The earlier series of manuscripts, of which the Halliwell poem is an exemplar, and, perhaps, also the Harleian and the Roberts MSS., [xii] make no mention of Edwin, but assign the revival of Masonry in the 10th century to King Athelstan.

The more recent manuscripts, of which the Dowland is the earliest, introduce Prince Edwin into the Legend and ascribe to him the honor of having obtained from Athelstan a charter, and of having held an Assembly at York.

There are, then, two forms of the Legend, which, for the sake of distinction, may be designated as the older and the later. The older Legend makes Athelstan the reviver of Masonry in England, and says nothing at all of Edwin. The later takes this honor from Athelstan and gives it to Prince Edwin, who is called his son.

The part about Edwin is, then, an addition to the older legend, and was interpolated into it by the later legendists, as will be evidently seen if the following extract from the Dowland MS. be read, and all the words there printed in italics be omitted. So read, the passage will conform very substantially with the corresponding one in the Roberts MS., which was undoubtedly a copy from some older manuscript which contained the legend in its primitive form, wherein there is no mention of Prince Edwin.

Here is the extract to be amended by the omission of words in italics:

"The good rule of Masonry was destroyed unto the tyme of Kinge Athelstone dayes that was a worthy Kinge of England, and brought this land into good rest and peace; and builded many great works of Abbyes and Towres, and other many divers buildings and loved well Masons.

And he had a sonn that height Edwinne, and he loved Masons much more than his father did. And he was a great practiser in Geometry; and he drew him much to talke and to commune with Masons, and to learne of them science; and afterward for love that he had to Masons and to the science he was made a Mason and he gatt [xiii] [ie., he gave] of the Kinge his father a Charter and commission to hold every year once an Assemble, wher that ever they would, within the realme of England; and to correct within themselves defaults and trespasses that were done within the science. And he held himselfe an Assemble at Yorke, and there he made Masons, and gave them charges, and taught them the manners, and commanded that rule to be kept ever after, and tooke then the Chartour and Commission to keepe, and made ordinance that it should be renewed from Kinge to Kinge."

The elimination of only thirteen words relieves us at once of all difficulty, and brings the Legend into precise accord with the tradition of the older manuscripts.

Thus eliminated it asserts:

  1. That King Athelstan was a great patron of the arts of civilization "he brought the land into rest and peace." This statement is sustained by the facts of history.
  1. He paid especial attention to architecture and the art of building, and adorned his country with abbeys, towns (towers is a clerical error), and many other edifices. History confirms this also.
  1. He was more interested in, and gave a greater patronage to, architecture than his father and predecessor, Edward - another historical fact.
  1. He gave to the Masons or Architects a charter as a guild, and called an assembly of the Craft at York. This last statement is altogether traditional. Historians are silent on the subject, just as they are on the organization of a Grand Lodge in 1717. The mere silence of historians as to the formation of a guild of craftsmen or a private society is no proof that such guild or society was not formed. The truth of the statement that King Athelstan caused an assembly of Masons to be held in the year 926 at the city of York, depends solely on a tradition, which has, however, until recently, been accepted by the whole Masonic world as an undoubted truth.

But that the city of York was the place where an assembly was convened by Athelstan in the year 926 is rendered very improbable when we refer to the concurrent events of history at that period of time.

In 925 Athelstan ascended the throne. At that time Sigtryg was the reigning King of Northumbria, which formed no part of the dominions of Athelstan. To Sigtryg, who had but very recently been converted from Paganism to Christianity, Athelstan gave his sister in marriage. But the Northumbrian king having apostatized, his brother-in-law resolved to dethrone him, and prepared to invade his kingdom. Sigtryg having died in the meantime, his sons fled, one into Ireland and the other into Scotland, and Athelstan annexed Northumbria to his own dominions.

This occurred in the year 926, and it is not likely that while pursuing the sons of Sigtryg, one of whom had escaped from his captors and taken refuge in the city of York, whose citizens he vainly sought to enlist in his favor, Athelstan would have selected that period of conflict, and a city within his newly-acquired territory, instead of his own capital, for the time and place of holding an assembly of Masons.

It is highly improbable that he did, but yet it is not absolutely impossible. The tradition may be correct as to York, but, if so, then the time should be advanced, by, a few years, to that happy period when Athelstan had restored the land "into good rest and peace."

But the important question is, whether this tradition is mythical or historical, whether it is a fiction or a truth. Conjectural criticism applied to the theory of probabilities alone can aid us in solving this problem. I say, therefore, that there is nothing in the personal character of Athelstan, nothing in the recorded history of his reign, nothing in the well-known manner in which he exercised his royal authority and governed his realm, that forbids the probability that the actions attributed to him in the Legend of the Craft actually took place.

Taking his grandfather, the great Alfred, as his pattern, he was liberal in all his ideas, patronized learning, erected many churches, monasteries, and other edifices of importance throughout his dominions, encouraged the translation of the Scriptures into Anglo-Saxon, and, what is of great value to the present question, gave charters to many guilds or operative companies as well as to several municipalities. Especially is it known from historical records that in the reign of Athelstan the frith-gildan, free guilds or sodalities, were incorporated by law. From these subsequently arose the craft-guilds or associations for the establishment of fraternal relations and mutual aid, into which, at the present day, the trade companies of England are divided.

There would be nothing improbable in any narrative which should assert that he extended his protection to the operative Masons, of whose art we know that he availed himself in the construction of the numerous public and religious edifices which he was engaged in erecting. It is even more than plausible to suppose that the Masons were among the sodalities to whom he granted charters or acts of incorporation.

Like the Rev. Bro. Woodford, whose opinion as a Masonic archaeologist is of great value, I am disposed to accept a tradition venerable for its antiquity and for so long a period believed in by the craft as an historical record in so far as relates to the obtaining of a charter from Athelstan and the holding of an assembly. "I see no reason, therefore," he says, "to reject so old a tradition that under Athelstan the operative Masons obtained his patronage and met in General Assembly." [xiv]

Admitting the fact of Athelstan's patronage and of the Assembly at some place, we next encounter the difficulty of explaining the interpolation of what may be called the episode of Prince Edwin.

I have already shown that there can be no doubt that the framers of the later legend had confounded the brother, whom they, by a mistake, had called the son of Athelstan, with a preceding king of the same name, that is, with Edwin, King of Northumbria, who, in the 7th century, did what the pseudo-Edwin is supposed to have done in the 10th. That is to say, he patronized the Masons of his time, introduced the art of building into his kingdom, and probably held an Assembly at York, which was his capital city.

Now, I suppose that the earlier Masons of the south of England, who framed the first Legend of the Craft, such as is presented to us in the old poem, first published by Mr. Halliwell in 1840, and also in the Harleian manuscript and in the one printed by Roberts in 1722, were unacquainted with the legend of Edwin of Northumbria, although, if we may believe Bro. Drake, it was a well-known tradition in the north of England. The earlier legends of the south, therefore, gave the honor of patronizing the Masons and holding an Assembly at York in 926 to Athelstan alone. This was, therefore, the primitive Legend of the Craft among the Masons of London and the southern part of the kingdom.

But in time these southern Masons became, in consequence of increased intercourse, cognizant of the tradition that King Edwin of Northumbria had also patronized the Masons of his kingdom, but at an earlier period. The two traditions were, of course, at first kept distinct.

There was, perhaps, a reluctance among the Masons of the south to diminish the claims of Athelstan as the first reviver, after St. Alban, of Masonry in England, and to give the precedence to a monarch who lived three hundred years before in the northern part of the island.

This reluctance, added to the confusion to which all oral tradition is obnoxious, coupled with the fact that there was an Edwin, who was a near relation of Athelson, resulted in the substitution of this later Edwin for the true one.

It took years to do this - the reluctance continuing, the confusion of the traditions increasing, until at last the southern Masons, altogether losing sight of the Northumbrian tradition as distinct from that of Athelstan, combined the two traditions into one, and, with the carelessness or ignorance of chronology so common in that age, and especially among uncultured craftsmen, substituted Edwin, the brother of Athelstan, [xv] for Edwin, the King of Northumbria, and thus formed a new Legend of the Craft such as it was perpetuated by Anderson, and after him by Preston, and which has lasted to the present day.

Therefore, eliminating from the narrative the story of Edwin, as it is told in the recent Legend, and accepting it as referring to Edwin of Northumbria, and as told in the tradition peculiar to the Masons of the northern part of England, we reach the conclusion that there were originally two traditions, one extant in the northern part of England and the other in the southern part. The former Legend ascribed the revival of Masonry in England to Edwin, King of Northumbria in the 7th century, and the latter to Athelstan, King of England in the 10th. There being little communication in those days between the two parts of the kingdom, the traditions remained distinct.

But at some subsequent period, not earlier than the middle of the 10th century, or the era of the Reformation, [xvi] the southern Masons became acquainted with the true Legend of the York Masons, and incorporated it into their own Legend, confounding, however the two Edwins, either from ignorance, or more probably, from a reluctance to surrender the preeminence they had hitherto given to Athelstan as the first reviver of Masonry in England.

We arrive, then, at the conclusion, that if there was an Assembly at York it was convened by Edwin, King of Northumbria, who revived Masonry in the northern part of England in the 7th century; and that its decayed prosperity was restored by Athelstan in the 10th century, not by the holding of an Assembly at the city of York, but by his general patronage of the arts, and especially architecture, and by the charters of incorporation which he freely granted to various guilds or sodalities of workmen.

With these explanations, we are now prepared to review and to summarize the Legend of the Craft, not in the light of a series of absurd fictions, as too many have been inclined to consider it, but as an historical narrative, related in quaint language, not always grammatical, and containing several errors of chronology, misspelling of names, and confusion of persons, such as were common and might be expected in manuscripts written in that uncultured age, and by the uneducated craftsmen to whom we owe these old manuscripts.

[i] Halliwell MS., lines 61-87.

[ii] Cooke calls particular attention to this word as of much significative import. I think it simply means that the king added a practical knowledge of Masonry or architecture to his former merely speculative or theoretical acquaintance with the art.

[iii] This is evidently an error of the pen for maners, i.e., usages.

[iv] Cooke MS., lines 611-642.

[v] Cooke MS., lines 693-719.

[vi] The next MS. in date, the Landsdowne, names the place where he was made as Windsor. This statement is not found in any of the other manuscripts except the Antiquity MS. It may here be observed that nothing more clearly proves the great carelessness of the transcribers of these manuscripts than the fact that although they must have all been familiar with the name of Edwin, one of them spells it Ladrian, and another Hoderine.

[vii] "On the Connection of York with the History of Freemasonry in England." By A.F. Woodford, A.M., in Hughan's " Masonic Sketches and Reprints," p. 168.

[viii] The Harleian MS makes no mention of Prince Edwin, but attributes the organization of Masonry at York to King Athelstan himself.

[ix] The book was republished by Spencer in 1870. The Roberts "Constitutions" and the Harleian MS. No. 1942, are evidently copies from the same original, if not one from the other. The story of Athelstan is, of course, identical in both, and the citation might as well have been made from either.

[x] Anderson says in the second edition of the "Book of Constitutions" that in all the Old Constitutions it is written Prince Edwin, the king's brother - a statement that is at once refuted by a reference to all the manuscripts from the Dowland to the Papworth, where the word is always son. So much for the authority of the old writers on Masonic history.

[xi] Bede (L. 2., C. 13) and Rapin (P. 246) both confirm this statement that the foundations of the York Cathedral, or Minster, were laid in the reign of Edwin.

[xii] The fact that the Legend in the Roberts "Constitutions" agrees in this respect with the older legend, and differs from that in all the recent manuscripts, gives some color to the claim that it was copied from a manuscript five hundred years old.

[xiii] This word is used in the sense of given or granted, in an undoubted historical document, Athelstan's charter to the town of Beverly. "Yat I, the Kynge Adelston, Has gaten and given to St. John Of Beverlae, etc."

[xiv] "The Connection of York with the History of Freemasonry in England," inserted in Hughan's " Unpublished Records of the Craft," p. 168.

[xv] To the same carelessness or ignorance are we to attribute the legendary error of making Edwin the son of Athelstan.

[xvi] I assign this era because the Halliwell poem, which is the exemplar of the older Legend, is evidently Roman Catholic in character, while the Dowland, and all subsequent manuscripts which contain the later Legend, are Protestant, all allusions to the Virgin, the saints, and crowned martyrs being omitted.

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


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